[First Things] David Bentley Hart (from 2012)–My friend Reuben and the Therapeutic Superstition of our Age

Some years ago, when I was nineteen and living in the north of England, I knew a middle-aged man named Reuben who claimed to be visited by angels, to receive visions and auditions from God, to see and converse with the spirits of nature, and to be able to intuit the spiritual complaints of nearly everyone he met. He was a cheerful soul, with a vast and almost impossibly tangled beard of walnut brown through which he was forever running the fingers of his right hand, a few ghostly wisps of hair floating about the crown of his head, and eyes of positively gemlike blue. (Actually, his eyes were rather unsettling at times—they sometimes seemed to be lit from within—but there was never any menace in them.)

He once told me that as a very small child he had assumed that everyone was aware of the numinous presences that he saw everywhere, on a nearly daily basis. To him, a small anthropine figure dancing atop an open flower or a radiant angel standing beside a church door was as ordinary a sight as, well, an open flower or a church door. It was only when he was about seven, he said, after years of his parents’ anxiously admonishing him not to make up tales and to embarrass them with his nonsense, that he began to grasp that the world he saw about him was qualitatively different from that of most other persons; and when he was about twelve he began to appreciate how much more interesting and delightful than theirs his reality was.

When I knew him, he was studying for a master’s degree in the religious studies department of the University of Lancaster, where I was doing a year’s research principally on Cittamatra Buddhism. He hoped to write a dissertation on William Blake, with whom—for obvious reasons—he felt a close kinship. He was one of those gentle and slightly hapless eccentrics who are deeply necessary parts of the constituency of any university or college worth its charter, generally drifting about in programs that offer them temporary shelter but no real prospects of a career, working toward degrees they will probably never receive, but contributing some vital, genial, and largely indefinable benefit to everyone around them.

He worked, if that is the right word, in the university library, though as far as I could tell his only job was engaging in long conversations at the front desk with all of his friends (work he did not mind taking with him, after his shift, to the nearby coffee bar). Everyone who knew him was exceedingly fond of him, and I never heard anyone express any doubt that his visions and auditions from the other side were entirely authentic….

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Posted in Anthropology, Ethics / Moral Theology, Health & Medicine, Pastoral Theology, Psychology, Spirituality/Prayer, Theology