A Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold
The senses are the source of all the illusions that reign in a person, and they are the reason why few have any belief in the truths of faith and why the natural man is opposed to the spiritual man, that is, the external man to the internal. Consequently, if the natural or external man starts to have dominion over the spiritual or internal man, no belief at all in matters of faith exists any longer, for illusions cast a shadow over them and evil desires smother them. Few know what the illusions of the senses are and few believe that these cast a shadow over rational insights and most of all over spiritual matters of faith a shadow so dark that it blots them out
[For example,] It is an illusion of the senses – a purely natural one, or an illusion about the natural creation to believe that the sun is borne around this globe once a day, and that the sky too and all the stars are borne round at the same time
It is [also] an illusion of the senses that only the body possesses life and that when it dies that life perishes. The senses have no conception at all of an internal man present within each part of the external man, nor any conception that this internal man resides in the inward dimension of the natural creation, in the spiritual world. Nor consequently, since they have no conception of it, do they believe that a person will live after death, apart from being clothed with a body once again.
Unless a persons thought can be raised above sensory impressions so that these are beheld as existing so to speak beneath him, he cannot possibly discern any interior aspect of the Word, let alone things of heaven such as are totally removed from those of the world, since the senses take hold of them and stifle them. (Arcana Caelestia paragraphs 5084 & 5089)
There is no doubt that the teaching given to us in the Writings give us very good reason to celebrate our senses. After hundreds of years, and centuries of teaching that has regarded our senses with suspicion, as a danger to us, never to be indulged unless we really had to, here comes the liberating teaching given by the Lord in the Writings saying none of that. Our senses are God-given, and they are part of the whole and balanced person that the Lord meant each and every one of us to be. I repeat, our senses are to be celebrated; not to be held at arms length, not to be regarded with suspicion, not to be looked upon in some way as the enemy of spiritual life.
But having said that, the teaching that we are given also holds up a warning to us. We celebrate our senses, as we rightly and justifiably can do; but they can also be our downfall, they can trap us. Amongst the twelve apostles who followed the Lord, His closest friends and followers, there was one who betrayed Him, and that was Judas. And Judas, in that complex that is represented by the twelve disciples, represents our senses. Our senses are all part of the whole, all part of the balance, all part of the full picture; but have the potential to be our downfall and a trap for us.
In the reading from the seventh volume of the Arcana Caelestia earlier in the service, it talked there of the way in which our senses can be a trap to us. Because with regard to our understanding and appreciation of divine truth, if we start from the point of view of our senses, then our ability to grasp those sublime and spiritual truths will struggle. You cannot start from your senses, because by starting with your senses you are inevitably led into doubt and denial. “I’ll prove it to you.” “Let me see.” “I want to feel.” “Show me the reality of what you say about the spiritual world.” “Show me that it exists, satisfy my senses”; but of course it doesn’t work like that.
However, if our senses are called upon to support and illustrate the Divine Truth that you are being called upon to investigate and appreciate, then its a different matter. Think of the writer of Psalm 8, who must have walked outdoors on one magnificent evening beneath a cloudless night sky, and looked up at it: “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth, who have set Your glory above the heavens! ” How great you are. Creation tells me wonderful things about You, things that I already see to be true in my heart.
So the senses can have this wonderfully reinforcing role in our spiritual development as children of the Lord. But we start with the truth, and find illustration in the senses; we don’t start with the senses and try to arrive at the truth. Some of you know, indeed a lot of you have on your fridge, this wonderful little quotation from the Writings:
“Thought from the eye closes the understanding, but thought from the understanding opens the eye.”
The senses have their role, but it is always a subordinate and supporting one. They can never be our starting point.
The senses have the capacity to cripple us. That’s a strong statement, but it is true. If you take as your starting point your first impressions of things, then you will run into all sorts of problems. They will cripple you and prevent you reaching your created capacity and fullness. When this poor man was lying there crippled, he was of course simply unable to fulfil his created potential. Just think of it for a moment. We’ve looked at this with regard to our understanding and appreciation of divine and spiritual teaching, but look at it also in our management of our relationships with each other. Our senses throw up illusions and appearances and fallacies. Its interesting that the Writings use that word “fallacies” always in connection with our over-dependence on our senses and on first impressions.
Now my first impression of another persons behaviour may be that they need ten years in jail! My sense impressions may tell me that somebody who puts graffiti on a newly built wall should get a flogging! But that’s my sense impressions talking to me. And if I listen to them too carefully and give them credence, then they start to twist and cripple my handling of relationships with other people. You listen to some people, and you hear them talking as though they are crippled people: distorted, because they are talking from what their senses are telling them, from the illusions, the fallacies, that the senses throw up to us. Our senses cripple us. They distort us, and they hold us back from being the full, active, whole spiritual person that the Lord created us to be. This is what is being brought home to us by the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda.
Lets be honest and inclusive: we are all at the pool of Bethesda. The fact is that we all carry with us (the Writings say we cannot help doing so) illusions and fallacies based on the senses, so at one level or another we are crippled people. The Lord only speaks to us about what is real to us. This incident would not have been recorded in the Word if it did not have relevance to life’s experience as you and I confront it. We are all at the pool of Bethesda.
I mentioned at the beginning that this man was reckoned to have had an attitude problem; that perhaps he didn’t want to be made well. Commentators both inside and outside of the New Church make a great deal of the Lords question to him, “Do you want to be made well?” But I also said that if he had an attitude problem, there was a cause behind it. And the cause, I submit, was that he was in denial. I believe he was in denial; that he was for all those years somehow incapable of seeing himself and looking at his situation for what it was. And that’s very easy to do: to be in denial about the predicament that we find ourselves in. And if we are in denial, then of course we can’t see our need to be healed. “Do you want to be made well?” “Yes, yes of course I do. But the cause of my tardiness, of my lack of enthusiasm over these years is because I’ve been in denial; I haven’t seen things for what they really are.” It was only when the Lord came on the scene that he began to see himself and the pathetic situation that he was in.
We are taught many times in the Writings, and this is from the book Apocalypse Revealed by the way, that when the Lord comes into particular problems and predicaments that we are in, He challenges us. He challenges us so that we come to the point of recognising what we so far have resisted recognising. 376 in Apocalypse Revealed, in part reads:
“Moreover in the Word very often it is read that the Lord answers when they call and cry; also that He gives when they ask. Nevertheless, the Lord gives them to ask, and what to ask, and the Lord therefore knows this beforehand; but still the Lord wills that a man should ask first, to the end that it may be as if from himself, and thus appropriated to him.”
He comes and challenges so that we may recognise what we have not wanted to see, what we have not truly wanted to come to terms with.
And that is the key; that is the key. That is why the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda was there for 38 years! And that is why we will be there for 38 years if we resist the reality, if we tell ourselves that it is not so. We need to be honest with ourselves, and that can be very difficult. Don’t tell yourself its not difficult; it is difficult. It is even difficult to be honest with the Lord. We can listen to ourselves justifying, excusing, not going to the heart of what it is we are talking to the Lord about. It is only when we reach the point of being candid and brutally honest about ourselves that the Lord can look at us and see that we are now ready to be healed.
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath.
Lovely! Lovely, isn’t it? You know, we resist that honesty about ourselves, and yet beyond that honesty is a beautiful peace: a peace with our souls, a peace with our Maker; and most of all a feeling of being restored, brought back, healed, so that we can fulfil our created potential to be of use, in this world and in the spiritual world, to others.