On the Universal Church Wilson Van Dusen Abstract: The following memoir, drawn from two interviews, recounts the remarkable spiritual life of a twentieth-century visionary and mystic, Wilson Van Dusen. He was known for his writings on Swedenborgianism but thought of himself as a “member of all religions,” which he considered to be equal in their attempts to represent spiritual truth. This article appeared in Religion East & West, Issue 5, October 2005.
grew into spirituality as an infant, at the age of one. I still remember it—I was lying in the crib, and as I turned sideways, sunlight was coming in through a window and motes of dust were floating in the light, and as they turned they gave off rainbow colors. And I went into a kind of ecstasy about the beauty of the world. Ever since then, I haven’t needed all the doctrine and all the nitpicking things to have the experience of God. I’ve never had spiritual training, church training, religious training of any sort. Even after I joined churches and became active in the Swedenborgian Church, spirituality has always been a kind of private, direct way for me. What I need is to be left alone, taking my time, and I look to see what is present and what is leading me or speaking to me inwardly or intuitively, and I’m back to the direct experience of God. That’s how I did it as an adolescent. It just happened over and over and over again, and it still works for me. It’s stayed with me all during my life. I’ve never hooked my experiences onto any of earth’s representations of God. I could say that in a way all the ways that the religions represent God are okay by me, or none are okay—it amounts to the same thing. For me, there is no one right way to represent God. I don’t think of any earthly representation as “This is the one I’m talking to.” I consider myself a member of all religions. I have known for a long time that I am of the Universal Church, which is not a particular structure anywhere. It is everywhere. And I’ve learned that, in my reading, I can walk with spiritual people of all times, all places, all religions.
Issue 10, October 2010
Wilson Van Dusen
Among all the religions, I consider Buddhism to be one of the highest because of its stress on practice. A Buddhist can avoid the error of doctrinal bullshit. I believe with the Buddhists that spiritual practice is the most important thing a person can do. It is education in the wisdom of life itself. You cannot spend time with God without becoming wiser. Now at the end of my life I consider myself a Christian and a Buddhist as well. My own friends think that’s impossible. But I What is important is not don’t see any problem being both or being a member of all churches or being sympathetic to all and trying to see what good is in each. What is important is not doctrine but how people doctrine but how people use religion. I ask: What is their outlook? What are they trying to do? How do they use religion. achieve their ends? The point is not which religion is right but how each one functions in our lives. Wouldn’t it be a wonder if religion were really best understood as a human enterprise? This is not to say that God doesn’t exist, only that the God of our lives might be more approachable. If God is the All, that surely includes us. Swedenborg says that when the Lord looks at churches, he sees only one. It is evident that there are many and perhaps infinitely many spiritual paths. Spirituality bursts upon some; it comes slowly to others; some need many approaches; others need trauma. There are as many paths as there are people. This rather puts the lie to the idea that some have found the right and true Path. Why? Because God makes everyone and everything distinct and unique. We live among a terrible abundance of religious ideas, with religious hawkers shouting and promoting their views. God seems more flexible than they are, being everywhere at once and doing all things simultaneously. The experience of God is immensely pleasant and elevating. You forget yourself, you feel that you’re not anything at all. And you see into the life of all things. The perception is not through the eyes; it’s here, in the brain. It’s intuitive. It arises from me; it’s in me, because God is in all things. I realize that this experience has been given to me, and that it’s a great gift. Many people struggle all their lives and maybe have this experience once. I’ve had it hundreds of times, thousands of times. It is as though in these visits I have been invited into God’s house. And since I’ve been there, I have some idea of how he made all things. It’s an honor to be in God’s house, I know that. And I don’t ordinarily tell people about it, because they wouldn’t understand. In no way does this make me superior to other people; in fact, I often feel that it makes me at the same level as everything else, as plants and animals, as bugs—anything. I’m at the same level of all things, all life. I’ve had that feeling since childhood.
Religion East & West
On the Universal Church
When I deal with the cat or with the plants and flowers, I feel that they are the same as me. I love to do spiritual research. I get an idea and I track it down until I can answer it in terms of the traditions. I like being a spiritual scholar, searching, and I write papers to myself—not to anyone else—besides what I have published: 375 papers and ten books. Once something is clear in my head, it is very easy for me to set it down. And it’s deep in me that I want to make things clear for others. Wherever I’ve gone in life, I’ve ended up teaching. The Boy Scouts, the merchant marine, the Coast Guard, in my career as a psychologist; and I was a naval officer for sixteen years, mostly in the reserves—I’ve had a busy life in the world, and in all these things I’ve ended up teaching, not usually about spirituality but about whatever was at hand. I never say that God has this or that form, unless to say he has all forms. To see God in a specific form blinds one to him as he is in other forms. I don’t consider him to be a person, either, although he has certain personal aspects. He has a consciousness that is aware of itself. And there are levels of knowing, I’m well aware of this. I see myself as a sort of bad mirror. I’m only partly reflecting God when I speak of these things. I once saw, in one of my visions, a Buddhist stupa. I was that stupa, and as I climbed the stupa I became aware of levels of understanding, higher and higher. So I know that I’m dealing with levels that are way, way beyond me. Still, I know that God has given me lowly consideration and has let me into his house to see how he lives. What I can see is God’s intent for the universe. It shows everywhere, in everything. It’s always in place. It’s always working. You look at a plant and you can see that its intent is to make seeds, to make flowers, to attract the bees who will fertilize more plants. But what it is, more than that, is something beautiful and alive, something that shows off life itself. The intent is always there and it’s apparent if you look for it. When I am in the inner experience, I can look out and see God everywhere. If I had the task of teaching others about God, I would use the experience of beauty, of feeling. I would use music and let them find it that way. For example, on the walls of my study I have a series of reproductions of various paintings that speak of the feeling of being close to a warm home. This is close to the feeling of God. Everyone has the ability to experience that feeling, but few make it conscious. To teach people how to experience God, I’d have them look at paintings and see the order in them. Because God is order. Everything is in its place, like in the garden—the greater and the smaller. Anyone who respects anything in God’s order already has an understanding of spirituality. Such a person may have no real sense of God, Issue 10, October 2010
Wilson Van Dusen
but he’s already worshiping the order, and he’ll be saved by this and will go to heaven. It isn’t necessary to see God as a person. It can be respect and love of the order. I see this world as a school with a very carefully designed curriculum. There is nothing careless about it; we’re being made into what we’re becoming. Spiritual people see the order of things. We see there is a God, and we see there’s no chance in anything, not the tiniest bit of chance. A sparrow does not fall out of the tree without God knowing it. He caused it and for a purpose. I see the spiritual person as luckily having been shown God’s order, because he or she wanted to see it and chooses to come into cooperation with the order. I am one of the ones who cooperate with the order of things, and that is what gets you to heaven. That is heaven, to be one who sees the order and enjoys the order and works in the order, one who wishes to do something in it. I pray all the time, because I’m always working on some kind of problem. I’m always talking to my Lord. We have a kind of casual communication. I don’t need any show. I can’t follow a canned prayer. It’s always spontaneous, right at the moment. So we have a kind of talk, but God mostly shows me. He doesn’t answer in words, only in the intuitions that come before words. Usually I’m looking for something and I’m given a kind of answer. I get the feeling that I’m being pointed towards a particular direction. I’ve felt since childhood that I could ask any spiritual question and the answer would be given to me. Right now I’m probably dying of cancer. I’m likely to drown in my own fluid in my lungs—a miserable kind of death. But I see that it has some use. I can look inside it and see its use and talk about it. Last night when I prayed I asked to know about cancer, since this is where I am and I want to know about it. And I had wonderful visions, which gave me the beginnings of understanding it. The cancer is not normal. It’s not real. I’m meant to go toward the real, toward life, toward what is not illusory. The cancer is part of the fakery, the pretense that we are all involved in. Curious! It’s fake, but it’s killing me! This whole last phase of life is interesting and curious. It’s actually no big deal, dying. Still, I’m slated to have an unpleasant death, so I’ve asked God to change that and to give me a good death. I’d like to die quietly at home. When I get answers to my questions, they come as direct intuitions. It’s not that I hear anybody speaking to me. I just know. I just know. And often when I’m working on something in my writing, the inner process participates in my writing. I can be puzzled about how to present something, and I wake up in the middle of the night and there it is in my head, repeating itself over and over and over again. Finally, I get up and write
Religion East & West
On the Universal Church
down the broad outlines of what it’s depicting—otherwise I stay awake all night. I go back to bed, and the next morning I can understand it and I can write directly from it. It’s direct guidance as to how I should present things. This kind of understanding has always seemed right to me and it’s always a clarification, an improvement over where I was. I’ve had a kind of optimism all the way from infancy that, literally, I was in close contact with wisdom itself, and that it was a matter of my focusing on what I wanted to really know, and it would show me. I couldn’t learn how to make money or anything like that—no mundane worldly things. They were always God doesn’t answer spiritual understandings. For many years I meditated by looking at a Christian icon while I was asking the in words, only in the big questions, and what would come back to me was, in effect, God saying, “I can’t answer now because of intuitions that come your limitations. Give us both a little time and I’ll take away your limitations and you will see the answer.” before words. Later I’d look at the same question, and there would be an answer. I had migraine headaches for a number of years. No medications helped. I actually considered suicide because the pain got so bad. My solution was to meditate on the pain. At first it intensified, but then it diminished and disappeared. Once I began to meditate on it regularly, it was cured. It disappeared so fast that I almost missed it. I realized that I had been too scattered, being here and going there, too many commitments, while the pain was a focus. The pain’s purpose was to direct me toward myself and my consciousness. I even consulted with God about my mother’s death. She died hating God, so I was a little bit worried about how she would fare. And God said very nicely that because she had been a good mother, she had a credit, so he gave her an introduction to the spiritual world, as Swedenborg calls it; it’s the first world you run into after death, where things are sorted out as to where you’re going to go. In the spiritual world my mother was opened up to experiences that she had never had here, experiences of beauty, kindness, all the good things. She hadn’t experienced these, so she was bitter and angry, and she would sometimes say that God must be very cruel, because her life was kind of cruel. And so in the spiritual world she was shown the order of things and the beauty of things so that she was no longer against God, and she went to heaven. And what was surprising to me is that my father is also in heaven. I know this because he was the one who came to guide my mother into heaven. When she was dying, lying in bed, she said to me, “Did you see him?”—“Who?” I hadn’t Issue 10, October 2010
Wilson Van Dusen
seen him.—“Your father was here.”—That totally surprised me.—She said, “I’m glad he came; he was the only man I ever loved.” She was divorced from him for many years. I came to Swedenborg before I read any other Christian mystic. There’s an interesting story about that. My paternal grandmother was a spiritualist minister, calling on the spirits of the departed to aid in counseling people. I visited her only a few times, so she can’t really be said to have influenced me. But I do remember, one day when I was still a boy, her pointing to a row of red volumes on her fireplace shelf. She said, “This is all you ever need to know, and I have willed these to you.” Unfortunately, she didn’t tell me the author’s name. Now, my mother was completely skeptical about anything bearing on religion. She said my grandmother talked to spirits because she could not hear real people very well. She knew that my grandmother had pronounced me her spiritual heir, but my mother considered this completely foolish, and so when my grandmother died, her red volumes were thrown in the trash. Then one day years later, long after I had found works by Swedenborg and had became something of an expert on him, I saw a row of red books in a Swedenborgian library, and my hair stood on end. I knew these were copies of the same volumes that my grandmother had promised me. They were B. F. Barrett’s The Swedenborg Library, a work no longer in print. I realized that, somehow, my grandmother had managed to make me her spiritual heir, even though my parents tried to cut the link. Swedenborg could open up the doors to heaven and hell and look. He was given the ability to look and see and then give it to others in his writings, which he did. I came to admire him because he was one of the spiritual giants. I’m still turning to him. What did he say on this? What did he say on that? And I go in and find it. Since I’ve been in God’s house and have a general sense of it, I could agree with Swedenborg’s description of it in Heaven and Hell, which I consider to be his most important book. He’s mostly giving the truth of what I experienced. I’m with Swedenborg too in that I do see angels in this world. Sometimes it’s shockingly apparent to me, and they’ve all been very common people. It has nothing to do with wealth, class, title, anything else. I can see angels among the people in the street, and people with big titles aren’t among them. What will happen after I die is something very clear to me. I have always been a teacher, and the teaching that I like most is spiritual. So I’ll be somewhere using spiritual understanding to aid others. I’m already being trained in this area, so I expect to go on. God wants me to
Religion East & West
On the Universal Church
continue—but not as my present self. I don’t actually consider myself to have a self, not really. The whole ego thing is a nothing. It’s just a show. It’s quite temporary. I know this because I’ve been able to come into a kind of experience that is time-transcending and ego-transcending. Do I worry now about whether Van Dusen is going to be known, is going to be published, and all that? I spent a whole lot of time acquiring titles and honorary degrees and so on, and now it all seems like nothing to me—it’s all going to disappear one day, and I’m glad. Why bother? There was a time when I was more ego-oriented. I needed the experience to see the uselessness of it. The whole thing has just turned to tinsel, like a Christmas tree ornament that you can break in your hand and throw away. The experience of God leads to humility, because God is all and the individual is found to be immersed in and dependent on this all. I know that I’m nothing special. In fact I’m aged and falling apart, and I’m approaching the end of this life. I feel like some common leaf that has fallen to the ground and is drying up.
* * *
Wilson Van Dusen’s wish was granted: in April 2005, he died quietly at home. He wrote the following words in his journal a few days before his death. —Ed. So here I am, nearly at the end of the journey of this life. I sit in a borrowed wheelchair from hospice. At 4:03 p.m. there is a light sun and breeze in the garden. It seems like good fortune to sit quietly and reflect. My death will be the last mystery I face. My energy is so low now that I have to plan each step in order to do some little thing. A light breeze swirls about, leaving the air welcome and refreshed. Perhaps this breeze is a sotto voce way in which all things gently converse. I would be pleased if everything gently conversed. I expect little of all things, and they expect little of me, but gentle communing would be most welcome. I would presume that we would speak of life-engendering things—of the small gentle business of life. For a minute, I easily slid into an image of lying down and falling asleep. But now I hear some gathering of friends nearby. A dog speaks up now and then. In a nearby bush, a bluejay has just managed with utter quiet to visit and leave its nest.
Issue 10, October 2010