The Alchemy of Adversity: Nathan Meets Mr. Jasper

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[extract from my book which is under construction, “Reluctant Angels”]

the_alchemy_of_adversity

‘Why do so many families behave like little cults?’ was the question Nathan asked inside his head, as he watched the interaction between the larger and smaller people, noting how the larger ones bragged about the smaller ones’ achievements, taking pride in what they were saying and doing and in how they were dressed, treating them as little extensions of themselves to puff up their own egos. Living by proxy. Even in his tender teenage years he could see this clearly. After all, he had spent sixteen years wryly observing his own family, those of his friends and every other family with which he had come in contact. He saw how it worked — these self-perpetuating close-knit little cults which repeated themselves in identical patterns from one generation to the next. He observed how the parents are the cult leaders and the children are its members. So often there was manipulation and control masquerading fulsomely as love and care. There was coercion, funnelling and emotional blackmail, subtle threats of deprivation or abandonment, contrived withdrawal of affection, the conditioning process of praise and punishment, the denial of freedom.

Nathan marvelled at the way that so many of his contemporaries believed they came from happy families when it only appeared that way because the offspring had “adjusted” themselves to fit in with the parents’ expectations. So long as the status quo is maintained in the C major symphony of cosy family cuddledom, then all will be well. But if they dared to rock the boat then all that false bonhomie would turn to dust in the wind and the true face of the family would be revealed.

The reality for Nathan was that he was stuck between the pincer-movement of two cults: home and school. Exactly the same dysfunctionalities existed in both institutions — where a future was mapped out which must be followed, where blind conformity and rigid obedience were lavishly rewarded and independent thought or action were discouraged and ultimately punished. It wasn’t that Nathan rejected genuine authority; he fully respected it when it was founded on sagacity, astuteness, empathy and compassion. But, above all else, he despised false authority — people puffed up with an undeserved sense of their own importance and jurisdiction. Yet this was what he saw manifested in both his home and the school, as those in control — instead of administering wisdom and unconditional love — took advantage of their power by lording it like tin-pot soldiers over those fragile souls who had been given into their hands. In the case of the school, that “lording it” even included some of the teachers grasping their sexual gratification from favoured children in their care.

It was precisely this cultdom and ersatz authority which undermined the loving trust that a boy should have had in both his parents and the masters of the school — not to mention the life-mentoring and moral support he should have received as a growing child. But he was also relieved to know that there were some families which didn’t fit into this cultish pattern. He had a friend who did not go to his school and who therefore lived at home. Each time Nathan visited him during the holidays, he was envious of the boy’s parents. They were everything that his own parents were not: Intelligent, relaxed, loving, curious, interesting, funny, gracious, wise, generous and caring. They were not without money but they didn’t flaunt it. For them, an old Volvo estate was all they needed rather than the Jaguars, Daimlers and Bentleys (renewed every year) to which Nathan was accustomed at both home and school. They lived in an old rambling house in tumbledown grounds where Nathan spent much of his time during school holidays. They believed in social justice and did their best to live responsibly and humanely. They didn’t follow trends or fashions. They were fully able to be self-critical with a disarming sense of personal honesty. To dine with them was an adventure because — instead of the feuding, continual correction, complaining, sniping or polite, uneasy silences which he experienced in his own home — there was open discussion and animated conversation on a wide range of topics. Above all, there was the exhilarating scent of freedom and joy. Nathan so wished that his friend’s parents were his parents. Why did such a family have to be the exception rather than the rule?

However, Nathan did find a substitute father for a while, which proved to be a huge influence on his development and subsequent pathways in life.

One day, after he had been roaming the seashore near the school (which, according to school rules, was “out of bounds” — a phrase which always made Nathan laugh like a drain at the sheer absurdity of it, for no one could bind him from doing anything), he wandered slowly back down one of the many driveways leading to the central courtyard residencies. On his right, in the bushes, he caught a sudden flash out of the corner of his eye which, on closer inspection, proved to be a metal garden tool being wielded through the air in the Autumn sunlight. Nathan stopped in his tracks. ‘This must be Mr. Jasper’, he thought. He had heard about Mr. Jasper but had never actually met him. Even just in the hearing, he had somehow been drawn to him. People spoke about him with deep respect. Nathan’s built-in geiger-counter for interesting and offbeat people was going off the clock right then. He walked towards the flash.

“Mr. Jasper?”

“That’s me. How can I help you, young man?”

“My friend has often mentioned you to me. He said I should talk to you. I’ve been here for three years yet I’ve never seen you even once!”

“Ah, that’s because I only started here about ten months ago. But maybe the time wasn’t right. Everything has its moment.”

Those last four words were spoken with a particular twinkle in Mr. Jasper’s eye. Nathan thought about them carefully. It was true; but he hadn’t realised just how true until that particular moment.

Mr. Jasper was looking at Nathan with an expression that seemed to say “I’ve been expecting you”. He then began to speak about the flowering shrubs which he was tending all around him in an excited manner. While Nathan took in what he was saying on a surface level, he became far more immersed in watching the gardener’s face, hands and general appearance. Although he was obviously in his seventies with thinning silver hair on his head, he had a look about him which rendered him with a much younger appearance. There was a translucence to his skin which almost made him glow, ‘like the radioactive hands on my watch’, Nathan thought. His general body appearance was rather gangly, as if his limbs were too long for his torso, yet there was an elegance in the way that he carried himself. He also had a short grey moustache which spread widely across his upper lip. Nathan didn’t normally like moustaches but on Mr. Jasper it seemed exactly right for it to be there. The gardener had a very slight West Country accent which made him seem earthy and real. He was wearing white overalls, which Nathan thought was very unusual for a gardener and gave him the look of an astronaut, which pleased Nathan for he loved travelling. (He later learned that it was Mr. Jasper’s beekeeping outfit which he had continued to wear while gardening). There was something else about Mr. Jasper which Nathan couldn’t help noticing; but he couldn’t put it into words. However, he would think of it later.

“You’re not really listening to me, are you?” said Mr. Jasper in a friendly manner, smiling, without a trace of exasperation.

“Yes. I mean no”, said Nathan, quickly correcting himself, realising that Mr. Jasper is not a man from whom one could withhold the truth. “Well, I’m sort of listening to you but I was thinking about other things.”

“I know. I was only telling you all that to give you a chance to read me.”

‘Read me!’ thought Nathan. ‘So that’s what I was doing’. “Yes. You’re right. I was reading you.”

“Well I was reading you too, young man. And one of the first things I noticed about you…” (and he said this with a particular twinkle in his eye) “…was that you look beyond what can be seen from the outside.”

Nathan was immediately convinced that Mr. Jasper was virtually quoting from “The Little Prince”, which had been his favourite book since he’d been roughly the same age as The Prince himself. “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” How did Mr. Jasper know that he knew that book? How did he know that these were his favourite words in the whole book?

Mr. Jasper went on without a breath: “…so I thought I’d give you a chance to look beyond the outside of me while I rambled.”

Nathan could have sworn Mr. Jasper winked as he said those words. Not only that but as he said them, he leaned forward a little as if to make his point more clearly. When he did so, Nathan couldn’t help noticing a thick but small-sized book in his breast pocket. It was well-thumbed and dog-eared, so that the edges were stained dirty from use. Mr. Jasper fully intended for Nathan to see it, for he wanted to show it to him.

“Ah, you’ve spotted my book. It goes with me everywhere. I can never read it enough.”

Nathan assumed it must have been one of those pocket novelettas which old people like to read. But when Mr. Jasper got it out and showed it to him, he saw that the title was “The Crown of Holiness: A Handbook for Seekers of Spiritual Glory.”

Nathan assumed — hoped, even — that Mr. Jasper would then describe the book to him in detail. But, much to his surprise, he popped it straight back into his pocket and said nothing more about it. So Nathan said nothing too. (However, as soon as he had the chance, Nathan did some research to find out more about the book. In the local town, he went in a bookshop where the owner told him that it was very hard to get hold of but he would do his best. “Is it for your father?” said the owner. “Oh no,” said Nathan. “It’s for me!”, whereupon the owner gave him the most extraordinary look of exaggerated surprise. He did manage to get hold of the book. But more about that in its own place and time).

“What’s your name, young man,” said Mr. Jasper.

“Delver, sir.”

There was an etiquette at the school which meant that anyone employed as a “mere” technician, labourer, cleaner or gardener must be called Mr. or Miss, followed by their first name; whereas, those same people must address pupils with the title Master, followed by their last name. Mr. Jasper’s full name was Jasper Burrows. When Nathan discovered that, he looked up the meaning. ‘How fitting,’ he thought, ‘that Jasper is Persian for the keeper of treasures.’ Nathan always believed one’s name carried great significance. As he later wrote in his journal: “Mr. Jasper was a treasure-keeper who burrowed — went deep. He lived up to his name.” As he wrote that, it occurred to him how uncannily similar their two last names were. He was a delver; Mr. Jasper was a burrower. “Truly,” thought Nathan, “he was my father; just not by blood.”

“Well, young Master Delver, what would you like to talk to me about today?”, then quickly adding “don’t mind me if I carry on working. I’m listening to every word you say.”

Immediately, Nathan realised there was only one thing on his mind right then which he wanted to speak about. For, as he watched Mr. Jasper at work and sensed the easy feeling which he emitted, Nathan was overwhelmed with a deep desire which had never before manifested itself so profoundly (though even when he’d only heard about Mr. Jasper, he had felt that same feeling of yearning).

“I wish you were my father,” he said, blurting out the words all in one pleading tone, as if he was hoping to convince the gardener to accede to his wishes, as if the pleading itself would somehow crystallize consanguinity between them. At the same time, he was seized with a heartfelt need to throw himself to his knees, though he didn’t know why.

Mr. Jasper immediately stopped snipping with his shears and looked very seriously over the top of his glasses at Nathan. “I’ll tell you something, young Master Delver. Whatever you may think of your father, I can assure you that he was doing the very best as he could see it, though you may not realise it now. You may not be happy at this school, my lad, but he sent you here because in his thinking he was giving you the very best. That was all he knew.”

At first, Nathan was stunned by these words. They hit him with all the force of a pneumatic hammer. He even halfheartedly attempted to resist them; but not for long. For as he stood there next to Mr. Jasper — who immediately returned to snipping the bush with his shears — he realised how right he was. His father didn’t know any better. How could he? Whatever he had done was acted on in his ignorance and out of his own ultra-limited experience. He had no right to expect of his father what he was unable to give. These thoughts brought tears to Nathan’s eyes. They also seemed to liberate him in some way. Instantly, something was freed up which had been blocking his heart. He no longer resented his father. He could see that there was never any need to resent anyone else for how they behave or had behaved towards him. That was their business; his own life was his, to do with as he wanted, regardless of what anyone else said or did, and no one else could take that from him.

Nathan was watching the face of Mr. Jasper, who was studiously ignoring the boy (almost deliberately so) and concentrating on the shape of the bush which he was snipping, moving his head from one side to the other, as if to check the accuracy of his strokes. It seemed as if a couple of minutes had gone by, when Nathan said: “Thank you, Mr. Jasper. I do believe you’re right.”

Immediately, Mr. Jasper stopped his work as his face lit up on hearing Nathan’s words. “You see, Master Delver, you have a calling in this life which is not dependent on what your father has done or will do to you or anyone else.” Then the gardener’s face was seized with a fervour which made him almost seem like a man possessed. He dropped the shears and took hold of Nathan’s shoulders firmly.

“There is something I want to impress on you, Master Delver. Something that I want you to remember for the rest of your life. I want you to take these words all the way into your heart and beyond. You are NOT a victim of the way you’ve been brought up, or the parents you had, or the way that they treated you, or ignored you, or even abused you, your upbringing, your past, your circumstances, none of it! No! Never! Do you hear me? You must instead give thanks for everything which has ever happened to you — whether apparently good or seemingly bad — for these are the elements which have shaped you into the wonderful being that you are today. If you’ve been wise, you’ll have made the best of those circumstances, capitalised on them, milked them for all that they’re worth. For they were a gift to you, all of them. Oh, can you see that, see the beauty of it?!? For then you will be master of those circumstances. If you see yourself as an unfortunate victim of your circumstances, then you are controlled by those circumstances. They master YOU! Then you will never achieve anything of any significance in your life for all you will do is keep those circumstances alive, gnawing away at you like rust on good metal or mould on good food. But you give those circumstances no power over you at all when you let them go, when you see them, all of them, as the vital building-blocks of the whole of your glorious, sanctified life. Are you following me, young Master Delver? Everything that’s ever happened to you has been a gift! Even the very worst thing you can think of. A gift! See it! Be thankful for it. Do you see it?”

Then Mr. Jasper released Nathan’s shoulders and pulled back, as if wondering if he had gone too far. Nathan himself was reeling with the immensity of these thoughts, ideas with which he had never been confronted before. The strange thing was that even though he was shocked by the intensity of Mr. Jasper’s address, he knew that he was right. He said to himself (as he would say to himself very many times again): ‘I knew that already; why haven’t I thought of it before?’

“I… I… can see that you’re right. I had just never seen it like that. A gift. Mastering circumstances rather than being controlled by them.”

Nathan paused, as if to gather his thoughts together. He loved this process which he later learned had the beautiful name of “epiphany”.

“Yes. I can see it. I can. When my circumstances seemed bad, it made me look beyond what was apparent to what lay behind. Yes. I see it. I was being trained to go deeper, to become more aware, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had those bad experiences. I see it. I do.”

He thought of his mother, who all her life had blamed her rigidly authoritarian and abusive father for her feeblemindedness and feelings of worthlessness. He wanted to take her by the shoulders, just as Mr. Jasper had done with him, and tell her that she didn’t need to hold on to her victim mindset any more. He could see it all now so clearly — not just in himself but in everyone he could think of. This was a true revelation and it sowed the seeds in him of what he was to become.

He turned to Mr. Jasper and said gaspingly: “That is really something. And it fits into something else — something which happened to me at the Gazebo recently. Something that I can hardly even begin to explain.”

“I know. I knew that something had happened to you, though I didn’t know it was at the Gazebo.” And then, more quietly, saying as an aside: “I didn’t even know that the Gazebo was open.” Then continuing with fervour: “But I could see it in your eyes. Nevertheless, whatever happened to you at the Gazebo will come to nothing unless you seize it with everything in you and use it for good in this world.” Then, with great emphasis: “Nothing makes sense, Master Delver, without service. Nothing. It is the essence of the whole of this life.”

At that point, Nathan had no idea what that could mean for him. At only just sixteen years old, the idea of service had not regularly permeated his thoughts, though he knew that he wanted somehow to be used in the world. That had come home to him especially clearly some weeks earlier during a compulsory service in the school chapel while the Lesson was being read from the bible. The particular words were from the prophet Isaiah: “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said: ‘Here am I; send me.’” In that moment, the idea of being “sent”, or being of service to a higher power, had really taken hold of him. He had also noticed the use of the word “us” to denote divinity. What a mystery that all was! Was there some reference there to a multiple deity— a kind of cosmic group godhead? The very thought blew his mind. He had little time for the false pomp and ceremonial which filled the huge chapel. He had seen the way that the genteel “reverends” fawned over the choirboys like vultures hovering over potential prey and it disgusted him. He knew the meaning of the word “hypocrisy” and he knew the cowardly stench of evil. But he also knew that wonderful nuggets of deep deliciousness were sometimes thrown his way in that place; and this idea of being “sent” by a higher power, or even by The Creator (for Nathan had never had a moment’s doubt that the Universe was the work of some hidden force), was one of those nuggets. He then also saw a pattern here. His spiritual feelings during that reading. His experience in the Gazebo. Now his conversation with Mr. Jasper. Could that concatenation of events be linked? The answer had to be in the affirmative.

Nathan observed Mr. Jasper’s kindly face. “I will think about everything you’ve said.”

“I know you will. I have high hopes for you, young Master Delver. You don’t need another father. You just need a few wise words every now and then. The rest will fall into place in its own way. You’ll see.”

Now it finally came to Nathan what it was about Mr. Jasper which he couldn’t quite put into words earlier on. He was an angel. Nathan had prayed and prayed for an angel to come to him to help him out of his confusion and on his way. So here that angel was, in the guise of a humble gardener hidden in some bushes.

“Mr. Jasper, are you an angel?”

The gardener smiled knowingly. “And so are you, young Master Delver. And so are you.” Mr. Jasper laughed out loud. Just for a moment, Nathan thought he had the look of Father Christmas. The silver hair. The twinkle in his eye. The Falstaffian joviality. He had the look of a man who gives gifts and who loves to do so.

Nathan felt something click inside him silently, like a golf ball dropping inevitably into a hole. He now knew what he had to do. It would change his life forever and plunge him into an abyss in which live only those who can stand it and for whom it is also necessary.

In time to come (thirty-five years hence, to be precise), Karelia Šviečiantis — knowing that Nathan had been “detained for questioning” and thus fully expecting that he would never return — saw through tears his open journal on the desk in the cubbyhole where he had been writing for some eight years. She caressed it gently with her fingers, as if she was caressing the skin of Nathan himself, which she had always thought of as if it was parchment waiting for rich words to be written on it, to be discovered in a grave in generations to come as the polemical sayings of his time. Turning back to a page near the start of the journal, she saw the following words:

“Even from my earliest days, I have always detested the false authority exhibited in societal institutions. But after spending my entire childhood and adolescence more or less in the cults of family and school, I realise with all the profundity of my heart that my subjugation was a necessary part of my development. Thanks to the intercession of a gardener who was not afraid to prune my ragged branches, I now know that this life is an increasingly challenging gymnasium, where our spiritual and emotional muscles are confronted on the bench of hardship and oppression to make them stronger and more able to flex themselves. I see now the beautiful purpose of all those years of barrenness, wilderness and apparent fruitlessness. It was that I should know the difference between true and false authority and see how almost every problem in the world has so many roots in the dysfunctional experiences of early life, with its lack of true emotional attachment, its abuse of power and its utter deadness of genuine compassion and humanity. I can therefore honestly say that I wouldn’t go back and change a single bit of that part of my life, for it has shaped me into who I am now and brought me immense insight and understanding. This is the alchemy of adversity which always works for the good of those who have set their hearts on the course of beauty and truth.”

When Karelia saw those words, “the alchemy of adversity”, she threw herself to the floor in a kind of desolate joyful frenzy and repeatedly cried: “Please bring him back to me! Please! Please! Please!” However, behind any grief or remorse that she felt, she also knew that, whatever the outcome, it could only be that which was best for her. For she herself was right there in the moment caught up in the very alchemy of adversity about which Nathan had written. Such knowledge is liberating. But more about this in its own place and in its own time; for many roads must be walked and many bridges must be crossed before we touch this time again…

.
[Extracted from my book, “Reluctant Angels”, currently under construction]

© Alan Morrison, 2015

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