Saints Run Mad Marjorie Harrison


THERE are in different parts of the world thousands of Buchmanites who believe that they are entirely perfect.

They would be the first to deny such an assertion. I make it only to prove the surprising results of following their own statements to their logical conclusion.

The Group makes without rhyme, reason or other authority than Dr. Buchman, a presumptuous claim that in every smallest detail of life direct guidance from God may be had in the form of supernatural “radiograms”.

These supposedly Divine instructions are received chiefly during the morning Quiet Time. The Group publishes a pamphlet setting out the way in which this time should be used. Under the heading “The Conditions for an effective Quiet Time”, there appears a series of precepts or rules. One of these entails “absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love”.

Now, the Groupers find this belief in the guidance of God—not as the church teaches through the proper and God-inspired use of intelligence, reason and common sense, but in the form of a “personal” message—to be one of the chief charms of the Movement. They are “guided” over every triviality and act upon this “guidance”. Only the word “trivial” is not included in their dictionary. They consider nothing is trivial—not even the spending of sixpence on a packet of cigarettes. This “guidance” is the mainstay of the whole Movement. By making use of it—in season and out—they logically prove that they believe themselves to be perfect, for “the effectual use of the Quiet Time”, on which “guidance” depends, entails absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love. I asked a young Buchmanite—a member of the Team whose duty it is to “change London”—how he managed to act on guidance that was dependent on such conditions. He replied that it was a matter of being willing to break down every barrier or give up anything that stood between himself and God’s Will; to be ready to submit his will to the Divine Will.

“For instance,” he said, “supposing I make a kind of mental reservation that I will not be a parson—even if God wishes me to be—or made any mental reservation of that kind, that would cut me off from God’s guidance.” That was a perfectly reasonable answer and he voiced a teaching that has been given by the Christian Church from its foundation. The guidance and blessing of God follow the desire and the effort to do His Will. But it is not the same thing at all as the “absolute” perfection that is set as an essential for the effectual reception of guidance.

The four absolutes are the rules of the Movement. It has been criticised for its use of the word which is, of course, an adjective applicable only to the Infinite. The “absolute” goodness insisted upon is an attribute of God alone. But this is again a small point of criticism and the use of the word is merely one of those instances of looseness of thought and inaccuracy of word that characterise the Movement.

You will constantly find that the teaching of the Group is interpreted according to the mind of the individual. The balanced man or woman with an at least fairly well-trained mind will explain it in reasonable terms in much the same way as it has been broadly interpreted by the Christian churches from the beginning. There are points—as I shall show—in which there are great differences. But the less balanced and thoughtful members not only explain but practise it in a manner that is both foolish and dangerous. They become fanatical. And there is no discipline to check their excesses. Each member can assign to himself or herself something of the position of the priest or minister. If through human weakness the ministers of the Church can fail—as they often do—how much more likely are these inexperienced and sometimes unbalanced people likely to make mistakes that are terrible in their consequence. They do not aim at helping their fellow men and women; they undertake to teach and to “check” the “guidance”, irrespective of a knowledge or understanding of the circumstances and character of the individual.

Miss Barbara Gwyer, Principal of St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, has written that “the supreme bugbear of the Group system so far as it affects young and undeveloped characters, is for me its rash handling of mind, spirit, and plan of life, which goes under the name of ‘team guidance’.” On occasion, the Team will justify “guidance” that goes entirely contrary to the standards by which it is supposed to be checked.

A woman member of the Group to whom I remarked that surely the rule of perfection was an aim and ideal, replied: “Oh! no, we mean just what we say. We must be absolutely honest, pure, unselfish and loving.” But there seems to be a diversity of opinion as to what exactly is the honest, pure, unselfish and loving course of action.

I asked how it was possible to reconcile the rule of “absolute unselfishness” with the behaviour of a woman who, since she had become engrossed with the Movement, had neglected her husband and child to such an extent that a once happy home had become a tragic one. I was reproved with the remark: “We do not judge other people’s sins.” That is the type of answer you often receive in reply to a reasonable, but possibly awkward question.

But another member was not content to leave it at that. She broke in with the suggestion that if the woman had acted on guidance she was probably doing quite rightly.

“We know of a similar situation,” she said. “A woman received guidance that she might be of some special help if she attended a certain meeting of the Group. It would mean her being away from home for a few days, and her small child was very ill. She left home, and everyone condemned her as unkind and neglectful and so on. But when she returned, she found that the child, far from being any worse, had actually improved under the care of the nurse she had engaged more than it would have if she had remained at home herself.” I can well believe it. The answer to my question, however, amounted to a statement that first and obvious duties must give way to this so-called “Guidance”.

I put the first instance to Dr. Buchman himself as a proof of the concern that is felt for the Group teaching on Guidance. I told him how it had been justified by a Team member. He replied that no two real duties ever conflict. “Surely,” I said, “that is very sweeping. How about a woman torn between her duty to her husband in the East and her children who must live in England?” “Ah!” said Dr. Buchman, “how well I remember the time when my mother died! I was in India. Everything was radiant. There was no sense of separation.” But what has that to do with the dangers of the doctrine of Guidance? Why can one never get a straightforward answer?

The Bishop of Southwark, in a letter to his Diocese, provided a complete and honest reply. He said, while commending the Group to a patient and courteous hearing and emphasising its good points, “We do need God’s guidance, and we can receive it if our souls will wait upon God; but not if we neglect to use to the best of our power the intelligence which God has given us. Nor can true guidance ever lead us to neglect duty, to break engagements, or leave undone work we are appointed to do.”

If the teaching of the Group leads to actions contrary to this wise and right advice, it must face the charge of undermining a normal sense of responsibility.

One of the many weaknesses of the Movement, and perhaps its greatest tragedy, is that the more serious-minded and thoughtful a convert may be, the more likely he is to become discouraged, depressed, or even deranged. It is not kind to the sensitive-minded. Imagine to yourself the feelings of a young, inexperienced and highly scrupulous person, arrested for, perhaps, the first time in his life by the ideal of the Christian life, and faced with the unfortunate exaggerations of Buchmanism.

At the outset he has been through a disrupting emotional experience in the form of conversion. His mind is then fallow and receptive. He starts to practise the Quiet Time. He measures thought, word and deed by the standard of absolute perfection. He becomes conscious not only of failure in deed, but of failure in motive. For when motive comes under the searchlight of an honest attempt at self-examination, there is bound to be the shock of realisation that complete honesty and purity of motive is unattainable. There is some stratagem in the best of human endeavour.

One discovers that one’s most unselfish acts are but another manifestation of self. One gives money to a beggar because it is more uncomfortable to contemplate his destitution than to relieve it: one’s own good dinner may be spoilt by the thought that he is going hungry. Sensitive and imaginative people will give up a great deal for peace of mind.

One schoolgirl who became a convert found herself so unhappy by her failure to attain “the absolute” that she was well on the way to an unnatural and unchildike morbidity of outlook. A wise and understanding grandmother, who fortunately had a great deal of influence with her grandchild, realised that she was rapidly becoming the victim of her own innate honesty of mind, and exerted her whole influence against the Movement.

Fortunately, she was able to switch the child’s interest to more wholesome matters than a contemplation of her “sins”, and another brand was snatched from the Buchmanite burning.

The conscientious convert to Buchmanism must become an analyst of motives, and I know nothing more likely to make one’s head spin.

A spinning head, in the physical sense, will lead to a loss of physical balance and a crash. In the mental sense, it will bring about the same catastrophe in its own sphere.

The following remarkable statement appears in a pamphlet on the Principles of the Group:

“Absolute honesty demands that there be nothing in one’s life about which one is keeping up a pretence.” There are pretences in life that are nothing short of heroic. What of those people who, in the grip of terror, keep hold of themselves and pretend to a calmness and courage they do not possess? They are certainly not being “absolutely honest”. But they are being magnificent. What of others, no less courageous, who in face of poverty and the sickening strain of a search for work, keep up a pretence of cheerfulness and hopefulness. What of the man or woman faced with the ordeal of a severe operation, or some overwhelming pain: the fear in their eyes gives the lie to the smile on their lips. All “dishonest” people “keeping up a pretence”, but surely valiant enough to please Almighty God, “Who loveth courageous souls exceedingly”.

The best of civilisation is based on gallant pretences.

One of the most harmful facets of the Movement is the insistence on the importance of trivialities which can be so bewildering and harmful to the untrained and highly conscientious.

Realising this, I asked a test question that was so silly that it should have been laughed away. I said, “If we are all to be absolutely honest, how about using make-up?”

“Ah! you must decide that for yourself. You must have your own Guidance.”

Now, I ask you! I am expected to kneel down and ask the God of all the Worlds to tell me whether or not I am to use a lipstick. Absolute honesty? Absolute bunk!

The rule of “absolute purity” is chiefly concerned with sex. The Group’s attitude to the question is right enough, provided it is interpreted by people of wisdom and understanding. But in the hands of the raw and inexperienced it can be exaggerated to the danger point. There is a fairly sound chapter on “Absolute Purity” in What is the Oxford Group?, a book setting out the principles of the Movement. But in the midst of it there appears this sentence:

“Modern art galleries and exhibitions exude suggestive nudity from their walls.”

Pictures or statuary that offend decency are not permitted to be displayed in reputable galleries and exhibitions. It must therefore be that the writer of this book (who is obviously young, and a little inclined to be sweeping) regards nudity in itself as suggestive. But why?

Because the tendency of the Group teaching is to shy away from reality and to regard sex in itself not as a simple biological fact complicated by civilisation, but as a potential occasion for sin. Anything that might remind them of sex is therefore suggestive in a harmful sense. Once again, it is the serious-minded and sensitive people who will suffer, especially if they are also young and bewildered as well. In their effort to obtain absolute purity of thought, as well as of word and deed, they come to regard every stray thought that has its roots in the sex instinct as impure. This is harmful indeed. The sex-wallowing of the years since the War has produced at least one good result, for it has completely killed false modesty and prudery, and brought the natural preoccupation with this great instinct to the surface. A rash on the surface may be more disfiguring to the eye than an internal canker, but it is less dangerous.

The reaction has already set in. The subject is becoming slightly tedious as the one and only subject of conversation, books, plays and films. The Group, if it were not so unattractive to many robust and sensible people, night undo every good that has come out of the evil of post-war sex obsession.

In some aspects, the Group makes the profound mistake of taking the subject too seriously. Here is a quotation from one of its pamphlets:

“An incorrigible sinner changed within the past year into a most hearty and humorous young saint had this thought when he first began listening to God: ‘Stop pretending you are in love with . . . If all Don Juans were to begin having such Guidance, a mischievous species might soon happily become extinct.”

Passing over the fact that an incorrigible sinner would not in the nature of things, become a saint in one year—he might become priggish, which is frequently confused with saintliness but is as far removed as light from darkness—it is doubtful whether the victims of Don Juan would altogether welcome the change! Flirtation may be harmful and cruel, or it may be a pleasant pastime. The Group abandons it wholesale as impure. The Group is sometimes very silly.

When a Group gentleman falls in love with a lady Grouper he announces that he has been “guided” to marry So-and-So. What happens if MISS Grouper is not similarly “guided” I cannot Imagine. It would be an even more unfortunate contingency if she received the original Guidance!

Here is the opinion of a prominent member on marriage:

“Marriage must always turn outwards into the lives of others, seeking to lead them to the same Joy. It is a sacrament that must always be shared.” I am sure that this is the opinion of a very pure young man, but it arouses in me the most impure thoughts, and lest I become ribald I must forbear to comment.

The Group teaches the value of the sublimation of sex. This is the effort and the aim of thousands of virile but decent-living men and women who, for some reason or another, are cut off from a normal and happy relationship. They are the people who carry with them a vision of romance—that dream of true love that is the completion of mind, body and spirit. They face sex fairly and squarely, realising that it is not so simple a matter as a mere bodily need. It is as well a hunger of the mind for perfect companionship, and of the soul for perfect understanding and rest. They know at times torment of their entire nature. But they also know that satisfaction must be threefold. They may attempt to drug the needs of the body, but in so doing they often whip the mind and spirit to greater irritation and desolation. They prefer, on the whole, to put up with the rebellion of the body rather than face the revolution of the spirit against a purely physical domination and control. They will avoid disgust of mind at great cost. They are realists and romantics at one and the same time, and although in their strife they may fall down, they will not stay down. They may make tragic mistakes and foolish mistakes, but they will not make vulgar mistakes.

And they know that the sublimation of sex is the most difficult thing in the world, and achieved only at the cost of incessant sacrifice and distress. They believe that the vision is worth the price. Those who have attempted to practise it realise that some outlet for a terrific force must be provided. Only in intense activity of mind and body is there any hope of peace. Creative work provides the nearest approach to satisfaction. Dean Inge, in his magnificent book, Christian Ethics and Modern Problems, faces the matter in the light of Christianity and humanity.

It is doubtful whether the sublimation of sex is possible without a belief in the forces of the supernatural. There must be a belief in God and the great army of His forces ranging themselves in defence of man’s idealism, succouring his wounded spirit and repairing his incessant casualties. With this aid, rare spirits may conquer, and the weakest keep up at least a running fight.

It is a cruel thing to preach the sublimation of sex without, at the same time, teaching the way of escape through intense activity of mind and body.

To attempt to turn the great forces of sex into emotional religious channels is not only mentally dangerous, but utterly opposed to true religion. The love of God was never meant to be a substitute for the love of man for woman and woman for man. The love of God is not an emotion, it is a way of life—an admiration of every steel-like quality of life.

The Group makes the terrible mistake of attempting to turn the sex instinct into an emotional love for the personal Christ. It is this attempt all through history that has weakened the power of Christ. It has made Him to be regarded as the pale Nazarene rather than the Prince of Peace Who yet promised His followers during life not peace but the sword. The Group denies that it induces emotionalism, and always checks any sign of it during public confessions. But to check its expression is not to turn it into vigorously healthy channels. The fact that it is there at all is a danger signal. At a House Party the almost hypnotic emotional atmosphere is so strong that it must be actively fought if one is to keep one’s head instead of losing one’s heart. One visitor left in a hurry because she felt that there was some hypnotic influence at work, and if she stayed it would assuredly “get her”.

The Group hopes to cover this emotionalism by the use of a hearty jargon that does not appear to be sentimental. But one has only to see the beaming and often vacuous expressions of so many Groupers to realise that they are for the time being infatuated. They are infatuated with Christ. Would they, one wonders, be equally infatuated with the road that He trod and the baptism of suffering with which He was baptised? The Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief stands in strange contrast to the “radiantly soapy and laughing Frank”.