Sunrise Magazine Online

For Seekers on the Path:
Letters That Have Helped Me

Review article by W. T. S. Thackara

In the body of modern theosophical literature there are a number  of books that have weathered the test of time, and people. They are classics not only because they have endured for decades in public print, but also because they carry an indefinable yet deeply felt spiritual force. They show a path and intimate a luminous goal ahead; or perhaps, more modestly, they help to clarify important problems and offer workable solutions. They give sense to apparent nonsense, and clarity to confusion. In every case the thoughts expressed in these writings beckon us to a loftier and better existence; we feel their immensely attractive power which impels us to love more compassionately, think more carefully, and act with greater resolve. These are books which broaden, ennoble, and hearten us; they stimulate us to seek out still deeper answers to the basic questions, and to respond more universally to the world in which we live.

The major works of H. P. Blavatsky fit easily into this category. They have been read by several generations of students, and the ideas expressed in them have significantly affected the thought-life of humanity. Other writings, too, can be named; but there is one which here ought to be singled out for the reason that it bears particularly on the features, landmarks, and practical living of the spiritual path.

Letters That Have Helped Me * has been continuously in print since its publication in book form in 1891. It has been the constant reading companion of many over the years, and several longtime students of theosophy regard it as one of the most important books in the literature. One person recently described its appeal in this way: unlike other books which are written to explain the technical teachings of theosophy, this one is a "direct response to the need of another." The philosophy is there, certainly, but quietly embedded in the writer's commentary on spiritual-ethical values. It is a book for seekers.

*Compiled by Jasper Niemand, two volumes in one, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, California, 1981; 214 pages.

The letters were written during the early years of the Theosophical Society by William Q. Judge (1851–1896), a cofounder of the Society with H. P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott. Like today, it was a time of great interest in religion and mysticism, but few theosophical books were then available to meet the growing need. Through theosophy many had learned of the ancient wisdom-religion which had seeded most of the world's faiths, and also of the brotherhood of Adepts who safeguard this tradition through periods of darkness and re-present it publicly when more favorable conditions call it forth. Hundreds of questions about the nature of the spiritual life, about the Adepts and their relation to humanity, and allied subjects, were sent to Judge who was then spearheading the work in America.

Primarily out of the need for a literature which addressed these questions, a number of Judge's replies were published in The Path magazine between 1888 and 1890, under the same title as the book. These letters, which comprise volume one, were written mainly to the compiler, "Jasper Niemand" (Julia Campbell Ver Planck), who also added many helpful notes. Volume two, published posthumously in 1905, contains letters and extracts from letters by Judge to correspondents in many parts of the world, as well as a short biographical sketch of Judge.

Although William Q. Judge was writing nearly a century ago, Jasper Niemand's statement that "the experience of one student, on the whole, is the experience of all," still holds true; and the letters might well have been written with today's problems in mind. Judge makes no presumptions; he simply passes on the fruit of his own experience and the teachings of his mentors. While the letters of his correspondents are absent, it is not difficult to imagine their content. We can feel the vitality of the dialogue; and the response it drew out of Judge is lucid. Although he did not set out to write a guidebook or set of treatises about the spiritual path, there is a progressive, unifying development of ideas. Nevertheless, it is a book that can be opened at any page and read with understanding. Either way will bring us into the refining atmosphere of Judge's thoughts:

Do not think much of me, please. Think kindly of me; but... direct your thoughts to the Eternal Truth. I am, like you, struggling on the road. Perhaps a veil might in an instant fall down from your spirit, and you would be long ahead of us all. The reason you have had help is that in other lives you gave it to others. In every effort you made to lighten another mind and open it to Truth, you were helped yourself. Those pearls you found for another and gave to him, you really retained for yourself in the act of benevolence. For when one lives thus to help others, he is thereby putting in practice the rule to try and "kill out all sense of separateness," and thus gets little by little in possession of the true light.
Never lose, then, that attitude of mind. Hold fast in silence to all that is your own, for you will need it in the fight; but never, never desire to get knowledge or power for any other purpose than to give it on the altar, for thus alone can it be saved to you. — 1:1

But how, we might ask, do we give help to another without interfering with his or her right to, and need for, self-unfoldment? Are we in a position to assess another's inner needs? And if not, how can we fit ourselves to help without hindering? Hints and direct suggestions abound, and Judge's comments throughout are built on one fundamental theme: universal brotherhood. To him, the aspiration to harmonize with nature's evolving pattern and to fulfill one's duty is the open sesame to one's higher intelligence and intuition. Simply put, if we wish to be more universal in understanding, sympathy, judgment, and affection, we must strive to be universe-oriented rather than self-oriented. Questions of spiritual training and discipline occurred as naturally to inquirers in Judge's time as they do to today's reader: How does one become a chela (if this seems desirable)? What specific practices are to be undertaken? Should one start meditating or practicing yoga? What are the possible consequences of embarking upon this or that course of self-improvement?

These are timeless questions, for they are asked by the neophyte in every age. Enlightenment, obviously, is not easily achieved. The very intent to journey "upward" immediately calls forth "downward" opposition; and both the motives and the strength of each wayfarer are tested continuously by life. All of the difficulties, large and small, are necessary to growth and help the student to recognize the positive and negative elements within himself and within nature. It is a strengthening and transformative process of alternating darkness and light, but always forward-moving in direction:

I would never let the least fear or despair come before me, but if I cannot see the road, nor the goal for the fog, I would simply sit down and wait; I would not allow the fog to make me think no road was there, and that I was not to pass it. The fogs must lift.
What then is the panacea finally, the royal talisman? It is Duty, Selflessness. Duty persistently followed is the highest yoga, and is better than mantrams or any posture, or any other thing. If you can do no more than duty it will bring you to the goal. — 2:3

At moments, we feel with Judge the mystic's "dark night of the soul" which periodically besets every traveler on the path. There are harsh and unpleasant conditions in our age — a karma which belongs to us since we have helped to create it. Many individuals rationalize that since spirit is the polar opposite of matter, the spiritual life therefore requires one to live apart from this world; and, accordingly, they seek refuge in isolation. To Judge, this is folly, a waste of a precious boon; for our karma, he reasons, has brought us into circumstances precisely suited to the needs of humanity and ourselves. It is here that we can do the most for both. Such is a typical example of Judge's transcendent optimism, even when he is wearied by misunderstanding, ingratitude, or sheer perversity. No matter how desperate things may appear at times, he sees in them golden opportunities for learning.

It is light which the heart of man, the heart of every living being, seeks eternally. Some of those who have traveled the path toward that light have shared their experiences, at least in part, with the hope that these would be of help. We understand why many feel the title, Letters That Have Helped Me, was aptly chosen.

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     The only feeling toward other stages of growth, past or present, which is justified, is respect, and the tolerance that stems from it. Any other, above all anger or scorn, merely reveals one's own lack of understanding. . . . In complete understanding there is another really vital ingredient. It is compassion! Compassion for others, compassion for oneself, the sense of pain suffered by the finite because of its distance from the infinite. This is the attractive force in evolution. It is the divine side of human nature; it draws us irresistibly upward. As far back in time as we can discern, we find it. It ensouled Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth. It ensouls in greater or less degree each one who, without selfish motive, devotes himself to the struggle for progress.
    We are now at the point where past and present meet. . . . The present says: the finest feeling we can discover within ourselves is compassion or love for others. Let us pursue this feeling which appears to be the most excellent form for our being. . . . Love demands no reward, it is its own recompense.
    Secretly the human spirit gazes upward and dreams: if love is the finest feeling in the human entity, the only one which, warm and glowing of its own light, is able to rise above earthly conditions; may it not contain the seed of a higher existence, that which follows upon the vegetable, animal, and human?
    Such are, as far as they may be discerned, the main features of the new era's philosophy, which is in process of superseding that of the past. To turn back is no longer possible. The old world egg is irrevocably broken. Probably centuries, perhaps millennia, will elapse before the new understanding comes wholly into its own and has the opportunity to unfold all it bears in its bosom. — Troels Lund, from the Danish