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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XIII — The Tumultuous Twenties

“Where does time go?” is a question that almost everyone asks, or perhaps more accurately, exclaims. The nineteen-twenties were a time when I had reason to speculate that time doesn’t really go anywhere; we go through it; that we live in events more than by clocks and calendars. For long past the dates that describe them, I was still identifying with their events, and continued to think of myself as being twenty-four when I was more like forty-two!

My first two books took form in 1920: The Simple Truth, which was my endeavor to elaborate on the basic principles John and I were trying to present in The Harmonial Institute; it also brought forth a 200-page hardback volume, my book on spiritual symbolism. My approach was through dissertations on names and numbers, the psychology of color with special allusions to Bible usage, some theories on the fourth dimension, and the octaves of vibration that characterize the manifest creation. It had started with the time I found the allusion to numbers in The Channel Magazine, and developed into a series of mimeographed lessons taught in person and by correspondence. Its appearance as a book titled You and the Universe met with a response that surprised us. Orcella Rexford, a travelling psychologist, ordered three hundred copies at a time to sell to students in her classes in one city after another. It got favorable reviews in many advanced thought magazines, and went through reissues.

When I was called to Unity headquarters as an editor I withdrew it from publication, for though like me Charles Fillmore had written on the same themes in earlier Unity publications, he had come to focus Unity’s teaching on prayer and healing, minimizing what he felt might be distractions from the most practical aspects of Truth. However I felt that the information and research that were involved should not be lost. Omitting the sections that dealt with names, I reissued the material under the title, The Other Half of the Rainbow, in Los Angeles in 1952. Both books are now out of print.

John Ring was beginning to write his memoirs, in addition to preaching, teaching, and devising amateur plays and pageants. Pageants, it might be said, were less a strain on the resources of the amateur participants. Detractors accused him of doing these things to raise money—which they did—but I think he would have done so anyway, for his love of young people and of theatrics. However it proved to be a two-edged sword.

Living Pictures

Once, during his absence to serve that Harmonial group, I tried my hand at directing some teen-agers in Zona Gale’s play, The Neighbors, which turned out better than I could have hoped, and encouraged me to present a series of “living pictures,” in an effort to portray famous paintings with live models. That it was only moderately successful was evidenced when one art fancier who attended, confessed that he could not identify our version of a Bougereau painting. But somewhat later the idea was employed with national acclaim and great expertise in Laguna Beach, California, and became an annual feature that draws overflow crowds from all over.

These ventures led to my participation in a number of community dramatics, and I was cast as Father Crespi in Pageant of the Missions, and the father in What They Think of Us.

John had a knack for knowing what newspaper editors would print and there was scarcely a week in which we did not receive generous publicity in The San Diego Union and Tribune. What little I learned from him helped me later on to get frequent publicity for Unity in Kansas City papers. I found that editors were not disposed to promote Unity’s teachings—the one notable exception being the feature article, “Miracle of a Woman’s Faith” which recounted Myrtle Fillmore’s healing, but were responsive to comments on current events. The editor of The Journal Post was more liberal, and the church editor invited me to do a weekly feature for their church page, unsigned, lest all ministers demand equal time; but I was surprised to find that even so, people would accost me with the remark, “I saw your column on the church page.”

Starting With Twenty-nine Cents

We were outgrowing the church on Alabama. There was much talk of moving the church building, with additions, to a more accessible location. It reached a climax in an event which I find chronicled in two news items, one from The San Diego Union which quotes one of our board members, speaking at a luncheon given for Florence Crawford, editor of The Comforter magazine: “I am strongly in favor of bringing the Institute to East San Diego.” The other item from the E.S.D. Press announced that instead of moving the Alabama building it had been decided to build a new and larger building, combining stores and a second-floor social hall to face on the main commercial street, with a church sanctuary and offices on the intersecting residential avenue.

All the signs seemed “GO.” The board members light-heartedly pooled the pennies in their pockets, twenty-nine as it turned out—as seed money. We blessed them to increase and multiply in the Lord’s service. There was a generous response from the church congregation. The Alabama property, amazingly, was promptly purchased by a traditional denomination.

Within a few months the new building was complete. Characteristically, John took the lead in a series of dedication services in which representatives of many of the different denominations took part. Even the Catholics sent a lay member to represent them. We had many guest speakers from the New Thought movement, as well as prominent musicians and other artists. One that particularly impressed me was a youthful gray-haired lady who was, of all things, a story teller, named Ritza Freeman Reardon. We heard her first at a businessmen’s luncheon club meeting, where she captivated the guests by telling a story from the Old Testament—the one about Jacob and Laban and the spotted sticks, revealing the humorous side of the story along with its psychological aspects with such charm that she received a standing ovation at the close. We invited her to come to our church for an extended series of entertaining lessons. She had a winsome way of including the listeners in her narration. I learned from her methods which have helped me all through the years.

When John wrote me in Galveston, “Change is in the air,” I don’t think even he could foresee how vast it was to be, or how soon. Change was taking place in me. John had helped me to feel acquainted with all the great world teachers, but though I was not inclined to reject any of them in my appreciation, there was just the one that inspired me, the one I felt was the Teacher for this age, certainly for me—Jesus Christ. I had a strong conviction that my ministry must be definitely Christ-centered, Jesus Christ centered. I was to discover that too many teachers when they say Christ-centered, they at the same time reject or play down the person of Jesus. The Christ concept is almost too wonderful—perhaps instead, too abstract—for comprehension. But Jesus was a flesh and blood person, who felt physical and emotional joys and sorrows. I could relate to Him, if only in aspiration!

John, too, was changing, to become more and more involved in theatricals. Things reached a climax when an unprepossessing movie comedian called Toto appeared, and captured John’s interest by saying he presented “Educational Comedies” and would like to do one with local people. It seemed obvious to me that the comedian had been unable to get work in Hollywood, was obviously down on his luck, and wanted to use us to recoup his fortunes. He offered no references, had no script to show—“We’ll make up a story line as we go along.”

Neither board members nor I could make John see this. Offended by our objections he asserted that he would do it independent of the church.

A Change Deplored

It caused the first rift between us. I felt deeply grateful to John for all the help he had given me. In helping to promote the new Harmonial building, I had in mind that in years to come it would be a self-supporting ministry, but John apparently saw it differently.

Another change was impending. The Minneapolis group, like the San Diego group, was growing. They felt that one of us should come to serve them as resident leader. I thought:

“If John will assume that ministry, it will put an end to this ‘Educational Comedy’ imbroglio!”

He absolutely refused.

“Then I will!” was my response. It would mean an indefinite separation from my first teacher, the leaving of a handsomely housed church facility, with assured income from shop rentals in the adjoining structure. It would mean leaving friends, and San Diego.

Ostensibly we would still be together in the work we had built together; be together even though apart.

Follow the Gleam

I affirmed that, but I didn’t believe the affirmation. I knew, as if (and perhaps because) the Knower within had told me. It would never be the same again. Sooner or later such a change was bound to come. But why, I asked myself, must it be on an unhappy note? Why must I feel guilty? I listened for an answer. It came from the very channel that John had said I needed seven years before, Emerson.

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” Toto, the stray refugee from Hollywood may have been the occasion, but no more than that, for this momentous change. John pled with me not to go, but I knew I must, and in his heart he knew it too.

Joseph Bass and Nels O. Welander had already found a temporary meeting place for the Minneapolis group which was to be known as Harmonial Center, on Eighth Street across from Dayton’s department store. It provided a lecture hall adequate for midweek services and classes, and a smaller office and book room. Our Sunday services were held in a Masonic temple. Within less than a year we found a second floor auditorium and office space in a more suitable location, at 1607 Nicollet Avenue.

Two Very Different Visitors

We had two unique visitors at Eighth Street. The first was at a warm summer evening prayer meeting. We had opened all the windows to let in the cool night air; this was, of course, long before air conditioning. In the midst of the meditation I was leading, I heard low-pitched screams of alarm, and opened my eyes to see women trying to cover their hair with their hands or scarfs.

A bat had flown into the room.

I felt sure that there was no truth in the notion that bats will get caught in ladies’ hair, but it seemed no time to debate the point.

“What shall I do now?” I prayed silently. A thought came to mind:

“Turn out the lights!” I called to the ushers. They did. The bat immediately flew out a window. We didn’t close the windows. I finished the service by moonlight. No more bats.

The other meeting had to do with my Denishawn episode. I had a note from Ted telling me that Miss Ruth would be appearing in concert soon. I went to a florist’s and ordered six dozen red roses arranged in a basket, to be presented at the conclusion of her feature number, “Valse Triste,” which she performed in a flowing gray gown with a diaphanous scarf over her white hair. She accepted it with bows to the applauding spectators, placed it on the floor center-stage, and did a reprise of her interpretation of the enchanting Sinding music.

We had a happy meeting backstage. She wanted to attend my midweek service after her final Minneapolis appearance. She came, dressed in a floor-length black satin gown, carrying a long black staff. I announced her presence to the assembly and asked her if she would come forward to offer a brief greeting.

“I would like to do a little religious dance for you, as a greeting to you and my friend Ernest,” she announced, and humming the melody of Rimski-Korsakov’s “Song of India,” she loosened her slippers, placed the staff to one side, and standing, charmed us with the flowing movements of supplication to the Most High.

Two in a Million

“Two in a Million” is the caption I lettered under a snapshot of two women who with their families had a prominent part in the Minneapolis ministry and an enduring place in my affection.

If you’ve read The Contemplation of Christ you may remember my story of the spiritual healer who had remarkable success. She would sit for twenty minutes in prayer, often silent, occasionally speaking, her hands clasping those of the patient, followed by a closing blessing. That was it. I was the student who sought insight about healing, and presuming on a long and close friendship with her husband and her, I felt free to question her about what happened and why. Did she have to sit in the same place always for the same length of time? Was the physical contact essential? Did she think some disembodied entity was involved? Did the patient have to be physically present? No, not necessarily. Then what brought the healing about?

By affection, she was my Aunt Dode; her husband, my Uncle Emil. I had met her in John’s Emerson class at the time he came “for one person.” She was suffering from migraine headaches, and still seeking help from a succession of doctors. Someone told her of a locally famous spiritual healer, a Mrs. Anderberg, who was reputed to heal by the laying on of hands. Aunt Dode went to her home, found a waiting room crowded with people seeking help. (The healer would not make appointments.) She was available several hours a day. Patients simply came and waited their turn. After several visits the migraine was gone and Mrs. Anderberg remarked, “You have this same healing power. You see how pressing the demands are upon me. Come and help me to help others.” She did so, and eventually established a following of her own.

“What, then, brought the healing about?” I pleaded for Aunt Dode to tell me.

As I’ve told elsewhere, she seemed—for the first time in the questioning—a little embarrassed.

“I’m afraid you will be disappointed,” she confessed. “It seems almost too simple to amount to much. I just love them into getting well.”

H-mmm. “Too simple!” How many times I’ve heard this comment regarding what we call Truth. It is said of my own writing. Simple, if by that we mean clear, easy to comprehend. Simple, yes, but does that also mean too easy?

“I just love them into getting well!” Love, as humanly we interpret it, is not yet able of itself alone to heal all human ills. The Aunt Dodes, the Mrs. Anderbergs, and I might add, the Olga Wornalls and Myrtle Fillmores, cannot meet, although they may be prophetic of meeting and overcoming, all human ills. We still need all manner of ministrations, and probably will, until race consciousness reaches a higher embodiment of the divine compassion. We still need doctors, and the ones I’ve known best and who have helped most are the ones who make their practice a ministry by putting the healer’s kind of love into skillful action.

Incidentally, what about spiritual healing? Is there really any other kind? Consider this thought, from my book. The Emerging Self:

“There is only one healing power in all the world, and that is the power to create new cells and eliminate old ones, a power that is possessed by the innate intelligence (the Knower) or creative forces in living organisms, however evoked.

“It is the same power, whether it is invoked by a physician or a metaphysician, an affirmation or medication,” or you might say, “a pill or a prayer.”

Not Quite Respectable

The other one of the two was Anna Berg—“Mother Berg” to me. She came into my life when she appeared in that same Emerson class with three of her five children.

She was generally considered to be not quite respectable. This is why: Her husband’s untimely death left her, a Swedish American with modest education, no special skills, and a brood of four girls and a young son to rear. She tried working in a laundry but the pay was low, the hours long, and they kept her away from home too many hours. She tried buying a secondhand sewing machine and did better as a seamstress, but not well enough to provide for her brood the kind of education she lacked.

Seeking a more lucrative occupation, she discovered an old rundown dance hall in the industrial section of town. Being of Swedish background she was conscious of the Scandinavian immigrants of the blue collar class who were numerous in that area. They would, she thought, enjoy a homelike atmosphere where they could dance the ethnic dances of their homeland.

That’s when she became not quite respectable. “There would be drinking, rowdyism, fisticuffs, perhaps more serious misdeeds.” The opposite proved true. It took young men and women off the streets. No one, intoxicated or with intoxicants, got past her discerning eye as she supervised the ticket counter. She became Mother Berg to many of them. On certain evenings doughnuts and coffee were served, on others there were prizes for the best dancers. By her enterprise she earned an income that put her older daughters through college, gave all of them musical instruction. Moreover she gave employment to out-of-work musicians and others.

Her good works did not stop there. I’ve recounted one phase of them in Soul Power as follows:

“There was a nine-day wonder in the Mid-western city where I grew up. Mysteriously a new sewing machine was delivered to the home of an impoverished widow. She had not paid for it; indeed she did not have the money to pay for it. The firm that delivered it would not, and asserted that it could not, provide the name of the donor. The card that accompanied the machine was inscribed simply, “From a Grateful Friend” . . . one such benefaction was occasion for speculation. When, in the months that followed, several similar incidents occurred, the matter came to the attention of a newspaper reporter in need of a story, and the sewing machine mystery was solved.

This was, of course, one of Mother Berg’s ways of saying “Thank you, God” for her eventful journey from indigence to affluence.

I, too, became the recipient of her loving spirit. She made her concern for her sub-teen son, Herman, the occasion for a very special invitation for me. “Here he is in our big house, surrounded by four sisters, a maiden aunt, and me, the only male in the house. He loves you and looks upon you as an elder brother. There’s the whole third floor of our house out by the lake. We’d like to have you make it your Minneapolis home.”

It became that, and was, in my thought, yet not long after there came another change—changes really, for all of us.

I think it was around that time, though time has such a way of telescoping that many times I seem to be out of time, that I began to realize that it is a good thing for most of us that we cannot foresee coming events. “For now we see as in a glass (a mirror) darkly (dimly),” and if we could see “as face to face” we would either step on the gas or the brakes and fail to give sufficient attention to events at hand.

The Pace Quickens

There were plenty of them. I was writing almost every day, between church duties, turning out articles that appeared in Unity publications, a series called “Life Light,” that ran in Nautilus magazine for over a year, and a series on the symbolism of Masonry that appeared in The Masonic Observer. Masonry seemed to me to be a philosophical adaptation of the cosmic symbolism on which my early book, You and the Universe, was based, and led to my discovery of Bucke’s volume, Cosmic Consciousness. Ted Shawn had introduced me to Ouspensky’s book, Tertium Organum, translated by the Theosophical artist, dramatist, and scenic designer, Claude Bragdon, and his profound books, The Beautiful Necessity, Four-Dimensional Vista, and The Divine Androgyny.

“You must be a Mason,” my friend, Nels Welander commented, following the Observer articles and some talks I gave.

“No, not formally; but I’d like to be one.”

“Let me sponsor you,” he invited. He did so, and took great delight in the fact that I turned out to be a rapid study. I learned all the work of the Blue Lodge, (the three basic degrees) in ten days, and passed my examination just a month after my initiation.

The “Life Light” articles moved Elizabeth Towne, who was a good promoter and saw an opportunity of promoting Nautilus through my articles, invited me to attend and speak at The International New Thought Congress at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. I was awed to meet the illustrious writers, lecturers, teachers and ministers who comprised this Association, most of whom I have so far outlived—I was probably the youngest speaker on the five-day program—the other speakers that only a few names of that time are perhaps memorable to present-day readers: Henry Victor Morgan, Ernest and Fenwick Holmes, Annie Rix Militz and her sister, Harriet Hale Rix, and Nona Brooks.

Mrs. Towne, perennial president of that era, was most outstanding, aggressive, and charming withal. With Mrs. Militz, Miss Rix, and Nona Brooks, she presided at a featured afternoon series of meetings where questions from the audience were invited.

All went well until Elizabeth, using her lorgnette to decipher a startling question:

“How come that you ladies, who teach health, youth, and beauty, should appear old, fat, and be wearing glasses?”

The crowd roared with laughter. Elizabeth threw back her head and joined in the laughter. She was a pretty woman in her sixties who looked her prettiest when laughing. The crowd hushed to await her response:

“Well, if you think we look bad now, you should have seen us before we took up New Thought!”

She received an ovation!

© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.