Toward the end of his largely autobiographical tour of "the consciousness movement" of the late 1970s and the '80s, David Toolan compares himself to missionary-explorers of the late 16th Century such as Roberto de Nobili and Matteo Ricci, who ventured into India, China and Japan to export the blessings of Western civilization and Catholicism but also to discover the mysteries of the Orient. The simile is multiply apt.
Not only were Ricci and De Nobili also Jesuits but, as Jonathan Spence pointed out in "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci," despite their single-mindedness, the initial enthusiasm of these tough-minded scholars gave way year by year to disillusionment and the disaffection of culture shock.
Toolan's tour of contemporary mysteries ends not so much in disillusionment as disenchantment, a kind of emotional and critical distancing indicated by an abrupt shift into the past tense. Facing West is also facing back, and Toolan's penultimate enthusiasm for aspects of the New Physics and Jean Houston's "ritual theater" only partially diminishes the burden of futility that haunts his memories of Esalen and India. What began as retrospective comes to sound more like autopsy.
Toolan, an associate editor of Commonweal, long the journalistic flagship of liberal Catholicism, and a former professor at Canisius College (Buffalo, N.Y.), earned a doctorate in religious studies at Southern Methodist University. But the odyssey that provides the matter for his erudite, incisive and sometimes impishly witty psycho-cultural history of the rise, and perhaps fall, of The Movement was as extraordinary in many respects as the journeys of his early Jesuit predecessors.
Bored with both the stumbling aggiornamento of the post-Vatican II Church and the exhausted social activism of liberal politics, in 1969 Toolan embarked on a quest for personal renovation that first took him into the state of human potential and mind development known to the outside world as "California." His point of entry, like that of many seekers of contemporary wisdom, was the Esalen Institute, founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in the heart of Big Sur in 1961.
There, within a decade, traditional psychology underwent a major revolution. In some 80 pages of Part 1 of his spiritual travelogue, Toolan manages to describe and criticize that process, reviewing psychoanalytic, gestalt and transpersonal psychologies; body work; psychodrama; encounter groups; the impact of comparative religion, and psychedelic drugs (a particularly valuable section).
In 1975, Toolan extended his adventure into the consciousness movement by traveling westward to India (hence the title of his book, which derives from one of Whitman's poems). But unlike Benedictine Dom Bede Griffiths and other members of Catholic contemplative orders who migrated to India to ponder and stay, Toolan found the spiritual atmosphere thick with unenlightened fatalism.
Impatient of Asia, and now back in what he finds the less claustrophobic climes of Manhattan, Toolan prefers to shift his (and our) gaze toward the speculations of astrophysicists and nuclear physicists, who for some time had been breaking ground that was to prove fertile for The Movement. That he discovers the new cosmology to resemble the old, pre-Newtonian, "sacred" cosmologies of Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart would be predictable only to those reared in the classical Catholic tradition. In the post-Vatican II era, that may be worth noticing.
Toolan's literary trek culminates in a coda of two chapters, the first recapitulating the basics of meditational praxis, the spiritual discipline that promotes holistic participation in the cosmic adventure of consciousness-raising.
The second consists of an extended consideration of Jean Houston's migratory mystery school, which he perceives as the "current state of the art in the consciousness movement." Much can be said in favor of Toolan's appraisal of both dimensions of "sacred psychology," especially his discussion of Houston's work, which, in view of her own book on the subject, is a remarkably accurate condensation.
"The Search for the Beloved" is an unusually moving book, combining a brief introduction to sacred psychology, working scripts of some two dozen practices for those who seek initiation into the deeper mysteries of Jean Houston's "ritual theater," and an extended commentary on the symbols and myths of "soul-making" that provide the progressive structure of the journey she maps for those intent on becoming more wholly participant in the cosmic adventure. (A cassette tape accompanies the book, but it was unavailable for review.)
Whereas Toolan recognizes the consciousness movement as a local disturbance with expanding ramifications in the fabric of world development, Houston sees in it nothing less than a universal transformation of attitudes with particularly overt regional manifestations. She posits five major areas in which the "whole-system transition" is already at work: planetization--the achievement of global awareness, the rise of the feminine, the emergence of new scientific approaches and the miniaturization of technology, the human potential and consciousness movements and the emergence of a global spiritual sensibility.
We have heard this before. Living in the pale afterglow of the "Harmonic Convergence" of last August, we may even have a few doubts about the depth and extent of the transformation. It is nonetheless clear that among the denizens of New Age consciousness, something like a consensus is emerging with respect to fundamental issues. Houston does not argue the case. She simply states it.
Toolan's estimation of Houston's itinerant ritual theater as "the state of the art" in the consciousness movement may savor of overstatement. Merely reading "The Search for the Beloved" testifies to her gifts as mystagogue, however. Experiencing the sacred paradigms under her tutelage could well effect a major shift in awareness, if not on a global plane (would it work in Santiago?), at least among those who could afford the tuition.