Candles in the Darkness

By Nancy Coker

"The light is only waiting to be perceived," said Katherine Tingley. (Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic, p. 24.) How comfortably nearby she makes it sound -- but how many really trouble to seek it, or remember which direction to look? For those of us who occasionally get distracted from or discouraged by the search, KT's words in a newly published edition of The Gods Await are candles in the darkness. The vitality of her vision radiates through time and her stirring oratory translates to the written page without skipping a beat: she must have been a heart-stopping speaker, with never a sleepy eye in the house. Her thoughts are crisp and potent and read like a battle cry that stimulates our enthusiasm and strengthens our resolve.

Social activist, international crusader for world peace, philanthropist and humanitarian, reformer and educator, KT was no foreigner to the world's ills; hers was not a remote or theoretical idealism. She worked with prisoners and the indigent from her relief missions in New York City. As leader of the Theosophical Society from 1896 to 1929 she was ever the enthusiastic activist, setting up a tent hospital to treat returning veterans from the Spanish-American War, arranging schools for poor children in Cuba, and organizing relief supplies for Puerto Rico. She envisioned and realized the internationally famous TS headquarters community at Point Loma, directing and overseeing the Raja Yoga Academy, the Temple of Peace, the Greek Theater, the Theosophical Press, agricultural ventures, as well as the arts, crafts, and musical and dramatic productions of its 500 resident members and students. Theosophical magazines were published under her direction in the USA, England, Holland, Germany, and Sweden. She lectured widely on global unity, and in 1913 convened the International Theosophical Peace Congress on the island of Visingso, Lake Vattern, Sweden.

Though years of active devotion to the suffering, homeless, and destitute had convinced her that ministering to the body was not enough, she was never afraid to act on that level when she saw the need, and even as a world famous lecturer continued to help feed and educate the poor and work with prisoners.

Passages from some of these lectures, delivered in the USA and abroad, are presented in The Gods Await. Her words vibrate with fiery enthusiasm. She speaks with the sensitivity and authenticity that firsthand experience confers, poetically blending esoteric insight with practical illustrations and much common sense.

Passionately she pleads with us to look more deeply, to cultivate an inner vision of our true greatness. Stop lazily borrowing opinions and start thinking for yourselves, she admonishes. The truth can be discovered and known, but too often we are caught by the glamour of the superficial and transitory. Not finding it satisfying we think to solve the lack by having more and more and more, cultivating habits of greediness, selfishness, and self-indulgence. She invites us to counter this focus on self by broadening our horizons: "We must think away from our puny selves and narrow environments and the little gods we have set up in our hearts and homes . . . " (p.7).

Encouraging us to discover the real inner divinity, she reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is within. She wants us to stop relying on outer authority and assume responsibility for our own evolution and salvation so that our "sleeping" god will begin to grow and blossom. It is only awaiting our call.

It is not just responsibility for our own progress that she tries to awaken, but an understanding of each individual's relationship and responsibility to the whole. Long before conservationists and political activists coined the phrase "Think globally and act locally," KT was firing audiences around the world with a vision of global unity wherein each would recognize his interdependence with all others, and know there are no such things as bystanders -- all are participants, that "to touch human nature at any point is to touch the whole of humanity" (p. 135).

Looking deeply into the causes of suffering, she saw our tendency to conceive ourselves as limited and ineffectual, gratifying personal desires as a kind of consolation prize. Would we invoke the god within and experience our link with the universe, we could transform the feeling of powerlessness to one of strength and conviction. No longer suffering the kind of unbalanced energy that provokes us to fight and die for what we believe, we would realize the sustaining strength that allows us to live what we believe.

She speaks out energetically against all violence, particularly the insane unbrotherliness of war. Astutely she differentiates between "national selfishness" and duty to one's homeland founded on the principle of brotherhood. An international spirit or world patriotism is what is needed, she suggests, one that understands that each nation participates in the karma of all others. Patriotism too narrowly applied to one's own country is poisonous and works against the good of the whole. She urges us toward this international spirit as "we cannot separate ourselves from humanity" (p. 33). Her ringing condemnations of capital punishment, vivisection, and all forms of brutality nearly scorch the page. She sees all as one LIFE; to think we can save life while sinning against it is nonsense. The violence we do others bruises us, since we are as indissolubly linked to each other as to the whole. We could realize this if we could learn to think and see with our hearts.

Katherine Tingley reminds us of the immense power of thought and cautions against too much reliance on brain-mind learning. We can outsmart ourselves by relying on our personal opinions -- she suggests we look beyond them. "We have limited Deity according to the measure of our own minds and conceived of the limitless as personal because we have been oblivious of all but the personal within ourselves" (p. 134). Repeatedly she tells us that we are greater than we know, and urges us not to fear the quest for truth. We could find the power of divinity in a moment -- any moment -- as soon as we learn to perceive with our inner spirit.

As splendid as she knows we can become, she surely has no illusions about our present shortcomings. Recognizing how easy it is to see the faults of others, she recommends self-analysis as a reality check, a practice sure to cultivate compassion.

She felt particular sympathy for prisoners. The longest chapter is devoted to these unfortunates, their mental set, early home environment, their hopelessness, and the possibilities for reform. KT's generous and compassionate nature did not prevent her unflinching assessment of the causes and cures of criminal behavior -- nor did she believe all criminals were behind bars. The prison system, though operating what it calls houses of "correction," is not really designed to rehabilitate. Human failings are always due to ignorance and she explains that criminals need to be treated more like invalids, nursed and educated back to a healthy, balanced nature. They need to be encouraged and constantly reminded that they have the power to align themselves with the inner laws of life to overcome their present weaknesses.

KT moves effortlessly from the worst offenders to those who have mastered life. The description of her first meeting with H. P. Blavatsky's teacher is illuminating and humbling. Her advice to parents on child rearing is loving but unsentimental; her discussion of reincarnation practical. She assures us that realizing our divine essence can help us solve our problems. Understanding that we are old souls on a pilgrimage through an infinite universe enlarges our perspective, helps loosen prejudices, and stimulates our imagination.

A serious effort toward self-understanding is essential before we can help each other: "None -- not the greatest of reformers, not the most erudite of mankind -- can find the remedy for the ills of life unless he has found the key within himself" (p. 85). There is such suffering in the world, such cruelty and ignorance, she exhorts us to make use of every moment. We live not just for today, we act for all eternity, "we are building the civilization of the future" (p. 34), and the gods, our intimate and willing companions, await us.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Theosophical University Press)

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