On earth as it is in heaven

Friday, 30 July

As soon as I arrived at Elmfield House yesterday afternoon I knew that Leonard and I would get very little work done. Leonard was in an exceptionally chatty mood from the second that I walked through the door and he was eager to tell me about a phone call that he had received from Sophie’s father. The latest round of hospital tests indicate that Sophie’s condition is improving and her father hopes that they will be able to visit us sometime next month. Leonard was so excited at the prospect of their impending visit that he could barely contain himself and we spent around half-an-hour talking about Sophie and his plans for her arrival. Although I enjoy these pleasant conversations before starting work, I worry that we are spending more time talking than working these days and I am frustrated when we make slow progress during a session, particularly since the journey to and from Elmfield House is proving to be somewhat of a challenge given my recent uneasiness in public.

Leonard eventually began to collect his equipment together and I took my bag into the bathroom to change into my sitting clothes, but I could see through the frosted glass of the bathroom window that the weather was not in our favour. Dark clouds were gathering outside and the air, even in the small bathroom, had the suffocating tightness of an impending thunderstorm. We managed to squeeze in an hour at the most of work before Leonard decided that the light was too bad to continue and shortly afterwards a bright flash of lightning lit up the workroom and signified that a storm was imminent. Sure enough the first rumbles of thunder quickly followed and the room descended into darkness. 

I confessed to Leonard that I was not keen to venture home in the bad weather and resigned myself to an afternoon of herbal tea and theological discussion (which is never a bad thing) so Leonard packed away the equipment and headed into the kitchen to brew up a pot of Melissa (Lemon Balm) tea. As he left the room he flicked the light switch by the workroom door and bathed the workroom in a gloomy yellow wash from the single light bulb that hangs from the ceiling and he emerged from the kitchen only moments later with a large ceramic teapot on a tray and a selection of bourbon biscuits arranged decoratively on a plate (I find it amusing that he still goes to such great trouble to present food and drink to me even though I have been visiting his house for over six months now). He poured the tea into the mugs and the room was filled with the sweet and warming smell of lemon balm. I clutched my hot mug to my chest, wilted back into the armchair and tried to make myself comfortable as I watched Leonard sort through a pile of books on the floor in search of his bible, but there was something deeply unsettling about the stifling air in the workroom, the brooding and cathartic rumbles of thunder that punctuated our conversation and the dull glow from the solitary light bulb that cast dark shadows onto the bookshelves and wove a sickly, nightmarish ambience into the room. My nerves had already been set on edge by the persistent squeaking and creaking noises coming from the upper rooms and although I realised that the strong winds outside were to blame for these noises, to my mind it sounded as though someone was walking across the uneven floorboards upstairs and opening the doors at random. I have never felt so claustrophobic and generally spooked in Elmfield house as I did yesterday afternoon - even nipping to the bathroom was a rushed ordeal!

The bible passage that Leonard selected for discussion was the accusation made by the scribes in chapter three of the Gospel of Mark that Jesus performs his miracles with the assistance of the demon Beelzebul. I suspect that the eerie atmosphere in the workroom may well have influenced his choice of subject matter but, given my nervous state at the time, I would have much preferred to defer an analysis of a story about Beelzebul, demons and exorcism until the next sunny day in the garden! Leonard handed me his bible and asked me to familiarise myself with the story, so I flicked through the pages, located the passage and read:

‘And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He has Beelzebul, and by the prince of the devils he casts out devils.’ And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rises up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. No man can enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.’

Leonard pointed out that two charges are made against Jesus in Mark’s account: the first is that Jesus ‘has Beelzebul’ and the second is that Jesus is using Beelzebul to carry out his exorcisms. Leonard said that the question of whether the first charge is to be interpreted as Beelzebul’s possession of Jesus or Jesus’ possession of Beelzebul is key to our understanding of the passage as the former reading suggests that Jesus was demon-possessed while the latter clearly warrants a charge of magic. Given that Leonard had ridiculed my suggestion that Jesus was spirit-possessed on a previous occasion, I suspected that he would defend the latter option. And I was right. Leonard believes that the allegation that is made by the scribes is not one of spirit-possession but one of spirit manipulation and therefore it is a straightforward charge of magic. 

Leonard explained that exorcism and magic were very closely associated in the ancient world and simply knowing about demons was thought to demonstrate an inclination towards practising magic. Since the Gospel authors present Jesus as being far from na├»ve regarding the operations of demons it is natural that his enemies would make such a connection, however Leonard pointed out that Jesus does very little to defend himself from these allegations of magical activity and, rather than refuting the scribes’ accusations, he foolishly plays into their hands by openly demonstrating his knowledge of common techniques that were used by magicians to manipulate demonic spirits…

Our conversation was briefly interrupted at that point by the sound of heavy rain rattling against the windowpane and Leonard paused to check on the whereabouts of Hooter. After two or three calls of his name, I heard the scratching of the dog's long nails in the hallway and the workroom door creaked open. Hooter padded over and slumped down at Leonard’s feet, looking bemused as to why he had been summoned from his slumber at the foot of the stairs. I felt sorry for the poor thing as he looked up at Leonard with his big sleepy eyes but I was much happier knowing that he was in the room with us.

Returning to our discussion I mentioned, rather bravely and somewhat sarcastically, that I do not recall any instances in the Gospels in which Jesus engages in an elaborate magical ritual to summon devils and demons. Fortunately Leonard saw the well-intentioned humour in my comment and he asked if I was familiar with the basic principles of magical binding. He explained that the ancient magician believed that by ‘binding’ something he could restrain it from operating or forcefully unite it with something else and this technique was employed for a variety of purposes; such as to restrain armies, thieves or dangerous animals, to prevent crops from maturing or to separate lovers or bind lovers together. He said that magical binding is based on the theory of ‘sympathetic magic’ which imagines that the spiritual world is tied to the corporeal world by a series of invisible threads that can be manipulated by the magician in the physical realm to achieve equivalent results in the spiritual realm - therefore whatever is bound or loosed by the magician on the earth is also bound or loosed in the heavens. 

Leonard then instructed me to read two verses in the Gospel of Matthew (16:19 and 18:18) in which Jesus teaches the disciples that ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven' and he asked whether I considered these verses to be informed by a knowledge of magical binding. I agreed that the terminology is suspiciously similar, but at that point in our conversation I was struggling to engage critically with Leonard’s reasoning because waves of tiredness were washing over me and my eyelids were becoming increasingly heavier with each word that he spoke. I suspect that the mesmeric sound of the rain beating against the window and the warming effects of the hot herbal infusion were truly to blame, but I honestly felt as though I had been injected with morphine or I had ingested a potent dose of narcotics that threatened to send me spiralling into unconsciousness at any moment. Although I was seriously in danger of falling asleep mid-conversation, I fought against my tiredness and tried desperately to concentrate on every word that Leonard spoke because I realised that I must seize every opportunity to engage him in theological debate. After all, these conversations are providing the fuel for my postgraduate dissertation and I now have an academic interest, in addition to a personal interest, in what Leonard has to say.