How does one come to know the mind of God? From reading a children’s story? Maybe!
In 1934, P.L. Travers, an Australian, wrote one of the most famous children’s books of all time, Mary Poppins. But this is no ordinary nursery fable. Mary Poppins is a tale steeped in the tradition and rich in the lore of Sufi mysticism.
Sufism is a spiritual tradition with deep roots in Islam but is not bound to any one religious tradition, geographic region, ethnic group or historical period. Sufism is really synonymous with the mystical and spiritual traditions that span all cultures and all time periods.
The story of Mary Poppins is the story of one small boy’s initiation into the teachings of Sufi spirituality and the secrets of Sufi mysticism. When the initiation of Michael Banks is complete, Michael has come, at least in some measure, to know the mind of God.
Upon Mary’s arrival at 17 Cherry-Tree Lane, Michael peers into her luggage, a carpet bag, and is “more than surprised to find it was completely empty”. When Michael’s sister Jane articulates this discovery, “Why…there’s nothing in it!” Mary Poppins responds by systematically extracting a host of personal items including “a small folding armchair”.
Michael in turn whispers to Jane, “But I saw…it was empty.” And so Michael and Mary have quickly established the philosophical framework for the dialog…and adventures…to come. When is seeing believing…and when isn’t it? What is real…and what isn’t?
Take the matter of the carpet bag, for instance. Is it empty or isn’t it? From one perspective, it is: peering in, Michael sees nothing. But from another perspective, it is not: it contains all the items needed to furnish a small apartment.
But is there really a conflict between what Michael sees and what Mary does? Not necessarily! Only if you subscribe to the underlying premise that one cannot extract large objects from an empty bag.
But it is precisely that sort of common sense tenet that Mary Poppins challenges! There is no effort here to challenge the reality of Michael’s perceptions or of Mary’s actions; the challenge here is strictly to the appearance of contradiction between the two.
This is not a book about magic (at least not in the usual sense of that word) nor illusion, delusion or fantasy. This is a book about ontology and logic.
Mary Poppins consist of a series of tales and adventures, told or orchestrated by Mary, designed to wean Michael from his attachment to common sense notions of reality and gradually substitute in him a willing recognition and acceptance of mystical reality.
By the final chapter (“West Wind”), Mary has achieved her goal and is free to move on. It is the first day of spring and the east wind that blew Mary to Cherry-Tree Lane in the first place has finally given way to ”westerly weather”, the signal for her to depart.
As she prepares to leave, Mary presents Michael with her compass. In an earlier chapter (“Bad Tuesday”), Mary used this compass to travel instantaneously to the four corners of earth with Jane and Michael at her side. Later in that same chapter, Michael’s misuse of the same compass summons menacing creatures from those same four corners.
But now, as the story ends, Mary feels able to trust Michael with that compass. Her mission on Cherry-Tree Lane has been accomplished. With the passing of the compass from Mary Poppins to Michael Banks, P.L. Travers signals that the central conflict of the story has been resolved. Michael has been initiated. He has transcended his (our) childish commitment to naïve realism and can now be trusted to understand the power of the compass and to use it judiciously.
A good story? Yes! Just a story? No way! The story of Michael Banks’ initiation to Sufism is in fact the sacrament of our own initiation. As the reader follows Michael’s gradual conversion, that same reader is herself undergoing conversion. If we read the story properly, we gradually come to understand that we are all Michael Banks! And like Michael, we may come to see reality, at least to some extent, as God sees it.
Some background is in order. Sufism is a family of spiritual doctrines and practices that vary widely across geographical, cultural and historical landscapes. Mary Poppins reflects a particular school of Sufism associated with a Euro-centric group known as the Carbonari.
While many Sufi schools focus on meditative practices and inner awakening, Carbonari believe that Sufism can and should be a transformative factor in the everyday world. They embrace an ethic that has been compared to primitive Christianity and they can even become politically active when devotion to that ethic so dictates.
The Carbonari influence in Mary Poppins is evident at several levels. First, Jane and Michael Banks, while consistently disdainful of all authority, are fiercely protective of their younger brother and sister. Unlike most children, they are rarely selfish and never show any trace of sibling rivalry. They have a deep bond of solidarity and it seems they had that bond long before Mary appeared on the scene.
Further, they are instinctively respectful and kind to those socially less fortunate than themselves. From the outset of the story, Jane and Michael seem to be natural, but uninitiated, practitioners of the Carbonari ethic. One may even speculate that this is what drew Mary Poppins to Cherry-Tree Lane in the first place.
But there is much more definitive evidence of Carbonari influence in Mary Poppins. As early as Chapter 2 (“The Day Out”), we are introduced to Bert (Dick Van Dyke in the movie), a “Match-Man”. We learn that he is Mary’s special friend, the one she spends time with on her days off. Bert sells matches (i.e. “works with carbon”) in the park. Carbon workers of all kinds (e.g. Chimney Sweeps) represent Sufism throughout the literature and practices of the epinomyous Carbonari. The prominent role of Bert in Mary’s Sufi community explicitly identifies the underlying Carbonari ideology of this work.
According to one ancient Sufi tradition, divine powers may be shared by “al-Muqaribin”. This term has variously been translated as “righteous worshipers” (Yehuda Nuvo) and as “near ones/close kindred/good cousin” (Idries Shah). Both translations are apt because in the Sufi view, right worship is synonymous with closeness to God.
One is reminded of the Great Commandment in the New Testament: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Loving God and loving neighbor are one and the same thing.
The Carbonari clearly draw from this tradition. First, their concern for effecting social justice is consistent with the notion that the right worshipper is, among other things, an agent of God’s will on earth. Second, Carbonari greet one another with the salutation, “Good Cousin”, which is “Muqaribin” in Arabic.
Finally, the core consonant sounds in Carbonari (K-R-B) are identical to the Semitic radical (Q-R-B) that forms the basis for “muqaribin”. (Consonant parallels are an ancient way of coding messages.)
Initiation into the Sufism of the Carbonari is not merely an intellectual or spiritual process; it is intended to enable the initiate to share in divine power. But it is important to understand just how this comes about. Once again, we are not talking about anything magical or even supernatural.
Consider the Christian concept of faith: “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” And what does it mean to have faith other than to see through the eyes of God, to understand reality from God’s perspective.
From the perspective we call “common sense” (naïve realism is its technical term), there are ontological walls that separate knowledge, will and power (action). But our ways are not God’s ways! For God, understanding, willing and acting are one and the same thing. God’s nature is singular; he is not divided against himself (as we often are). God is not conflicted; he does not need a shrink!
God’s nature gives new meaning to cliché, “knowledge is power”. For God, gnosis is praxis! Thomas Aquinas affirms this in his Summa Theologica: “…the act of God’s intellect is his substance…his act of understanding must be his essence and his being…The knowledge of God is the cause of things…God causes things by his intellect, since his being is his act of understanding; and hence his knowledge must be the cause of things, in so far as his will is joined to it.” (italics mine)
So to whatever extent any of us comes to participate in the mind of God, God’s way of seeing reality, God’s perspective, that person also necessarily comes to share God’s power. The two are indistinguishable.
Therefore, if as suggested in the opening sentence of this essay, Mary Poppins revealed God’s view of the reality to Michael Banks, and if Mary Poppins reveals God’s view of the reality to P.L. Travers’ readers, then it necessarily follows that Michael Banks, and potentially we readers as well, share in God’s mind, God’s will and God’s power. We are all, at least potentially, al-Muqaribin.
But what is the mind of God? What did Mary Poppins teach Michael Banks, and by extension, what does Mary Poppins teach each of us?
On her first day at 17 Cherry-Tree Lane (“East Wind”), Mary changes “a dark crimson fluid” (wine like?) variously into strawberry ice, lime-juice cordial, milk, and rum punch. From our knowledge of Christianity (Roman Catholic doctrine in particular), we recognize this as Transubstantiation: during the celebration of the Mass, bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.
Mary does the same thing on Cherry-Tree Lane. Of course, a skeptic might object that the dark crimson fluid merely appears to be various things to various people according to the tastes and desires of the ones drinking it. According to this view, there is no Transubstantiation, only a variety of experiences.
P.L. Travers clearly anticipated this objection. She knew well the hardness of the muggle’s heart… long before J.K. Rowlings first wrote the name “Harry Potter”. So she met the skeptics’ objection head-on.
Jane Banks (who tasted lime-juice cordial) entreats Mary Poppins not to give it to the twin babies in the nursery: “Oh, no – please. They’re too young. It wouldn’t be good for them. Please!” Mary ignores Jane’s well intended plea, of course, and “…tipped the spoon toward John’s mouth…and by the few drops that were spilt on his bib, Jane and Michael could tell that the substance in the spoon this time was milk.”
I wonder how many Roman Catholics receiving Holy Communion on a Sunday have as much faith in the reality of Transubstantiation as Jane and Michael did that day on Cherry-Tree Lane!
The lesson: substance is not conserved in the mind of God.
In Chapter 2 (“The Day Out”), Bert, the match-man we met earlier, is drawing two dimensional chalk pictures on a side walk. One of his panels depicts a particularly idyllic country scene. “Why don’t we go there – right now – this very day? Both together, into the picture. Eh, Mary?” And so they do!
What follows is a fabulous country day experience, complete with afternoon tea served by a waiter in a black coat and a ride on a Merry-go-Round. Mary objects to the waiter, “Oh! But I didn’t see you in the picture,” and regarding the Merry-go-Round, “I don’t remember seeing that in the picture, either.”
The waiter replies by assuring her that he was in the picture but “behind the tree” and that the Merry-go-Round was “in the background”. Apparently, a static two dimensional surface is interchangeable with a four dimensional space-time.
The lesson: dimensionality is not conserved in the mind of God.
This section deserves a special note. Throughout her book, Travers leaves clues to let us know that what Jane and Michael are experiencing is real, not an illusion, fantasy or dream. The first example of this is the drops of milk on John’s bib; later, encounters with gingerbread, paper stars and snake skin will serve the same function. “The Day Out” contains a similar, but totally unintended, clue – this time not for Jane and Michael but for us, the readers!
Long after Travers wrote Mary Poppins, mathematicians confirmed that Travers’ account of dimensionality is accurate. Information, it seems, is a two dimensional quantity; all the information contained in a three dimensional space can actually be mapped onto two dimensions. Think hologram; think black hole. A two dimensional chalk drawing can in fact encode all the information needed to constitute a three dimensional space. From the standpoint of information (waiter, merry-go-round), the third dimension is superfluous after all…though it sure made Mary and Bert’s experience more enjoyable.
Mary’s trip to the countryside with Bert was intended to give us all an idea of how God views dimensionality…but now, thanks to the wonders of modern mathematics, we all view dimensionality the very same way. In this one area at least, we are all Sufis now!
In Chapter 3 (“Laughing Gas”), Mary and the children pay a visit to her uncle, Albert Wigg. Imagine their consternation when they find Uncle Wigg, not with his feet on the floor, but rather floating in air!
Mary is not surprised. She’s seen this before. Whenever Uncle Albert laughs on his birthday he fills up with what he calls “laughing gas” and overcomes the force of gravity. Of course, Jane and Michael are astonished…but not for long. Soon something strikes them funny and they too leave their feet and join Uncle Albert “on the ceiling”.
“‘Well!’ said Mr. Wigg, looking very surprised indeed. ‘Don’t tell me it’s your birthday, too?’ Jane shook her head.” Mr. Wigg can only transcend gravity once a year. Jane and Michael are not so restricted. It seems that even by Chapter 3 Jane and Michael are farther up the Sufi hierarchy than Mary’s uncle.
But what of Mary herself? “‘Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins, do come up,’ interrupted Michael. ‘Think of something funny…’“
“‘Ah, she doesn’t need to,’ said Mr. Wigg sighing. ‘She can come up if she wants to, even without laughing – and she knows it.’“
Unlike Uncle Albert, and even Jane and Michael, Mary can control her response to gravity…and she knows it. Mary shares God’s perspective more fully, and therefore shares God’s power more deeply.
The lesson: materiality (gravity) is not conserved in the mind of God.
In Chapter 8 (“Mrs. Corry”), Mary takes the children to a gingerbread shop. They purchase “a baker’s dozen” of gingerbread slabs, each of which comes with a “gilt paper star”. As they leave the shop, Jane and Michael “turned and looked behind them”. The shop had disappeared…but not the gingerbread.
This is another example of that important teaching technique employed by Mary (and Travers). Just as in Chapter One, the drops of milk on John’s bid prove the metamorphosis is substantial and not just a matter of mere appearance or subjective experience, so now in Chapter 8 it is the gingerbread (and gilt paper stars) that prove the gingerbread shop was real and not an illusion or a dream.
But back to the story. Jane and Michael carefully put their gilt paper stars in safe places in their room. Later that night, as they pretend to sleep, they see Mary come into their room and rummage through their belongings. She leaves the house “…carrying a market basket, and in the basket was something that seemed to give out a faint, mysterious light”.
Shortly, we learn that the basket contains the children’s paper stars. Mary meets Mrs. Corry and her helpers from the shop and together they climb a pair of ladders and begin gluing these paper stars to the sky, where they “began to twinkle furiously”.
Jane and Michael get out of bed, look through their belongings, and find that their stars are indeed gone. (In this case it is the absence of the stars that proves the reality of the experience.) Mary and Mrs. Corry have affixed them to the sky where they twinkle like every other star in the night. Jane asks, “What I want to know…is this: Are the stars gold paper or is the gold paper stars?”
Jane’s question is the lesson of this chapter. She assumes that either stars are gold paper or that the gold paper is stars. Her thinking is linear. If stars and gold paper are the same, then one must be the origin of the other. She doesn’t consider the possibility that both propositions could be true simultaneously.
The same logic is at work in the Christian doctrine of Eucharist. The communicant incorporates the body and blood of Christ in the form of a wafer of bread and a sip of wine but at the same time the communicant is incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ.
Likewise Tanya, a foundational work of Hasidic Judaism, states: When you think a thought, you are greater than that thought. But when that thought is of Torah, which is rooted in God (and is God), that thought is greater than you, and you become absorbed into the thought, and in this way you and God are one.
There is another lesson encoded in this episode. An implicit common sense assumption underlies Jane’s inquiry: a “thing” must consist of an immutable substance and a function consistent with that substance. By extension, everything in the world can be analyzed into “x” and “not x”: stars and not stars, paper and not paper.
Though Jane does not realize it, her question is really a reductio ad absurdum for any such logical dualism. Her question proves that the notion of an underlying substance and a self-consistent function is nonsensical. The world is indefinitely mutable. Any thing, made of any substance, can fulfil any function. As we learn from modern day Structuralism, the totality determines the function of each of its parts and any “thing”, regardless of its claim to substance or identity, can perform any function within that totality.
The lesson: identity is not conserved in the mind of God.
Finally, several chapters involve dialog between animals and humans. In Chapter 4, (“Miss Lark’s Andrew”) Mary speaks at length with Andrew, Miss Lark’s dog, but Jane and Michael cannot understand their conversation. Later, however, in Chapter 10 (“Full Moon”), Jane and Michael converse freely with the animals.
These strange phenomena are explained in Chapter 9 (“John and Barbara’s Story”). John and Barbara are infant twins…and they are entirely conversant in the language of animals and even of nature (e.g. sunbeams and wind). P.L. Travers explains that all babies are omniglots, speaking and understanding the language of all creatures, animate and inanimate (if indeed that is even a valid distinction).
All babies are natural (uninitiated) Sufis, sharing from birth in God’s knowledge. Unfortunately, by about the age of one, almost all children forget their universal knowledge of language and now struggle to learn just a single language, their parents’. Mary is helping Jane and Michael relearn the language of creation. But Mary herself, we learn in this chapter, never lost that ability.
“There never was a human being that remembered after the age of one – at the very latest – except, of course, Her…She’s different. She’s the Great Exception.”
Here we have a case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. According to Genesis, early humans enjoyed a universal language and the very first humans apparently communicated with animals as well. (Regarding sunlight and wind, however, Genesis is silent.)
The lesson: “social” differences in the broadest possible sense (class, culture, species, even the difference between animate and inanimate objects) are not conserved in the mind of God.
There may also be a suggestion here that from God’s perspective, we still live in Eden. Perhaps it is not that Eden vanished or that we were driven out; perhaps we have always been in Eden all the time but, like Jane and Michael, we have just forgotten how to see it. C.S. Lewis suggests something similar in The Great Divorce.
Chapter 10 (“Full Moon”) is the critical turning point in the story. Jane and Michael are now able to dialog with animals (at the zoo). And at the end of this chapter, they finally come to accept without reservation that the experiences they’ve had with Mary are real, not products of a dream or a fantasy or an illusion.
While in the zoo, they are introduced to a great King Cobra, Hamadryad, “the Lord of the Jungle”. For the first time in Mary Poppins, we meet a creature who is apparently further advanced in the Sufi hierarchy than Mary. Tellingly, Hamadryad addresses Mary over and over again as “cousin”, the traditional salutation of the Carbonari (though it should be pointed out that Hamadryad is in fact Mary’s “first cousin once removed – on the mother’s side”).
For the first time in the entire story, Jane and Michael are formally instructed in Sufi doctrine…not by Mary Poppins, but rather by Hamadryad himself:
“Tonight the small are free from the great and the great protect the small…it may be that to eat and be eaten are the same thing in the end…We are all made of the same stuff…the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star – we are all one, all moving to the same end. Remember that when you no longer remember me…Bird and beast and stone and star – we are all one, all one…Child and serpent, star and stone – all one.”
Hamadryad’s speech (above) is the lesson but it functions primarily as a summing up of all the previous lessons.
Hamadryad presents Mary with one of his skins as a birthday present and he writes on it an inscription: “A Present from the Zoo”.
Next morning over breakfast, Jane and Michael tell each other about the marvelous “dream” each one had the night before. Soon they realize that they both had the same dream. Jane immediately grasps the enormous import of this discovery: “We can’t both have dreamed the same thing…Then it couldn’t have been a dream at all…It must have been true.”
But the power of common sense (naïve realism) is overwhelming and Jane ultimately walks back her profound insight and concludes, “Then it must have been a dream…after all.”
And then, the climax! Michael Banks “staring, open-mouthed, at Mary Poppins…pointed, and Jane too saw what he was looking at. Round her waist Mary Poppins was wearing a belt made of golden scaly snake-skin, and on it was written…’A Present from the Zoo’.”
There is no longer a shred of doubt in Michael’s mind that the experiences he has had with Mary have been real…no matter how much those experiences violate the cannon of “common sense”. But what about us? We are at a disadvantage. First, we are encountering Mary’s lessons second hand; we have only experienced them through the eyes of Michael Banks. And second, we know that Mary Poppins is a novel and that Mary, Michael and the rest of the gang are fictional characters, not contemporary or even historical personalities.
Faced with these limitations, we have a much steeper climb than Michael. We need to decide whether P.L. Travers’ presentation of the mind of God is convincing purely on its own merits, without the benefit of any first hand experiences. Do we believe, really believe, that substance, dimensionality, materiality, and identity (material and social) are just accidental attributes and that none of them has any fixed content in the mind of God?
If so, we may start to call oursleves “Muqaribin” (or Carbonari). To the extent that we now see reality from God’s perspective, we may also expect to share in God’s powers. But here we may be disappointed. If we began our journey of conversion with the intention of moving mountains, we will find that we’ve come up empty.
The functions of God are creation and salvation. As Muqaribin, we have become partners with God in these projects. And why would God want to move a mountain? What does that have to do with creation or salvation? As we saw above, God’s substance, essence and being are one and the same as his intellect, understanding and knowledge and all of them are one and the same as his will. God does not move mountains for the thrill of it!
Worse yet, once we begin to see reality from God’s perspective, we will find that our own appetite for “super powers” has cooled.
So we have undertaken an incredibly difficult journey. We have thrown off the shackles of common sense and adopted a Sufic ontology that radically alters our view of reality. And for what? To discover that our proper role in the world is to partner with God in the process of creation and salvation; in other words, to do good? To give others their “daily bread” (creation) and to “forgive those who trespass against us” (salvation)…things we knew to do (sort of, at least) when we were in nusery school? What a let down!
It’s the ultimate Catch 22. In order to gain the power to move mountains I have to give up the desire to move mountains. What a bummer!
But oh yeah, there is at least some small compensation for our troubles…we did after all come to know the mind of God!