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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Accidental Ethnographer (1b)—The Isle That Is Called Patmos: A Meditation

One year ago on Round and Square (30 May 2011)—Le Tour de la France: The Attentions of Mère Etienne.
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The Accidental Ethnographer." (Coming Soon)
[a] Up... RF
I am scheduled to give a lecture on Friday at the Doylestown Historical Society, as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's big bicentennial celebration. The subject is the American explorer and evangelist William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). This is part of a larger project that I will be working on this summer in Doylestown with the help of Beloit College anthropology major Megan Nyquist '14. As I did a few weeks ago in preparation for another lecture (on another subject), I am going to spend the next few days posting some of Geil's own writings. This was enormously helpful to me the last time I tried it, and I think it is worth another try. 

[b] Substantial RF
William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.

He wrote about it all, and he took pictures. The former is not without problem; the latter is easily his legacy. It is all a fascinating picture of an American abroad in a peculiarly resonant time in American history—from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the end of World War I. This series will grow as my research does, but let's get started with Geil's own words—a little from each of his published books.
 ***  ***
William Edgar Geil was an evangelist from start-to-finish, and the "accidental ethnographer" tag should never be read, for him, in an agnostic fashion. Geil studied the world, but he was not ambivalent about faith. Geil never wavered in his commitment to the church and book that shaped his life from early on. He traveled to other locals, took notes, and wrote books. Throughout the process—and especially in his writings—he wove themes from Testaments, old and new. Instead of just asserting it (and it is clear in the 7,000 pages of his notes and dozen books), I want to show it at work in his first major book. This is the last chapter of The Isle That Was Called Patmos.

The Isle That Was Called Patmos—A Meditation
William Edgar Geil (1897)
St. Christodouos sought out Patmos and built his vast monastery that he might have a place for holy meditation. And do you hold it unwise in me if I give the brief record written the same night on that lone island in the Icarian Sea when, stealing away from friend and entertainers, I sought out at 9 P.M. the highest point on the monastery of St. John? "He whom Jesus loved" had often enjoyed a moonlight night on that brown isle. And this is what I wrote on that fair and long-to-be-remembered night.

[c] Mayhap RF
There is time for meditation. There is at my right the merry laughter of children, probably having a last romp on a housetop ere to bed. To my left is the barking of dogs; some belated traveler has stirred them up and mayhap is sorry. They bark at little provocation, I have discovered.

The moon is in its first quarter, but large and bright. Ah! now all is still. The happy children are perchance tucked in their beds and fast asleep. The dogs have ceased to bark. The five windmills, which rather wildly swing their white-sail arms all day, are quiet now. On the round, stone-paved threshing-floor the flail has ceased to fall; the weary worker dreams of rest. The potteries do not smoke, and on the shore the salt works are deserted. Toward the east all is dark, save two islands shining by reflected light. Farther east by north is the circle of the sites of the seven churches of Asia, and farther north is Armenia with its terrible tales of the misrule of the Turk. Dark is the east, and even in the sky above the horizon for a long way there is not star whose light is not lost in gloom. It reminds me of a view on a moonless night from the pyramids in the land of the Nile, when the sands of Sahara are deepening the gloom off the Red Sea.

How different toward the west! The moonlight on the Ægean makes a lane of light; the rippling waters give the path a likeness to the highway of some visitant from heaven. Paved with its silver sheen it reaches from the Patmos shore away over the sea to where the heavens join the waters, and leads the imagination onward to the streets of gold that seem to lie beyond. Off toward the west, too, along this track of silver, lies my native land, hope of the nations, hope of the world. The light is in the west.

[d] Harbor RF
I look again, gathering the while my extra coat about me; for although July is only half gone, a stiff, cool breeze comes off the waters and up the mountain side. Northwest I behold a flash of light, and then again all is gloom; again a light, and again darkness. Yes; far-off over there the flash of warning comes across the rolling billows, telling the sailor of the half-submerged reef or the dread rocky headland, bidding him beware of the place where the wild waves dash up against the mighty rocks only to be flung off, and falling back in mad, foaming fury, to hurry once again to the attack. That same light at the same time may fling along the waters the news of a safe harbor, and near by a cottage on the shore, where a bright fire and beaming faces, food and sweetest kisses, await the father coming home from the sea.

The Holy Bible has the warning, telling a fearful tale of those who have not heeded its red flash and dashed themselves against the rocks. It tells out the warning, so that all who sail life's seas may know what awaits them if the helm be not quickly put hard aport and their craft headed for the open sea.

But like the light on yonder foam-girded rock, this same Bible tells of home and happiness to heaven. He who was the last to see Jesus face to face, this John of Patmos, the youngest and oldest of the apostles, has told us of a city and of gold. Sacred spot this island is, for it was here the sacred volume was completed. The words which Jesus spake on Calvary, "It is finished," referring to the works of redemption, were perchance spoken in heaven concerning the Scripture when the exiled apostle wrote, "Amen!" Alone on the white roof of the ancient building I knelt to pray.

"Jesus taketh with him Peter and James and John."
[e] John RF
Three times "in the volume of the book it is written" that the Master took Peter, James, and John with him. Each reference save one names John, the last of the apostles, last. 

The First Time. We find these three with Jesus in the house of the "little daughter." He initiates them into the circle of his close companionship by having them present at his first resurrection service. Blessed privilege, that of seeing the beautiful twelve-year old maiden, at the Prince's bidding, return to gladden the hearts of her mourning, loving parents. Tremendous miracle! Great power-displaying scene! Christ's word is now know to have authority in other worlds and spirit lands! 

The Second Time. The mountain of prayer becomes the mountain of glory. This height is usually named the mount of Transfiguration. Here the "three" of earth see "three" of heaven. The Law was there, the Prophet was there, the Fulfillment of both was there, the Christ! Again the evidence is at hand that he has an operative authority, and communication with other spheres and other times than those in which he then was. 

The Third Time. The three are in the garden of the Olive Press. This middle garden; this one lying between the garden of Eden and the garden of Joseph of Arimathea; this one lying midway between the garden of Paradise and the garden of the Blessed, has a glory all its own. In all the gardens of the past Satan had admission. The battle which began in the first garden finally ended in the last, and Christ was victorious. Ah! now we are in the sacred precincts of the last twenty-four hours of his life, on the hither side of the seal of the Caesars. At the beginning, the "threes" were prominent, and also at the close. At the baptismal service in the Jordan the Trinity was present; then came the three temptations; three scriptures were used by Satan; three were quoted by our lord.[2]
[f] ...Down RF
William Edgar Geil, The Isle That Is Called Patmos (Philadelphia: A.J. Rowland, 1897),185-188

Geil, William Edgar. The Isle That Is Called Patmos. Philadelphia: A.J. Rowland, 1897.

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