The Unlikely Occultist
What is it about a death that leaves those remaining at the mercy of time? A single moment, the release of a life, sending ripples through the universe. She hadn't contrived her visit to coincide with the first anniversary of her aunt's passing. Even if she had wanted to, with all of the organising involved—the scheduling of holiday leave, the booking of flights, the itinerary arranged to accommodate the wishes of her companion—such a feat of temporal intersection would have been impossible to pull off. Although another part of her couldn't resist wondering if some entity hadn't orchestrated the entire trip to serve some hidden agenda of its own. It was the part of her that felt connected to her great grandmother, Katharine, who had died the day she was born.
That it was exactly a year since her aunt Hilary had passed away had only occurred to her as she had entered the building with the others and one of her tour party announced the date to settle some discrepancy of her own. The twenty-fourth, the woman said. And it was June.
They were visiting the United Nations in New York, and she was at last arriving at the key destination of her holiday. She might have come alone. She wished she had. The tour was for Suzanne's benefit.
Heather stood aside a few paces on and let the others file by. Faces rose to the grandeur, the grey concrete of the exterior of the building giving way to sweeping curves and a fluted ceiling high above. Turning, she beheld tall panels of glass evenly spaced between concrete columns newly painted in yellow ochre, dusky pink and black. A colour scheme reminiscent of Art Deco. The windows allowed in an abundance of natural light. To her left, a flight of stairs led to the upper levels. It was all as splendid as she had anticipated, the building exuding an aura of serious, enlightened humanity. At least, that's how it felt to her.
Her awe was shattered by a commotion nearby as one of her tour party raised his fist and yelled, 'Down with the globalist agenda!' over and again. Heads turned. People shuffled off, shaking their heads. Some ran, scared. The man, large, bearded and middle-aged, made full use of the space around him to pace and rant. 'Don't get sucked in by the power elite! It's a cabal!'
'Oh, shut up,' someone said to his back.
The man swung around and yelled in his face, 'Wake up!' He stabbed the air at others. 'You, you and you. Wake up! The United Nations is a conspiracy. Who funded this place? Rockefeller and the Rothschilds! You,' he said, his wild stare landing on Suzanne. 'You need to wake up.'
'I'm fully awake, thank you.'
Heather cringed inwardly, hoping he wouldn't use her reply to home in on her.
Security descended before he could utter another word, knocking him to the floor and pinning him down and shooing away the onlookers. People muttered and rolled their eyes.
'What a nut job.'
'Yeah, but he has a point.'
'What was that about?'
He was whisked away and the atmosphere soon settled. The rest of the tour party gathered around the guide. Heather hovered behind some stragglers. Suzanne, an inch or two taller than the rest, was huddled in with the pack. Heather caught her gaze.
'I'll be over there,' she mouthed, pointing.
Suzanne glanced in that direction then edged through the pack to say in Heather's ear, 'I thought you were joining the tour.'
'It's the meditation room that interests me. That's all.'
'It's part of the tour.'
'I'm well aware of that.'
Suzanne eyed her appraisingly. 'This has something to do with that woman, doesn't it?'
'That woman, as you call her, is Alice Bailey, and yes, yes it does.'
'You've developed an obsession, Heather, if you don't mind me saying.'
Heather did mind. She was not a nut job. She was also well aware that Alice Bailey sat at the helm of the United Nations version of the New World Order conspiracy theory that man had been ranting about. Were they right to put her there? Of course not. But they were not wrong to put her at the helm of the United Nations.
The meditation room represented to Heather the culmination of a mission, a silent memorial of a spiritual activist, a woman who had dedicated her life to righting the wrongs of power, only to be shafted and duly shunted into the margins of history. If Suzanne wanted to label her appreciation 'obsession' then so be it. She left Suzanne and the tour and headed off, divesting her mind of her chagrin with every footfall.
The meditation room was situated past the security desks on the Eastern side of the lobby, discretely positioned to the left of The Peace Window. It was this mural of glass that drew the eye, an impressive artwork Marc Chagall had gifted the UN in memory of Dag Hammarskjöld. Heather didn't need to be told any of this by a tour guide. She knew more than she would ever have imagined possible about the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, given her complete lack of interest prior to last year. In the past few months she had come to admire Dag Hammarskjöld, not for his outward achievements, although they were remarkable by any measure, but for his spirituality, his dedication to the study of medieval mystics Meister Eckhart and Jan van Ruysbroeck, and, Heather strongly suspected, his affiliation with, or at least his sympathy for the mysterious occultist, Alice A. Bailey.
It was Donald Keys, a speechwriter for Hammarskjöld's successor, U Thant, who had alerted Heather to the Bailey connection. By then she was eight months into dealing with the curious assortment of books, magazines, journals and notes associated with the unpublished manuscript of Professor Samantha Foyle, bequeathed to the State Library of Victoria upon her death. Chair of Religious Studies at a Melbourne university, Professor Foyle specialised in alternative spiritualities and the subject of her latest research was Alice Bailey.
Back at her desk in the manuscript office in the upper reaches of the library, in the thick of unravelling the life of the occult figure, Heather had stumbled on New Age activist, Keys' speech – written in the 1970s and later posted online – in which he referred to Bailey's prediction that a leading Swedish disciple would soon be working in the world. Bailey had made her prediction in the 1930s, long before the birth of the UN. In his speech, Keys identified this individual as Dag Hammarskjöld.
Keys was one of the few notable figures who openly admitted to being part of Alice Bailey's coterie. He was almost brazen about it, given the secrecy of most. He even dedicated his book, Earth At Omega: Passage to Planetization, to Alice Bailey. When Heather made the discovery, she had succumbed to a frisson of satisfaction. It wasn't easy uncovering the identities of the occultist's notable followers and sympathizers. Unlike the glamourous mystique the charlatans enjoyed, Alice Bailey was the anathema of flamboyance. In true esoteric spirit, she had preferred obscurity, working behind the scenes to achieve her goals.
Which was more or less how Heather had found herself when working on Professor Foyle's collection, the secretive, almost furtive manner in which she had sifted through the contents of all those boxes cluttering her office, reinforced by her colleague Suzanne's dismissive attitude whenever she poked her head in and scanned about, taking in the chaos that was Heather's desk, and Heather's look of startled surprise as she peered at her colleague through her reading glasses.
The foyer felt like a zoo. She had to ease past a throng of tourists who were exiting the Meditation Room and making their way elsewhere, their voices rising behind her. She still wasn't sure what to make of Key's claim, although it wouldn't have surprised her were it true, and it had added a measure of conviction to her decision to come and see for herself. What she did know was Dag Hammarskjöld had been single-minded in wanting to see the Meditation Room re-designed. He was adamant that the UN needed a place of stillness and silence that would resonate with the whole of humanity. He managed to gain the cooperation of The Laymen's Movement, who were behind the creation of the original room, and had fought a hard battle for its existence. The Laymen were a Christian organisation and they must have been bemused if not outraged by the new and distinctly non-Christian proposal. Heather had no idea how Hammarskjöld had persuaded them, but by the sound of things he would not be deterred. He set up a sort of petition, garnering the support of numerous Christians, Muslims and Jews, his “Friends of the UN Meditation Room”. Bolstered, he forged ahead, and once the project was approved he oversaw every detail of the renovation, in there with the painters as they coated the walls. Why such zeal, such imperiousness? Was it his own ego spurring him on, or a higher spiritual purpose as he himself would have it?
Finding herself alone, she stood before Chagall's Peace Window, taking in the complexity of the artist's vision, his tribute to the United Nations. The work was laden with religious symbolism from the Old and New Testaments, with its tree of knowledge cleaved in two, serpents rising up in the centre, an angel kissing a girl amid a dance of flowers, all rendered in the richest of hues, predominantly blue. The mural was enormous, taking up the height and breadth of an entire wall, there to invite love and harmony and denote the suffering of life without them. She was impressed by the sense of weight of the glass and imagined the effort and care taken during installation. For Heather, the piece was made all the more significant knowing Chagall was a Hassidic Jew.
She took a step back and expanded her vision to encompass the whole, blurring the details, inhaling as though to breathe in the beauty, to embody it, consume it as it consumed her. Then she blinked, the presence of others gathering behind her oppressive. People were murmuring to each other, sharing what they discovered in the mural. Wanting silence, needing stillness, she entered the meditation room.
Semi-darkness greeted her at the door. The room was small and v-shaped, long walls of off-white culminating at the apex where another artwork hung, a fresco backlit by diffused lighting. More lighting had been threaded along the walls in the place of cornice. The fresco drew the eyes. Centred lengthwise on the tiled floor before it, some four feet in height, was a rectangular block of magnetite, the altar. Heather scanned the small benches lined up in rows on a carpet of deep green for the transient congregation. All were empty. She chose one at the front nearest the wall. Despite the lack of a backrest, she found the bench comfortable enough with its rattan seat.
Hammarskjöld had invited his friend, Bo Beskow, to create the fresco. It was an abstract work, interlocking rectangles forming triangles in muted hues of yellow, blue, grey and brown. She noticed other elements, an arc of moon, and a circle, half black, half white. She thought it might be the sun. A blue rectangle, aligned to the horizontal and centred in the work, receded beneath her gaze. Taking up the foreground was a long and twisted thread that stretched down through the middle at a slight angle.
She let her gaze wander, enjoying the silence of the room. Behind her, those entering remaining for the briefest time.
Her attention drifted to the altar. She hadn't anticipated the enormity of the stone, its weight. For Hammarskjöld, the altar reflected timelessness and strength. She thought few, if any, would understand its significance beyond the magnetic properties of iron ore. If what Heather saw could be described 'significant,' and not just an association made by her receptive mind.
For the altar's placement at the head of the V had jolted Heather's memory and suddenly Beskow's fresco became a depiction of a mountain range, and she was no longer in the meditation room of the United Nations' building in New York. Instead, she found herself seated in a valley somewhere high in the Himalayas, re-imagining a vision Alice Bailey had on two occasions when she was about fifteen years of age, a vision she described in full in her unfinished autobiography.
She was participating in a ceremony in a large, oval valley. The month was May and the moon full. She formed part of a crowd. She sensed that her position in the crowd indicated her spiritual status. There were high mountains all around and the terrain was rocky. She found she was facing east, where the valley narrowed to a bottleneck. Before the bottleneck stood an immense rock…
The similarities were striking. Heather half expected the Buddha to appear from behind the fresco and greet the Christ standing before the altar, the heads of a spiritual hierarchy of ascended masters central to Alice Bailey's occult scheme.
In her autobiography, Alice Bailey recalled her vision vividly in every detail. For her, the ceremony represented the unity of all things. Although at the time of its occurrence, she hadn't known what to make of it. All she knew at the age of fifteen was she had had a strange vision that only became significant for her when it re-occurred, as it would have any impressionable child. It would be another twenty years before she found a satisfactory explanation of what she had seen, one that would form the essence of her esoteric worldview. She imbued the vision with meaning retrospectively, deciding it represented the inner spiritual realm that had become her life.
Was it possible the stone, the fresco, the entire shape of the meditation room had been designed to echo, not only Hammarskjöld's but Alice Bailey's vision, orchestrated by him as some sort of secret homage? Or were the room and the dream similar because they both pointed at the same higher truth, one shared by numerous others? If Hammarskjöld had contrived the meditation room in accordance with Alice Bailey's vision, what did that say about a woman no one in mainstream contemporary society had heard of?
Or was she reading too much into the similarity, adding twos and arriving at fives? Ever since those boxes of esoteric paraphernalia had landed on her desk, she had found herself open to seeing correspondences between this and that, connections one part of her latched onto, even as her rational self rejected them as contrivances.
Things just happened.
A speck of black fluff on the thigh of her beige capris caught her eye. She pinched the fluff between her fingers, hesitated, then deposited it in her pocket. Then she took a few photos with her phone and jotted down some notes.
She was small-framed and preferred her clothes close fitting and plain. She thought the style went with her straight brown hair which she always kept short. She had the sort of face that was neither pretty nor plain, with a pert mouth and a chipmunk inquisitiveness about the eyes. Others might have labelled her nondescript, a mouse of a woman devoid of charm, but even a mouse deserves scrutiny and appreciation. An introvert, she had a tendency to draw the world into herself, a quality that befuddled and infuriated Suzanne.
A tour group wandered into the room. Many stood or sat down quietly, save for the two circling the altar stone. Irritation stirred in Heather's belly. Whatever gave that pair the idea that running their hands along its top and remarking to each other that the stone was cold and hard constituted acceptable behaviour? Besides, what did they expect? Fairy floss? The man's heels clomped on the tiled floor. The woman, garbed in a faux leather jacket, squeaked when she walked. There was no one to tell them to move away. She wondered if the room should even have been a tourist site. There were places, like churches or synagogues or mosques, places that ought to be sacrosanct, the sightseeing restricted.