The Big Book
Ronnie and I joining our fates, as you can imagine, could have led to all kinds of mayhem. Ronnie was troubled, more troubled than me. We discovered we had the same feeling of having to get somewhere, without knowing where or why. Ronnie was already searching for something better. But his definition needed a little elevation. Maybe the destiny he was feeling might be as something other than a musician who dies young to his everlasting fame, especially since he had never done anything to make himself famous.
Ronnie’s parents showed a rare optimism when they gave him money for a haircut on his birthday. Maybe they knew he would spend it on something he wanted but they didn’t wish to appear nice or approving. We promptly went to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore instead, to find something special in the used branch. We were looking for a copy of Atlantis, Mother of Empires. No such luck, so we searched for a worthwhile substitute.
Ronnie had taken me to the Bodhi Tree on our second date. I met their mascot, a big ol' ginger cat named Bear. We became friends, a tradition I kept with every Bodhi Tree cat, including Lucia, whose reign ended when the store closed and she was taken home by an employee.
In that converted West Hollywood cottage of a used bookstore, Ronnie found a 1936 edition of a tome with an extremely long title by a guy named Manly Palmer Hall: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy: Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings Concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all ages. Everybody called it The Secret Teachings of All Ages, or simply the big book. It seemed older than 1936. It looked like something from another century. Ronnie had to put it on lay--away because it cost fifty bucks.
When Ronnie paid it off and brought it home he went through a life changing adventure, a chapter a day, and he took me with him. The art and the diagrams alone brought out the artist in me dormant since childhood. Schools of thought I had never heard of before beckoned like old friends. The secret languages of plants, art, math, science, and music seemed to reveal the meaning behind all.
Each chapter introduced new heroes to my pantheon. I learned what a pantheon was, and I had one! Thrice Great Hermes, Pythagoras, Hypatia, Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, Francis Bacon, Christian Rosencreutz, and of course the ever elusive, and yet oh so popular, St. Germain: people who had lived lives according to the concepts of a more exceptional conscience. People who articulated things I had sensed, but who refused to be bound by the social constructs that cloistered my consciousness.
The subtle harmonies of nature I had experienced had been dismissed by me and by everyone around me as a simpleton's flights of fancy. Now I knew these were the perceptions of a sensitive soul, a gift to be used to better myself and to help others. There was more to life than the physical world. “I like this Manly Hall dude, when did he die?” I asked. Ronnie looked at the author’s picture. He resembled a vintage thespian. The date of the book was 1936 and that was the sixth edition. According to the manager at the Bodhi Tree Used Branch, the first five editions were more than twice as tall, and had full color plates instead of black and white.
It didn't seem like Manly Palmer Hall would still be among the living. So we were shocked when Loreen, a friend of ours, told us that he was lecturing every Sunday at a place called the Philosophical Research Society, in Los Feliz, just a short drive away. She mentioned a little something about how popular he had been with her girlfriends back in the day, when she was young, and touring America as a dancer in carnivals.
When Ronnie expressed doubt that a man like Manly Palmer Hall would engage in such behavior, Loreen laughed. Besides reminding Ronnie that men are men, she explained: “He was single. He was handsome. He’d take weekend excursions with ladies up toward Santa Barbara to some romantic hideaway.”
I was preoccupied with the revelation that the woman teaching me etiquette had been a carnival dancer scheming with her friends over how to seduce Manly Hall, so at first I didn’t notice how quiet Ronnie got. I thought he’d want to drive out there that very Sunday. But no, he didn’t mention it again. He just read his book.
My First Sunday at PRS
When confronted with the idea of facing the author of the big book, Ronnie became apprehensive and rather sheepish. For many Sundays there were excuses. I finally asked him why he was stalling. He explained that his nefarious past would be an open book to everyone he met associated with this man. I reassured him I wouldn't be with him if I thought he was really a criminal.
Driving through the dappled light of the sun peeking through clouds, we were greeted by a chain and a Parking Lot Full sign. So we found a spot down the street. We would walk many times along Los Feliz Boulevard under every kind of sky, but the first time on a beautiful Sunday morning.
Across the street, Spanish Colonial Revival houses with big lawns looked as if they may have belonged to directors of silent movies. We passed a duplex with a charming courtyard, where sparrows bathed in a fountain, and moss clung to the bricks, under a balcony of red, pink and white geraniums. The roots of old cedar trees were busy slowly breaking concrete. The weeds flowering purple and yellow in the cracked sidewalk caught my eye. Seniors walking their elderly pets eyed the PRS crowd with open skepticism. At least it made Sunday more interesting for them.
First, we heard the murmur of distant greetings. Then we saw the surprise of the almost pink Mayan--Aztec Revival buildings, with a nod to Ancient Egypt. Later, we would wonder if they were Robert Stacey Judd’s idea of the architecture of Atlantis. As we reached the top of the concrete steps we entered into the crowded courtyard. These gatherings of students of the esoteric, enjoying each other’s company, had been happening every Sunday for decades. Some were dressed up as if for Sunday Service. Others were more the mad professor types, male and female. Some looked like hermits who would not interrupt their research for anything less than a Manly Hall lecture pertaining to their specific course of study. Some were Buddhists and others Christians, many armchair philosophers, a few Sikhs, even a couple of nuns. Like students arriving for a favorite class many brought notebooks and pens.
We seemed to be the youngest people there. They were pleased to see us even though they didn’t know who we were. We were young people, and therefore proof that Mr. Hall’s wisdom translated across the generations.
Sunlight lit the carved wooden doors of the library. They were obviously based on Buddhist scrolls where colossal Buddhas sit stately above the students who revere them. On the left door a severe Confucius, on the right Plato as Zeus, but I didn’t know that yet.
I was distracted by a small, yet well--stocked gift shop filled with people. Books, spiritual accessories and symbolical jewelry in the case up front. A room devoted to the very numerous works of Manly Hall. And a strangely incongruous small shelf of what looked like revolutionary pamphlets, all of them by one Marie Bauer Hall.
A plaque outside the auditorium read, “Dedicated to the truth seekers of all time.” The portrait of young MPH in the lobby was dashing but had a touch of the Haunted Mansion about it. In this nostalgic mirage in modern Los Angeles I felt a sense of familiarity amid the strangeness of the unknown. It seemed like going to church, but this certainly wasn't my mother’s Church of Christ.
With unabashed pleasure in each other’s company everyone found their seats. I heard snippets of talk about astrology, auras, tarot, alchemy, and astral bodies. I heard for the first time phrases like the Higher Self and Akashic Records, and romantic names like Ramacharaka, Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. I hadn’t yet studied any of it, but these magical words and names were portals to worlds I knew I wanted to explore.
We found seats and surveyed the scene. Beautiful floral arrangements on stage provided a lovely setting. I noticed a dark--haired guy with a limp glancing at the crowd from the small backstage area; he had the smirk of a musician. He fiddled around with a mic set up next to a big green chair with carved wooden handles. I found out later his name was Arthur Johnson and indeed my suspicions were confirmed, he was a musician. Little did I know then that I was destined for the same despicable fate. Eventually, he would become the person most responsible for convincing me to write this book.
At 11 A.M. sharp the crowd settled down. A large white--haired man with a cane moved slowly across the stage to the big chair. He sat down, graciously greeting everyone with friendly nods and waves. Warm round of applause. And then he dives into a 90 minute lecture, note free, without a pause. Lucid all the way through. Took us all on a little excursion, with proper names, dates, publishers of books, Japanese and Chinese words, little asides about the authors, never a trip up.
Now for some reason unbeknownst to me, but probably the lingering effects of PTSD, I decided this was not Manly Hall. I thought this was a substitute. Midway through the lecture he looked directly at me and started talking about weeds that grow in the cracks of sidewalks, an apt symbol of the opportunity for the soul to evolve through even the harshest conditions. He articulated what I had just seen walking to the lecture, and what I always believed but I didn't dare express, because when I did I'd get laughed at. But no one was laughing at him. I thought, “If Manly Hall is half as good as this guy he must be amazing.”
At the end of the lecture he made a couple of announcements, and informed his audience that refreshments awaited them in the courtyard. While the others left their seats we remained in ours. I turned to Ronnie and asked: “Who was that guy?” He seemed confused by my question.
It turned out Ronnie had the same he looked right at me and said something directly to me experience. A classic case of retribution anxiety for ill behavior, Ronnie had caught Edgar Cayce earth changes fever from the same friend who had told us we could still go see Mr. Hall lecture. We were practically on our way to Virginia Beach. Loreen had already moved there. But that old man looked right at Ronnie and mentioned irrational fear of earthquakes as a sign of a guilty conscience. Plucked.
Many people would later tell us about their own uncanny moments when it seemed Mr. Hall was talking directly to them about something that deeply troubled them. When I worked with Mr. Hall, I realized there was no way he could see us in the audience. His vision was very poor by then. We were a colorful collection of blurs out there in our seats. The right words going to the right places, call it guided by a higher consciousness, or alignment with the Dao, or call it Zen; whatever you call it, he had it.