Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Theosophical Society and Library

More Books about Religions and the World

Wherever we find someone with a passion, a belief, or just a simple curiosity in the world, we are most likely to find some books not too far behind. As it is in the human condition to seek and wonder and question, so too one could say that it is in the human condition to write and preserve the ruminations of these searches, wonderings, and questions in textual format. And so, once again we find ourselves among the disciplined ranks of fellow thinkers, philosophers, writers, and practitioners of the spiritually curious. The discovery of the Theosophical Society headquarters in Wheaton, IL came as both a pleasant surprise and somewhat of a shock to me, when a colleague mentioned it not too long ago. I'd likely guess that many of you readers might be puzzled about the location of the Theosophical Society in Wheaton too, and that perhaps comes from my similar association of Wheaton township with the college. Though, as we have found in recent postings and discussions of the college, its libraries, archives, and museums, Wheaton is more complex than perhaps many of us non-Wheatonians expect.

I was at a lecture-panel of Lutheran ministers and bishops this past week, which took place at my workplace--the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago--where one of the panelists conveyed her dismay about being assigned to a church in Wheaton. But that experience transformed her significantly. Similarly, we may find that our expectations of media-driven perceptions become very different realities when we actually see for ourselves what is out there. And Wheaton has been quite a different experience now that I've visited this bustling town west of Chicago. This has been particularly true with my discovery of the Theosophical Society, located not too far from the Wheaton College campus. (The first two images here and above are from the library of the Theosophical Society.) Admittedly, I've never encountered anyone who was part of the Theosophical Society, though I've read things about theosophy over the years. In Philadelphia a few years ago, I remember walking down a street and coming across a distinguished-looking old building with a finely printed antique sign, which read "The Theosophical Society of Philadelphia." That had been the first time I'd ever seen a society "branch" or what may be more accurately called a "lodge" or "study center," according to the society itself.

Theosophy itself was founded (or perhaps created) as a religio-philosophical school in 1875 with the establishing of the Theosophical Society in New York City. The principal founders were Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and Col. Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), both of whom may be seen in photographs hanging on the walls of the Theosophical Society in Wheaton (see farther below). Blavatsky and Olcott traveled to India 1878-9, and later Sri Lanka, where Olcott has become a cultural icon; some Buddhists even consider him a reincarnation of the Buddha himself. The Theosophical Society's official website speaks more about this complex of early history, its founders, and its beliefs and mission. The following link will connect you to the Theosophical Society website and other sources related to the society:

The basic mission statement of the Theosophical Society, as stated on their website, reads:

The Theosophical Society in America:
  • ...has a vision of wholeness that inspires a fellowship united in study, meditation, and service.
  • ...encourages open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.
  • ...holds that our every action, feeling, and thought affects all other beings and that each of us is capable of and responsible for contributing to the benefit of the whole.
When I first entered the building of the Theosophical Society in Wheaton, I was greeted by a delightful older gentleman, who told me that he was retired, but spent part of his time tending the desk of the society and helping out. He had a warm spirit and kindness about him, and he spoke softly as he explained a little bit of the history and beliefs of the society, as well as what sort of events were taking place. It is, as I came to discover, a place that promotes human well-being and the spiritual-religious curiosity of achieving that well-being.

Above is the 19th century looking library--very ornate, yet very warm and living-room like.

Here we find the images of the founders and early practitioners of Theosophy; most dramatic is the famous portrait of Madame Blavatsky (center), with her intensely focused eyes looking out into and through the soul of those who cast their own gaze onto her century old portrait.
The main hallway of the society headquarters had several historical artifacts and displays along its walls, as well as little shelving units offering information about the society and workshops about meditation and the worlds beyond. The image below is an example of one of the display cases, which contains materials about the history of religious diversity in the late 19th and early 20th century, specifically in the Chicagoland region. One of the attractions to this area for many has been the historical association with the first Parliament of World Religions, which coincided with the 1893 Columbia Exhibition. This connection with religious diversity and multiplicity has fostered both interest and development by various religious groups in the United States.

Above is the entryway and sitting area of the Theosophical Society. Below is an embossed carving in the facade above the entrance of the society. The symbol shows the multiple layers of religious interaction found within the searchings of theosophical philosophy.

Above is the building itself, and below is the Quest Bookshop, which is the bookstore serving the Theosophical Society. It is located on the same property, just a few hundred yards away from the main building and library. The following images were taken inside the bookstore and include a shot of some of Madame Blavatsky's collected works.

Now, most of the time when you drive down the road and you see this sign of a person reading, it is a sign for a public library. This was the first time I'd seen a specialized library sign that I can recall. I was glad that I had the opportunity to slip into this magnificently unique library and center. The people were very friendly and helpful, and I was able to speak to a librarian, even though I had but a few minutes to stay in the library itself, since they were closing up for their lunch break. I was told that the society's archives were in the basement and for the most part either locked or not open to the public. But I was happy to discover one more aspect of Chicago area history and library resources, one which I'd been unaware of before my visit. I was also quite delighted that I'd had this opportunity to visit Wheaton in such fullness: not just visiting the college, but the libraries, the archives, the museum, and now the Theosophical Society. And of course, it was the people who made it all worthwhile and extraordinary. It also makes one more cognizant that people of very different beliefs, religions, backgrounds, and world views can live, work, and co-exist quite finely in the same spot on this great earth.

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