“A Pilgrim of the Way”: Norman Astley

When Quest of the Spirit was published in 1913, Norman Astley and Genevieve Stebbins had reached the midpoint of their forty-year marriage and of their ten year stay in England which ended in 1917 with a return to the US and Genevieve’s home state of California. Most of the text is similar in style to the earlier works of Stebbins, but several passages stand out as seeming to be in the personal voice of the “Pilgrim of the Way” to whom she attributes authorship.  Internal evidence in the book leaves no alternative to her husband as the Pilgrim; my own historical research leaves no doubt that he had previously written under the pseudonyms Zanoni and Thomas H. Burgoyne. Neil Cantwell’s forensic handwriting analysis underscores this as a certainty. But the only literary evidence we have of the evolution of Astley’s ideas post-Burgoyne and post-Zanoni is in his wife’s book. The Editorial Note, Preface, and both Appendices are the most evidential about the Pilgrim and are reproduced below along with several relevant excerpts from the intervening chapters.–KPJ


The manuscript, of which this booklet is an epitome, was placed in my hands to prepare for the press, by one whose friendship I have enjoyed for many years. What is here presented is less than a fourth part of the whole, but omits nothing that is vital to an understanding of the Author’s comprehensive philosophy of life and action. Much that has been omitted would to-day be superfluous, as the contentions and teachings on the subjects discussed have already become demonstrated facts in science, or are accepted as probable by eminent philosophical thinkers. Throughout, the style of the Author has been strictly preserved, and, as the conclusions reached are also the deepest convictions of my soul, in editing the work, I feel that it is the expression of my own thought and aspiration, though voiced by another “pilgrim of the way.” GENEVIEVE STEBBINS.


The basic ideas in the writer’s mind, and the key therefore to the whole trend of his thought, may be briefly summarised thus : I. That all sound speculation of a true philosophy of life must be based upon the metaphysic of experience; and this must include all experience, psychical as well as physical. 2. That this metaphysic is identical with that view of the world and its activities which is expressed in the mind of the educated layman as common sense ; but, as such, is always to be distinguished from those ideas of the uneducated mind which may arise from common ignorance. 3. That common sense, being the synthesis of all past experience, and the dominating attitude of mind by which the sanity of the world is preserved, is, in any final estimate, the only legitimate standard by which to evaluate those speculative ideas which rise beyond the foundation of facts. 4. That abstractions, not being substantial things, must not be accepted or mistaken for reality: must not take the place of facts in laying a foundation of thought. Abstraction piled upon Abstraction forever remains Abstraction. No matter how elaborate, fascinating, and logical the structure, it is only a castle in the air, an unsubstantial bubble of the brain. The pathway to reality does not lie through its portals. 5. That contradiction and strife are inherent in, and, therefore, a part of existence; which itself is the manifestation of opposing movements. The shadows of life are proportionate to the light. 6. That the tragedy and reality of good and evil in the world being a fact of universal experience, its explanation can only be found in the assumption that the ground of existence is alogical-neither moral nor immoral but nonmoral. That the evolutionary movement of life moves on without design-flowing along the lines of least resistance. The ends attained under apparently identical conditions are always different, and never foreseen where life is the factor. 7. Thus grounded in experience, legitimate speculation will be based on truth; and the verification of this truth will be the reality we seek, for REALITY IS THE VERIFICATION OF EXPERIENCE. There is no reality in the universe which cannot appear.

So much for the writer’s part! For the reader, we hope he may escape the illusions of all metaphysical fog, and in voyaging into the unknown, ever keep a good breadth of clear cold water, and the healthy glint of the deep blue sea be· tween himself and the God-forsaken wilderness of “Devil’s Island.” Alchemy of Thought, L. P. Jacks.


Thus viewed, the devoted collector may feel that his life-efforts have not been in vain. Nay! he may even think that his reward has been great. This state of mind, however, comes only when the entire field of labour is surveyed as a whole. When we come to look over these possessions separately, our pride begings to diminish. When we begin to examine them under the intellectual microscope critically, we feel humiliated and reduced to our just proportions. When so examined, not one single treasure of thought is seen to be perfect; not one single stone of fact without some tiny flaw, unnoticeable to any but the expert. Deep down in the heart of our most precious gem, there lurks some unknown substance. That erstwhile perfect jewel, “The pearl of great price,” is perfect only in comparison with some greater imperfection. Why is this always the case with human effort– How is it that we are forever brought to a pause with the “Ever not quite”? (p19)

A careful survey of ancient philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to the Summa of St. Thomas of Aquinas, and, (together with the more important recent writers), the modern school from Berkeley to Hegel, convinces us beyond the peradventure of a doubt that a true philosophy of life is the work of the future, in which the great philosophical systems of the past will form but a very subordinate part of the stmcture. We are convinced that the chief foundation-stones will be discovered in the works of Eucken, Bergson, and James.(p32)

Warned therefore by the failures of the past, we shall attempt the building of no system of thought. Admonished by the vagaries of intellectual speculation, when based upon the nonexistent, we shall ever rest upon the foundations of experience. Chastened in mind by the fantastic creations of an unbridled imagination, we shall conjure up no enchanted image of a final solution; but, keeping in view the finiteness of the self, and the infinity of the world, unbiased, enter upon the quest. With a humble and a contrite heart, we begin the journey as pilgrims of “The Way.”(p40)

The survival of the human personality beyond the grave now craves our serious attention. To the writer the question: ” Is it possible for the individual consciousness of the soul, to continue in a super-physical state of being after death” can no longer arise. It was answered in the affirmative many years ago; under circumstances which rendered self-deception, telepathy or fraud upon the part of others utterly impossible. Here we must be personal. This experience came at a time when thoughts and work lay in a wholly different direction: when spirit communion, if it occupied a place in the mind at all, was certainly in the back-most of the back seats of the brain ; for the ” I ” was entirely unconscious of entertaining such ideas. A brief statement of all the necessary facts of the experience will be found in Appendix I ” A case of Spirit Identity.” It is only necessary here to point out, that coming without prejudice, as it did, with no self-seeking wish to father the issue, there was no self-deception. There was no tricky form of mediumship; no dubious clairvoyance describing symbolic images that might have any meaning and be construed to any end. On the contrary a genuine vision was perceived by a normal person in good health. A clearly defined personality appeared almost as objective as any other of the surroundings. I distinctly heard the voice speaking, (or I imagined I did) giving names, dates, and other important items, not necessary to recount here. And the result is a complete verification of every detail. In view of proposition ” 7 ” that Reality is the verification of experience. I accept this and affirm as sincerely as I can affirm any experience in my life that the communication received was a reality ; that the soul of a departed person did appear-hence survived death. What is possible in one instance is possible in others. Since that time scores of instances of identity have crossed the path of my research, but none that stands out so clearly as this. This is the one unique gem in a vast collection. But it has one tiny flaw. It is not perfect when studied from an orthodox religious point-of-view. For purposes unknown to us, some other order of spiritual intelligence may have impersonated the mother. But the absence of any conceivable reason for deception, and the fact that the message was fraught with momentous consequences and formed the turning-point in a career, compels me to reject any idea of deception. The consequences, at any rate, have been nothing but beneficial to those concerned. The possibility of the survival of the human personality beyond the grave, then, is assumed in the chapters which follow; and this tremendous fact makes all the difference in the world to the philosophical attitude of a thinker’s mind. A philosophy of life which neglects to take account of the super-normal facts of psychical research, together with the facts of religious experience, fails most lamentably to justify its name. Ere the close of the present century it will become as obsolete as medieval scholasticism.(pp61-62)

By an effort of the imagination it will not be difficult to bring before the mind’s eye an individual form composed of a finer substance than, so-called, earthly material-a substance that is self-luminous. Imagine an individual personality -a friend. Substituting a phosphorescent-like softness of light for his every outline, including dress, etc., yet, nevertheless, retaining all his distinguishing features as clearly as in life, you will have a very true picture of the reality as it appears to the clairvoyant eye under certain conditions. When the clairvoyant sensation establishes a perfect rapport, this luminous figure becomes almost as objective as any ordinary being; and in so doing loses most of its luminosity. Imagine, again, the same figure merely as outlined in a grey, or misty substance, and you have another lower, but more common form of this super-normal sight. The whole explanation of this is that the external form builds up within itself an interior, more sublimated, form of psycho-plasm. The clothing, being radio-active, like everything else, has its duplicate in a shapeless radiation around it; but when worn by an individual, the shape of the garment is outlined by the radiation from the human body.(pp 84-85)

Just as the plants absorb nutriment from the air, so the super-physical organism absorbs its nourishment from its surroundings-i.e. the psychical environment. The writer has devoted many years to arrive at these facts, and they have been verified by other seekers in all parts of the world. There can be no serious doubt as to their reality in the minds of those who have thoroughly investigated the subject, and who alone are competent to decide. (pp 86-87)


Only a brief outline of the main and necessary facts are here given to show that a theory of self deception, hallucination, telepathy, or fraud upon the part of others will not explain the facts of the case; each of these being rendered impossible by the peculiar cross-circumstances of the two sides of the case. One night, after a day’s hard study, I was trying to go to sleep, but found sleep impossible, when suddenly, the distinct form of a woman appeared before me. She stood between my bed and the window, and I remember that I could dimly see through the figure. I was not at all afraid. The apparition spoke in a faint but distinct voice, gave me her name, date of her death; together with the name and address of an unknown stranger whom she stated to be her son. Here she related a certain circumstance in her life; then asked me to write to her son and convey this information; adding, that for reasons, which I would know later, it was important for us to know each other. Acting on the spur of the moment I got out of bed and made a note of the facts, promising to write to the son. Not until I had completed the memoranda did the figure speak again. Turning half round, it said “Thank you, my friend,” then the vision disappeared. Now, if I was really asleep before, I was certainly very wide awake when the figure vanished. To say that I regarded the whole thing as a hallucination is scarcely true. I tried to persuade myself that it was a. dream-but there was the writing with the names, etc. I had heard of strange tricks performed by somnambulists, and finally, felt that that must be the explanation. I put the thing out of my mind. The idea. of writing what I considered nonsense to a fictitious stranger appeared to be the height of absurdity. Nearly two years passed by, and the entire circumstance was completely forgotten, when again I had a dream-this time a real one. Upon retiring, I had fallen asleep a.t once. The same woman again appeared in my dream. This time there was no communication whatever-nothing but a. look of profound sorrow. A feeling of remorse came over me. I remembered my former promise; but somehow I felt myself incapable of asking questions. I awoke feeling heartily ashamed of myself. Again, of course, consoling myself with the thought that it was only a. dream. Nevertheless, I could not, do what I would, rid myself of the haunting look of that sorrowful face. I determined to write to the address given to me previously. I did, and quite contrary to my expectation received an answer in due course. Now for the first time I was really astounded. A thorough investigation followed. Every detail of the first vision was confirmed. But a. still greater wonder was to follow. I found that it was no trivial affair but one of the last importance to me, which became, and still is, a dominating influence in my life. Now for the other side of the story which to me, in view of my own experience, appeared the most remarkable : ·· About the same time that the first vision appeared to me, a gentleman residing nearly two thousand miles from where I was staying, received a communication through the mediumship of a woman-friend of unusual psychic gifts. Only her immediate friends were aware of her abnormal power. This communication, purporting to come from his mother, who had been dead many years, stated that before many days he would receive a letter from a stranger who would ask certain questions and state certain things that would convince him of her identity. It is important here to say that he was very sceptical in spiritual matters. Weeks passed away. No letter was received. So he merely looked upon it as one of the ” misses ” of mediumship. About a year and a half afterwards another communication was received through the same source, saying : “Be patient; wait; I shall succeed.” However, he paid no attention to this. After five or six months’ further delay, the unlooked-for letter arrived. I need not add that it was mine. The promise of two years before was fulfilled. The explanations on both sides being compared left no room for doubt in any sensible mind. Only the most confirmed sceptic, who would refuse any testimony against his prejudice, could remain unconvinced.


N.B.-The following paragraphs have been culled from many lengthy notes and ” communications ” received through what has been called ” automatic writing.” They are here given for what they may be worth as suggestions to other “investigators.” The Aura. The Aura of a person is a purely psychical form of atmosphere seen or felt only by sensitive temperaments. It surrounds all forms from mineral to man. Much that we call instinct in animals is nothing but a sensing of the feelings, passing as currents in the mental strata. of their race. Many times, wild animals have been observed to become suddenly suspicious, nervous, alarmed, when such warnings as scent, sound, or wind were out of the question. Transmitted by some subtle invisible current, a. sense of danger was awakened, their sphere of consciousness received the race alarm which aroused the inherited racial instinct, or memory. Man, to a greater extent than he is aware of, is influenced by this sensitive atmosphere. To the eye of a seer, it is varied in extent and changeable in colour. The planet, apart from the atmosphere of gas, has also a mental envelope, a. psychical atmosphere within the gaseous, and this must not be mistaken for the universal ether of space. Finally, the solar system has its own peculiar, psychical aura, so that planetary intercommunication is at least among the possibilities of the future. Man may be likened unto a musical instrument in his psychical constitution, and the sensitiveness of his auric sphere. He may range, according to race, from the conch, and wooden tom-tom of the savage, to the most exquisite cremona-violin, while the consciousness within the auric sphere rises from the Tasmanian Black to a Buddha, or a Jesus of Nazareth. There is, therefore, a wonderful difference in kind in the transmission and reception of thought-waves, which like light-waves in the ether, travel in their own medium. These thought-waves, producing sensation in the auric-sphere, have to be transmuted into conscious ideas; and an idea entirely foreign to our consciousness will pass without recognition, or at best, be wholly mistranslated. One human instrument will only respond to another in harmony, or sympathy with it, and in whatever sense this sympathy, or harmony is, will be the terms in which the idea will be expressed. To revert to our analogy, every human-being is in accord with some tone, or semi-tone of a musical scale. Minds corresponding to B flat will receive no message from G sharp; though there are some minds, almost neutral in their sphere of sensitiveness, who respond more or less to anything. These currents are transmitted in the psychical atmosphere of the planet. The spheres of human consciousness are but so many wireless-stations for sending or receiving messages. Each station is limited to messages of a certain kind and grade from similar stations. We are now approaching the mystery of the frequent confusion in thought transference. According to its quality of refinement, and its complex relations with the psychic form of consciousness, and the auric sphere, the human brain has every degree of receptive quality, from a clear-receiving of the thought to its reception in broken rays. As light is split up by a prism of glass, such ramifications are lost in the thought of the individual. As musicaI-instruments can be attuned to respond perfectly to each other, by training, two sympathetic persons can become so responsively attuned as to receive and transmit thought clearly, consciously, and without error. To investigate this is the great work for the psychologists of the future.