Georgette Heyer is probably best known for her Regency romances and her knack of capturing an era and bringing it to light-hearted life. She also wrote detective novels and the two works for which I admire her the most… An Infamous Army, which is an account of the Battle of Waterloo and The Spanish Bride, about the Peninsula campaign of the Napoleonic wars. In both cases, the author builds her story around the lives of individuals, making the trials of the campaign personal and engaging the reader’s emotions.
In The Spanish Bride, Heyer tells the romantic and true story of Juana María de los Dolores de León, a child just out of the convent who was brought to the battlefield and consigned to the care of the British troops by her sister when their home was sacked after the fourth siege of Badajos. Fourteen year-old Juana was married a few days later to Harry Smith, a young officer with the 95th Rifles. It was no marriage of convenience, but a love-match and, refusing to be sent to England, Juana ‘followed the drum’, accompanying her firebrand of a husband on almost all of his campaigns.
In spite of the romance of Juana and Harry Smith’s tale, the books are exceptionally well crafted. Heyer draws upon historical documents and journals such as John Kinkaid’s ‘Adventures in the Rifle Brigade’ to capture the small details and atmosphere of the army on campaign. The books were responsible for an early fascination with the people who had lived and died during those wars and I spent a good deal of time as a teenager trawling through reference libraries to learn more about them in their own words.
It is impossible, without delving back through those forgotten tomes, to say with any certainty which parts are dramatised fact and which are pure invention. One phrase that had a ring of truth came to mind, however, when we were discussing the spiritual teachers, genuine and otherwise and how they gather a following in spiritual circles.
“The men say there are only two kinds of officers; the go-ons and the come-ons.”
Harry Smith in The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer.
The ‘go-ons and the come-ons’… it is an evocative phrase. In battle, it refers to the difference between those officers who lead the charge, inspiring their men to follow their example and those officers who stand safely behind the lines, urging the men onwards from the rear. There are practical considerations that may excuse the latter… but for the men in the field, risking their lives, it was clear that it was the ‘come-ons’, those officers who led from the front and shared the dirt and danger, who inspired the troops and gained their respect and loyalty.
It struck me how apt this phrase could be for describing some of those who become spiritual leaders and teachers. Most of them genuinely try to lead from the front… accepting their own role as no more than one amongst many, with just as much work to do as everyone else, teaching only that which they attempt to put into practice in their own lives. But there are undoubtedly a few ‘go-ons’… those who seem to sit safely ‘behind the lines’, raking in money and/or adulation from their followers, yet seeming to feel themselves above the need to adhere to their own teachings. Sadly, they can be very plausible too, presenting themselves as immaculate examples of humanity clad in souls of purest white.
Where does that leave the seeker trying to find a guide for those first steps on a spiritual journey? Myself, I think it leaves them in need of the very first of the ‘magical weapons’ with which he or she will have to gird themselves… wielding common sense in one hand and discernment in the other.
Spiritual teachings that speak directly to you can come from anywhere… a phrase in a book or conversation, an image or a dream, the lyrics of a song or poem… or even the life and land around you. You can stumble across them in the oddest places… and the source matters not at all. Only the effect on your life and understanding. The worst facets of human nature can still teach valuable lessons or be inadvertent agents of enlightenment… but you would not wish to follow their example.
The ideal situation for the seeker would be to follow the lead of that inner voice that never lies, but it is not always easy to hear above the ‘white noise’ of everyday life and uncertainty. Most of us will look for more accessible guidance in one form or another. It may be found in as abstract a manner as through the writings of a favourite author. We may seek it through a group or organisation…or we may choose to follow one of those charismatic people who are seen as spiritual teachers.
Before you commit your time, attention and energy to any path, system or organisation, let common sense be your guide. Does your chosen guide inspire you and lead you forward? Are they doing their best to walk the path they preach? Or do they make claims about themselves that make you feel uneasy? Ask for unreasonable contributions to their cause or coffers in either time or money? It is one thing to pay for a service, another altogether to be expected to put your wallet at their service.
It is to be expected that you should commit time to your progress and studies… you may have to buy books or pay for formal lessons, you will have to set aside time and attention for the work. You may choose to attend courses, seminars or workshops. But there is a vast difference between covering reasonable costs for which you can see a return and the demands made by those ‘prophets’ who appear to be pursuing nothing but profit.
Speak to other students or observe for yourself how or if their chosen path has changed them; the results of any spiritual path should be measurable. Those who have walked away may not give the truest insight, but those who have followed any valid path should be marked by a growing joy, confidence and awareness of both themselves and the world. The best teachers are not always those who shine the brightest, but those who serve both their fellow seekers and the Light that guides us all.
The heart and the quiet inner voice will always lead us forward if we listen. The spiritual journey should not be a battle, but a joy… and the best guides we have are within.