Sorry, don`t want to play today … want to read
A Most Unusual Life, Kirsten van Gelder and Frank Chesley, Wheaton, IL. Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2015, Pages xiii + 358.
This is a book that belongs on every Theosophist book shelf; not just here in America, but worldwide because Dora was someone who belonged to everyone.
When people ask me about Dora, I would normally say: “She was a very complex person.” However, I like the title of the book better. She was indeed “A most unusual person.” There are many theosophist who knew Dora longer and better that I did; however, I spent a little over twelve years working closely with her, and I think the authors did a very good job in bringing out those salient characteristics and nuance’s that made Dora … well ‘one of a kind’ Dora.
[Full disclosure: I shared with Kirsten van Gelder my journals covering my years of activity at the TSA headquarters. These journals included the years of Dora’s presidency. They are now located in the archives at Olcott.]
The book was actually initiated by Frank Chesley, but he became too ill to continue. Fortunately, Kirsten Van Gelder received a grant allowing her to complete the book. It can be parsed roughly into three parts: (1) Dora’s younger and formative years, (2) healing and Therapeutic Touch, and (3) president of the TSA and her last decade. Since Dora’s lifespan covered 1904 to 1999, we have a lot of material to examine.
Beginning with her younger and formative years, many stories are told of how her Theosophical beginnings started. A plethora of names that are well known to Theosophists appear: Annie Besant, CW Leadbeater, Krishnamurti, Jinarajadasa, and so on. Many of these stories I have heard; some in detail, others just sketches, but always informative. In this material we can see Dora developing her clairvoyant skills that served her so well in her Therapeutic Touch undertaking.
As we move into the next segment of her life, her husband to be, Fritz Kunz, came into the picture. I have heard so many stories about him and his work; it was nice to have them in a chronological order. I learned the story behind how Dora and Fritz became friends with the Sellons who also played a large role in this book and the Theosophical Camps. Considering that I worked with, and greatly admired Emily Sellon, I can see how they all contributed so much to the work. Another person I will note here is Dr. Renee Weber who was a student of Fritz. The other book in this review is by Renee, and it played a major role in enhancing Dora’s presidency.
The second part of the book is one that I do not know as an insider. Even though Dora was developing her Therapeutic Touch and healing classes when I knew her, this was done on a parallel track with her Theosophical work. The most involvement for me was a meeting with Dr. Karagulla when she came to Olcott. Why Dora invited me to meet with her and Karagulla is still somewhat of a mystery. I sensed that she wanted another academic person simply to be on hand to make sure the material was treated at the highest level. There were no worries here as I found Dr. Karagulla, as with Dora, to have the highest integrity in the work they were doing. As I read through this section in the book, I was also struck by how many well-known people Dora knew. When she became president of TSA, this list of people served her well.
Dora began a very demanding twelve years of her life (1975 – 1987) when she became president of the TSA at age 71. This is when I first met Dora and started working closely with her. She and I were co-editors of the Theosophical Research Journal; I was the chairman of the Theosophical Research Institute (TRI), and also served on the Educational Committee where Dr. Renee Weber was chairperson. A number of people in this book also served on these committees.
The “hippie” era of the 60s had passed and the “invasions” of the gurus was in full swing. It was tempting for many organizations to simply join this bandwagon, but Dora, I think, had a vision to be in the front of the parade and have the Theosophical Society lead the way once again. From my perspective, she saw how modern science and Theosophical enquiry could be linked and devoted much of her energies in this direction. In my mind, this happened early in her presidency when she brought Dr. Fritjof Capra on campus to give a weekend seminar based on his then bestselling book: The Tao of Physics. As I recall, this occurred in 1976. Shortly after this, she pressed to have Dr. Stephen Phillips publish his book: The ESP of Quarks by The Theosophical Publishing House. This was to substantiate an earlier TS work called: Occult Chemistry. Much of this discussion is laid out in the book under review and is there for your perusal.
These were very exciting times to be involved on the committees that Dora convened. Frequently, they were combined with a public weekend talk on Sunday. If possible, we would begin on Friday, and frequently we all had homework assignments before coming together at Olcott. When we started, I noticed that Dora would always stress “harmony” within the group; this started with our opening mediation. Woe be to those that didn’t do their homework. If you didn’t do your assigned work, you probably wouldn’t get ask back. It was even worse if you not only didn’t do your homework, but tried to “bluff” your way through the two or three days of discussions. Dora mentioned to me more than once how “such and such” was rather full of himself!”
By the end of the second or third years, we had a very harmonious working group. This is not to say we didn’t disagree, but we knew what the “goal” was – to further the study of Theosophy. This was such an excellent training ground for all of us. Many on staff at Olcott would joins us, and many strong bonds were formed. Out of this committee work, came a number of future Theosophical leaders. Besides Joy Mills, Shirley Nicholson, Emily Sellon, John Kern and Dr. Weber, we had Dr. John Algeo, Dr. Robert Ellwood, Dr. Doss McDavid, Dr. Ravi Ravindra, and the list goes on. Some of these and others are still active in various ways. Most of these stories are missing from the book, but this simply means the “definitive” biography has yet to written.
Once Dora left office, the modern science/Theosophy relationship that Dora assisted into existence has become part of its history and moved on to mainstream. Now, it is rather common to see and hear of workshops and retreats with “Quantum Physics” or some variation of that in its title. I would like to think that this is part of Dora’s legacy. I suspect that her longer lasting role is the one she played in helping to develop Therapeutic Touch.
Who knows if in 50 years from now, Dora Kunz will be just a footnote in the history of humankind, or the leading chapter. I do know that she was a “most unusual person”, and it was my privilege to work 12 years with her. I would call this book a “must read.”
Dialogues With Scientists and Sages: The Search for Unity, Renee Weber, Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1986, Pages xiii + 256. There are many used copies available on the internet.
I consider Dr. Renee Weber a soul-mate in the search. As noted in the above review, she spent more years working with Dora and Fritz than I did. However, I felt compatibility from day one when we began our committee work under Dora. At that time, Renee was Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. Her academic credentials were perfect for the theosophical vision that Dora was pursuing. In many ways this book under review brought together the relevant points that we were striving for. It is essentially a collection of interviews that Renee conducted, and what a selection of noteworthy celebrities. Here we have an in-depth discussion with luminaries such as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine, Stephen Hawking, David Bohm, Krishnamurti, and so on. However, for this brief review, I would like to focus on my favorite interview in her book; that with Fr. Bede Griffiths.
Even though it is tempting to jump to the chapters in this book of someone being interviewed, like HHDL, I would suggest that you read carefully Renee’s opening chapter. It is titled: “The search for unity.’ It offers a glimpse of her personal search. Everybody is different, but I suspect we all can identify the same ‘road signs’ she passed on her way. In my case, I agree with her working hypothesis that: “The search for unity in science itself is a spiritual path.”
One person who left a powerful impression, both on Renee and Dora, was Father Bede Griffiths. In 1982-3 Dora and Renee were in India attending the TS international convention. After the convention, they travelled to Shantivanam to interview Fr. Bede at his Saccidananda Ashram. A brief description of that meeting is given in the Dora’s book above; however, the complete interview is in this book under review.
The culmination of that interview resulted in Fr. Bede coming to Olcott in August of 1983. I was in the audience that night. I was only vaguely familiar with Fr. Bede, via Dora and Renee, and had no idea what to expect. In walked this small, thin, robed monk and gave one of the most enlightening and humbling talks I have ever heard. Within a month, I had bought and read most of his books he had written. Now, there are many books that have extended his writings.
One book that I still use and read extensively is his River of Compassion: A Christian Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. For anyone coming from a Christian background to Theosophy, this is a perfect crossover to the Hindu classic.
Even though Renee’s book came out about 30 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated. We are still discussing and think about the profound questions that science brings to the table of spiritual enquiry. Theosophy is adaptable enough to provide its own “sign post” for guidance. If you haven’t read this book, buy it now and start reading next week. You’ll thank me later.
Note from the editor:
The category Notable Books on Theosophy Forward is compiled by John Algeo and Ralph Hannon