By Renate zum Tobel
Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2005 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: zum Tobel, Renate. "A Mystical View of the Life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer." Quest 93.6 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2005):212-217.
"Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing."
—Dr. Albert Schweitzer
Once in while a teacher appears who, simply by being true to himself, is able to inspire millions of people. At the age of seventy-two, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the great philosopher, scholar, theologian, accomplished musician, prolific writer, and dedicated physician, set foot on American soil for the first time. He had the attention of the world and, according to the July 11, 1947, cover of Time magazine, was revered as "The Man of Century." When asked about his philosophy of reverence for life, he simply answered: "I've made my life my argument."
His decision to enter medical school at the age of thirty, after already having earned doctorates in theology, philosophy, and music, mystified his family and friends.
To understand his desire to help and heal the people living in a remote region of French equatorial Africa, it is necessary to look back.
The Early Years
Albert was born on January 14, 1875, in the village of Kayersberg, France, into a family of pastors, teachers, and musicians. This small village is nestled at the foothills of the Vosges Mountains in Upper Alsace.
His father was appointed pastor in the neighboring village of Gunsbach, where the family settled when Albert was six months old. The village only had one church. The community agreed that this church was to be used by Protestants and Catholics alike. His devoted parents were no doubt a great example and influence on him, but he already had a mind of his own at the age of five.
Already before I started school it seemed quite incomprehensible to me that my evening prayers were supposed to be limited to human beings. Therefore, when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me goodnight, I secretly added another prayer, which I had made up myself for all living beings. It went like this: "Dear God, protect and bless all beings that breathe, keep all evil from them, and let them sleep in peace." (Memoirs 37)
Initially, Albert was not considered a good student. He was a dreamer, allowing his attention to be drawn to the birds singing in the tree outside the classroom window. It was not until a teacher took him under his wing and taught him how to study and concentrate that he began to excel in school.
Because the other village boys were poor, young Albert resented being dressed differently and refused to wear an overcoat and shoes that were different from his school friends'. He hated being considered "gentry" by the rest of the village boys and tried hard not to be better than they. He could not accept privileges for himself that were denied to others. His wish to fit in, however, was not stronger than his other values:
I had an experience during my seventh or eighth year which made a deep impression on me. Heinrich BrÃ¤sch and I had made ourselves rubber band slingshots with which we could shoot small pebbles. One spring Sunday during Lent he said to me, "Come on, let's go and shoot birds." I hated this idea, but I did not contradict him for fear he might laugh at me. We approached a leafless tree in which birds, apparently unafraid of us, were singing sweetly in the morning air. Crouching like an Indian hunter, my friend put a pebble in his slingshot and took aim. Obeying his look of command, I did the same with terrible pangs of conscience and vowing to myself to miss. At that very moments church bells began to ring out into the sunshine, mingling their chimes with the song of the birds. For me it was a voice from Heaven. I put the slingshot aside, shoed the birds away so that they were safe from my friend and ran home. Ever since then, when the bells of Passiontide ring out into the sunshine and the naked trees, I remember, deeply moved and grateful, how on that day they rang into my heart the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."
From that day on I dared to free myself from the fear of men, and when my innermost conviction was at stake, I have considered the opinions of others less important than before. I began to overcome my fear of being laughed at by my classmates. The way in which the commandment not to kill and torture worked on me is the great experience of my childhood and youth. Next to it all others pale. (Memoirs 37—38)
In remembering his youth, Schweitzer often referred to needing to be alone in order to hear his "small inner voice," being glad the other boys did not join him on his long walk to school. He loved this special time of being alone with his thoughts and nature.
I tried to put my enthusiasm for the beauty of nature as I experienced it on my walks to school into poems; but I never got beyond the first two or three rhymes. Several times I also tried to sketch the mountain with its old castle on the other side of the road. However, I also failed at that. From then on I resigned myself to enjoying beauty by looking at it without attempting to translate it into art. I never again tried to draw anything or render it in verse. Only in improvising music have I been creative. (Memoirs 30)
Albert learned to play the piano at five. However, it was the organ that fascinated and inspired him. He gave his first public performance at the age of nine, when he substituted for the regular organist at his father's church. Music, especially the compositions of Bach, became one of his passions, exposing him to the vibrations and frequency of an instrument said to be the closest thing to the human voice. His early life became structured around the disciplines of music and reading:
After lunch I had to practice the piano until it was time to go back to school again. Once the school assignments had been completed in the evening, I had to go back to the piano. "You don't know how useful music will be to you later in life," my aunt would say when she had to chase me to the piano. She could surely not foresee that music would eventually help me to earn the means for founding a hospital in the jungle.
Only Sunday afternoons were set aside for recreation. We went for walks, and afterwards I was allowed to satisfy my passion for reading until 10 o'clock in the evening. This passion was boundless. It is still with me today. I am unable to put down a book that I have started to read. I would rather spend all night on it, but at least I have to skim through it. If I like it, I promptly read it two or three times in a row. (Memoirs 42)
Another characteristic, already prominent at an early age, was his desire and ability to think for himself.
When I was eight years old, my father gave me, at my request, a New Testament, which I read eagerly. One of the stories that occupied my mind most was that of the Wise Men from the East. What did Jesus' parents do with the gold and precious things they received from these men? I wondered how they could later have been poor again. It was completely incomprehensible to me that the Wise Men from the East never bothered about the Christ Child later on at all. I was also offended that there is no report about the shepherds of Bethlehem having become disciples of Jesus. (Memoirs 22)
Focusing on Schweitzer's childhood is necessary in order to understand the years that shaped his character and his destiny. His inner life, his inner yearnings, and the growing feelings of passion, compassion, devotion, and reverence were well established in his youth. A quest for truth gave him the drive and energy needed to dedicate his life to humanity. These early years gave his life direction and purpose.
In my youth I listened to conversations of grown-up people which wafted to me a breath of melancholy, depressing my heart. My elders looked back at the idealism and enthusiasm of their youth as something precious that they should have held on to. At the same time, however, they considered it sort of a law of nature that one cannot do that. This talk aroused in me a fear that I, too, would look back on myself with such nostalgia. I decided never to submit to this tragic reasonableness. What I promised myself in almost boyish defiance I have tried to carry out. (Memoirs 90)
To understand the man and his path on a deeper level, one must look at the lives and works of the people he studied and became deeply influenced by: Jesus, Goethe, Bach, and Kant. Each of these men had a deeply mystical side to his nature. They all renounced ambition, yet lived ambitiously; they overcame low desires yet had a deep passion and reverence for life; they experienced unity yet remained individualists; they practiced reverence and devotion; and they lived lives of renunciation, using their creativity for the benefit of humanity. Like Schweitzer, they lived neither in the past nor the future, but in the eternal creative now.
Schweitzer learned Hebrew, Greek, and Latin to explore the true meaning of the life of Jesus. He was haunted by the inconsistencies in the New Testament and by the way modern theologians ignored and neatly compartmentalized the eschatological teachings of Jesus. His discoveries were original and confounded scholars of his time. His three books The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle did not conform to commonly held views of Christianity. He did not bow to the opinions of others. He was more concerned with truth than with the approval of his fellow scholars.
The abiding and eternal in Jesus is absolutely independent of historical knowledge and can only be understood by contact with His spirit which is still at work in the world. In proportion as we have the Spirit of Jesus we have the true knowledge of Jesus. (The Quest 401)
They [Jesus' words] are appropriate, therefore, to any world, for in every world they raise man who dares to meet their challenge, and does not turn and twist them into meaninglessness, above his world and his time, making him inwardly free, so fitted to be, in his own world and in his own time, a simple channel of the power of Jesus. (The Quest 402)
But the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it. Not the Historical Jesus, but the spirit which goes forth from Him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule, is that which overcomes the world. (The Quest 401)
History shows that before turning thirty, Schweitzer understood the power latent in humanity and lived his life according to his own integrity and principles.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks, which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (The Quest 403)
He pursued the arts and intellectual study. And then at the age of thirty, he chose the path of service, reading about the desperate need for doctors in the jungle.
In embarking on his journey to Africa, it was his sincere intention to renounce all other pursuits, including the arts. He willingly made many sacrifices, leaving his teaching, writing, and music behind, only to discover that he could still find the time to do it all.
As a man he had moved with ease among cultured European society, yet he decided to devote himself and his talents to the neglected people of Africa. He made Africa his home. His main concern became the tragically ill and those suffering from leprosy.
In hindsight he did not sacrifice himself. All he did was realize himself. He mastered himself completely. He became an example of what a whole human can accomplish. He not only followed the road less traveled; he became the high road. Schweitzer lived his truth and felt it in his very being. When asked about religion he replied, "My religion is the Religion of Love."
When asked why he wanted to become a doctor he wrote:
I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk. For years I had been giving of myself in words, and it was with joy that I had followed the calling of theological teacher and preacher. But this new form of activity would consist not in preaching the religion of love, but in practicing it. (Out of My Life 92)
Dr. Schweitzer is an example of what it means to be in alignment with spirit. His strong will was directed toward a definite purpose. His tamed emotions became the passionate dedication to be of service to the suffering, neglected people of Africa, using his brilliant mind to sort the essential from the unessential, the important from the unimportant. With his priorities in perfect order, he lived his life with enthusiasm, spontaneity, and humor. His physical body was blessed with boundless energy. Most will remember him only as a doctor who felt it was his duty to right the wrongs committed by the white man in Africa. Yet he was so much more than a physician. He raised the necessary funds himself by lecturing and giving organ concerts to sold-out audiences around Europe. He nurtured his inner life. His freethinking spirit could not be contained, but was allowed to germinate, creating many inspirational books in which he admonished humanity to awaken from complacency and to become free thinkers. His spirit appealed to the average person, not only healing the body but also healing the soul. He was a physician of the soul.
No task was beneath him. He became the people's builder, farmer, architect, administrator, psychologist, and pharmacist. He was their musician, philosopher, protector, carpenter, pastor, confidant, mentor, and friend. He was able to inspire those whose life he touched. It stands to reason that spirit found him to be a perfect channel, allowing us a glimpse of what it means to be a complete human being.
Dr. Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his tireless efforts to appeal to world leaders to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Schweitzer's message was that nuclear fallout does not respect borders and defies the philosophy of reverence of life, including all life on this planet. Busy with his work in Africa, and not one to be impressed with titles or awards, it took him two years to accept this prize in person. The prize money was used to rebuild the leper village he had created in Lamberene.
Like a piece of music, a person's life is more than the sum of its many parts. It is a composition with many themes, with one transcendent melody of meaning. The life of Dr. Schweitzer is an example of what it means to harmonize intellectual head learning with heart wisdom and work in harmony with spirit and nature. He used his varied talents as instruments of peace and healing, using goodness and creativity in creating a symphony of wholeness.
How do we recognize the "wise ones"? They know that being an example is more important than any profession of faith and that service is a natural law of the universe. They know it is their duty to first honor the spirit within, followed by recognizing this spirit in everyone and everything. "Reverence for Life" became Schweitzer's living truth. He lived in close communion with nature and reality, finding a deeper beauty amid life's ravages—the beauty of spirit—and he responded in a simple, most humble, and most devotional way. Schweitzer had found a higher reality; he knew that we are all brothers and sisters in spirit, and his life proves that he understood the meaning of the words "He who loses his life shall find it."
A fellowship was created in his name. The brotherhood of those who bear the mark of pain is dedicated to humanitarian efforts toward the education and healing of humanity. In this respect Dr. Schweitzer is still with us and left us to ponder the meaning of his words:
The truth of philosophy is not proved until it has led us to experience the relationship between our being and that of the universe, an experience that makes us genuine human beings, guided by an active ethic. (Out of My Life 212)
Schweitzer, Albert. Memoirs of Childhood and Youth. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997
———. Out of My Life and Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
———. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Renate zum Tobel has been a student of metaphysics since 1985 and a member of the Theosophical Society since 2001. Renate is the author of two books of poetry and three books for children. In her latest book, Physician of the Soul: Exploring the Mystical Meaning of the Life of Albert Schweitzer, she writes letters to her teacher, exploring and describing the transformational influence the life and work Dr. Albert Schweitzer has had on her life.