from The Theosophist April 1980
(A fond appreciation of John Coats)
Barriers Fell Away
By Hugh Shearman, Northern Ireland
Dr. ARUNDALE once wrote somewhere of an insight he had had on some higher plane of experience, into a sort of mechanism which ensured that the right person became President of the Theosophical Society. All the factors were brought into it - the needs of the time, the karma of the members, the individuals available, intentions for the far future. Certainly, we can feel that there is a very intimate interrelationship between the membership and the President at any given time in our history. By each successive President a particular aspect of the Society's potential is evoked. Each has something to teach the members and, surely, something to learn from them.
John Coats spoke to the heart, and hearts everywhere responded to him. He was probably far better understood in countries where feelings are more openly expressed than in those where they are held in check, and was taken into closer confidence by the young and unstable than by the old and set. People were a perpetual delight to him. He moved among them, radiating benevolence and finding them lovable and, also, often absurd.
It is by shared experience and shared responses that we draw close to one another. It was by his wide-ranging capacity for entering into the experiences of others, in things both great and little, that he created situations in which barriers fell away and people relaxed and a sense of unity stole into the hearts of large gatherings of people. Nearly every story that one could tell about him or any incident that one could relate has at its centre his unselfconscious response to somebody else's need, predicament or circumstances.
I have a vivid memory of him gravely assisting a small Polish member through the intricacies of a Scottish dance, John with his great height hovering benignly over this small man and gently guiding him by the shoulders to the positions he ought to occupy on the floor, rather like a player carefully moving a pawn on a chessboard. And if that member had been aiming at some entirely different kind of achievement, such as cooking a cabbage or attaining Nirvana, John would have been equally anxious to enter into his problem and help or advise him if he could.
Kindness and vulnerability.
Much of the secret of his kindness and concern for others lay in his own vulnerability. He understood others because he himself was capable of feeling very deeply. Soon after he became General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in England, he wrote an editorial in which he quoted a verse which said,
For all your days prepare
To meet them ever alike.
When you are the anvil, bear;
When you are the hammer, strike.
No doubt the cool impersonal invincibility which the verse implied, and the peace of mind which might be supposed to go with it, were something he would have been glad to attain; but his own highly sensitive nature caused him to suffer much distress if he ever had to play the part of a "hammer" and do anything that upset others, while, far from being a stolid" anvil" for such blows of criticism or misunderstanding as came upon him from others, he winced inwardly and could be very unhappy. Yet the larger purpose of things always reasserted itself for him and quickly restored to him its broad reassuring perspective. He carried no ill feeling, and one could be aware of him deliberately setting himself to understand the one who did not understand him.
Some of his sensitiveness had a psychic extension, and adverse physical conditions and contacts were often more painful to him than they were to most other people, forcing him occasionally to be more self-protectively fastidious than he liked to be. He sometimes knew things about other people that they did not suspect. One /he knew the pathos and loneliness of youth /afternoon, as he walked about a crowded room shaking hands with a large number of people, he wryly undertook to tell me which of those people had been sitting in circles under spiritualist auspices by the "gooey" aura revealed by their handshakes. He was right every time.
His interior life
Although seeming to be a predominantly outward-turned person, his external personality was being perpetually adjusted to a deeply interior life. Once I heard him express regret that so often, when, in the course of his tours, he met people again after a lapse of years, he found them just the same. He himself did not remain the same. He kept changing and moving on. During thirty-five years I have seen him pass through many phases as his nature deepened. Sometimes he ran into difficulties or seemed to bring some interior conflict or blockage upon himself; but he always won through and moved on.
In one who could be so charmingly and amusingly personal, it was most impressive to see how his more personal self could be laid aside as all his concentrated attention was given to performing some impersonal task. I saw this in him in many circumstances. I thought it particularly impressive when he functioned as a bishop. Then the power and spirituality of that office radiated or distorted by any barrier of personal self-consciousness, and he seemed quite transformed.
He had large reserves of physical and moral courage. When an accidental injury removed from him the obligations of wartime military service, he accepted the office of General Secretary of the /a particular aspect of the society's potential is evoked /Theosophical Society in England and took charge of its people were a perpetual delight to him London headquarters through the uneasy years of air-raids and flying-bombs. Those who worked with him then found him a very reassuring presence. His entry into the Society was itself an act of courage, for it involved breaking away from a great part of the social background in which he had grown up and becoming, in a very real way a classless person, such as the associates of his youth were certainly not. And, of course, there followed the hardships and fatigues and practical sacrifices involves in his long career of service to the Society.
Yet he was prepared for this from the beginning, for as a very young man, he had always had an urge to find a greater truth and a right way of life. Before he came to the Society he had groped for this in several directions; and, while he quickly outgrew the limits of the Oxford Group movement which had once attracted his sympathetic attention, he learned from that early seeking to hold in deep respect the cults and aspirations, however uncouth, through which young people try to find a way for themselves. He knew the pathos and loneliness of youth, and he also knee that that young people discover and try to work our for themselves cannot be replaced by what elders may imagine to be some superior substitute, but must be lived through to fulfilment or disillusionment. All through his /he was capable of feeling very deeply /life he was concerned for the needs of young people and held their confidence and affections by his immense sympathetic tolerance, often responding with warm-heartedness to youthful pursuits and interest which cause impatience in some other people of an older generation.
To all his work he brought great practical gifts. He could deal with material matters, cope with accounts and problems of administration. His ability to enter into the spirit and ambience of any human situation also had its linguistic aspect. He spoke several languages with considerable idiomatic purity, as if in each case he was a native speaker - a very serviceable ability when he was General Secretary of the Society's European Federation.
Sometimes his concern for individual humanity or for some cause or situation of the moment was in conflict with the demands of what had to be done administratively. He wanted to give so much to each letter and each interview that he was liable to get badly behind with his correspondence or his timetable. A letter from him brought a friendly benediction, expressed in terms of eager chat; but those of us who received them sometimes felt guilty at getting such over generous attention from so busy a man.
That generous, compassionate openness of heart that he gave to everybody cam to each individual at the recipient's level. When it had a social setting and he was among a crowd of people, it might appear to be only at a level of kindly affability. But it extended beyond words or anything merely personal. Having myself enjoyed his company on many occasion, the experience of sharing something with him which remains most vivid in memory came in an incident that some might not think characteristic, for no word was spoken. I stood with him on a high empty moorland and we looked across a wide varied countryside to a sierra of granite mountain; and , as we stood, there was a sudden pause in the light wind that had been moving across the heather, and there was for a brief space of time an utter silence, in which something touched us that we both simultaneously recognized. There was nothing to be said. I found that many years afterwards he remembered the occasion as vividly as I did.
Silence was sometimes the medium through which he learned much from his teacher, Dr. Arundale. That stay at Adyar, in the early 1930's, soon after joining the Society, with its close daily access to George Arundale, was a preparation for all that followed for John and Betsan Coats. Dr. Arundale had his insights and sometimes knew a great deal about people. He knew that this young couple had not arrived by chance, and he recognized the innate nobility of character that was there He knew how united they were and he told them that a day was to come in the future when their respective fields of service would draw them apart geographically and impose physical distances between them even though they remained at one in spirit and intention.
In the event, many years afterwards, that forecast was fulfilled, and though they met whenever they could, their respective work often put the whole diameter of the earth between them. Now, for them and for us, a greater parting of the ways has come for a while. Our love and gratitude are with them both. In that in which we are all at one there can be no lasting loss.