A Moment of Another Reality

Encountering Henrietta Lannes

I was angry at Walter. 

It was too cold for June—but maybe normal in London. I shivered uncontrollably in my too-thin, too-short dress. Outwardly I remained civil, but inwardly I was seething. Everything he did irritated me, his every movement made me sorry I had stopped in London to visit him. 

Walter was not even technically my friend, but an inheritance from my late husband. But for all he had done to help me, staying beside me at the hospital bed as I had kept the vigil, insisting that I not be alone there, did I even have the right to be angry at him?

Why was I here? Visiting was already a hard detour from my business trip, but the pull of the past had brought me. Curiosity, too; there was someone he wanted me to meet.

Still, I needed a sweater and a hot coffee, not a two-hour drive into the mist-shrouded countryside to meet the senior woman Walter had “discovered”: Madame Henrietta Lannes, a direct pupil of the mystic philosopher George Gurdjieff. She directed the Gurdjieff Institute in London, an organization little known beyond its circle of students. Yet there we were, gunning towards Pickett Cottage, her place in the Cotswolds. 

We ploughed through the fog and something appeared, an indistinct shape guarded by clusters of spiky English flowers. Light pink, blue, purple blooms nodded towards a traditional thatch roof cottage, small and close to the ground, mostly hidden by shrubbery.

I could barely see in the dark room, but Walter steered me to a seat opposite her bedroom door.

We waited.

We waited some more.

Finally a bent figure appeared—short, slight in dark clothes, leaning heavily on a walking stick. Mme Lannes greeted us warmly—but speaking clearly took effort—and she seemed in pain. I stared at her, this small person less than five feet tall with an ordinary pleasant face, indistinguishable from a typical French villager. Why was Walter torturing this poor woman on my account? 

She started to speak but I barely heard, busy with my own thoughts.

“What do you want?” she asked. “What are you looking for?” Her gaze was penetrating and her eyes shone with an energy quite different from that coming from the feeble body. My attention was attracted, I felt I could speak honestly, and not be judged. She was clearly waiting for my answer. 

Briefly I told her about myself, my childhood, persistent hardships. What did it mean? Did I attract or somehow create the conditions I found myself in? Was I responsible for the shape of my life? Was it karma?

“We seek to discover new meaning in our lives. Seeking generally proves to be a difficult experience because in most of our exploration we want an immediate answer,”1 she said.

Before my eyes a transformation began. The bent old woman imperceptibly straightened, gradually replaced by a vigorous person who appeared completely free of the rigors of the old. Her concentration seemed to magnetize the particles that stream from the sun or from far beyond it. How was this possible? Was this reality?

I tried to tune in to her, to copy her unwavering attention, and suddenly felt an unaccustomed sensation. I was no longer my separate self but now included everything in the room. I was a part of Mme Lannes and she was me, or which was I? There was no longer a border where my body ended and the room began. Every ordinary perception was dissolved in that instant. There was warmth and light—a feeling of wellbeing, —at ease in this world. It was as if a lovely woman had come into the room bringing us trays of sweets.

“What have we found?” she asked. “We seek contact with our lives, with a subtle vital energy. We persevere in this fundamental quest to recover what to all appearances is lost. Yet within us has awakened an instinct for searching, experiencing, knowing.” 

As Mme Lannes continued to speak, I felt warmer and lighter, and hopeful. A beam of light found its way through the thatch and into the room. She was reflected in the light, or was she generating it? 

Were my eyes playing tricks? I began to think about what was happening and to name it, and the light-filled perceptions vanished. I was back in my separate self and the room was just the darkly lit space again. 

Walter explained that after the Second World War ended in 1945, Mme Lannes encouraged the London Gurdjieff group to buy an abandoned chicken farm near the city. With building materials scarce or impossible to get—all of England was trying to rebuild—the group reused every board and beam of the ruined outbuildings. Everyone, of every profession, learned to build. Those of limited strength found work like straightening bent nails for reuse. Working together, they created a modern study house, with workshops and a large hall. 

“You can change the trajectory of your life through Gurdjieff ‘s ‘conscious efforts and voluntary suffering’,” he affirmed.

As if sensing my question Mme Lannes added: “All genuine work begins with doubt. I doubt myself, I have the courage to doubt myself. What are you afraid of losing? Obviously there is something we love very much and that we are going to lose—our lies. But apart from that are you going to lose anything real? Lying is stronger than we think: a large part of our lives is based on it. If we do not lose our lies, the real cannot develop in us. We try to open to a feeling of reality, and this reality is perhaps going to work in us.”

She stopped for a moment and Walter recalled the early days when Mme Lannes needed a source of income to support her spiritual work. She noticed the English lacked screens for their doors and windows and started a workshop that made them; that workshop grew into a factory producing ready-made screens. It was a great success and enabled Mme Lannes to offer jobs to group members needing and seeking work. She instituted a rather unusual form of management: as soon as someone got good at their job—be it sales or production—Mme Lannes would switch them into something else, to struggle anew with an uncharacteristic task. The salespeople had to join production and the quiet ones to make sales calls. Despite that the business grew.

Of course it had to turn a profit in order to survive, but for Mme Lannes the real profit was in the potential expansion of consciousness in her students, Walter said. “Life itself was the teacher for those who worked with her in the factory.”

It seems that Mme Lannes was both daring and confident enough to trust life as her partner in a spiritual quest, its challenges providing the perfect obstacle course to becoming truly human. I wanted to be part of her vision. 

Mme Lannes asked about my life in New York, then invited me to move to London to work with her. It was a shockingly appealing proposition. I dreamt for a moment I could leave all difficulties behind and start anew. 

But the bonds of family and fear were too great and I only thanked her with all my heart.

She walked us down the garden path to our car easily, without using her cane. 

Apparently some invisible wave of molecules had affected her material body, animating it, transforming it. The domination of the physical body was superseded by a more vibrant life, revealing a more essential self.

Later in the day, her illness would again reclaim her body.

For a moment I had been part of a play of forces, a vision of an unexpected world filled with light. Though the two worlds had only merged for a brief moment, it left an imperishable mark. In reality we were not just separate beings but all connected by a medium like some exotic gas—only it was love. 

Driving home I saw all criticism had vanished. There was only gratitude and respect and a wish to help him however I could.

Walter was my brother.1

1 These notes recall our talk. Direct quotes were later included in Mme Lannes’s book This Fundamental Quest.

This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2024 issue of Parabola, REALITY. You can find the full issue on our online store.

By Lillian Firestone

Lillian Firestone (1932-2024), was Parabola's editor-at-large, and the author of several books including most recently Repairing the Past: Fate, Destiny, and the Possibility of Change.