Mary Poppins, Sufi Master

David Cowles

May 31, 2022

The story of Mary Poppins is the story of one small boy’s initiation into the teachings of Sufi spirituality and the secrets of Sufi mysticism. When the initiation of Michael Banks is complete, Michael has come, at least in some measure, to know the mind of God. Not bad for seven-years-old!

How does one come to know the mind of God? From reading children’s stories? Maybe!

In 1934, P.L. Travers, an Australian, wrote one of the most famous children’s books of all time, Mary Poppins. But this is no ordinary nursery fable. Mary Poppins is a tale steeped in tradition and rich in the lore of Sufi mysticism.

Sufism is a spiritual tradition with deep roots in Islam, but it is not bound to any one religion’s traditions, any one geographic region, any one ethnic group or any one historical period. Sufism is synonymous with certain mystical and spiritual traditions and practices that span cultures.

The story of Mary Poppins is the story of one small boy’s initiation into the teachings of Sufi spirituality and the secrets of Sufi mysticism. When the initiation of Michael Banks is complete, Michael has come, at least in some measure, to know the mind of God. Not bad for seven-years-old!

Upon Mary’s arrival at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, Michael peers into her luggage, a carpet bag, and is “more than surprised to find it was completely empty.”

When Michael’s older sister Jane articulates this discovery (“Why…there’s nothing in it!”), Mary responds by systematically extracting a host of personal items, including “a small folding armchair.”

Michael in turn whispers to Jane, “But I saw…it was empty.” (Later, at the climax of the story, Michael will ‘see again’…but this time he sees ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing.’)

And so, Michael and Mary quickly establish the philosophical framework for the dialog…and adventures…to come: When is seeing believing…and when isn’t it? (epistemology); What is real…and what isn’t? (ontology).

Take the matter of the carpet bag, for instance. Is it empty, or isn’t it? From one perspective, it is: peering in, Michael sees nothing. That’s epistemology!

But from another perspective, it is not: it contains all the items needed to furnish a small apartment. That’s ontology!

In a sense, every systematic philosophy turns on the relationship between epistemology and ontology: ‘thinking’ and ‘being’ according to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Parmenides.


But back to Mary Poppins!

Is there really a conflict between what Michael sees (epistemology) and what Mary does (ontology)? Only if you subscribe to the underlying premise that one cannot extract large objects from an empty bag!

Consider the long-running TV series, “Doctor Who.” The central ‘character’ in this story is something called ‘The Tardis.’ From the outside, The Tardis is a typical English phone booth. But on the inside, The Tardis is a vast hexagonal space that accommodates multiple characters and events.

And that is precisely that sort of commonsense tenet that Mary Poppins challenges! There is no effort here to challenge the reality of Michael’s perceptions or of Mary’s actions; the challenge here is strictly to the appearance of contradiction between the two.

This is not a book about magic (at least not in the usual sense of that word) nor illusion, delusion, or fantasy. This is a book about epistemology and ontology.

Mary Poppins consists of a series of tales, adventures told or orchestrated by Mary, designed to wean Michael from the mother’s milk of commonsense and replace it with something much stronger: a willing recognition and acceptance of mystical reality!

By the final chapter (West Wind), Mary has achieved her goal and is free to move on. It is the first day of spring, and the east wind that blew Mary to Cherry Tree Lane in the first place has finally given way. Westerly weather is the signal for Mary Poppins to depart.

As she prepares to leave, Mary presents Michael with her compass. In an earlier chapter (“Bad Tuesday”), Mary used this compass to travel instantaneously to the four corners of earth with Jane and Michael at her side.

Later in that same chapter, Michael’s misuse of the same compass summons menacing creatures from those same four corners.

But now, as the story ends, Mary feels able to trust Michael with that compass. Her mission on Cherry Tree Lane has been accomplished. The passing of the compass from Mary Poppins to Michael Banks signals that the central conflict of the story has been resolved.

Sufism lives on, its torch passed to a new generation. Michael has been initiated. He has transcended his (our) childish commitment to naïve realism and can now be trusted to understand the power of the compass and to use it judiciously.

A good story? Yes! Just a story? No way!

Michael Banks’ initiation into Sufism is more than just a story; it is a sacrament. According to the Roman Catholic Church, a sacrament must be both symbolic and efficacious.

Mary Poppins is about the conversion of Michael Banks (symbolic), but it is potentially about the conversion of everyone who reads it (efficacious).

I am reminded of a 1984 movie, The Never-Ending Story. The hero, a young boy named Bastian, hides in an attic, reading a book. (The book he’s reading, by the way, is entitled, The Never-Ending Story.) First clue!

Bastian is also a character in that book. Second clue!

And, final clue, that book is about the real-life adventures of a real-life hero who, of course, also turns out to be none other than Bastian, the very same.

We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore!

If we read Mary Poppins in the proper spirit, we will gradually realize that each one of us is also Michael Banks! And like Michael, we may come to see reality, at least to some extent, as God sees it.

Some background is in order. Sufism is a family of spiritual doctrines and practices that vary widely across geographical, cultural, and historical landscapes. Mary Poppins reflects a particular school of Sufism associated with a Euro-centric group known as the Carbonari.

If you’re thinking ‘pasta carbonara’ right now, and getting a wee bit hungry, you’re on the right track. Pasta Carbonara is the pasta of the ‘charcoal workers,’ i.e., the pasta of the Carbonari, the Sufis.

While many Sufi schools focus on meditative practices and ‘inner awakening,’ the Carbonari believe that Sufism can and should be a transformative factor in everyday life. They embrace an ethic that has been compared to primitive Christianity, and they can even become politically active when devotion to that ethic so dictates.

The Carbonari influence in Mary Poppins is immediately evident. As early as Chapter 2 (The Day Out), we are introduced to Bert (played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie), a “Match-Man” in the book, a “chimney sweep” in the movie, both charcoal workers, both Carbonari.

Carbon workers of all kinds represent Sufism throughout the literature and practices of the eponymous Carbonari. The prominent role of Bert in Mary’s Sufi community explicitly identifies the Carbonari ideology that underlies this work.

On her first day at 17 Cherry Tree Lane (East Wind), Mary changes “a dark crimson fluid” (wine like?) variously into strawberry ice, lime juice cordial, milk, and rum punch.

From our knowledge of Christianity (Roman Catholic doctrine in particular), we recognize this as Transubstantiation: during the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass, bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.

Mary does the same thing on Cherry Tree Lane. Of course, a skeptic might object that the dark crimson fluid merely appears to be various things to various people, according to their personal tastes and desires (idealism?).

P.L. Travers is too smart to fall for that trap. She anticipated this objection. Long before J.K. Rowlings, Travers knew well the hardness of a muggle’s heart, and so, she met the skeptics’ objection head-on.

Jane Banks (who tasted the lime juice cordial) entreats Mary Poppins not to give it to the twin babies in the nursery: “Oh, no, please. They’re too young. It wouldn’t be good for them. Please!”

Mary ignores Jane’s well-intended plea, of course, and “…tipped the spoon toward John’s (baby’s) mouth…and by the few drops that were spilled on his bib, Jane and Michael could tell that the substance in the spoon this time was milk.”

I wonder how many Roman Catholics receiving Holy Communion on a Sunday have as much faith in the reality of Transubstantiation as Jane and Michael did that day on Cherry Tree Lane!

But back to Chapter 2 (The Day Out). Bert, the match-man we met earlier, is drawing two-dimensional chalk pictures on a sidewalk. One of his panels depicts a particularly idyllic country scene. “Why don’t we go there – right now – this very day? Both, together, into the picture. Eh, Mary?” And so, they do!

What follows is a fabulous ‘country day’ experience, complete with afternoon tea and a ride on a merry-go-round.

This section deserves a special note. Throughout her book, Travers leaves clues to let us know that what Jane and Michael are experiencing is real, not an illusion, fantasy, or dream. The first example of this is the drops of milk on John’s bib; later, encounters with gingerbread, paper stars, and snakeskin will serve the same function.

“The Day Out” contains a similar, but totally unintended, clue – this time not for Jane and Michael but for us, the readers!

Long after Travers wrote Mary Poppins, mathematicians confirmed that Travers’ account of dimensionality is accurate. Information, it seems, is a two-dimensional quantity; all the information contained in a three-dimensional space can actually be mapped onto two dimensions.

Think hologram; think black hole. A two-dimensional chalk drawing can, in fact, encode all the information needed to generate a three-dimensional space and a four-dimensional experience (time added).

In Chapter 3 (Laughing Gas), Mary and the children pay a visit to her uncle, Albert Wigg. Imagine their consternation when they find Uncle Wigg, not with his feet on the floor, but rather floating in air!

Mary is not surprised. She’s seen this before. Whenever Uncle Albert laughs on his birthday, he fills up with what he calls “laughing gas” and overcomes the force of gravity. Of course, Jane and Michael are astonished…but not for long. Soon something strikes them as funny, and they too leave their feet and join Uncle Albert “on the ceiling”.

“‘Well!’ said Mr. Wigg, looking very surprised indeed. ‘Don’t tell me it’s your birthday, too?’

Jane shook her head.” Mr. Wigg can only transcend gravity once a year. Jane and Michael are not so restricted. It seems that even by Chapter 3 Jane and Michael are farther up the Sufi hierarchy than Mary’s uncle.

But what of Mary herself? “‘Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins, do come up,’ interrupted Michael. ‘Think of something funny…’“

“‘Ah, she doesn’t need to,’ said Mr. Wigg, sighing. ‘She can come up if she wants to, even without laughing – and she knows it.’“

In Chapter 8 (“Mrs. Corry”), Mary takes the children to a gingerbread shop. There, they purchase “a baker’s dozen” of gingerbread slabs, each of which comes with a “gilt paper star.”

As they leave the shop, Jane and Michael “turned and looked behind them”. The shop had disappeared…but not the gingerbread.

This is another example of that important teaching technique employed by Mary (and Travers). Just as in Chapter One, the drops of milk on John’s bid prove that the apparent metamorphosis is actual trans-substantial, so now in Chapter 8 it is the gingerbread (and gilt paper stars) that prove that the gingerbread shop was real and not an illusion or a dream.

But back to the story. Jane and Michael carefully put their gilt paper stars in safe places in their room. Later that night, as they pretend to sleep, they see Mary, rummaging through their belongings.

She leaves the house “…carrying a market basket, and in the basket was something that seemed to give out a faint, mysterious light”.

Shortly, we learn that the basket contains the children’s paper stars. Mary meets Mrs. Corry and her helpers from the shop, and together they climb a pair of ladders and begin gluing these paper stars to the sky, where they “began to twinkle furiously”. Astrogenesis?

Jane and Michael get out of bed, look through their belongings, and find that their stars are indeed gone. (In this case, it is the absence of the stars that proves the reality of the experience: the empty tomb.)

Mary and Mrs. Corry have affixed them to the sky, where they twinkle like every other star in the night. Jane asks, “What I want to know…is this: Are the stars gold paper, or are the gold paper stars?”

Jane’s question is the lesson of this chapter. She assumes that either stars are gold paper or that the gold paper is stars. Her thinking is linear. If stars and gold paper are the same, then either one is the origin of the other.

Jane doesn’t consider the possibility that both propositions could be true simultaneously.

The same logic is at work in the Christian doctrine of Eucharist. The communicant incorporates the body and blood of Christ in the form of a wafer of bread and a sip of wine, and by that, every act the communicant is incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ.

Likewise, Tanya, a foundational work of Hasidic Judaism, states: When you think a thought, you are greater than that thought. But when that thought is of Torah, which is rooted in God (and is God), that thought is greater than you, and you become absorbed into the thought, and in this way you and God are one.

There is another lesson encoded in this episode. An implicit commonsense assumption underlies Jane’s inquiry: a “thing” must consist of an immutable substance and a function (attribute?) consistent with that substance. By extension, everything in the world can be analyzed into “x” and “not x”: stars and not stars, paper and not paper.

Though Jane does not realize it, her question is really a reductio ad absurdum for any such logical dualism. Her question proves that the notion of an underlying substance with a self-consistent function is nonsensical.

The world is indefinitely mutable. Anything, made of any substance, can fulfill any function.

As we learn from modern-day Structuralism, the totality determines the function of each of its parts, and any “thing” can perform any function within that totality. We are discovering that the same might be true of the animal (human) body, but that is a topic for another essay at another time.

Finally, several chapters involve dialog between animals and humans. In Chapter 4, (“Miss Lark’s Andrew”) Mary speaks at length with Andrew, Miss Lark’s dog, but Jane and Michael cannot understand their conversation. Later, however, in Chapter 10 (Full Moon), Jane and Michael converse freely with the animals.

These strange phenomena are explained in Chapter 9 (John and Barbara’s Story). John and Barbara are infant twins…and they are entirely conversant in the language of animals and even of nature (e.g., sunbeams and wind).

P.L. Travers explains that all babies are omniglots, speaking and understanding the language of all creatures, animate and inanimate (if indeed that is even a valid distinction).

All babies are natural (uninitiated) Sufis, sharing from birth in God’s knowledge. Unfortunately, by about the age of one, almost all children forget their universal knowledge of language and struggle now to learn just a single language, their parents.’

Mary is helping Jane and Michael relearn the language of creation.

Here we have a case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. According to Genesis, early humans enjoyed a universal language and the very first humans apparently communicated with animals as well.

There may also be a suggestion here that from God’s perspective, we still live in Eden. Perhaps it is not that Eden vanished or that we were driven out; perhaps we have always been in Eden all the time but, like Jane and Michael, we have just forgotten how to see it. C.S. Lewis suggests something similar in The Great Divorce.

Chapter 10 (Full Moon) is the critical turning point in the story. Jane and Michael are now able to dialog with animals (at the zoo). And at the end of this chapter, they finally come to accept without reservation that the experiences they’ve had with Mary are real, not products of a dream or a fantasy or an illusion.

While at the zoo, they are introduced to a great King Cobra, Hamadryad, “the Lord of the Jungle.” For the first time in Mary Poppins, we meet a creature who is apparently further advanced in the Sufi hierarchy than Mary.

For the first time in the entire story, Jane and Michael are formally instructed in Sufi doctrine…but not by Mary Poppins, rather by the great teacher himself, Hamadryad:

“Tonight, the small are free from the great and the great protect the small (the lion and the lamb in Isaiah)... It may be that to eat and be eaten are the same thing in the end (Eucharist)… We are all made of the same stuff…the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star – we are all one, all moving to the same end.”

“Remember that when you no longer remember me… Bird and beast and stone and star – we are all one, all one… Child and serpent, star and stone – all one.”

Hamadryad presents Mary with one of his shed skins as a birthday present, and he writes on it an inscription: “A Present from the Zoo.”

The next morning over breakfast, Jane and Michael tell each other about the marvelous “dream” each one had the night before. Soon they realize that they both had the same dream. Jane immediately grasps the enormous import of this discovery: “We can’t both have dreamed the same thing… Then it couldn’t have been a dream at all… It must have been true.”

But the power of commonsense (naïve realism) is overwhelming, especially when you’re older than 7. Jane, frightened by her own thought, walks back her profound insight; she concludes, “Then it must have been a dream…after all.”

But not so fast! Only now is it time for the climax! Michael Banks, “staring, open-mouthed at Mary Poppins…pointed, and Jane also saw what he was looking at. Round her waist, Mary Poppins was wearing a belt made of golden scaly snakeskin, and on it was written…’A Present from the Zoo.’”

There is no longer a shred of doubt in Michael’s mind that the experiences he has had with Mary have been real…no matter how much those experiences violate the canon of “commonsense”.

The conversion of Michael Banks is complete. But what about us? Are we converted too? Was this beautifully symbolic sacrament efficacious as promised?


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.




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