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Archive for July, 2012

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 1: Stirred By A Scientist to Share a Childhood Religious Experience

What’s the difference between nature or music appreciation… and a mystical experience?

Early Morning Mist, Beddgelert, Wales (deryckdillon.co.uk)

Early Morning Mist, Beddgelert, Wales (deryckdillon.co.uk)

When does “being moved by something beautiful” become a religious experience?

Surely the criterion for a mystical experience is that it changes your life?

In my case, it did.

My early childhood mystical experiences ultimately led me on a spiritual journey of many years – which, along the way, bore fruition in my novel “Mystical Circles”, and is now bearing fruit in my new novel  “A Passionate Spirit.”

And for me this spiritual journey didn’t start by opening a book or listening to a clergyman. It started with a direct personal encounter with Divine Reality.

And the person who encouraged me to take it forward was a Scientist.

The name of the scientist was Sir Alister Hardy, Marine Biologist, who wrote the book “The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of Man the Religious Animal.”

Sir Alister Hardy, founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre, and winner of The Templeton Prize 1985

Sir Alister Hardy, founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre, and winner of The Templeton Prize 1985

At the University of Wales, Lampeter, you’ll find the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre. Find out about it here if you want to enquire further, or contribute an experience of your own.

Sir Alister found in a study of 3000 contributed experiences that there were 21 triggers for spontaneous mystical experiences. These included such things as childbirth, the prospect of death, illness and crises in personal relations. But top of the list came  depression/despair, and then prayer and meditation, and then, natural beauty.

A few months before my 17th birthday, I wrote to Sir Alister, having read an article in The Times about him.

He appealed “to all those who have at any time felt that their lives have been affected by some power beyond themselves, to write an account of their experience and the effect it has had on their lives” and to send it to him.

I wrote the story of my childhood religious experiences, and sent it to Sir Alister. In his reply to me, he wrote that my experiences were “the feeling of an ecstatic joy in relation to the universe brought on by some particular aspect of nature… what Rudolf Otto called the numinous, the sense of the Holy.”

Thus began a journey of many years – a fascinating journey of spiritual enquiry and research – and several more mystical experiences along the way.

For me, then, University intervened, but after my graduation and return home, I wrote to the R.E.R.U. at Oxford again.

“What can I get involved in?” I asked. “How can I further my spiritual search?”

Edward Robinson, the new Director, replied, and pointed me to this organisation:

The Centre for Spiritual and Psychological Studies.

(find out about more about my involvement with this organisation here)

And thus, with a weekend symposium in rural Gloucestershire and a group of diverse and sometimes eccentric people of many religious backgrounds (celebrated, in fictional form, in my novel “Mystical Circles”) I began my long spiritual journey.

But don’t forget, as T.S. Eliot says in his poem ‘Little Gidding’, the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time (tweet this).

My first childhood religious experience involved a mountain in the early morning. And my journey took me to another mountain at the other side of the world where I was to recapture that same experience, early in the morning.

In this mini-series I’m going to tell you about some of my “glimpses of eternity” and also introduce you to a few of the fascinating individuals who’ve been way-markers on that spiritual journey.

Join me in my next few posts and find out about my roll-call of spiritual guides (saints as well as sinners).

And do share your own experiences with me, if you wish!

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 2 – The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader

This sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, doesn’t it?

"Holmes gave me a sketch of the events"

“Holmes gave me a sketch of the events”

The kindly professor in question is:

Dr Raynor Johnson, Physicist, and Master of Queen’s University Melbourne – scientist turned spiritual seeker.

And the cunning cult leader is:

Anne Hamilton-Byrne,a “self-appointed mystic” who led a cult proclaiming herself to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

I met  Dr Raynor Johnson at a meeting of THE CENTRE FOR SPIRITUAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES, a group which had its base in London.

It was run by a very correct, well-spoken and elegant lady called Alison Barnard who lived in Wimpole Mews, and seemed to have a talent for booking charismatic spiritual figures as Keynote Speakers at the various meetings. We met in the Royal Overseas League, St James’s Street, London. Speakers included the likes of Sir Laurens Van Der Post, Dr Raynor Johnson, and similar figures. I’ll be focusing on Sir Laurens in a later post.

RAYNOR JOHNSON  was born in Leeds, spent much of his childhood in Whitby, read Physics at Oxford University, and later moved to Australia to live where he became Master of Queen’s University Melbourne. He was influenced by the author Ambrose Pratt to study psychical research & mysticism, and he was transformed from “one of the most promising scientists of the age to a spiritual seeker.”

During his life he published many books on spiritual philosophy, psychic phenomena and mysticism. His most popular book is “The Imprisoned Splendour” (published in 1953).

The Imprisoned Splendour by Raynor C. Johnson

The Imprisoned Splendour by Raynor C. Johnson

I remember him as a gracious, kindly, modest man of immense spirituality and wisdom. I was bowled over by him, spoke to him after his talk, subsequently read many of his books, and wrote a letter to him at his home in Australia to which he replied in a letter I have kept ever since.

Of Raynor Johnson I think it would be true to say: I thought what he said was true because I was so enamoured of his personna.

After I read his books – particularly “The Imprisoned Splendour” –  I lived in an elevated state for several weeks. I have a vivid memory of walking up the platform at Charing Cross Station to catch a train, surrounded by people rushing to and fro, and I felt wrapped in a limitless joy and peace.  I understood why things are as they are, I understood the over-arching spiritual purpose of it all, and I felt at peace with it.

It was many years later that I discovered that Raynor Johnson was instrumental in starting the group which later came to be called “The Family” (an Australian cult which kidnapped and abused children,) together with Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the “self-appointed mystic” who led the cult proclaiming herself to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Raynor Johnson provided premises (called Santiniketan Hall) at his home in Victoria (from which he wrote an inspiring letter to me in 1976) and recruited middle class professionals who all subscribed to the bizarre beliefs of the cult whilst adding to its respectability. I knew nothing of this association during the entire time I was enamoured of Raynor’s Johnson’s writings and spiritual ideas, and continued to know nothing until a number of years later.

After one of the children was expelled from The Family, and exposed its practices to the authorities, the cult was raided by the Victoria police on 14 August 1987 – (as it happens, the year of Raynor Johnson’s death). Anne and her husband were arrested in June 1993 by the FBI in the USA. In August 2009 Anne’s grandaughter and a former cult member successfully sued her for psychiatric and psychological abuse and “cruel and inhuman treatment”.  She was also sued for misappropriation of money, and made a secret out-of-court settlement with a victim as recently as August 2011.

I believe that this kindly professor was exploited by a cunning and manipulative person who later went on, using his cloak of respectability, to commit evil acts  – but none of us are proof against being exploited or used.

However, if you follow the links and read of the case, I hope it will serve to help you understand why people do become deluded by self-appointed mystics, why they join cults, and why they become drawn in by false teachings.

Some of these experiences and reflections have played into the characters you will meet in my novel “Mystical Circles” – as well as those in my current novel “A Passionate Spirit”.

And perhaps the best postscript to this lies in these words: Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them.

(New Testament: Matthew 7:  15,16)

Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey. Do you identify with it? Have you ever been drawn into beautiful philosophical teachings by a charismatic figure? Have you been inspired by any books or authors in this way? I’d love to have your comments!

Musings From a Saxon Sanctuary – A Lesson of History: Success or Failure Turns on Quirks of Fate

Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon Sanctuary I only recently discovered.

It’s in St Peter’s Church at Wootton Wawen, situated between Henley-in-Arden and Stratford-upon-Avon. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.

Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the “manor”) of Wootton before 1066.  And I thought of him as I  looked through the exhibition. When William the Conquerer took over, he  swiped that land from Wagen and gave it, (as was the way of many English monarchs) to a pal of his. In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.

As I wandered around the church,  I mused upon the lessons of history, and whether I can learn anything from them, in my life.

Along with the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought  played into my musings – a recent TV programme on the 50 greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC TV drama production of  Shakespeare’s “Henry V”; and our planned visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III was killed, thus signalling the end for the Plantaganets and the rise of the Tudors.

Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind, in no particular order:

A Viking with “bad attitude” buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found  by chance 1300 years later.

Henry V triumphed at Agincourt, then married Catherine daughter of the King of France. Their son Henry VI was a bit of a wash-out as a king, and would have preferred not to be king at all; he shrank from the role whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Following Henry V’s death when his son was 9 months old,  Catherine  went off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.

When Richard III fought Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Henry was the rank outsider, and Richard would have been expecting to win. Shakespeare has him saying, “A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse!” He probably never said it but with those words Shakespeare exactly captures not only the poignancy and significance of that moment, but gives us a metaphor for human life many can recognise.

Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future – but whatever she achieved was only temporary. Her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.

So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune, and how they interface with our lives.

Consider the following:

What might have happened if:

– Richard III’s (metaphorical) horse had been available at the moment he needed him?

– Mary I had had a successful pregnancy which led to the birth of a healthy baby, thus securing a Catholic Tudor dynasty in England?

– if Harold had beat William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?

– if James II had won the Battle of the Boyne?

– if Charlotte, the beautiful daughter of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, (as beloved as Princess Diana was when she died in 1997)  had safely given birth to a healthy child, and lived to claim the throne and reign for 60 years, before Victoria was ever thought of?

– if Edward VIII had not met Mrs Simpson?

Some of these events could be interpreted as arising from errors of judgement and human failings; others from quirky twists of fate.

Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of the world; and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.

So what do I deduce from this? And is this something that can apply to anyone who has a dream or vision or sets out upon a course of action with a great goal in mind – such as a creative writer who would like their words to be read by many?

Simply that success or failure is not determined by hard work and striving.

Certainly “hard work and striving” cannot just be dispensed with. But perhaps we have to live with a healthy knowledge that that they may in a moment be swept away, and rendered irrelevant, by a quirky twist of fate.

What do you think? Do you share my fatalism? Or are you a historian who disagrees with my interpretation of English history?  Do consider leaving a comment!

The Novels of Susan Howatch, Love, Miracle Wine and the Language of Invitation

Image

The Trinity – icon by Andre Rublev

Do you want to be well-integrated, do you want to feel whole, happy, or in tune with your deeper self?

These are the questions that novelist Susan Howatch asks her readers in her Starbridge series of novels, and her St Benets Trilogy.

And then, when her readers respond to this question, they find stories with themes of repentance, forgiveness, redemption, resurrection and renewal. That, in Susan Howatch’s own words, is what her books are all about.

For anyone with spiritual yearnings, Susan Howatch’s books are manna for the soul. And I am one of those.

This icon by Andre Rublev is seen by some as depicting the three men Abraham entertained (as told in the Old Testament story), who turned out to be angels; or the Holy Trinity. Jesus is the centre figure, God is on the left, and the Holy Spirit is on the right.  The message is: at that table, there’s a place for us. This image represents an invitation to us to step up to the table.

A well-known miracle of Jesus is the one where he changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana, in Galilee. In that culture Jewish weddings lasted several days and it was vital to provide enough wine. So it would have been a major social disaster for the wine to run out. And when Mary, Jesus’ mother, said to him, “They have no more wine” his reply was something along the lines of “What is that to me?” Yet she turned to the servants and said “Do whatever he tells you.”

What he did is very well known. He instructed the servants to fill up several huge wine jars with water, and then to serve it to the guests. And then people started saying to the host, “Usually the best wine is served first. But you have saved the best till last.”

Wine here may be a metaphor for what we most need at this time.

And I believe that on an individual level, in our world, we need the message of invitation, acceptance, inclusion and love.

Despite all the obvious practical and physical needs we all have, especially in our troubled times of economic difficulty, and ideological strife, I believe this is what we need: the language of inclusion, invitation, acceptance and love, instead of the language of fear and violence and hatred and self-gratification, which often deafens us in our world.

What’s your take on this? What is the “wine” you feel we have all run out of?  Please consider leaving a comment!

Inspirational and Not-So-Inspirational Teachers… and Books Where the Student Falls in Love With Her University Tutor

My teenage son was talking to me about the Simpsons episode when Marge Simpson fell for her university tutor, while she was going out with Homer.

Steffan August, Marge Simpson's teacher at Springfield University

Steffan August, Marge Simpson’s teacher at Springfield University

We got onto the subject via inspirational teachers. He mentioned his options at school and why he’d chosen not to go with certain subjects. And what did it come down to? Yes, the quality of the teaching. Did he like the teacher? And did they make the subject interesting?

That was what it was all about.

A sober reflection.. and it reminded me of how vital our teachers are to us. If a subject is taught imaginatively, we love it. If we have a dull teacher, we’ll probably dislike that subject. We may even choose to drop it.

What a tragedy.

But Marge Simpson’s predicament drew me on to other aspects of teaching – by the inspirational and the not-so inspirational:

  “Falling for your university tutor.”

I immediately thought of how fertile a subject this can be for novelists. And yet there are few examples.

Malcolm Bradbury wrote his novel The “History Man”about university life in the seventies. It centred upon the dreadful Howard Kirk. He was the prototype of the libidinous university tutor of the early 1970’s; but also in terms of his sociopolitical theories and his whole worldview,  and how it impacted on his attitude to relationships, he was a man of his time.

Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk in the BBC TV adaptation of The History Man

Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk in the BBC TV adaptation of The History Man

In the TV adaptation of the book I remember one particular scene. Howard and his wife were sitting at the breakfast table with their children and he was having a go at her for giving the kids the choice of too many breakfast cereals. “Stop giving them so many options!” he snapped.

Another famous example is Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Beasts”, set in a New England college. As I read Oates’ account of a university seminar, and she described the reactions of the girl students to their tutor, I had a terrifying moment. It was truly sinister. I thought, “Was Joyce Carol Oates one of the people in my Contemporary American Lit seminar?” Was there a Junior Year Abroad student from the US sitting in our circle? Because she exactly captured the effect our tutor had on us; how we felt about him, how we reacted, the things he said, his personal style…

Then I worked out the dates Joyce Carol Oates would have been at university, and reasoned with myself – and breathed more freely.

The similarity, though, was still uncanny.

My first adult novel (unpublished) was set in a university; the main characters were undergraduates, and it revolved around relationships between the academics, as well as those between the students and their teachers.

Have you read any novels in which the student falls for her university tutor? It seems that they may be few and far between. But I’ll be happy for you to prove me wrong! Find out here about other books I love.

Romantic Moments

What are the most romantic moments of your life?

Cotswold house in a romantic setting

Cotswold house in a romantic setting

 As a mystery romance novelist I have my own ideas!

The setting for my novel Mystical Circles is a gracious farmhouse in the Cotswolds; surrounded by garden, orchard, and its own land rising up the steep side of the valley to a ridge overlooking  the panorama of the Severn Vale, it also boasts a fine tithe barn. It’s my idea of a romantic location. Though I will admit that some of the things that go on in it do not quite qualify for that description! For intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle.

Nevertheless, there are genuinely romantic moments in my novel. There is a sunken garden with a water lily pond; an African thatched gazebo reached by a winding path through azaleas and rhododendrons; and up the wooded slope behind the farmhouse, a hermitage, ideal for “one-to-one counselling sessions”. Also the sitting room, with its leaded window panes, through which the morning sun streams, tinting the oak floor timbers gold, and enriching the colours of the silk long- fringed rugs is often the venue for a romantic get-together; or maybe the library, with its mellow oak panelling, the dreamy atmosphere, the softly glowing lamps.  These are all suitable locations for romantic moments.

But in real life true romantic moments are few and far between.

To me, the essence of a traditional romantic moment is this: a serendipitous conjunction of beauty, happiness, dreams, and a loving relationship between a man and a woman. Notice my use of the word ‘traditional’!

You need to inhabit a romantic moment fully to claim it.

I can think of moments which had most of the ingredients of being romantic… except that I lacked the confidence to be fully alive to them.

You need to be relaxed, accepting, and totally at one in the moment.

These are some examples of romantic moments garnered from my own memories (the names of the ‘romantic heroes’ concerned are disguised!:

1.  lemon souffle in a restaurant in Albemarle Street, London, with Mr X

2.  on a London underground escalator when Mr X turned to me and said: “One day we’ll be together forever.”

3. On the shore of a certain Balearic Island, near dusk, watching a sea that looked like caramel silk, when Mr X turned to me and said “When I become Y (naming the promotion he was hoping to get, which we’d discussed), we’ll come back here and stay at the Z Hotel (naming the Hotel Romantic-but-Very-Posh-and-Expensive which we on that trip had been unable to afford to stay in).

Here are my further ideas of what would constitute a romantic moment:

1) A chance meeting with an ex-lover in a supremely beautiful place (and I spent ages trying to  make that work in a previous novel but it just didn’t come off).

2) The “bone fida mini-break” beloved of Bridget Jones –  in a fine country house hotel such as the one which Daniel Cleaver whisked Bridget off to, filmed at Stoke Park  (although it all went sour when they met up in the foyer with Mark Darcy and his attractive companion Natasha).

3) The spontaneous / surprise weekend in Paris in the springtime (referred to in a stage farce I greatly enjoyed, when the main character, a philanderer played by Leslie Phillips, spirited his mistress Janie off on just such a break, having purchased  beautiful lingerie to lay out on the bed for her, and was then interrupted by other visitors whom he hadn’t bargained for).

True romantic moments are few and far between in real life. That is, of course, the nature of serendipity. And it’s why romance fiction is the most popular literary genre.

I hope that when those moments come, you are able to fully inhabit them.

What are your romantic moments? Dare you let me know about them in your comments – disguising the name of the romantic hero, of course?

Books That Shock, Move and Change Their Readers

I have loved many books in my life, but the ones that stand out for me have three ingredients: archetypal themes, emotional charge and X factor. And they are the ones which can indeed change the way you see the world.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My three nominations will be grouped under the headings of the power they exerted upon me, the reader:

1) The power to shock and move

Shusaku Endo’s Silence, set in the 17th century, is the story of the persecution of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan. It has been called “Endo’s supreme achievement” and “one of the twentieth century’s finest novels”. In this book, the Catholic Endo explores the theme of a silent God who accompanies the believer in adversity. It was greatly influenced by the author’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and tuberculosis. During the years that have elapsed since I read this book, I have never forgotten the image of the Japanese Christians being tied to a stake at the sea’s edge, and forced to endure the sea rolling back and forth over their bodies, and singing: We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God. Somehow for me this stands as an image of a race, whose native religion is so different from Christianity, assimilating Christian theology into their own belief system, and expressing a faith which transcends personal suffering. How has it changed me? It has informed my understanding of the way human beings adopt different faith systems ever since.

2) The power to change your view of human nature

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered by some to be the greatest horror story ever written. When I finished reading this story I felt “scoured out” emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. This tale of how one man’s soul can be destroyed through the devious manipulations of another, is summed up in a terrifying image: the portrait that reflects the creeping corruption of a man’s soul, and whose destruction must result in the death of its subject. I felt the real villain of the piece to be Lord Henry Wotton who first stirs up the artist and persuades Dorian of his beauty, thus sewing the seeds of his eventual destruction. Beauty, and our perception of it and response to it, lies at the heart of this masterpiece. Since reading it, I have never seen human beauty with the same eyes.

3) The power to give new insight into human psychology

Dostoyevsky’ s Crime and Punishment

Another unforgettable moment is provided by this great novel, which tells the story of impoverished student Raskolnikov who determines to rid the world of the grasping old woman money lender. He persuades himself that his actions are benevolent, for the greater good of the community, and thus he has a high moral purpose. But when he is forced to kill the old woman’s half-sister, innocent Lizaveta, then his conscience starts its work. Again one moment has remained with me: when Raskolnikov is eventually compelled to give himself up to the police who have been long hunting him: It was I who killed the old woman and Lizaveta. This profound novel, once read, stays with you forever. And this indeed sums up the power of a novel which will change how you see the world.

What about you? Have you read these novels? Do you share my feelings about them, or disagree? Or perhaps you can suggest another  novel, which is for you more powerful than any of these? Let me know! I’d love to know your choices!

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