“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!

A Spiritual Journey Starting on a Perilous Mountain Road in Queensland

a view of the Macpherson mountain range
a view of the Macpherson mountain range

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find the Macpherson mountain range, part of the Great Dividing Range – one of the places I love. The road leads from Southport via Nerang up through Mount Tamborine to the town of Canungra where you may continue your journey to one of two mountain resorts: Binna Burra or O’Reilly’s. I was negotiating the mountain passes on the way to O’Reilly’s. In the passenger seat was my18 year old niece Caroline, who was visiting Australia for a month (where I lived at the time).

Caroline had mentioned that she and her friend Jo (her fellow traveller to Australia) had gone to Sydney to stay in a house of students who they knew nothing of. And discovered that they were all committed Christians – just like Caroline and Jo. Caroline found that wonderful. I said, “Well, like attracts like” – for me as a New Ager I believed that this apparent coincidence was the operation of the Universal system / the principle of  “reality follows thought.” But Caroline was having none of this. “No, it was God,” she said.

I didn’t want to argue with her. Especially as I was driving up a perilous mountain road at the time. My own beliefs were a mixture of NeoPaganism, Pantheism and Eastern Mysticism. I pursued gurus, tried Buddhism, practised eastern forms of meditation and various esoteric philosophies, teachings and techniques.

I prepared to go into “indulgent tolerance” mode whilst we climbed higher up the mountain range. It was because of that very black-and-white “certainty” that I had long mistrusted evangelical Christianity.

But Caroline then launched into a full exposition of the gospel and of the fact that Jesus Christ had come to bridge that divide between God and humankind; and when we reached our cabin in the resort, she drew for me a picture of a cross bridging that chasm. All the time I was in tolerance mode. I didn’t need evangelising. I considered myself knowledgable about the bible, & had been good at R.K. at school. So I just let Caroline do her thing, until she at last got distracted by a  snake lying in the path.

For the next year I continued in my usual way, following my own spiritual interests, occasionally thinking of this episode. OK I hadn’t liked being evangelised. But I was impressed by her conviction, by her belief that her religion wasn’t a private matter, it was to be shared; and by her courage. I thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” It’s a personality thing too, but I actually believed everyone has a right to their own beliefs & it was no business of mine to try and convert someone else to my beliefs. But Caroline believed she not only had a right but a responsibility to tell me what she believes. I was impressed by that. But I didn’t do anything about it until 1991 a few months after I’d returned to live in England, with my parents in their Kent village near Tonbridge – and it changed my life.

Have you ever changed your life as a result of a conversation with one person? Or was it a long process, involving several people, covering a number of years? Please share your own stories with me!

Places of Inspiration Part 7: Memories, Dreams, Reflections Among the Kookaburras on an Australian Mountain Lookout

Margaret Silf wrote a book called Sacred Spaces in which she explored the various stages of our life-journey in terms of geographical locations. Everything has a symbolic meaning – bridge, crossing place, lake, wood, ford, spring, river, well  – in the ancient Celtic view of the world. And I believe many of us find that the value of a special place lies not only in itself but in the extent to which our memories, dreams and reflections are threaded through it.

So it is for me with Jolly’s Lookout – number 7 in my mini-series Places of Inspiration. Halfway up a mountain near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, it’s a place where I’ve meditated, socialised, and reached turning points in my life. Jolly’s Lookout is equally loved by picnickers and kookaburras.   It holds memories and has inhabited my dreams. For me, past and future coalesced here. The view has it all, in terms of “soul space” – a valley, a city, a bay, distant mountains. All these hold a symbolic power, a special symbolism for the life-journey.

 

Tourist Map of Australia
Tourist Map of Australia

You can see where Brisbane is here on this map of Australia.

Jolly’s Lookout  – so named after William Jolly, the first Lord Mayor of Greater Brisbane – is a place of happy times  – lunchtime picnics, night-time barbeques, gatherings of local groups who come to eat together then play games afterwards.  In 2007 I was able to take my 12-year-old daughter there and she has shared my love of this inspiring mountain viewpoint ever since.

My daughter Abigail at Jolly's Lookout
My daughter Abigail at Jolly’s Lookout

This lookout is in open eucalypt forest. If you continue up the road from here to Mount Glorious, you may hear bellbirds, and enjoy walks through subtropical rainforest.

a possum in a tree at night
a possum in a tree at night

At night it is the haunt of possums, their bright eyes shining in the torchlight as  visitors come to hang their storm lanterns from the overhanging branches and prepare their barbecues.

A close up of a goana
A close up of a goana

And often if you come at dusk you will find a visiting goana, also keen to share your picnic.

kookaburra
kookaburra

It is likewise home to numerous kookaburras, who love their opportunity to swoop and snatch from a hapless visitor’s fork perhaps a nice chicken breast or piece of steak, foolishly lifted into the air, and held there for a split second before the mouth of the picnicker can close around it.

The view from Jolly’s Lookout is breathtaking. It takes in the Samford Valley, the city of Brisbane, Moreton Bay, and beyond that, further north, up towards the Sunshine Coast, the bizarre and fascinating shapes of the Glasshouse Mountains, so named by Captain Cook purely from the impression they made on him as he sailed past in 1770. During the time I lived in Australia – four and a half years between 1986 and 1990 – I visited Jolly’s Lookout many times.

picnic table at Jolly's Lookout May 2012
picnic table at Jolly’s Lookout May 2012

Is there a special place where you have happy memories, perhaps of wandering alone, or a place where you were part of a social gathering or party that comes vividly to mind whenever you think of the place? Are your memories, dreams and reflections threaded through it? Please share your thoughts about your special place, in the comments below.

Places of Inspiration Part 5: Sydney Opera House – Masterpiece of Human Creative Genius

So far in this mini-series, we’ve visited India, Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, London, and Sissinghurst in Kent. And today I’m taking you back again to Australia; to Sydney Opera House.

exterior view of opera house
exterior view of opera house

From the air Sydney Opera House looks like a waterlily at the harbour’s edge. Its location on Bennelong Point integrates it perfectly with the water. Close up, it reminds me of four things: seashells, the sails of a ship, the wings of a bird, or a waterlily. This building is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

I find the opera house stunning from every aspect, and even more so the closer you draw to it; and the interior of the building fulfills every expectation that may be raised by the  breathtaking glory of the exterior.

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Northern Foyer
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Northern Foyer
Inside Sydney Opera House
Inside Sydney Opera House

The story surrounding the creation of the opera house is as engrossing as the design of the building itself. The idea was first suggested by English composer and conductor Leonard Goossens in 1946. The Australian government showed vision by committing to a project that would take generations to fulfill and would win no particular administration any electoral advantage. Then they decided to run an international competition for the design.

The competition was won by a 38 year old Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, with a simple, almost diagrammatic sketch.

Sydney Opera House design sketch
Sydney Opera House design sketch

Work began on the opera house in 1959 and it took 14 years to build, opening to the public on 20 October 1973. Utzon’s vision of wing-like structures nearly defeated the civil engineers Ove Arup until the architect himself suggested the solution: to construct a sphere, then cut shells from it, each of which was a triangular shape.  Then there was a dispute over the design of the interior; in 1966 Utzon “left the job” and a new architect, Peter Hall, was put in charge of that. Utzon never returned to Australia again, though he later met Arup again on friendly terms.  The opera house has progressively increased in stature ever since. And Utzon, although he never returned to Australia to see his beautiful building in reality, knew before he died that it had won UNESCO World Heritage status as “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.

The story is not without its tragedies, blunders, scandals, detractors and failures of communication; yet ultimately imagination, dedication and creative genius triumphed.

This building represents for me a synthesis of human ingenuity, artistry and skill. The poet John Keats said: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: /Its loveliness increases; it will never/ pass into nothingness.  I could never have believed these words might apply to a man-made structure – and I don’t expect  the Sydney Opera House to last for ever; but it is a building which uplifts by the sheer power of its beauty.

Another admirer, Louis Kahn, said: The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.

 The last time I visited it I also went with my family to see a performance of  Verdi’s Aida there in the opera theatre: an unforgettable  and moving experience.

Sheila, Abigail, Jamie & David in front of Sydney Opera House
Sheila, Abigail, Jamie & David in front of Sydney Opera House

Have you ever visited Sydney Opera House? What are your experiences and feelings about this building? Or perhaps you prefer another of the world’s great buildings – there are many candidates. I’d love to know your own choices!

Places of Inspiration Part 3: Ayers Rock/Uluru, Evidence of Spirit Ancestors

Here is an image of a famous landmark:

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How do you think of Ayers Rock (aboriginal name Uluru)? Do you think of it as that rock in the middle of Australia, which presents a climbing challenge to all tourists? Or do you think of it as a place sacred to the aborigines, a jewel at the heart of this great continent?

Two and a half years ago, I visited Uluru for the second time. As we stepped out onto the tarmac at Ayers Rock Airport at midday local time, the first thing that struck me was intense colour and light.  Glowing ochre earth, blue sky, pearl white ghost gums – and Uluru itself in the distance, dusky pink

Uluru, an iron-rich sandstone monolith arising from the heart of Australia, is sacred to the indigenous traditional owners, the Anangu.  It tells their stories, it shows the actions of the Spirit Ancestors in their violent conflicts during the Dreamtime, displaying evidence of their falls, their spear-thrusts, their lost shields.  Uluru itself has a strong, brooding presence, which you begin to feel as soon as you see it, and which grows as you approach and gaze. 

It speaks with its changing colours, amber, fiery red, deep brown, depending how the light falls upon it at different times of day, and its knife-edge shadows and fissures, flaking surfaces, indentations, pockmarks, wave-like effects, and most outstanding of all, the skull formation.

Skull Formation
Skull Formation

  On another level, it almost seems like a giant plasticine model which a giant has pressed his fingers into or dragged a comb down, or stippled and stabbed with a palette knife. 

For many visitors, this central icon of Australia is inextricably linked with the idea of climbing to the top.  “Go to Australia: climb Ayers Rock”. But, warn the signs at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, “The Anangu ask that you respect our traditions and customs, and choose not to climb it.”

We caught the shuttle from the Yulara resort, planning to do the base walk.  On the 9.2 kilometre trail around the Rock, it was evident that the number of fenced-off sacred areas had been increased since my last visit, pushing the path further out.  And yet despite this, a walk around Uluru is full of marvels.  The trees and shrubs are all much greener than you might imagine – the wattles, the fig trees, the desert bottlebrush.  The aboriginal cave-paintings fill you with wonder, every experience defeats your expectations – none more so than the Mutitjulu Waterhole.  We came upon it unexpectedly, tranquil and mysterious, the Rock’s multi-dimensional character reflected in its quiet waters.

Uluru glowing at sunrise
Uluru glowing at sunrise

The feeling I brought away with me after walking round the Rock was almost that of walking round a great and beautiful cathedral, imprinted with the devotion of many centuries. I can well understand how the Anangu revere the Rock, which has taken on an awesome spiritual power from the thousands of years of sacred ceremonies and teaching and story-telling centred upon it. 

For me it is another of my places of inspiration: a vist here allowed me a deeper insight into the meaning of the aboriginal culture, enriching my own understanding. Have you ever visited Uluru? How did you find the experience? And if it has only ever been a picture in a brochure, or a news report, what has been your impression of the famous “Ayers Rock”?