An Answer to Prayer, or Just Good Luck?

Often traditional Irish / Celtic prayers travel cyberspace, packaged as good luck messages inspired by folk religion and treated as if they’re magic words – giving luck and chance greater respectability to our way of thinking than the idea of prayer to a God who is listening and answering. So, today I ask: ‘Why pray?’ and ‘Does it work?’  Many do pray – although quite often they may not know to whom they are praying.

When people talk about answered prayer it may be so personal it cannot easily be shared in a way that’s meaningful or convincing to others. Also, stories of answered prayer can sound like synchronicity – see my post on the subject: https://scskillman.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/how-can-carl-jungs-theory-of-synchronicity-help-you-in-your-creative-writing/ The obvious answer is that God created synchronicity. And He can and does use it to answer prayer.

Additionally, when people find their prayers are answered, often they’re amazed – and immediately seek some rational explanation as if afraid to attribute it to God and thus betray a naive supernatural outlook – which of course is anathema to the post-modern mind. But I suggest that the post-modern outlook is not the best barometer of truth.

For example, last year I was suffering from a prolapsed disc which caused intense pain in my leg. The doctor could only suggest surgery, had prescribed strong drugs for the pain and referred me to a neurosurgeon. Although I was taking the painkillers they only had limited effect. I asked for prayer at a local Christian healing centre. A week later the pain suddenly vanished. It never returned. I stopped the painkillers at once. An MRI scan later confirmed the prolapsed disc had receded.

There’s no proof that this was not coincidence but I believe it was an answer to prayer.

SC Skillman

Dramatic Conversion Experiences, and the Mystery of Love versus Willpower

This is the second in my series of posts reflecting upon recent conversations with others about their beliefs. And this question came up: Is faith about emotion or the will? Quite often you may hear people say, “It’s all very well for you. You have faith. I wish I had faith – but I don’t.”

So where does this mysterious thing called “faith” come from anyway? Using Christianity as an example: some find they can take it on board intellectually, but it has never touched their emotions. For others, that rush of joy in the knowledge of God’s love is very important. 

I felt the presence of God on a mountain in Australia. But not everyone can have such experiences, wants to, or would even see mine in the same terms. Others might stand there and just think it’s a nice view.  We’re all different. Some have even had similar experiences crossing London Bridge in the rush hour. In his poem “Upon Westminster Bridge”, Wordsworth says: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty. (Interestingly enough, whilst on a Poetry Walk along the South Bank to Westminster, I learned that Wordsworth wrote this poem several months after the experience, going back to recapture it and put it into words. It had happened to him ‘by chance’ as he was crossing the bridge unusually early one morning).

I believe it’s wrong to suggest a major experience of this type is necessary, in order to be a “proper Christian”. CS Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was not a sudden experience. He always claimed it was logical and rational, not emotional. His influences were, as always, books and a few close friends.

Thomas Merton, the most prolific spiritual writer of the 20th century, wrote to one of his many correspondents: Beside the Spirit there are also hard external facts and they too are ‘God’s will’ but… may mean one is bound to a certain mediocrity and futility; that there is waste, and ineffectual use of grace… and we are restricted and limited to this. He understood this despite the fact that he himself had had a dramatic conversion experience before he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to begin life as a Trappist monk.

Ideally intellect and emotions should have a perfect symbiotic relationship in a fully balanced human being. But few among us are perfectly balanced. And if God is God, He can come to us wherever we are, at any time, and however imperfect and unbalanced we are.

SC Skillman

Virgin Births, Electric Monks and Troublesome Beliefs

I enjoy listening to people talking about their beliefs. This is a source of inspiration for me. So here are my insights from some recent conversations – and they’re about the Virgin Birth, the electric monk, and package deals of beliefs.

Many of us can fall prey to a certain mental habit:  we believe what we want to believe, we pick out bits and pieces of a “beliefs package deal”. If there are bits we don’t like, or struggle with, we can easily hand them over to Douglas Adams’ “electric monk” (a hypothetical labour-saving device that believes things for you, as featured in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). The “electric monk” is a metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in when we want to cling on to a belief but have permanently ditched any effort  to scrupulously examine it.  It is an image created by someone who had discounted God and religious belief: although I write as one who loves the wit and brilliance of Douglas Adams’ novels.

When it comes to Christianity, I once heard a clergyman say this: “Don’t feel you have to believe everything in the package deal in order to be a Christian. There may be some things you struggle to believe. Sit lightly to them for the time being.” (a paraphrase of his remarks).  I believe there was psychological insight in this advice. For “sitting lightly to” a belief for the time being, in the cause of a greater truth, knowing you must still wrestle with it later, does not constitute handing it over to the electric monk.

The Immaculate Conception / Virgin Birth is a very good example. I’m hazarding a guess that plenty of Christians struggle to believe it. And that’s perfectly understandable, because it runs counter to every law of nature we know.  “Why couldn’t He have been conceived in the normal way?” we might ask. “What’s wrong with that? He can still be the son of God can’t He?”

The trouble is, picking and choosing bits of the story according to what you find easier to believe, and handing the awkward bits over to “the electric monk”, isn’t logically acceptable – either to a religious believer, or to an atheist.

The Athanasian Creed states that Jesus “came from Heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man… was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and arose again on the third day… ascended to Heaven.. and shall come again with glory.”

This is a very challenging package deal of beliefs. Pick and choose which ones you find comfortable, if you like, sit lightly to what you cannot believe for the time being, but some time you will have to wrestle with it.

The electric monk is capable of holding many impossible beliefs at the same time. In reality, who declares a belief “impossible”? That conclusion can only be reached by someone who has scrupulously examined it from every angle.

SC Skillman

The Christmas List

Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.

There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her  in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.

And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.

Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.

So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.

But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list –  the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.

Perhaps the candle flame is there  to remind me of that.

How To Answer The Question at a Writers Workshop “Does Anyone Here Want To Become Rich and Famous?”

At a recent Writers Workshop which I attended in London, one of the delegates asked this question of all of us who sat at my table: “Is there anybody here who wants to become rich and famous?”

A silence followed, of about three seconds in duration, when it seemed that no writer present dared to admit to this hubris.

Then I spoke up, “Well, from the age of seven, I have wanted to become a successful published author and live by my writing.”

Nine pairs of eyes swivelled in my direction. Surely, by now, life had taught me otherwise? For what does it actually mean to “live by” your writing? It means a significant amount of reliable money, which flows persistently into the writer’s bank account over the course of many years.

And there is of course a universe of difference between living for your writing, and living by your writing.  It is a popularly-held belief that that the word ‘novelist’ is synonymous with ‘huge advance and three-book deal’, and ‘bestselling author living in a mansion on an island with panoramic views of the ocean from his or her writing room in the tower.”

Nevertheless, you do need money to live. And if companies are prepared to pay a liveable amount of money, year in year out, to, say junior clerks and secretaries and post-boys, why should not the world also accord that privilege to creative writers? And of course it does, to a happy few.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you buy books secondhand, are you delighted when you pick up a book for a bargain? How do you believe the world should reward those who write books?

Characters in Mystical Circles – will the Advent of the Rev.Theo Save or Shatter Craig’s esoteric Wheel of Love Community?

Juliet has already heard quite a bit about Theo from various Wheel of Love group members before he first appears on the scene. And what she learns about him raises her curiosity.  What exactly is this “wilderness experience” he has only recently emerged from? Why is James surprised he managed to get ordained? What can he possibly have in common with the members of Craig’s group? And what is he doing here anyway?

EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”

“Before we begin,” said Craig, “I’d like to make an announcement: one I feel sure will delight you all. On Monday evening, we’ll have Theo Lucas with us again. He’s agreed to come and be our guest speaker for the week.”

A buzz ran round the table.

James snapped his fingers. “Excellent. The Reverend Theo Lucas,” he said. “Splendid man. Though I still can’t believe how he managed to get himself ordained.”

There was a good deal of table-thumping and laughter at this, until Craig’s voice dropped into the swell of sound. At once, hush descended. Juliet allowed her eye to skim the diners. Craig’s presence and personal style exerted a powerful effect upon them.

“The Wheel of Love is a tribute to the dynamic power of change,” observed Craig. “And Theo fits in with that perfectly. We all bear witness to it ourselves. Which one of you can say you’re now exactly where you were on your life’s journey when you first arrived?”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The group burst once more into animated chatter, alongside much clattering of cutlery and glasses. But Juliet felt faintly oppressed by her vulnerability. She had no idea what to expect over the coming days. How would she balance her commitment to do interviews with the need to keep track of Zoe?

One thing was for sure. She certainly wouldn’t be seduced by Craig’s brand of healing and wholeness, if that was what it was.

She turned to Don. “Have you met Theo?” she asked in a low voice.

“No. But this lot seem to give him high marks. Doesn’t inspire much confidence, does it?”

Leaning forward, Rory supplied some new information. “I met Theo at a talk Craig gave in Tetbury last November. Chatted to him for twenty minutes. Wondered what he was doing there. Then I discovered he’d had a wilderness experience. Lasted eighteen months. Crisis of faith. And I understood.”

“You did?”

“Yes. Felt I’d met a soul mate.”

This startled Juliet. “He doesn’t sound like a regular sort of clergyman.”

“He isn’t,” said Rory. “Though of course my knowledge is limited.” His lip curled. “Haven’t darkened a church door for years.”

“Theo sounds more than a little unorthodox,” she remarked, “if he’s willing to come here.” She heard Don chuckle.

“Oh?” Rory queried.

“Well, for instance,” she said, “it’s clear from the brochure that Craig believes we’re in charge of our own destiny.”

“Quite right, he does,” agreed Rory. “But Craig welcomes anyone who’s in retreat from the outside world.”

This intrigued her. “What of you, then, Rory? Are you here to renounce the world?”

“Sort of.”

“You do it in style.”

Before he could reply, Don distracted her, holding out the dish of risotto Beth had passed him.

“Like some, Juliet?” he asked.

“Oh, yes please. That smells and looks very good,” she said.

Rory, she noticed, had handed the serving dish on without helping himself, and his plate remained empty. She wondered whether he knew something about it the rest of them didn’t. He put his water glass down, and continued. “After Theo was ordained he served for a couple of years, then vanished from the face of the earth for several months. When I met him, I understood he’d not long returned.”

James interjected. “He visited us here in February. Rory missed him that time. You remember that was the week you fell ill, Rory?”

“Oh yes. Dreadful week.”

Laura spoke. “We’ll all be delighted to see him again. Such a dear man. Not a spark of hellfire in him. He knows all about me. He’s very forgiving.”

Rory fiddled with his linen napkin. “I expect you’ll find him interesting, Juliet,” he said. “And you too, Don.”

“Last person to judge.” Don shrugged. “Count me out.”

Before Juliet could say more, Don added, “Put it this way. When Theo shows up, he may need protecting. From my influence.”

She started at this. Rory took upon himself the task of satisfying her curiosity. “Why?” he said. “You’re not tattooed with the number 666, are you?”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

When they were ready to set off, Juliet looked straight at the clergyman.

Theo wore an open expression on his face. “What your sister wants,” he said, “is to experience the spiritual reality here on this earth, in her own body.” He opened the door and stepped out.

She followed. “And has Craig delivered on it yet?” she asked.

There was a pause, as she wondered how Theo would take this question, together with all its implications.

Theo smiled. “I don’t think so. If he had, I imagine she would have told you, Juliet.”

He began to stride across the car park. Juliet had no time to consider her riposte to this evasive answer. She hurried to keep up with him, holding the omnidirectional mike. She checked the sound levels as he walked briskly past the north side of the house, and across into the orchard. It looked as if he’d settled on the same route that she, Al and Laura had taken last night on their trip to the top of the valley to look at the stars.

“Zoe’s told me nothing, Theo. So I’m relying on you. How do your beliefs and certainties stand up against Craig’s?”

“Certainties?” Theo’s tone continued amicable. “I’m human. And God’s God. He doesn’t need me. He chooses me. So sometimes I say: What’s going on? and Why am I doing this? or Why is it so hard?

“And yet,” she said, surprised, “you seem to have it all together. Mostly.”

He smiled, and headed on through the orchard, toward the gate at the other side. “I’m glad it looks like that to you,” he said.

“If this isn’t the whole picture,” she said, matching his pace, “how come you’re in the position you are?”

“A long story,” he said, “and one my bishop’s probably running through right at this moment.”

“I don’t imagine your bishop’s very pleased that you’re here at the Wheel of Love.”

Theo gave a chuckle in response to this. “I’m a renegade,” he said. “I’m all about working with people on spiritual journeys. I’ll go anywhere, come in on anything.”

“How do you find Craig’s teachings?” she asked.

“Some have wisdom in them,” he replied crisply. “And you?”

“I admire Craig’s idealism. I don’t accept all his theories. Nor do I believe in God.” They reached the gate.

“What sort of God don’t you believe in?” asked Theo.

“The Judaeo-Christian one, of course,” she replied, feeling slightly ruffled by this question. “The fire and brimstone one. The one who punishes the children for the sin of the fathers, even to the third and fourth generation. The one who is supposed to be so loving, not even a sparrow can fall without Him knowing about it, but He still lets the good suffer and the evil go unpunished.” She stopped. “You know the one I mean.”

“I certainly do,” he said. “And I’ve known what it’s like to feel very angry with Him.” Theo unlatched and opened the gate. “Are you angry too, Juliet?”

Sacred Places of Other Religions and Thin Places in Celtic Spirituality

Today Ezine Articles have published my article on “What can we learn from the sacred places of other religions?” (see below). I wrote this after a visit to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Central Australia, back in 2009.  The thoughts expressed in this article feed into the content of my new novel “A Passionate Spirit”. I am working on this now, and it is a sequel to my first published novel “Mystical Circles”.

I am particularly fascinated by the relationship between spirituality and place.  Last night I was reading “The Spiral – Crop Circle News” published by the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group. What stood out for me was the crop circle enthusiasts’ idea of places “where the Otherworld prevails and the veils are thin.” This connects to the awareness of the Celtic Christians that some places are “thin places” where the veil between this world and the spiritual world is thin. This applies to all sorts of places which have numinous quality e.g. Lindisfarne/Holy Island, or Iona, or St Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral, or Cheddar Gorge, or Wells Cathedral, and there are many other examples that readers of this may already be well aware of.

I am reminded of something Rabbi Lionel Blue wrote: “Eternity is all around us. Part of us inhabits it already.”

Read my article on Uluru here:

http://ezinearticles.com/?What-Do-the-Sacred-Places-of-Other-Religions-Have-to-Teach-Us?&id=5746009