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

How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Archetypes Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “archetypes”. An archetype may be defined as “a universally understood symbol or term or pattern of behaviour”.  If you read Robert McKee’s Story, you will find that the key to writing a great novel lies in “building archetypal elements into the story.” So what exactly are these “archetypal elements”? And how exactly can they help creative writers?

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

Inspiration for Creative Writers From Artists

Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I have in recent times found inspiration from two contemporary artists, Grayson Perry and Tracy Emin.

Both artists hold personal challenges for me…

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.

Do Creative Writers Ever Feel they’re On the Inside? Or are they Always On the Outside of Everything Looking In?

This morning I was listening to Howard Jacobson, comic novelist and Booker Prize winner, on Desert Island Discs, and among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this, “I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.” He gave this reply to the interviewer’s question, “Now you’ve won the Booker, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”

What a wonderful response she received to this question! And this seemed to me a true writer’s response. I identified with it absolutely. This is what I have spent my life doing. When I was researching for my newly-published novel Mystical Circles, I was an observer. I was on the outside looking in. I investigated many New Age spiritual groups and lifestyles and philosophies, and I always saw myself as being on the outside looking in – just as Juliet does in my novel. How anxious Juliet is not to get involved, not to be drawn in, to keep her objectivity as a journalist. It almost seems a personal threat to her to get involved. Yet as more than one character says to her,  “You have to come alongside us to truly understand.”

My character the Rev. Theo sees this clearly. “I’m all about people on spiritual journeys,” he says. “I’ll go anywhere, come in on anything.” It is no contradiction to him, a young clergyman, to enter a New Age spiritual group and to come alongside the members of the community and to live as one of them.

So you, my readers, will probably have spotted the apparent contradiction here. Do I believe in being an outsider looking in? Or do I believe in getting involved, coming alongside? The truth lies in paradox. And this is the paradox Howard Jacobson embodies. Of course he is on the inside! Of course he has arrived! And yet – he has the soul of a writer. And so he feels always on the outside looking in.

Do you identify with Howard Jacobson at all when he describes himself feeling like this, despite being successful in the eyes of the world?

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

HELLO WORLD! My First Personal Blog on The Writing Life

This is new territory for me – though I’ve written lots in my life I’ve never written it “nearly live” (apart from Facebook of course)!  Usually I correct what I write over and over again – even emails. Yes, I still long for those far-off days when Mr Darcy sat down and composed carefully-thought-out letters to his little sister Georgiana and impressed the watching Lizzy Bennett with his devotion. I love the radio programme in which celebrities read from and talk about their teenage diaries. I enjoyed listening to Meera Syal’s weight loss miseries at the age of 13.  Surely the very essence of the personal diary is that it is private and totally honest and never going to be read until after you die and it is unearthed from an attic (if you’re lucky). So this is “nearly live” writing, and a very exciting departure for me!