Places of Inspiration Part 1: Exotic Marigolds, Mystical Mountains and Memories of India

I recently watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and found it a movie full of insight, humour and hope.  I vividly recalled my own arrival at Delhi Airport several years ago for a visit to Northern India, and the noise, the brilliant jewel-like saris, the garlands of marigolds placed around our necks. The images flooded in on me:  colour, chaos, begging children, families camping and cooking in the middle of the central reservation in major roads in Delhi. I relived the shock of seeing leprous beggars, the pity I felt on meeting girls who appeared to be only about 10 years old, carrying tiny babies on their backs, holding out their hands for free offerings of food or money; the disease and poverty, and also the spirituality, the beauty and the profound joy of India.

In ‘the Land of the Gods’ the Garhwal Himalayas – I journeyed in a minibus up a perilous mountain road, our final destination being Badrinath, place of Hindu pilgrimage, just before the Tibetan border. The road was lined with signs saying things like “Yours Hurry is Another’s Worry”.  We reached the mountain village of Joshimath late in the afternoon. As I inhaled the fragrance of a syringa bush there, I realised a local resident stood beside me. He remarked: “the might of God is all around” in a very casual way, reflecting what I was thinking and feeling at the time. And I thought: This wouldn’t happen in England. And if it did it would have a very different cultural context!

Our journey ultimately led to Badrinath. We arrived as dusk fell and there before us was the peak of Neel Kanth, luminous in the full moon. It was a sight I would never forget.  Since then I’ve seen a number of images on Google of Neel Kanth, and yet none comes near capturing the impact this mystical mountain had on me that night as I arrived in Badrinath.

There too, on the mountain path above Badrinath, I met a Sadhu – India holy man who lived in a cave. See my recent post for a photo of this holy man, whose tranquil expression made a lasting impression on me.

So to sum up my reflections on India: there may be squalor, social injustice, and dysfunctional public services, but this is a country of extremes, and I felt a visit here should also have a profound spiritual impact, as it did for the characters in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, transforming the lives of each one of them, bringing all of them clarity and moments of radical decision.

This is a personal reflection on India, and I know there will be many visitors who feel differently about it. Have you visited India? And what are your thoughts on this country of extremes?

Our Picture of Heaven – Static and Changeless, or Wild and Dynamic?

a sketch of heaven

What is your idea of heaven? If asked to draw an image of it, what would you come up with?  I’ve found that people may often be unwilling to either say exactly what they think heaven is like, or to create their own image of it. And then they seem held back by ideas of “eternal rest” or heaven as static and changeless – something we cannot relate to in this world at all.

Back in December last year, during a Quiet Day at my local retreat house, Offa House in Offchurch, Leamington Spa, we were invited by our leader, Revd. Ruth Tuschling, to “draw a picture of heaven”.  I went into the garden room – my favourite room in this retreat house, which has a tranquil, spiritual atmosphere – to find art materials laid out.  I took up oil pastels and watercolour paper and began to draw sweeping lines, not quite sure what they might reveal.

To me, heaven is not heaven if it is not dynamic and creative and vibrant. I’ve heard it said that heaven is a place where God “holds our lost dreams safe for us”. My dreams involve communicating, entertaining, captivating… a rushing wind would more closely represent them. Notice these are all verbs. They are all about activity, about “doing”. Is there no “doing” in heaven?

In the past I’ve thought of heaven as if it was a celestial version of Switzerland – snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, and alpine meadows bright with flowers. I’ve imagined glorious fragrances – pine, lemon, lavender, and have seen waves of golden gorse and purple heather, and heard the tumbling water of a mountain stream, birdsong, the music of the spheres… Further back, when I was younger, I visualised heaven as a reunion with my dog who had just died, Kimmings (a miniature silver poodle). He would come running to meet me, barking gladly, his tail wagging. But now, what image would I depict? Certainly not angels with harps on clouds. And dare I even make a representation that somehow limited this most inexpressible of subjects?

A Thin Line Between Space and Matter by Tamar Frank (photo by Sophie Mutevelian)
A Thin Line Between Space and Matter by Tamar Frank (photo by Sophie Mutevelian)

So instead, I began a sketch that, to my delight, I later found echoed by an art installation at the “Lost in Lace” exhibition at the Birmingham Art Gallery: “a thin line between space and matter“. I created something that conveyed, however obscurely, how I felt about being in heaven, what kind of experience it might be, in terms of sensation and consciousness. And when my curving lines had caught me up and swept me into the space at the centre, I added  a few words – any quotation at all that I could remembe, about heaven –  because, as a writer, I believe there must be words in heaven too, as words have given me as much joy as images.

Good Friday, The Magic of Believing, and Success and Failure

Once I tried to live by the magic of believing, in which positive thoughts always attract good circumstances into our lives – until I realised success and failure in this world cannot be understood in such a simplistic way. How straightforward life would be if that was so.

The truth is none of us know for sure to what we must attribute success or failure in life.  Some flourish in this world who by any moral law should not do so – including those dictators who hold onto power and wealth for many years by the sheer force of terror. And sometimes people can think positive thoughts, and it leads them on a path of suffering.  I think of the young girl at my daughter’s school who learned she had been diagnosed with leukaemia, smiled and said, “I’m lucky to have lived until now,” and then lived out the rest of her brief life with a sunny, cheerful, positive attitude.

I’m also reminded of the group of nuns who went out to El Salvador to offer care to the oppressed people, and all met violent deaths. Their story is told by Sheila Cassidy in her book Good Friday People.  Here she gives other examples, too, of people who set their faces towards suffering, just as Jesus “set his face towards” Jerusalem (where he would be arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court, sentenced to death, and crucified).  

I write this on Good Friday, when we reflect upon Jesus whose love took him on a path of suffering. It  led to the Cross – in worldly terms the ultimate failure.  And yet  the true significance of Good Friday is the triumph of love over evil. We do not flinch from the Cross but dare to wait at the foot of it – not to wallow in shame and guilt (as some suppose) but to receive the grace, love and peace poured out freely for us. And when I think of that grace, love and peace, there at Golgotha, the darkest of places, I can see the Christian resonance in these words from J.R.R. Tolkien: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

The Wailing Wall, Sacred Space and Topol

A recent 24/7 prayer weekend at church created a “sacred space” in a room, where people could come and reflect, and paint and write and draw, and meditate in a tent or tie a leaf to a tree or write their angst on a paper chain then break the chain and tear it to pieces and throw it away. But what struck me most was “The Wailing Wall”. Here people could post their anger and doubts and frustrations to God.

And what I discovered was the amount of anguish going on below the surface. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” said Jesus. If you’re a music lover you may have heard of these words in Handel’s Messiah. What Jesus says is: Let go of all your worries and anxieties and lay them on me. And in this lies the value of the Wailing Wall (as used in our 24/7 prayer weekend).

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem  – the tradition of pouring out anguish to God – from the Lamentations of Jeremiah through to Topol in The Fiddler on the Roof is a powerful tradition.

 Come to me… Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly is how Eugene Petersen expresses Jesus’ words in his wonderful paraphrase of the Bible in streetwise language, The Message. Come unto me all ye who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest.

Wisdom from Hermitage, Cave and Monastery

a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas
a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas

Sometimes you hear people say “What’s the use of being a solitary contemplative?” How can any of humanity’s problems be resolved by those who withdraw from the world, to live the life of a hermit or a monk? The vital role of the sadhu or holy man is long established in Indian tradition; and renewed interest in monasticism in our society in recent years has focused our attention on The Monastery TV programmes exploring the work of Abbot Christopher Jamison at Worth Abbey in Sussex. His book Finding Sanctuary is one of the finest spiritual books I’ve ever read.

Abbot Christopher Jamison
Abbot Christopher Jamison

 Gifts from the hermitage or monastery or cave may not necessarily come through words. Years ago, I met a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, in the Himalayas. He lived in a cave above Badrinath (the last Indian town of importance before the Tibetan border, and place of Hindu pilgrimage).  He was happy to pose for a photo. Thereby he gave me something of great value:  the serene, tranquil look in his eyes was one of the most powerful memories I brought back from India; an image which would endure for years.

Imagine receiving wisdom and prophetic insight from a solitary contemplative, whether this be sadhu or monk or sage.  Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk (1915-1968) was one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, and a prolific correspondent for thousands who wrote to him. Now, reading his  Precious Thoughts I feel as if I’m viewing daily posts from his blog. As I read each one I can see clearly the question his correspondent asked him, the problem that person was troubled by.

Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton
Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton

For example someone had evidently written to him concerned about the suffering that animals experience, and whether God cares, or has anything to do with it (a subject of interest to all animal rights activists). Merton replies: Who is to say that He does not in some way Himself suffer in the animals what they suffer? God cannot simply look on ‘objectively’ while His creatures suffer. To imagine Him doing so is to imagine something quite other than God.

Then there was his reply to a writer who had shared her impatient anxiety (something I know well) about the way things were working out in her life; and Merton wrote: Do not attach too much importance to any individual happening or reaction … you cannot scheme, you cannot figure, you cannot worm your way out of it. Only God can unlock the whole business from the inside, and when He does, then everything will be simple and plain.

Treasure the wise contemplatives of this world. They are indeed precious to humanity.

Water, Rock, Moon and Ancient Stone

Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire
Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire

Imagine the Warwickshire countryside in silence and darkness. A rabbit running from the headlights. Imagine a radiant moon and bright stars. The fresh rich smell of silage in the night. A tiny ancient church on a hill, lit only by candles within. Imagine rocks, water, Celtic prayers and songs – and you’ll know what I was doing last night.

Within the church with its rough stone walls are tall candlesticks and centuries-old choir stalls and pews. And a small group of people  with torches.

We were there with our leader, Annie Heppenstall , to commemorate the life of St Non, Celtic saint – the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. St David’s Day is 1st March, and St Non’s Day is 3rd March. To celebrate the highlights of the Celtic calendar in a special place like the church at Morton Bagot recalls the Celtic idea of “a thin place” – a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. I’ve written of this before in my blog post about Sacred Spaces. Many of us can name special places throughout the British Isles which we have felt to be “a thin place.” And this tiny church on the hill is one of them.

St Non of Wales presents, in common with many saints, an example of a life which encountered trauma yet overcame. She was an educated woman who chose to devote herself to life as a nun; raped by a prince of the region, she gave birth alone  on a clifftop in a raging storm. When the child she bore grew old enough she entrusted him to the church for his upbringing as many did in those days and resumed her life as a nun. Her son grew to become a holy man himself, and we know him as St David.

For us today, the example of St Non is one of a woman who suffered, lived through trauma and crisis, and triumphed over a bad situation,  coming out the other side, working faithfully with her changed circumstances and then courageously taking up her path again. On the site in Pembrokeshire where Non gave birth, to this day, a pure spring of water flows out from the bedrock where many have come to pray for healing.

SC Skillman

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

Interpersonal Relationships in the Hothouse Atmosphere of a New Age Commune

In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” I explore the interpersonal relationships to be found in the hothouse atmosphere of a New Age commune. This is a place where relationships and liaisons flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly. The group I describe is based in an idyllic farmhouse in the Cotswolds. It is a “closed environment” in the sense that all the people in the group spend a lot of time together, having to deal with all their emotions and feelings about each other, their conflicts, their doubts and fears. I also explore what people in these situations do about their baggage from the past. This particular group teaches its members to let go of their past. But is this, in fact, possible?

Extract No. 1 from ” Mystical Circles”:

For several moments then, they stood in silence, gazing at the Severn Vale spread out before them.

“Almost as good as the view from Beaumaris,” he observed wistfully.

“Looking across the Menai Strait to Snowdonia, you mean?” she said. “Beautiful.”

He regarded her warmly, clearly touched by her empathy.

“I might be a Londoner,” she said, “but I do appreciate the countryside. And I loveNorth Wales.”

“I’m so happy to hear that,” said Llewellyn.

A companionable silence fell between them, as they turned their attention back to the landscape. It was broken by the Welshman. “I wish there was more contentment among the others down there in the valley.”

“Yes, peace seems in short supply, doesn’t it?”

“It’s inevitable you’ve noticed, Juliet. I dread to think what you’ll have uncovered by the time you leave.”

She chuckled but made no reply.  Her stomach still felt twisted. Craig…  Craig… she thought.

“You probably wonder why I defended the group when we first met,” he said, “and I persuaded Don and you to come to Dynamic Meditation. It’s because I believe in the principles behind it all.”

“Maybe. But do those principles work out in practice? I certainly didn’t expect to find this level of frustration, anxiety and anger. I’ve found it in Oleg, Zoe, Sam…” She would certainly not mention Craig’s name.

“I don’t deny that,” Llewellyn said. “But, for my part, I’m convinced I’m in the right place. OK, we’ve all brought our hang-ups with us. And that prevents it from being paradise. But would paradise inspire me as much?”

“Surely it would.” She liked his grin. “It was good enough for Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson, wasn’t it?”

“No. Poets need this imperfect world. What sort of effect d’you think La Belle Dame Sans Merci had on Keats? Hardly the ideal relationship, was it?”

“No,” she admitted. “I’ll take your word for it, Llewellyn.”

But what she really wanted to know was who wrote that letter to Craig.

Llewellyn didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Then he said, “Let’s talk instead about your part in this, Juliet.”

“Mine?” She was immediately on guard.

“Yes, you, of course, Juliet,” he said impatiently. “You’ve changed everything.”

She threw a glance at him, and stumbled over a tree root, which nearly winded her. “How so?” she said, regaining her balance. “I’m only here as a journalist, Llewellyn.”

“No, you’re not,” he said unexpectedly.

“Oh?”

“Last night,” he added, “was a step in the right direction.”

“A step in what direction?” she asked.

“In the direction of getting to know you better.”

“I hope you haven’t misunderstood me,” she said. “I enjoyed reading and talking about your poems, but…”

“Come on, I want to know what you really feel; not just about the poetry but about many things.”

She shook her head. “That’s not in my plan, Llewellyn.”

Extract No. 2 from “Mystical Circles”:

 “The tank? What’s that? And what happens in it?” asked Juliet.

Conversation halted. James, Craig and Sam all swivelled their eyes to her face.

“Let me explain, Juliet,” said Craig. “I teach my students to seek their answers in the unconscious mind. A tried and tested way of doing this is in the isolation tank.”

“How?” she enquired.

Craig wore an enigmatic expression. Opposite, Zoe threw her a sharp glance. “The answers will come,” said Craig, “as you float. The tank’s filled with a thick, warm saline solution. You climb in, close the lid, and you’re in total blackness.”

Juliet shuddered. “I should hate that.”

Craig gave a tolerant smile. “Many love it. They find bliss there. It all depends on your viewpoint.”

“Where is the tank?” she asked.

“In a cabin of its own. The former cart hovel. Halfway between the barn and the goose house.”

“Ah yes, I’ve seen it.”

Craig waited a few moments. “Some of my methods may appeal to you more than others.”

They regarded each other slowly. “I doubt it,” she said.

Extract No. 3 from “Mystical Circles”:

Edgar said, “You don’t like things getting out of control, do you, Juliet?”

She felt stung. How dare he? But relaxing her professional mask, she laughed. “I admit it’s not a nice feeling, Edgar.”

He regarded her with a sardonic eye. “You won’t continue here for much longer and remain in control.”

“But that’s exactly what I propose to do.” She had no desire for a battle of wills. But if he wanted one, so be it.

However, when he next spoke he used a softer, more conciliatory tone. “I understand how you must feel, Juliet. Desire for self-determination; that’s true of each person here. When we first come we all intend to stay in charge of our lives. Look at Llewellyn, for example.”

“Llewellyn? What of him?” Juliet felt her jaw tighten.

Edgar now slipped into a more bantering style of speech. “Well, I understand he’s thought of little else but you, Juliet, since you both chatted together in his room on the night before last.”

She gripped both sides of her laptop. So he was leaping to conclusions about her and Llewellyn. She stayed quiet, but her face burned.

His eyes remained on her. He went smoothly on. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Since you first came, he’s quizzed me about you several times. It’s plain he’s got his eye on you. Go for it. You can’t stand back for ever.”

Extract No. 3 from “Mystical Circles”:

She experienced a pang of wistfulness. The farmhouse looked very peaceful: a visual representation of everything Juliet felt a community like this ought to be. Loving, tranquil, harmonious…

And yet, here she was, being eaten up by all sorts of worries. Zoe, and her infatuation with Theo. The doubts over Theo’s background. Then the fact that she still hardly knew who Craig was, and what he was about.

Was he hiding something? What really lay behind his dysfunctional relationship with his father? And was it any business of hers anyway? But the answer to that, she knew, was yes. Because she cared about it – despite all her best intentions, she cared deeply. And she still hadn’t resolved the mystery of who wrote that letter to Craig. The writer clearly loved Craig, longed for him to come quickly, had felt guilty about him in the past, but had now been forgiven by Craig. Juliet wanted to know who that person was. She felt she had a right to know. And she wanted to be rid of this terrible feeling in her stomach whenever she saw Craig. Was it yearning? No, impossible! All she knew was that it was tearing her apart.

And then there was the question of Rory and his unpredictable outbursts of aggression. Juliet knew Rory needed to be locked up. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not while Craig, for some twisted reason of his own, allowed him to run loose in this community.