“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 4 – Cottingley Fairy Photographs and Esoteric Teachings

I want to be a very serene loving being in tune with the universe.

Theosophical Society
Theosophical Society

So said a fellow-member of my study group at  The Theosophical Society, at 50 Gloucester Place, London W1.

She spoke those words in answer to a question from my next inspirational figure. He had asked, “Why are you here? What do you hope to find?”

I’ve remembered her words for decades. And they appear in my romantic suspense novel Mystical Circles. Those words speak to my heart. Why? Because they seem to sum up the spiritual hunger many people feel, well outside the gates of  organised religion.

The Theosophical Society was my next port of call after THE CENTRE FOR SPIRITUAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES.  Ever-hungry for new spiritual experiences, I  alighted upon the Theosophical Society, and discovered the esoteric teachings of Helena Blavatsky, and started attending talks by another inspiring teacher.

His name was Adam Warcup, and unlike me he has sustained his commitment to Theosophy over the years, and still lectures at the Theosophical Society.

So what is Theosophy?

Theosophy, maintains its adherents, is nothing other than a body of Ancient Teachings. And the motto of the Theosophical Society is: “There is no religion higher than truth.”  But the first person who brought those teachings to the West and who managed to convey them in an understandable and accessible form was Helena Blavatsky ( on 21 June 2012 she was, together with Annie Besant, the subject of a programme presented by Melvyn Bragg on BBC Radio 4).

The idea that The Truth was to be found in this body of Ancient Teachings appealed to me strongly, as a spiritual seeker who had already  discounted what the organised religions had to offer.

And so I entered a world in which I heard, for the first time, of the Cottingley Fairy Photographs; of elemental beings; of the Devachan, (the Abode of Shining Beings), of visions of life after death much more detailed and vivid than those to be found in the Bible (as I saw it then). And fluent communicators who sounded intellectually respectable and who were able to express all these things in a way I found compelling.

I was so won over by what I heard at the Theosophical Society that the BBC producer I worked for in the Religious Schools Radio office in Portland Place asked me to go there and make notes on the lectures  for him, so that he might include an item on these “ancient teachings” in one of his programmes about spiritual seeking in London today.

Whilst I may not now, as a Christian,  subscribe to many of those beliefs, I still look at the world through the eyes of someone who understands what the other person believes. (click to tweet)

I think the reason for this is the level of my emotional engagement with those beliefs. I first heard of the Cottingley fairy photographs through a book I found at the Theosophical Society. I believed in the fairies at the time – as of course did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle several decades earlier, whose name will be forever closely associated with the case. Many years later Elsie Wright, one of the girls, confessed to having faked the photos. And yet there are those who insist on believing. And the story has an enduring fascination, as shown by the movie “Fairy Tale – a True Story”.

Fairy Tale - a True Story (movie)
Fairy Tale – a True Story (movie)

I  will always have empathy with all those who seek as I did, and rest awhile in these beguiling teachings.

I may also end with another quote, this time from Shakespeare, through the words of Hamlet to Horatio in Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5:

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Whatever you believe, does this ring any bells for you? Do you identify with this journey? Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey of the spirit. I’d love to have your comments!

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!

Searching for Love… And Craving Celebrity

In my last post, on the case of Jimmy Savile, I wrote about the dark side of celebrity.

We crave love, fame,wealth, success - but where is it leading us? (image credit: GoToSee.co.uk)
We crave love, fame,wealth, success – but where is it leading us? (image credit: GoToSee.co.uk)

We live in a society obsessed with celebrities – the gods of this secular age.

And we try to convince ourselves that fame would guarantee entry into a perfect region of love, wealth and success. Yet the reality for the famous themselves is often not as appealing as we might think.

There are many examples of celebrities who suffer from depression.

“It is strange,” observed Albert Einstein, “to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.”

The cure for loneliness, we are led to believe, is love.

And in our midst, there are those who feel unloved and unlovable. These people may not take a recognizable form. The most attractive people may be among those who feel unloved and unlovable. The rise of depression, anxiety and stress in our society provides ample evidence of this – as does the incidence of poor body-image, low self-esteem, and eating disorders such as anorexia.

It is rare to find love that is not conditional.

“All you need is love,” sang the Beatles. And as it happens, I’m listening to them singing those very words right now as I write this.

But the love we need must be unconditional.

Unconditional love is a very difficult concept for human beings to grasp. Only divine love can be unconditional.

The love of God can work through the most unexpected people – and that includes people who are not religious, and have nothing whatsoever to do with churches.

So it may indeed be that the cure for all this is unconditional love.

Compassion, humility, and gentleness are not the exclusive province of religious people.

I believe we taste something of that unconditional divine love in any place where compassion, grace, love and faithfulness are to be found.

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.”

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