The Fatal Flaw in Human Nature, Castles in the Air, and Dreams and Visions

My recent visit to an English Heritage castle, Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire, stirred up some reflections on life.20170501_124937-1

A visit to a medieval castle cannot help remind you that this great pile represents in stone the major themes in human nature: war, power, wealth, moral and economic hierarchies, social injustice and religion.

Of course what we choose to focus on when we visit a castle is conditioned by the story we attach to it; and when I visit my nearest EH castle at Kenilworth my mind is usually full of the intriguing romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, because that’s the angle English Heritage love to take.

However at Goodrich Castle, several different images whirled around my mind: a chapel in a gatehouse with arrow slits in it, murder holes, double portcullis, double gates, two drawbridges, luxury accommodation and all the contemporary mod cons for the aristocratic family and their friends, and the reminder that the 200 servants would have just dossed down anywhere they could find that was as warm and comfortable as possible.20170501_112727

I found myself thinking about three things:

First, social justice.

We’re very conscious of it now in our society, only because our eyes have been opened to it; perceptions have changed. To modern Christian eyes social justice has always been at the heart of the gospel. But has it? For many centuries the most dedicated Christians were oblivious to it. So has it always been there, and they were just wilfully blind? Or is it only there because we’ve formed a political agenda for it?

Second, religion and violence.

They were pious Christians with rich Chapels and they had all the arrangements in place to hurl boiling oil on people and shoot arrows at them through slits in the walls of their chapel even as they were worshipping. But can we ever judge those who lived in a different age by our own values and standards in very different times? Many who oppose the Christian faith now cite its history as evidence that it is sheer folly. To what extent can we judge the truth of a system of thought/ a religion/philosophy/worldview by its human history?

Third, human nature.

In church recently someone said to me, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed. My view is that human nature is fatally flawed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there could be some improvement.” This reminded me that the teachings of Jesus go against human nature. You cannot actually follow through the logical implications of Jesus’ teaching without battling human nature.

What is human nature anyway? With the benefit of hindsight we see the behaviour of medieval castle inhabitants as folly, and it all seems very black and white to us. Future generations looking back will see and think exactly the same about our behaviour now, in 2017, down in our very own microcosm.

Many of our own “dreams” are foolish, vain things – “wishful thinking, ” “pipe dreams”, “castles in the air”. They are not worthy of being fulfilled and are not designed to be fulfilled, but are destined to dissipate in the desert air.

All we can do is take little steps forward according to what seems right, or helpful, or appropriate to us at the time.

We always have to see our “dreams” in this context, of failed, fatally flawed, human nature. And to realise that we’re down here in the microcosm and can only see through a glass darkly, notwithstanding all our little dreams and visions.

 

 

Angels and Supernatural Experiences: Book Review

Angel on My Shoulder: Inspiring True Stories from the Other SideAngel on My Shoulder: Inspiring True Stories from the Other Side

by Theresa Cheung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where you feel the title and cover image give a misleading idea of the contents. An Angel on My Shoulder was passed on to me and I admit from the cover I thought it was going to be rather sentimental. Instead I found it totally rivetting and full of authentic stories. Several things fascinated me about these:

1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I have tended to think of them as synchronicity;
2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural;
3) Far than being sentimental, they had a strength and simplicity which was compelling.

Many described sudden and shocking bereavement, which most of us dread. Yet the authors of the accounts had experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which totally changed their attitude to the tragedy, to death itself, and to the meaning of life, and lasted for decades afterwards – providing the sort of comfort and reassurance that some might only achieve, if at all, with years of counselling or psychotherapy.

The author’s stance in relating these stories is very measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.

I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many stories told by different people unknown to each other who had all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed called Miracles.

In her summing up, the author refers to “organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to” and I found myself thinking that although the church does indeed offer structure and certainty, more and more people feel unable to identify with it, because it doesn’t seem to meet their needs and appears irrelevant to their lives. But the stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that God is finding other ways to connect with people totally outside the confines of “church”, finding ways to communicate his love to them – through angels.

Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Wildflower Inspiration from Highgrove

One of the loveliest things about England is the sight of our native wildflowers. wildflower meadow at Highgrove

For some it may be possible to take these things for granted, but to me, cow-parsley growing in the hedgerows, and bluebells appearing in unexpected places, is something miraculous – along with the oxeye daisy, the meadow buttercup, viper’s bugloss, red clover, the cowslip and many others exquisite plants and wild grasses. And so I was delighted to visit the Prince of Wales’ garden to Highgrove again last Wednesday, to see his wildflower meadow in its full glory, and to hear a talk on Plantlife.

I first wrote about Highgrove when I visited the garden last August, and then I noted how quirky, playful and imaginative it is.  However the wildflower meadow had been mown and it wasn’t the time of year to appreciate its true beauty. Now, however, we could delight in it as we learned about orchids and buttercups, about crested dogtail and sweet vernal grass.  Afterwards we enjoyed a glass of Pimm’s on the terrace then went into the Prince’s visitor reception centre the Orchard Room, for a delicious meal and a talk from Plantlife about the Coronation Meadows project, which aims to have created 90 wildflower meadows around the UK by the Queen’s 90th birthday. The talk was highly inspirational and by the end I was determined to create a wildflower meadow in a 4 metre square area of our own garden.

Later I was reading the Prince’s book on Highgrove Garden and I was particularly struck by what he says in his foreword. He wrote about the so-far 36-year process of creating a garden like this from scratch (in 1980 when he bought Highgrove there was nothing but extensive grassland with a few trees). Though he was talking about gardening, many of his words related closely to the creative writing process too:

He spoke of “moments of magic… light becoming dreamlike, illuminating intensity” and in such moments when we are “lost in wonder that such beauty is possible, inspiration can come.” It can “easily go wrong if you rush at it,” he wrote; and he advised against “forcing a plan or design.” Instead he believes we must “wait for an intuitive idea to form itself when the moment is right.” In many cases, he observed, it was “several years before the correct setting dawned on me.” He hoped that visitors, whether garden experts or not, would find something here to “inspire, excite, fascinate or soothe.”

Some may regard this view of the creative process rather high-minded; and of course, perfectionism can create its own problems;  and yet I believe there is much truth in these words, and they can be applied across many creative endeavours.

If you’d like to visit Highgrove take a look here for further details.

Thoughts on Three Dimensional Characters in Films and Novels – Inspired by Hugh Grant

On the Graham Norton Show which was broadcast on BBC One on Friday 16th April 2016, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkinsactor Hugh Grant said he took on the role of St Clair Bayfield in the newly-released film Florence Foster Jenkins against his previous intentions, because a) the script was so good and b) because he was attracted by the three dimensional character he was being invited to play – which implies he thinks all his previous characters were one dimensional.

Hugh said that the character he plays, St Clair Bayfield, is “a failed actor” who has chosen to protect Florence (played by the wonderful Meryl Streep) from true self-knowledge because he loves her. In the film, this character goes to extraordinary lengths to collude with Florence’s self-deception, by covering up her lack of ability as a singer and paying off bad reviewers and hiding her from the truth.  In other words he does what seems to be cowardly, morally weak, wrong and even cruel, for complex reasons that are not straightforwardly immoral, and because he is emotionally invested in supporting her and upholding her in the dream she believes in.

I haven’t seen the film yet and so cannot offer a review, but I was fascinated by the point Hugh Grant was making. Many love the characters Hugh has played so far during his film career, but his comments brought me back again to the vital importance of three dimensional characters, not only in persuading major actors to take on film roles, but also in winning success for a novel.

Three dimensional characters in fiction are those whose actions, words, relationships, behaviour and inner life all work together to win our empathy.  Just as the hallmark of a great leader is the ability to win people’s confidence, the sign of a great character in fiction is that we care for them deeply, whether their actions are “good” or “bad” or far less easily defined. Whilst reading a recent novel I was starting to intensely dislike a certain character, when his actions and behaviour were depicted from the viewpoint of someone else. But then the author took me into his viewpoint – and my attitude to him was transformed.

I believe we only need to see and understand someone’s inner life, to feel that empathy for them.

Do share in the comments. Which are your favourite three dimensional characters in fiction, and why?

The Power of Personal Stories, for Remembrance, for Empathy and to Ignite a Passionate Spirit for Change

The love of story telling which I learned as a young child, through reading adventure stories, grew into a passion to write stories myself.

Stories Are Powerful
Stories Are Powerful

Writing and reading stories is all about our ability to enter other hearts and minds and worlds, and to exercise and develop our powers of empathy. I hope that is what my story of A Passionate Spirit will do. How vital it is that we tell stories – not only fiction, but the stories of our own experience. We’ve seen that clearly over the last few days of remembrance.

On the day before Remembrance Sunday I sang with the Spires Philharmonic Choir in a concert called Sing Us Your Dreams at Earlsdon Methodist Church, Coventry. The Earlsdon Research Group had gathered together many personal stories from people who remember their grandfathers, their fathers and their uncles who fought in World War I and returned. We’ll repeat the concert with more World War I-related memories, on Saturday 14th November at Lancaster Priory.

During the concert we sang some very moving pieces: newly-written poetry by Avril Newey set to lovely and poignant music by one of our own choir members, Michael Torbe, including The Unknown Warrior and Reveille Rise Now, and These Thankful Fields, plus some famous wartime songs. In between our musical pieces, a narrator recounted to a packed church some of the stories that had been gathered from local people in Coventry, as part of the Sing Us Your Dreams project.  These were the stories of those who had returned – “the lucky ones”. Many were very powerful and moving. And those with stories to tell can still contribute at the Sing Us Your Dreams website.

We heard of returned soldiers haunted by images of having to shoot sick horses and throw them overboard off transport vessels; men so traumatised they never spoke of what they’d experienced – one whose granddaughter remembers being mystified and slightly frightened of him as he sat silent in the corner at Christmas parties.

We heard of a serviceman who was shot in the hand, refused to have his arm amputated, and came home with a black hand, which he showed to a woman who was about to give him a white feather on a bus.  We learned of a mother whose 15 year old son joined up in the raw excitement of recruitment posters proclaiming Your Country Needs You. He was killed and every Remembrance Day for the rest of her long life (she lived to 95) she laid a wreath on his grave and wept for the loss of her young son.  We heard of a boy who memorised the sight chart so he could convince recruiting sergeants he had good eye sight. We heard of a woman for whom, though her husband returned to her, it was never possible to recover their former life together, because, as she later reported, “in his heart he never really left the army.”

I thought of my own teenage son.  If we had been there, in 1915, I as a mother may have seen him, perhaps, as young as 14, so excited by the propaganda that he was prepared to falsify his birth certificate to join up and go to the front line.

We heard of those who were “lucky” – yet the devastation of war not only kills people, it destroys countless other lives for decades through the damaged minds and bodies and spirits of those who return.

All personal stories which transported me back to the reality of life, at that time, then opened it up with vivid freshness.

I feel I can understand those who were silenced by their terrible experiences. And yet thank God for those who have been able to tell their stories, so they might be passed down, for our compassion and empathy, which may strengthen in us another passionate spirit… a powerful resolve to do what it takes to change the future.

Believing in Dreams

It is a dream… of what has never been… true, it has never been, and therefore, since the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.

William Morris Strawberry Thief design
William Morris Strawberry Thief design

These words are from William Morris the great Victorian designer. His dream was that everyone would “have his share of the best”; he longed to see art at the centre of everyone’s lives so that they might “always  have pleasure in the things that they use.”

Right now (June-September 2015), there is an exhibition of the work of William Morris and his contemporaries at Compton Verney, an art gallery very close to where I live in Warwick, a place I love visiting.

I love William Morris designs (as you’ll see from a former post on this blog) and have just bought a tapestry shoulder-bag with the Strawberry Thief design on it.. True, art and design in our lives often has a monetary value; this seems to be the nature of human life.

But to me, William Morris’s dream of everyone having his or her “share of the best” is the ultimate democracy, the democracy of ‘value’ and quality of life, above all else, whatever our circumstances. As we know this dream is very far from being realised in our world. But how inspiring William Morris’s words are, and how encouraging his vision, for those of us who dream, and have high ideals.

People of Inspiration: Russ Parker, Poet, Priest, Author, and Champion of Celtic Spirituality and Healing Dreams

My upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit tells the story of a young woman who defies a sinister spiritual healer.

A Passionate Spirit, the new paranormal thriller from SC Skillman, due to be published by Matador on 28 November 2015
A Passionate Spirit, the new paranormal thriller from SC Skillman, due to be published by Matador on 28 November 2015

The novel is about a conflict between good and evil, and I am fascinated by the idea of great beauty used to mask malevolent spiritual power. But the story also deals with the subject of healing, and what part psychic and spiritual power can play in this.

Among many who inspired me during the course of research for this novel I may number the Rev Russ Parker, whom one may describe as “an unconventional priest” (along with one of the principal characters in my novel).  He writes non-fiction books and poetry, he works in such areas as international listening and reconciliation, healing wounded histories, both of individuals and communities, and he explores the ways in which dreams and Celtic spirituality and a much freer attitude to spiritual matters may all open up our being and contribute to our healing.

I first heard Russ Parker speak at a local retreat centre several years ago, and he made a strong impact on me then. Since then I’ve heard him speak a number of times and have also attended a weekend retreat led by him about the Road to Emmaus. In addition I’ve read several of his books. Foremost among those which most impressed me are: Healing Dreams, Requiem Healing, Healing Death’s Wounds, and Wild Spirit of the Living God. So impressed was I by Russ, that I suggested a particular poem of his be read aloud at my father’s funeral, with a few personal biographical twists. This poem is called “The View From Here”. Afterwards some who were at the funeral service said, “That was the most uplifting funeral I have ever been to.” I believe this was in no small part due to the power of Russ’s poem.

Russ manages to be wise, vulnerable, poignant, down-to-earth, moving and funny during the sessions he leads. I don’t believe it’s possible to come out without having been entertained, inspired, uplifted, intellectually challenged or emotionally stirred – unless you’re in a coma at the time.

I listened to Russ speaking about Visions five years ago at a church in Derby. He spoke about how a vision takes an increasing grip on your life. Visions, he said, are something God brings that disturbs us. Sometimes they have their timetables. This is the way vision work, he said: it may be that God spoke to you two years ago, but has put you on pause. Maybe today – or at a time of His choosing in the future – he will press the unpause button.

We should learn to “hold our vision and wait with it until God fires the release gun.” I’ve held my vision for a long time, and I too am looking forward to the firing of that release gun!

A New Glimpse of a Dream Arising from the Ruins – Kenilworth Castle September 2014

Kenilworth Castle is my favourite English Heritage property and one I’ve visited many times as it’s so close to my home in Warwick.

View of Leicester's Building at Kenilworth Castle, with new staircase and viewing platforms completed Aug 2014 - photo credit SC Skillman
View of Leicester’s Building at Kenilworth Castle, with new staircase and viewing platforms completed Aug 2014 – photo credit SC Skillman

Now English Heritage have completed new staircases and viewing platforms allowing visitors to ascend to the different floors of Leicester’s Tower for the first time in 350 years. I’ve visited the Building and climbed those staircases twice recently.

A poignant story surrounds this tower. Built by Sir Robert Dudley especially to house Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers, it represents a huge and extravagant investment, not only of his personal wealth (which was vast) but of his hopes and dreams. They were doomed not to be fulfilled. Queen Elizabeth stayed here 19 days in 1575, the longest of her 4 visits to Kenilworth to be entertained by Sir Robert, her favourite courtier. He hoped this time to win her hand in marriage. But it was not to be.

Many historians have speculated on Elizabeth’s reasons, for there is strong evidence she loved him. Her reasons would have been political, psychological, emotional – historian and novelist Alison Weir will soon be visiting Warwick Words, our local literary festival, to speak on The Marriage Game; and I will certainly be in the audience, for I share Alison Weir’s fascination with this subject.

The truth is, Sir Robert abandoned all hope of marrying the Queen after she left in 1575. The building was little used thereafter. 80 years later its owner stripped it and left it in ruins.

New staircase at Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle completed Aug 2014 - photo credit SC Skillman
New staircase at Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle completed Aug 2014 – photo credit SC Skillman

ON all my previous visits over the past couple of decades, you could only look up inside the empty shell. But now you can ascend to each level, and read the story about each floor, and gaze through the windows at the views its former users would have admired, and imagine how it must have been during those 19 days in which Sir Robert’s greatest hopes and longings were invested.

All you need is a physical object, and a great story. And here now, on these viewing platforms, as I gaze at the walls where rich tapestries would have hung, I feel as if I am recapturing something of what Elizabeth and her courtiers experienced when they used these rooms.

The former empty shell has gained a new life. You can see the whole story again in a new light, feeling almost as if you are entering Sir Robert and Elizabeth’s psychic space.

Like Lyveden New Bield, which I blogged about recently, this was a grand scheme; the grandeur only had a short life, and the purpose for which it was created was not fulfilled.

views can be seen now through the windows for the 1st time in 350 years - Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle - photo credit SC Skillman
views can be seen now through the windows for the 1st time in 350 years – Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle – photo credit SC Skillman

Our lives are full of stories like this – and this story lies locked in these stones.

Formerly Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber at Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle - photo credit SC Skillman
Formerly Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber at Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle – photo credit SC Skillman

The Writer’s Journey

After being turned down by numerous publishers, he had decided to write for posterityGeorge Ade

It is a truth certainly acknowledged by the author of the above quote that many creative writers struggle for years, enduring perhaps decades in the wilderness of submissions and rejections, before their persistence finally pays off.

Most would-be authors, says Alison Baverstock in The Artists and Writers Yearbook, “are pessimistic optimists.”  And The Old Testament is full of stories of people who waited or fought seemingly in vain or wandered in wilderness for many years before God’s plan for them unfolded, and their gifts were used and they prospered.

Joseph, Moses, and Elijah come to mind.  Moses was 80 years old when he led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and witnessed the parting of the Red Sea.  Elijah gave way to depression before God re-commissioned him.  Joseph languished forgotten in jail before his gift for interpreting dreams lifted him up again.

Fast forward a few thousand years to my chance meeting with a publisher (later to become one of London’s top literary agents) who took an interest in my writing.  He encouraged me to write my first novel.

A couple of years ago I attended an evening on Discernment, and an image was presented to us: “You can spend years knocking on doors.  Some doors lead to broom cupboards and some to elevator shafts.”

When I met this publisher, in the early stages of my writing career, I opened a door and it led into a lift.  I stepped in, and went up.  But it was a faith-operated lift.  It required me to have enough faith to press the button for the top floor.  I only had enough faith to press the button for Floor 3.  The doors opened, the demon of self-doubt stepped in, and pressed the button for the basement.  And down I went again, to the very bottom of the shaft.

So, as my writing life continued beyond the outer gates, rejections frequently came my way, and I read letters saying things like We read this with much amusement but in the end were not sufficiently drawn to the central idea and We found your style fluent and assured but it is not quite for us  and Although this is witty and well written… our fiction programme is so full that we are buying very few new titles unfortunately…. I wish you success in finding a less over-burdened publisher.

But I later discovered that, contrary to the feelings of rejected authors, when you actually meet editors in publishing houses, they’re very pleasant people.  The Mills and Boon editor I met in the Ladies at the Savoy in London, at the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award luncheon, was very nice.  And so was the Rights Director for the top agent I referred to earlier in this article, whom I met later in the dining room. She reminded me of a member of my babysitting circle. (This lady still rejected my novel when I sent it to her though, and subsequently left the agency and published a novel herself).

And so I continued to read letters saying, Due to the very strong market in this kind of literature your novel would not be viable for us to publishThis is too commercial for usI’m afraid this doesn’t quite fit with our current list.

Then I read Margaret Silf’s book Sacred Spaces, and found these words in her chapter on Crossing Places:

At this ‘burial plot’ of my experience, I am standing between two worlds – between the old, the known and understood, and the new beginning which still lies beyond the scope of my wildest imagining. I am standing in sacred space because it is on the very edge of the known that the infinite possibilities of the unknown begin to unfold.

She went on to say:

God stretched the rainbow across the heavens, so that we might never forget the promise that holds all creation in being.  This is the promise that life and joy are the permanent reality, like the blue of the sky, and that all the roadblocks we encounter are like the clouds – black and threatening perhaps, but never the final word.  Because the final word is always “Yes!”

 

Thank you for reading this! And if you want me to let you know when I’ve got a new book coming out, click here

Faded Splendour, Unfinished Grand Schemes, Unfulfilled Dreams

I visited a National Trust property a few days ago – Lyveden New Bield near Oundle in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside.

Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)
Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)

This is an unusual property in that it was build by an Elizabethan gentleman who left it unfinished. And it hasn’t fallen down, or been looted, or demolished, or built over, in the intervening centuries – but has just remained as it is.

There is something haunting and eerie about properties like this. The only similar one I can think of is Chastleton House near Moreton-in-Marsh, which has been left exactly as it was 400 years ago…..  It hasn’t been specially prepared or restored by the National Trust to look as it would when at the height of its glory. It has just been left, like Sleeping Beauty’s Palace. There is a faintly sinister air as you explore its rooms and passages. You get the feeling that those who lived there have just vanished and it has remained suspended in time. A curious melancholy hangs in the air.

In the case of Lieveden New Bield, the designer and developer of this grand garden lodge, Sir Thomas Tresham, a wealthy and ardent Catholic, died before it could be completed. And his son Francis, instead of completing it and fulfilling his father’s dream, made a fatal error: he became implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, got arrested, confessed, and lost the entire family fortune.

Touring this unfinished, roofless property with all its elaborate Catholic symbolism, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Sir Thomas and all his hopes and dreams. As I walked around, and listened to the audio-tour, I wasn’t thinking of the massive differences between ourselves in our modern world, and those in the early seventeenth century, with all the passions and concerns of the beleagured Catholics. I was thinking of the things I shared – which many of us share – with Sir Thomas. A grand scheme, a big dream, starting to come into reality…

In Sir Thomas’s case it was cruelly cut short. Yet he died with all his ardent Catholic faith and hopes intact. And all the elements of his original design for his garden and lodge are now being rediscovered, and might even be realised in the future: who knows.

To me, this is the value of visiting historical properties – enabling us to enter imaginatively into the deeply personal stories of those who lived centuries ago, and feeling not the things that separate us but the things we may have in common.