The other day I was at an inspirational concert in a village church in Warwickshire, Hatton Church, listening to a small choir called Amici sing a mixture of early music and contemporary music.
They sang a capella music by such composers as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Ralph Vaughan Williams. On one occasion the conductor pointed out that five hundred years separated the composers of the two pieces they were about to sing.
The loveliest pieces I heard were Alleluia, I heard a voice by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623); A Spotless Rose by Paul Mealor (b. 1975); Hail Gladdening Light by Charles Wood (1866-1926), Northern Lights by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) and Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970).
As I listened to the glorious harmonies that the singers created I found myself gazing up to the stained glass windows high above the altar. Listening to music like this is like a portal into another world, a higher spiritual dimension, opened up by the singers who produce those exquisite sounds.
Nicola Triscott has mounted an exhibition on London’s South Bank calledRepublic of the Moon. She has transformed The Bargehouse at Oxo Tower Wharf into ‘an artist’s lunar embassy on earth’.
During the interview we heard a quote from Article 1 of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty: “the moon is the province of all mankind”. Apparently Article 2 prohibits nation states from appropriating the moon.
But now there is some concern that that treaty should be updated, and private corporations should also be added to the provision.
In 1967 it was never thought that any private corporation would be in the position of being able to exploit the resources on the moon.
When in the history of the human race have such words on treaties and constitutions and charters of human rights ever been respected in reality?
Colonial invaders have always operated on the principle of Finders Keepers. First here exploits it all.
Such was the case with Captain Cook, Don Cortez and many such.
An exhibit on The History of Human Conflict at the Firepower Museum, Royal Arsenal Thames Riverside, Woolwich, (a brilliant museum which I recommend to all), tells us that human conflict began when men turned from hunter gatherers to farmers. Mankind began to fight over the limited resources of land suitable for cultivation. The source of all human conflict is: limited resources.
God grant there are no resources on the moon that can ever be of any economic value to mankind.
For man is greedy. I generally do not have an optimistic view of human nature. And neither does JRR Tolkien. His own view was expressed through the words of the Lady Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: the race of men…. above all else desire power… the hearts of men are easily corrupted and the Ring of Power has a will of its own.
For exploitable resources, read the Ring of Power. If there are valuable resources on the moon, I believe that mankind WILL fight over them, and private corporations and nation states WILL exploit them to gain and increase their power.
Let the moon continue to be the sole province of poets and mystics; of those who gave us glimpses of eternity, of creative writers, and those who dream, and those who deal in mystery and imagination. And let the only lunar resources we draw upon be those of inspiration.
I’ve written before about sacred spaces. In that article, I looked at some renowned locations in England where people have felt they’re in touch with something bigger than themselves – a sense of the numinous.
All of these places work symbolically or metaphorically to express a place where we may be or a situation we may encounter in this life, that we recognise from our own experience.
And one such renowned location is Stonehenge – which I visited a few days ago with family members.
To walk slowly and attentively around Stonehenge, using the audio guide provided by English Heritage, is to experience something numinous, much bigger than ourselves.
The stones arrived here some time just before 2500 BC, to begin transforming the previously existing simple enclosure to something much different. And as we considered the huge effort that our ancestors put into moving the stones 19 miles from the Marlborough Downs in north Wiltshire, and 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales, to this location, in order to construct this massive circle, we were drawn in to the wonder and the mystery.
Those who accept the theory of ley lines know that Stonehenge stands on the Old Sarum Ley which is aligned with Salisbury Cathedral, among other sacred places.
As the English Heritage guidebook points out, Stonehenge can perhaps be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral like that at nearby Salisbury, built for worship and as a place where believers could come to find healing and hope and where important people can be buried.
Salisbury Cathedral, described as Britain’s finest 13th Century Cathedral, is another inspirational place.
From its glorious chancel roof
The chancel roof of Salisbury Cathedral (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
to the stunningly beautiful lapis lazuli of the Prisoners of Conscience windows,
this is a place to move and uplift and fill you with awe.
Here, the hearts and minds of all those who enter, for worship or just to visit, may be lifted up to a bigger and clearer understanding of God.
Or, perhaps, they may receive fresh glimpses of eternity, in much the same way, perhaps, as the hearts and minds of those who built and used Stonehenge over the course of 1,400 years.
The most profound emotions, the deepest experiences of the human spirit may be evoked by the sound of a heavenly choir.
There has often been debate about which is the greatest musical instrument. And of course each of us will have different favourites. It has been said, for instance, that the grand pipe organ is “the King of Instruments”.
But I believe the greatest musical instrument is the human voice.
The other day I listened to a heavenly choir – the Armonico Consort – sing some of the most sublime choral music ever composed in St Mark’s Church, New Milverton, Leamington Spa.
As I listened to Barber’s Agnus Dei, and Allegri’s Miserere Mei float through the church, I heard with new ears, and saw with new eyes. I’ve been going to this church for 14 years and had not previously realised quite how beautiful it is. The power of the music had opened up not only the sense of hearing.
Why do we respond so instinctively to the sound of those voices? Because, I suggest, they give us a glimpse of eternity.
Whenever a film director wishes to evoke in the audience pity, grief and sorrow, or joy, bliss, peace and gladness, the best choice of background music is that provided by a heavenly choir.
In the first part of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, we find this used to good effect on several occasions.
When the Fellowship of the Ring meet Haldir of Lorien, we hear the first long sustained notes of those ethereal voices. The Lady of the Wood is waiting. The Lady Galadriel appears, and the voices of the heavenly choir crescendo.
In Lothlorien, again the massed voices are heard in the background, an aural tapestry evoking mystical power, visions, prophecy, wisdom, insight.
And at the end of the film, they are heard once more, immediately after Frodo has turned to his faithful companion and said, “Sam, I’m glad you’re with me.”
Here, the heavenly choir evokes values like love, loyalty, courage, determination, self-sacrifice.
In the bible we find these words: “God has written eternity on our hearts”.
I can affirm this by personal experience, again and again throughout my life.
Please share your thoughts on this. Have you too experienced the sublime through music? And do you too have a strong sense that God has written eternity on your heart?
Throughout this series, mountains have been an important image for me. And now we arrive at the end of my mini-series, we find ourselves on a mountain again. And this mountain is on the opposite side of the world to the mountain where I had my first childhood experience – in Australia.
I’ve told this story before on this blog. And so it is with important experiences – the story must be told again and again.
On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find the Macpherson mountain range, part of the Great Dividing Range. The road leads from Southport via Nerang up through Mount Tamborine to the town of Canungra where you may continue your journey to one of two mountain resorts: Binna Burra or O’Reilly’s. I was negotiating the mountain passes on the way to O’Reilly’s. In the passenger seat was my 18 year old niece Caroline, who was visiting Australia for a month (where I lived at the time).
Caroline had mentioned that she and her friend Jo (her fellow traveller to Australia) had gone to Sydney to stay in a house of students who they knew nothing of. And discovered that they were all committed Christians – just like Caroline and Jo. Caroline found that wonderful. I said, “Well, like attracts like” – for I at the time believed that this apparent coincidence was the operation of the Universal system / the principle of “reality follows thought.” But Caroline was having none of this. “No, it was God,” she said.
I didn’t want to argue with her. Especially as I was driving up a perilous mountain road at the time. My own beliefs were a mixture of NeoPaganism, Pantheism and Eastern Mysticism. I pursued gurus, tried Buddhism, practised eastern forms of meditation and various esoteric philosophies, teachings and techniques.
I prepared to go into “indulgent tolerance” mode whilst we climbed higher up the mountain range. It was because of that very black-and-white “certainty” that I had long mistrusted evangelical Christianity.
But Caroline then launched into a full exposition of the gospel and of the fact that Jesus Christ had come to bridge that divide between God and humankind; and when we reached our cabin in the resort, she drew for me a picture of a cross bridging that chasm. All the time I was in tolerance mode. I didn’t need evangelising. I considered myself knowledgable about the bible, & had been good at R.K. at school. So I just let Caroline do her thing, until she at last got distracted by a snake lying in the path.
For the next year I continued in my usual way, following my own spiritual interests, occasionally thinking of this episode. OK I hadn’t liked being evangelised. But I was impressed by her conviction, by her belief that her religion wasn’t a private matter, it was to be shared; and by her courage. I thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” It’s a personality thing too, but I actually believed everyone has a right to their own beliefs & it was no business of mine to try and convert someone else to my beliefs. But Caroline believed she not only had a right but a responsibility to tell me what she believes. I was impressed by that. But I didn’t do anything about it until 1991 a few months after I’d returned to live in England, with my parents in their Kent village near Tonbridge – and it changed my life.
Have you ever changed your life as a result of a conversation with one person? Or was it a long process, involving several people, covering a number of years? Please share your own stories with me!
Here is a list of some of my glimpses of eternity, listed by one identifier or the place where the experience occurred:
Mountain at end of road in Wales.
Hedge parsley in Kent.
Dream of the sea
Mount Neel Kanth in India.
Violin passage in Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”
Twilight on the beach at Mynt, Pembrokeshire coastline, West Wales
Taize service in church
Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury
The woodland between Conishead Priory & Morecambe Bay, Barrow-in-Furness
St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral
On the mountain top at Binna Burra, Queensland.
Journey through the Cambrian Mountains to Aberystwyth in Wales
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!
In Australia I found a unique Centre – located in Brisbane, and run by an Englishman.
35 years ago, LIONEL FIFIELD, formerly an accountant, set up an organisation called The Relaxation Centre of Queensland, using premises in Brisbane.
I spent nearly five years living in Brisbane, and during that time I must have tasted every kind of course, workshop and seminar that the Relaxation Centre had to offer.
There was only one problem. Attending courses at the Relaxation Centre was addictive.
And I have not found any similar organisation in England – though I believe that it would meet a great need.
Lionel Fifield was an engaging inspirational speaker. He had an entertaining, at times Monty Pythonesque style. And the Australians loved him – and I have every reason to believe they still do.
Here is what Lionel says of himself: “For over 35 years now he has been co-ordinating and developing a programme at the Relaxation Centre of Queensland focusing on managing stress, facing fears, building confidence, improving communication and exploring potential. Lionel likes to talk about his own “funny ways” and how quickly we can separate ourselves from each other and from our own sense of knowing.”
The Relaxation Centre maintains that it advances no one particular religious or spiritual system, and many who teach there have different spiritual outlooks. Spiritual healing, however, has long been on the agenda. I explore spiritual healing in my current work-in-progress, a romantic suspense novel called “A Passionate Spirit”.
BERT WEIR, leader of The Centre Within courseat the Relaxation Centre, was another inspirational figure. Formerly a salesman, Bert was a man full of humour and practical hints. “I’m a very practical man,” he would begin his course, “and I will only talk about things that work.” There was much psychological wisdom, too, in the Centre Within Course, and many practical strategies to combat stress and anxiety and false attitude. Again, The Centre Within Course was addictive. I must have taken the complete course at least four times. And therein lies the danger of inspirational speakers – do we attend purely to delight in the entertaining style of the speaker? Maybe – but we can always hope we are learning something along the way that is permanent!
A third individual stands out in my memories of the Relaxation Centre, and this was a character I shall name only as GREG, teacher of a Dream Interpretation course. Greg again was a very down-to-earth character full of wisdom and humour. Nobody would have guessed he was a spiritual adept in the art of dream yoga – an art he had learned from an old Tibetan lama he’d met in Sydney. Later he was to provide inspiration for my novel “Mystical Circles”.
When I took Greg’s course in dream interpretation there grew upon me this feeling. “There’s something light and bright and fluid and flexible about him… something Puckish, childlike, teasing and infinitely wise and spiritually attuned… he’s like a children’s storyteller, a street corner entertainer.. . he’s mobile, passionately involved and sincere, yet also detached, low-key, non-judgemental.”
It was from Greg that I first heard of the concept of having “a fluid and flexible ego” (mentioned in my novel “Mystical Circles“).
An adept in Tibetan Dream Yoga, Greg possessed the gift of “shapeshifting”. I witnessed his face changing during the course of one of the dream yoga sessions. I later put this experience into my novel “Mystical Circles” when Juliet sees Craig’s face changing. I had by that stage learned that this is one of the arts of a shaman, and part of the skills of shapeshifting. I make no value-judgement at this point; I simply tell you what I have observed, and what has arisen from my own experience.
All these people were way-markers for me. It’s no accident that for me, my spiritual journey began with a mountain and that journey took me to another mountain, in Australia again.
As T.S. Eliot says in his poem “Little Gidding”:
For the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time (tweet this)
If you live in the UK, have you ever found a centre which runs courses like The Relaxation Centre of Queensland? Whatever you believe, does the work of this centre 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!
Does an experience of joy and spiritual upliftment only count as a mystical experience if it changes your life?
I believe these experiences gather significance cumulatively, over the course of a lifetime, through the repetition of events grouped around a similar theme – just as in a recurring dream.
And for me the recurring theme is mountains.
When I was about seven years old our family went on holiday to Wales. Early one morning, a few of us got up and set out from our guesthouse for a walk before breakfast. To me, the world was fresh and new, everything was full of potential and wonder, the air held a miraculous clarity, the sky was a pure translucent blue… and at the end of the road was a mountain.
All I could think was “At the end of the road there’s a mountain – and we’re going to climb it.”
And that “start of the holidays” experience of mine was to inform all subsequent “glimpses of eternity” throughout my life.
Several years later I joined the Yoga for Health Foundation which was then led by Howard Kent (1919-2005). I wouldn’t describe Howard Kent as charismatic – probably one of the things I appreciated about him – but I liked and respected his character – wisdom, spirituality & a dry sense of humour.
I went on a Yoga Tour of North India and Nepal with Howard Kent and a group of yoga enthusiasts.
We flew to Delhi and our trip included Agra (the Taj Mahal), Varanasi (the Burning Ghats by the Ganges), the erotic temple carvings of Khajuraho, as well as the Red City of Jaipur, and finally Khathmandu in Nepal.
I have a vivid memory of time spent at twilight on the roof of a derelict maharajah’s palace in the jungle near Khajuraho, with Howard Kent and another member of our party, during which we talked about whether it was a good idea or not to renounce the world. (We concluded it wasn’t). Out in the jungle we heard a tiger growl. Otherwise there was an overwhelming silence and tranquility. And I even remember the cloud formation in the sky, which presented itself to me in the shape of a giant fish.
But this post is about one other aspect of that Indian tour – our journey through the Gharhwal Himalayas, (known as “the land of the gods” ), a journey which took us from Rishikesh to Badrinath, centre of Hindu pilgrimage.
And there, in Badrinath, one peak – Mount Neel Kanth – encapsulated all my recurring experiences around mountains.
I quote here from a passage in my journal, written on the night of our arrival in Badrinath.
“this town and the mountains around it have an awesome quality… an almost palpable presence filled the valley… the source of this power was Neel Kanth, a mountain of white crystal whose peak appeared between the two dark slopes of Naryan… luminous in the full moon.. it shone out like a mystical vision.” The next day, I wrote,”the spiritual intensity of the night had vanished but a deeper serenity remained.”
Is there a recurring image in your life – in your dreams, or in the real world, which means a lot to you on your journey? 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!
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.
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.
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”.
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!
We shall not cease from exploration wrote TS Eliot in his poem “Little Gidding”.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
These words seem very appropriate for author and explorer Sir Laurens Van Der Post (1906-1996), whom I first came across at a talk he gave in London, and whose spiritual writings had a profound impact on me.
I met Sir Laurens at a meeting of THE CENTRE FOR SPIRITUAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES, a group I mentioned in my last post. Based in London, it was run by a lady who seemed to have a talent for booking charismatic spiritual figures as Keynote Speakers at the various meetings. Sir Laurens Van Der Post was one of them.
Sir Laurens gave a talk, accompanied by a slideshow of his Africa photos, called “All Africa and Its Heart Within Us”.
As I listened to him, I felt that for him Africa proved the touchstone for his spiritual seeking.
We can all be explorers of the spirit and we don’t need to travel anywhere to do it.
Different life-experiences may trigger religious or mystical experiences for us. But Sir Laurens wrote: I was compelled towards the Bushmen of the Kalahari like someone who walks in his sleep, obedient to a dream of finding in the dark what the day has denied him.
I loved Sir Laurens’ philosophical ideas and his way of approaching the mystery of life. He was a friend and close associate of Carl Jung, another man of wisdom whom I greatly respect and admire. The first book of Sir Laurens’ which I read was Venture into the Interior. In that book I remember him describing his experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. He said that as his eyes met those of his torturer, The distance between us was the distance of unreality.
Those words have stayed with me across the years. And they have linked into many areas since then. For instance, they remind me of John Berryman’s poem The Song of the Tortured Girl, in which the girl is clearly spiritually, emotionally and mentally detached from the physical torture she is suffering. And they also link in to Sir Alister Hardy’s research into triggers for spontaneous religious experiences. He found that in the greatest number of cases, Depression/Despair was the trigger.
Sir Laurens’ ideas also link in to a film which I loved. The Gods Must Be Crazy came out in 1980, although I didn’t see it till several years later. Set in Botswana, and made by a South African film-maker, it tells the story of a scientist, his romantic aspirations, and a Bushman of the Kalahari meeting up with the ‘civilised world’. As I watched it, enjoying the comedy but also the wisdom, I couldn’t but be reminded once again of Sir Laurens and his deep respect and love for the Bushmen.
We can all be explorers of the spirit, and we don’t have to travel anywhere, geographically. As a famous example of this, I like to cite Emily Bronte. She travelled little in her life but she was herself a mystic as her poem No Coward Soul is Mine testifies. What she learned of life she learned in her own home, through her own family members, and through those who lived in the Yorkshire moors she herself inhabited.
For Sir Laurens it was Africa. For each one of us it may be different.
Have you done any spiritual exploring? Did you need to travel far? Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey of the spirit. Have you been inspired by any books or authors in this way? I’d love to have your comments!
What’s the difference between nature or music appreciation… and a mystical experience?
When does “being moved by something beautiful” become a religious experience?
Surely the criterion for a mystical experience is that it changes your life?
In my case, it did.
My early childhood mystical experiences ultimately led me on a spiritual journey of many years – which, along the way, bore fruition in my novel “Mystical Circles”, and is now bearing fruit in my new novel “A Passionate Spirit.”
And for me this spiritual journey didn’t start by opening a book or listening to a clergyman. It started with a direct personal encounter with Divine Reality.
And the person who encouraged me to take it forward was a Scientist.
The name of the scientist was Sir Alister Hardy, Marine Biologist, who wrote the book “The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of Man the Religious Animal.”
At the University of Wales, Lampeter, you’ll find the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre. Find out about it here if you want to enquire further, or contribute an experience of your own.
Sir Alister found in a study of 3000 contributed experiences that there were 21 triggers for spontaneous mystical experiences. These included such things as childbirth, the prospect of death, illness and crises in personal relations. But top of the list came depression/despair, and then prayer and meditation, and then, natural beauty.
A few months before my 17th birthday, I wrote to Sir Alister, having read an article in The Times about him.
He appealed “to all those who have at any time felt that their lives have been affected by some power beyond themselves, to write an account of their experience and the effect it has had on their lives” and to send it to him.
I wrote the story of my childhood religious experiences, and sent it to Sir Alister. In his reply to me, he wrote that my experiences were “the feeling of an ecstatic joy in relation to the universe brought on by some particular aspect of nature… what Rudolf Otto called the numinous, the sense of the Holy.”
Thus began a journey of many years – a fascinating journey of spiritual enquiry and research – and several more mystical experiences along the way.
For me, then, University intervened, but after my graduation and return home, I wrote to the R.E.R.U. at Oxford again.
“What can I get involved in?” I asked. “How can I further my spiritual search?”
Edward Robinson, the new Director, replied, and pointed me to this organisation:
The Centre for Spiritual and Psychological Studies.
(find out about more about my involvement with this organisation here)
And thus, with a weekend symposium in rural Gloucestershire and a group of diverse and sometimes eccentric people of many religious backgrounds (celebrated, in fictional form, in my novel “Mystical Circles”) I began my long spiritual journey.
But don’t forget, as T.S. Eliot says in his poem ‘Little Gidding’, the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time (tweet this).
My first childhood religious experience involved a mountain in the early morning. And my journey took me to another mountain at the other side of the world where I was to recapture that same experience, early in the morning.
In this mini-series I’m going to tell you about some of my “glimpses of eternity” and also introduce you to a few of the fascinating individuals who’ve been way-markers on that spiritual journey.
Join me in my next few posts and find out about my roll-call of spiritual guides (saints as well as sinners).
And do share your own experiences with me, if you wish!