A Diversity of Spiritual Outlooks Through Time at the British Museum in London

The Great Court, British Museum, London
The Great Court, British Museum, London

On Saturday 23rd December 2017  I went to see the exhibition “Living with Gods:  peoples, places and worlds beyond” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition curator Jill Cook had set out to show the development of religious symbols through physical objects which people in widely diverse cultures and historical periods have used to denote their relationships with a spiritual reality beyond nature.

 

The exhibition ranged from a 40,000 year old sculpture of a lion man, through a Buddhist wheel of life held in the claws of the god of death, via a Japanese Shinto household shrine, to a Soviet communist poster of an astronaut with a rather inane grin on his face floating in space and declaring “There is no God.” On the Buddhist wheel of life the artist had depicted instances of human and animal suffering and wickedness of all types, which I must confess reminded me of Dan Brown’s description of Dante’s Inferno…

I was also interested to learn that the image of the many-armed creator/destroyer god Lord Shiva is on display outside CERN in Switzerland, as a symbol of the atom.

However, inevitably much was missing from the exhibition. For instance, I found no reference to the aboriginal image of the Rainbow Serpent said to be one of earliest of religious symbols, in this case symbolising Creation. Neither did I find the spirituality of the North American Indians, nor the mystical system of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.

The whole tapestry and landscape of humankind’s attempts to build and sustain a relationship with spiritual reality beyond the observed world is so vast and complex, this exhibition inevitably could give just a small representative taste alongside a dispassionate commentary. In reality each religious outlook and philosophical system deserves its own special in-depth study in order to do anything like justice to it – and the curious investigator can find many books to help.

But one of the most moving parts of the exhibition for me was the display about the Japanese persecution of Christianity in the 17th century, during the time of the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, a story told in the brilliant novel Silence by Shusako Endo, upon which was based the 2016 film starring Andrew Garfield.

I remember the impact the book made on me, when those being persecuted were ordered to trample the fumi-e – a bronze plaque showing Christ on the cross. I found myself gazing in awe at an authentic  fumi-e and thought again of the powerful end to the novel Silence.

One of the most interesting things about that novel was the way it showed how Christianity may be introduced into what may seem an alien culture and how those within that culture may take on the Christian faith and understand it within their own cultural terms. I remember a scene in the novel where Japanese Christians were being tortured by being tied to stakes on a beach while the tide rolled in and out around them. They gained the stength to endure by continually singing, We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God.

If there is any lesson at all to be learned from an exhibition of this type, perhaps it is that we have the challenge ahead of us to communicate what we believe to be the truth, whilst also respecting other human beings and where they are in terms of their own worldview.

 

 

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 5 – Secret India: The Land of the Gods and Neel Kanth, Mountain of Light

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.

Welsh Mountains
Welsh 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.

Mount Neelkanth, Badrinath
Mount Neelkanth, Badrinath

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!

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 3 – Sir Laurens Van Der Post, Explorer of the Spirit

We shall not cease from exploration wrote TS Eliot in his poem “Little Gidding”.

Sir Laurens Van Der Post with bushman
Sir Laurens Van Der Post with bushman
(credit: http://www.jonathanstedall.co.uk/heaven/sample.php)

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.

Sir Laurens Van Der Post with a praying mantis (credit: www.jonathanstedall.co.uk/heaven/sample.php)
Sir Laurens Van Der Post with a praying mantis (credit: http://www.jonathanstedall.co.uk/heaven/sample.php)

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!