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.

 

 

A Deep Spirituality and Wisdom That Touches the Heart, from Some of the World’s Greatest Mystics

Imagine you could step into the Monastery right now – perhaps like the one which we saw in the 2005 TV series, or even the one in this image – and move apart from all the frantic busyness and stress and tension of your life, and receive some deep wisdom from the heart of the mystics.Annaya Monastery

Yesterday I received something very similar at a Quiet Day in St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa where I heard three talks from Bishop John Stroyan, Bishop of Warwick – a man imbued in the literature of some of the world’s greatest mystics. Bishop John is someone who speaks in a lowkey way and yet treasures of spiritual wisdom emerge almost as asides.  There is no stridency, nothing is declaimed; but those listening cannot but be aware that he speaks of the true underlying structure which drives our behaviour, our motivation and our attitudes and the way we react to events and circumstances in our lives.

During his talk he referred to the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin –  which he described as “the most shocking church” he had been into. Figures of Nazi soldiers and members of the Hitler Youth are interspersed with figures from the Nativity, and an Aryan family of the type Hitler wanted in his Master Race also adorn the church. In addition, a strong, muscular, Aryan Christ is seen on the cross. It’s one of  the hundred churches Hitler built, the only one that has survived, intentionally as a chilling reminder of how evil systems can recruit the Christian faith to their cause. Apparently, the Bishop said, both the Nazis and the apartheid regime used Christian clothing for their causes – making God in their images, recruiting Him to serve their agendas.

This is a very strong warning to us, as the Bishop said: “Beware of what we think we know.”

Some of the wisdom the Bishop shared with us included  the observation that “you’ve faced the darkness and come through it, and God will use that as a gift to help others who struggle.”

How often do we see that those who have suffered the most are in the best position to support and comfort those who now suffer in the same way?

He said that pearls are tears shed around grit that irritates the oyster. Some people, as we know, become hard and embittered and resentful around that grit in their lives.

But the Bishop spoke about the weaving of God’s good purposes through events in our lives that we would never choose to happen. “Crises can be the bearers of grace.”

Julian of Norwich said, “In falling and rising again we are always held close in one love.”

An image the Bishop likes to use in his talks is one taken from his life as a dog-lover. He may be taking his two dogs for a walk and when they get the smell of an exciting rabbit, they rush off away from him after the rabbit. He calls loudly for them to come back. They know his voice. And yet they practice what we all do:  “selective deafness”.

Another image comes from the bird world. The mother eagle puts sharp pointed uncomfortable things in the nest to make the eaglets fly..  Otherwise they would stay cosy in the nest. This is the only thing that makes them leave the nest, take wing and soar on the thermals.

Life Inside a Spiritual Hothouse: The Circle of Love in Mystical Circles

On 5th September on the fifth day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, author and blogger Sue Vincent published a guest post from me on her blog Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo.Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts in which I re-publish the articles in that blog tour.

So here’s the piece Sue first published on her blog on 5th September.

Inside a Spiritual Hothouse

My inspiration for Mystical Circles came from a wide variety of spiritual practices, philosophies and worldviews which I have myself explored over the past decades. I wanted to tell a tale of family relationships, and how they are affected when one member of a family becomes captivated by a new spiritual outlook.  Inevitably as in the case of most fiction authors, I have drawn extensively on my own life and experience.

Also I believe it is true to say that when novelists create characters, although we certainly use real people we have met, most often those characters are a composite of different individuals. But one thing remains true: often there is a little bit of the author in every character. And that is true for Mystical Circles.

In my novel, I introduce my reader to Craig, the leader of the spiritual group Circle of Love. And Craig would be impossible for me to create if there wasn’t a little bit of me in him, in his beliefs, his ideals, his longings, the spiritual outlook he wants to share with others.

Craig’s teachings are based on three main strands:

  • The Toltec Philosophy of the Yaqui Indian Sorcerers, as presented to a Western audience in the writings of Carlos Castaneda (whose book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge fascinated me). In this outlook, there are several different paths one may take, and one of those paths is the Path of the Warrior. There is a special group of skills which belong to the Warrior alone and one of those is to learn to erase your personal history.  Craig takes up this concept, and aims to use it to teach his followers to move on from the past. For so many of us, the root of emotional and mental instability is that we persist in taking an emotional position about the past.
  • Shamanism – this plays a part in Tibetan Dream Yoga which I explored during my years living in Australia. Shamanism in our own culture derives from Celtic times and incorporates the idea of shapeshifting – which also makes an appearance in my novel.
  • The Human Potential Movement – the idea that we can be anything we want to be, if only we believe in ourselves, if only we master the arts of creative visualisation and positive thinking. I believe, from much experience, that this whole area, though extremely beguiling, must be handled with care… and we see some of its outworkings in my novel.

My own past experiences include exploration of such practices as past life visualisation using crystals (in Australia), attendance of lectures on Reincarnation and many workshops at the Theosophical Society in London; and floating in an isolation tank (again in Australia), along with many other investigations into spiritualism, Buddhism , Transcendental Meditation and Transpersonal Psychology among others.

In Craig, all this is presented in an extremely attractive and appealing Western package. The package incorporates a long-term stay in a gracious Cotswold manor house which many of us, myself included, might consider a highly desirable place to live, if only we had the money: an idyllic Country Homes type lifestyle.  Craig himself dresses like a former cricket star turned TV personality, not like a traditional eastern guru at all. The lifestyle his followers lead is a rather indulgent one with lavish dinner parties and champagne. This hugely seductive package for his followers rests upon, we presume, though it is not stated, the fact that they have made over all their financial resources to Craig.

In fact Craig, though full of idealism, is dependent for his material survival upon his own personal dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy businessman father. He relies on his father’s major weakness: a compulsion to try and buy his son’s love.

In presenting the story of Juliet’s investigations at the Wheel of Love, and how the impetuous Zoe reacts to her older sister’s interference, I take a non-didactic approach. I myself have shared the hopes and dreams (and for some of them, the emotional damage) of the characters in this novel. Dramatic tension is high. One reader wrote that it was “the dangerous group dynamics” which intrigued her most. If Mystical Circles sounds like your taste do try it!

 

 

 

Follow the new Mystical Circles Blog Tour 1-9 September 2017

Mystical Circles will be released by Luminarie both as a paperback and as an ebook with a new cover design on 5 September. To celebrate, I’m doing a Blog Tour Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017which will see me stop off at nine blogs, each with a unique guest post.

Do take a look at each blog post if you have time – there will be other opportunities to read them here on my blog later if you miss them on the tour!

Over the course of the 9 stops on this tour, I write on the following subjects:

Sacha Black

A guide for authors – how to survive the siren voices of the internet

Jenny in Neverland

Genre – what is it exactly?

Rosie Amber

On the art and inexact science of a good ending to a novel

Books From Dusk till Dawn

Psychology, spirituality and family relationships – a volatile mix

Sue Vincent

Inside a spiritual hothouse

Shelley Wilson

An author interview by Shelley Wilson

MJ Mallon

Inspiration, motivation and keeping to the path

Chat About Books

Intense relationships in closed communities, and the stress and tension of life

Linda’s Book Bag

An author interview by Linda

I do hope you can stop by the blogs to read more about the source of my ideas for the characters and story of Mystical Circles and also to find some personal inspiration and motivation along the way!

 

 

 

 

Goodness, Kindness and Love Amidst Tragedy: Let Your Light Shine in the World

From out of the mouths of children…

Last week I took part in “Experience Church”, a special event for children in St Mark’s Church, Leamington Spa. Hand painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on altar steps of St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

 

The event was organised by Ros Davies our lovely and energetic Children and Family Worker. 130 Brownies and Guides toured four “stations” in our church, in groups of five or six.

 

The four stations were:

1) The Church Welcomes.

 

Table display saying "The Church Welcomes" in St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

2) The Church Prays.

 

Wooden cross with prayer flags St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

3) The Church Teaches.

"The Church Teaches" display below pulpit St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

4) The Church Serves.

Hand-painted jamjars and lighted candles on black cloth in church

My daughter Abigail and I were in charge of the Stained Glass station – The Church Serves.

We asked the girls why churches have stained glass windows and what the purpose of them is, then we talked about some of the stories that are told in the windows, and the people in those stories, and the lives they led;  people who serve God in this life by “shining a light” in the way they behave to others. Then the girls painted jam-jars with glass paints and we set them on the altar steps in front of lighted candles so we could see the light shining through them.Hand-painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on altar steps of church

So first we asked the girls, “has anyone been kind and generous to you in the last few days – or today?”

One of the girls  said her friend had stood up for her; another said her mum gave her some sweets, and another mentioned that her older sister is kind to her. We also heard, “all the people in my school. I’ve just moved to a new school and they have all made me feel really welcome.” And the other two said, “Yes!” because they were in her group at school and were among those who had welcomed her. And with every act of kindness, a light shines out into the world.

Light is a strong symbol in the Christian faith as in others.Hand-painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on black cloth in church

People who are kind and generous to others may be described as shining a light in the world. Images of light are abundant in the Old and in the New Testament. One of the many names by which Jesus is known is The Light of the World. When a tragedy happens with mass fatalities, the instinct of all of us, religious or non-religious, is to light a candle for those souls who have perished.

I don’t believe we should equate darkness with evil, but unfortunately there is a strong symbolic correlation in the popular mind. Nevertheless, light is something we can all relate to. We see a light shining through people who act with goodness in this world.

In the recent appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower, we saw people in the local community acting with goodness, kindness and generosity; a natural outpouring of empathy and a desire to serve.

Through these people, a light shone out into a situation of immense and ongoing pain and anguish.

What about you? Who has been kind and generous to you today, or in the past few days?

 

 

If you have enjoyed this post, here are a couple of my past posts on the subject of light:

The Power of Light to Uplift the Spirit

Darkness into Light: Celtic Spirituality

 

 

 

 

 

The Full Monty and What it Says About Not Being Controlled by Your Circumstances

Recently I watched the 1997 British comedy drama film  “The Full Monty” again. The Full Monty film posterThe reason why I love it is that it’s about “little” people deciding not to be controlled by their circumstances. Six men who in their different ways are suffering during the decline of the Sheffield steel industry, decide to do something nobody believes they can deliver on.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film then I highly recommend it; read about it here. Somehow that message of hope is encapsulated in one of the outstanding elements of the film: the faces of the audience members in the club at the end. They express joy, laughter, fun and delight. Their reaction is a natural response to “local lads” demonstrating that if we choose, we can all have the courage to:

  1. compete with those who seem to be hugely successful “out there”
  2. get up on stage and run the risk of making fools of ourselves
  3. demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be controlled by our circumstances.

This is a universal message, relevant in so many different ways in today’s society. This is why “The Full Monty” is an inspiration to its audiences and why, using humour, it delivers a powerful truth, relevant to all our lives.

That’s Life – in the Eyes of Noel Coward

I’ve loved the work of Noel Coward since I first saw one of his comedies, in my teens. Noel CowardAmong many different archetypal character-types which I hold in my mind, is that of an indolent Noel Coward male lead, lounging against a mantelpiece wearing a silk brocade smoking jacket, elegant, mannered, and dispensing witticisms with the greatest of ease: the sort of individual who would instantly impress in a social setting; but what’s really going on behind that stylish, confident exterior? I had this image in mind when I created the character James in my novel Mystical Circles (and James reappears in A Passionate Spirit).

In Coward’s play Present Laughter, the male lead, Gary, a successful comic actor, lives out of the image of himself he projects on stage.

He is the focus of everyone else’s obsession.

Gary is a poser – he throws tantrums, acts in a theatrical manner, and hates it when others accuse him of “over-acting” – which he, of course, does all the time. Only his secretary and his supposedly-estranged wife see him in a plain unvarnished way.

Meanwhile, a strange, intense young aspiring playwright, Mr Maule, is obsessed with him and latches onto him and challenges him.

Gary want to get rid of them all, yet cannot see he himself is a magnet for them.

In this play, we see yet again the beloved Noel Coward tropes:

  1. A flouncing self-important male lead;
  2. A sullen fag-smoking housekeeper;
  3. A strange insecure subsidiary character who has a major effect upon the action;
  4. A femme fatale triple-crossing vamp married to the MC’s best friend, having an affair with the MC’s other friend, and with the MC himself.

In this play, the women who spend the night with Gary, and have to explain themselves to visitors in the morning, always:

  1. appear for breakfast wearing Gary’s dressing gown and his black silk pyjamas;
  2. say they had forgotten their latch-key, which was why they had to stay the night; and
  3. claim they slept in the spare room.

Just so do so many of us feel compelled to behave in predictable patterns, so that we might as well be following a script that’s been written for us.

It’s comedy, farce, satire … but isn’t it often just like life? Comedy is a wonderful vehicle for communicating truths. Don’t we find sometimes – especially in this society, and on the current political scene – that people behave as if they were characters in a farce, acting out a parody of themselves?

This is the human comedy.  And comedians only need to tweak real life a very little: just a slight exaggeration – for us to see how absurd this all is.

I think this is why, in moments of insight, we instinctively respond to good observational comedy, especially when it is delivered with warmth – for there are occasions when we recognise ourselves reflected back in the wit of the comedian. And when that is so, we might see opportunities to try and interrupt this pre-determined script, and start acting as if we genuinely do have free will, instead of behaving like characters pushed hither and thither by the plot…

Joan of Arc: Mystical Experiences and Empowerment

The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from National Theatre Live.St Joan National Theatre Live I studied this play at university. Then, as in my recent viewing, I was entranced by the character of Joan herself, and by the words Shaw puts into her mouth.

Joan has  special resonance for me because when I was young, as a member of a children’s choir, I sang in a performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” – an oratorio with words by Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet. The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall; Mia Farrow played Joan, and Andre Previn conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. We sang the part of the children of Lorraine.

The character of Joan had a strong impact upon me. I remember several words from “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and they are largely from Joan herself, in which she described her visions and her mystical inspiration, in terms that totally encompassed their reality.

To me the central thing about Joan of Arc was “empowerment”.

Joan was an illiterate peasant girl who claimed she heard a trio of saints speaking to her; and on the basis of this she believed God wanted her to lead the French army to fight and defeat the English, and place Charles II on the throne of France. In 1431, when she was nineteen years old, the English led by the Earl of Warwick tried her on numerous charges, one of which was blasphemy, and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. The part of the saints were sung by soloists in the music drama; and I felt that Paul Claudel  handled the whole work from the viewpoint that Joan’s experiences were real.  The work has been accused by critics of being several things, including weird, bizarre, sentimental and heavily Roman Catholic, but I loved it, just as I love Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, another musical work which has in the past had the same accusations levelled against it.

When I reflect upon Joan and the fascination she holds for me, I see her as someone who was marginalised, who had religious experiences which empowered her, and who refused to be controlled by her circumstances:

  1. Whether or not a postmodern assessment concludes that her ‘voices’ may be accounted for by mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, or psychosis –  she definitely had profound religious experiences.
  2. She acted upon these experiences.
  3. She derived from them courage, strength and vision to prevail again huge male-dominated interests in Church, State and Army. Both Shaw and Claudel show her as clear sighted, strong and single minded against her powerful interrogators.

I think of similar cases of young girls and women who have had profound religious experiences which then impact the future course of their lives and the lives of many others:  Bernadette of Lourdes, St Therese of Lisieux and Julian of Norwich.

Part of the fascination of these individuals to me is that between them they usually demonstrate one of a number of recurring features, which tend to marginalise: these elements include being young, female, poor / of peasant background or illiterate; and suffering from serious illness, whether bodily or mental. Another element that often appears is the gift of healing. There are many other examples, of whom a good proportion have had visions or extraordinary powers of insight, on the basis of which they have gained enormous influence, and have captured the imagination of future generations.

What do you think? Can you offer other examples of young female visionaries who have had a big impact on the world and may have captured your imagination?

 

The Laborious Art of Book Writing

I love this post by Lucy Mills and it echoes my own thoughts about the process of writing a book. Lucy is writing an inspirational book, not a novel, but she describes an experience common to all those who throw themselves heart and soul into writing a full-length work for publication. Lucy refers to the revision process; but I can testify that even getting that first draft written presents the same challenges. It can be compared to an artist, covering the canvas before they can begin to work on the details. Do read and comment on Lucy’s post.

Lucy Mills

“Reading through…I think it’s OK…so hard to tell when have seen it so much…but it might be OK, after all…If I can fix a few things and fill a few holes, I might even be pleased, in the end…”

I wrote those words on a recent Instagram post.

I’m still writing the book, balancing it with other editing work, which is proving an exercise in drawing lines, even more so than I already do.  Deadlines do have a tendency to congregate and with every new demand in my editing job, I have to take a deep breath and not panic.

Panic is the worst thing for creativity, for me, at least.

Undivided Heart is developing its personality and it won’t be taken lightly, taking me into deep questions of identity and meaning. I only hope it manages to balance the ‘depth’ with readability.  I continue to plug away at it…

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What do the Secrets of the Australian Swagman Have to Say to Creative Writers?

“Ashes are much hotter than flames”.Picture of an Australian swagman by George Washington Lambert - Sheoak Sam, 1898This is an observation I heard online a few months ago, and you’d think, OK, what does that have to do with creative writers?  Well, let me take you to the Australian Outback to explain.

The ‘swagman’ of Waltzing Matilda fame traditionally goes walkabout through the Outback of Australia with only 3 basic foodstuffs in his tucker bag: onions, flour and golden syrup.  That’s so he can bake the essential carbs portion of his diet, damper, in the ashes of his fire, (to eat later with syrup) and also the onion, an indispensable companion to the ‘jumbuck’ that he’s poached from whichever sheep-station he happens to be passing through.

Here is the process of making damper, demonstrated by a honorary ‘bushman’ / exponent of bush-craft (alias a friend of my sister’s then living in a caravan in Stanthorpe, Queensland), a process which my daughter Abigail photographed while we were in Australia in 2007:

So what does this have to say to creative writers?

Simply this: writing a novel can be like making damper from scratch in the Australian bush. You gather together your basic requirements; wood for a fire, pot to make your damper in, flour and water, and off you go.  Your fire must be just right; no more flames, but nice hot ashes, ready for the cooking. The pan is placed on the ashes and heated up ready to take the mixture, and for the lid to go on. Then the pan is covered with hot ashes and left to cook. the hot ashes are later swept away with a sprig of greenery. Every stage of the process requires careful attendance and skill. And finally you have your delicious result, ready to be devoured. But first you make it more palatable by putting golden syrup on it.IMGP0807 eat and enjoy!

Just so do you gather your raw material for a novel in your mind, your life experiences and observations, your characters, their life-histories, your plot, your skill with words, and then you go about mixing them all together, through several drafts, each stage  carefully attended to, so that your end result is just golden brown, and not burnt nor soggy. And then even when it’s perfect, it may be it needs that extra touch, with the syrup on top ie. the final polish.