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?

 

Thrilling Holiday Reading: Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit

Looking for gripping novels to fill up your ereader with?A PASSIONATE SPIRIT COVER DESIGN  as used on Matador web page

Want to while away the time at the airport?

Include A Passionate Spirit on your holiday reading list.

If you like thrillers with  more than a touch of the paranormal this is for you!

Janice an Amazon reviewer, took A Passionate Spirit on holiday with her and says I loved it, I was hooked from the very beginning, the characters got inside my head, and I couldn’t put the book down. I was really very surprised at how spooked I felt considering I was on  a sunny beach in Tenerife very far removed from the Cotswolds. Thank you for a great read.

Mystical Circles 2nd edition book cover image 688 by 1000 pixelsAnd why not also download Mystical Circles?

If you do, I suggest you read Mystical Circles first because it may add more depth to the background of some of the characters.

Sue W, an Amazon reviewer, has read both books, and says:  This is something that I like in a book series – being reintroduced to characters at a different point in their lives, without a specific cross reference to the first story. …A Passionate Spirit provokes the reader into reflecting on the motivations of the characters. One that particularly fascinated me was James – remembering him from Mystical Circles, I found myself wondering about how he would have got from his life then, to his life now…. another way of saying that the character was believable in himself and not just a plot device…

But Sue does add that the two books could be read in any order and would still be enjoyable.Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit by SC SkillmanEnjoy your holidays… and happy reading!

Come and See Me at Costa Coffee in Royal Priors Leamington Spa on Fri 24 June and Buy a Signed Copy of Mystical Circles And A Passionate Spirit

I had a great time at the Leamington Peace Festival over the weekend, and enjoyed chatting to many interesting people at my local author stall.

cropped image of my booksigning tableNot only did I sell some books to keen readers, and meet someone who was uncannily like one of my characters in Mystical Circles, who asked me for advice on how to start his own book, but also had a conversation about the paranormal involving a dog and the council and several fast-disappearing residents from a Birmingham house, which gave me ideas for future use in a novel!20160618_105109-1.jpg

I’d love to see you on Friday 24 June 11am to 2pm in Costa Coffee,  Royal Priors, Leamington Spa, where again I’ll be selling signed copies of both novels. Do drop in if you’re in Leamington that day!

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Light to Uplift the Spirit and Transform a Dark World

Add light to any situation, and it changes dramatically.

View of the London skyline from Parliament Hill, Hampstead.jpg

 

I have often thought the Shard in London looks like a mystical tower. Here in this view it certainly lives up to this image! Highlight one element of a picture and immediately it starts communicating its message  – as you will see from these pictures of places I find inspiring: whether that be the view over the London skyline from Parliament Hill, Hampstead; Coventry Cathedral; or the reflective glass building at 250 Euston Street, London.

According to the gospel of John, Jesus Christ described himself as the “light of the world”. John picks up on this image of light many times – “the true light that was the light to every person coming into the world.” Here in Coventry Cathedral I didn’t realise how the the Graham Sutherland tapestry of Christ was illuminated, until I looked at my photo later:

Light on the Graham Sutherland tapestry of Jesus Christ in Coventry Cathedral

I don’t like to see “darkness” necessarily equated with evil, or given any moral character at all, but when we see the pitiless acts of cruelty and hatred which have filled our news over the last weeks, months and years since so many bright (and perhaps false) hopes were raised at the millennium, we seem to crave words to convey our response, and we fall back on words like “black” and “darkness”. These words have acquired a spiritual resonance.

In the last few days I have been seeing just a few examples of the power of light to transform, and to convey a message.

Light or reflective glass building at 250 Euston Road, London

Let’s hope that we can ourselves be creative…

light a candle

…in how we shine light into the world, in however small a way, in our own situations.

silver sea image 5

Echoes of “A Passionate Spirit” in Mystical Tales from British Folklore

Book Review:  “Faeries, Elves and Goblins: The Old Stories” by Rosalind Kerven, published by the National Trust

Faeries, Elves and Goblins by Rosalind Kerven

I bought this book recently in a National Trust gift shop, and found it captivating. Rosalind Kerven explores the raw material from which many of our great fantasy novelists have derived their archetypes. She includes “mystical tales of faery royalty, mischievous goblins, helpful house-elves, changelings and enchantments across the British isles”, with spotlight features on “faery folklore, faery morals, the various faery tribes, and spells and dealings between faeries and mortals”. As a paranormal thriller writer I loved this wonderful survey of centuries of folklore and faery mythology in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The book reminded me too of why I was so fascinated by the idea of supernatural malevolence hidden beneath mystical beauty (a common theme in faery lore and in Arthurian legends) which was part of my inspiration for “A Passionate Spirit.”COVER DESIGN A PASSIONATE SPIRIT pub Matador

Rosalind Kerven covers all the major themes in traditional tales of the faery realm, including  what she describes as “typical Faery perversity”, spells that are both mischievous and malevolent, and the toxic nature of any deals struck by a faery with a mortal. Reading these tales reminds us that any mortal who ultimately comes out well from dealing with a faery, is extremely lucky!

Shakespeare had it exactly right with his fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, showing them having fun with and mocking the folly of the human beings, then putting things to rights once they have tired of their sport, wryfully signing off with the words, “If we shadows have offended…” In widespread stories down through the centuries, faeries are shown behaving towards mortals rather like a supernatural gang of brigands running a protection racket. These tales made me reflect upon how much they say of the life experience of their creators; an explanation for the changing fortunes we all encounter in this world.

There is so much here that we can identify with on the level of our own unconscious: “The transformation of a familiar path into an endlessly looping labyrinth” – for which a well-known antidote is to “remove one’s coat, turn it inside out and put it on again”; the experience of being “pixy-led”; the idea of obtaining “faery sight” which reveals a parallel world. I can see from this book how deeply influenced JK Rowling was by British folklore, in the Harry Potter novels: Dobby is set free when his master gives him an item of clothing; Harry is deposited as a baby on the Dursleys’ doorstep, by magical agency; and the idea of veritaserum, to name just three examples among countless others.

Highly recommended for adults interested in a survey of archetypal themes in folklore and mythology, though not suitable as a storybook for young children; they are best introduced to fairy tales and folklore through the many other books aimed specifically at their age-groups.

The Sublime Landscape of JRR Tolkien and His Creative Vision – in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

I saw the last Hobbit film two days ago: The Battle of the Five Armies.

The Hobbit 1st published 1937 and its author JRR Tolkien
The Hobbit 1st published 1937 and its author JRR Tolkien

And as I watched it I had a strong feeling of Peter Jackson making the most of his final cinematic visit to Middle-earth. Everything was exploited to its fullest extent, the brutality of battle, the sublimity and peril of the landscape, the tragedy of a hero lost in his lust for gold, the goodness and simplicity and down-to-earth appeal of Bilbo, the ugliness and brutishness of the orcs, the grandeur and regality of the elves, the mystical presence of Galadriel.

As a lover of JRR Tolkien and the fantasy world he created, I  first read The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the Silmarillion while I was at university. When I read the Hobbit I remember loving it even more, if that were possible, than The Lord of the Rings. I felt it contained all that the longer book contained, but within a smaller, more compact package. I don’t think it’s possible to think this about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films! Even so, I felt in this final trip to Middle-earth Peter Jackson excelled himself in terms of long scenes of extended hazard, in archetypal themes of love and compassion versus cruelty, brutality, and the lust for gold. How glad I was when the Lady Galadriel appeared in the dark, craggy, landscape in her shining white robes. And when Bilbo finally said he was off home, I thought, Cue for the eagles to fly in and give him a ride back to The Shire. But no. He had to walk. I loved the way the landscape grew greener and more warm and welcoming as he approached closer to Hobbiton.

Considering the very unassuming and childlike way in which the original novel The Hobbit begins, who could ever have guessed it would lead on to such heights of creative imagination. And in the world he created, JRR Tolkien gave us many poignant and ominous reflections upon our own world, on the nature of life, and the human condition, as well as the spiritual purpose and destiny of the human race.

Passion, Obsession and Curiosity at the Alternative Guide to the Universe, Hayward Gallery, London

What makes art?

Alternative Guide to the Universe (photo credit: www.southbankcentre.co.uk)
Alternative Guide to the Universe (photo credit: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk)

A listener posed this  question to our tour guide as we stood looking at two art gallery walls covered with self-portraits of a bag lady, taken in various public photo booths.

And this  was the question I pondered as I , with my two teenage children, looked round an exhibition of wonders at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank last Saturday.

There, displayed for us in The Alternative Guide to the Universe, were the outpourings of unlicensed architects, off-beam physicists, self-taught  artists, arcane code creators, numerologists and  mystical theorizers; untrained farmer-inventors of automata and robots, constructors of imaginary buildings and cities from discarded packaging, and proponents of new theories to replace gravity and relativity.

We gazed at elaborate designs for a robot to roam the universe, and crack the mystery of life after death, with a complex scheme for a new language with which this  robot would communicate these truths to the future inhabitants of planet earth.

We viewed images of exquisite dolls of children and young people which had been created by one man over 20 years, dressed in clothes  he designed and made himself, then posed in numerous positions and photographed; and finally, packed away carefully, not to be seen again by anyone until after his death.

What makes art? I asked myself.

And answers immediately flooded in:

Passion.

Obsession.

Devotion.

Dedication.

A long obedience  in the same  direction.

The creators of the works we saw were a direct inspiration and encouragement to me as a writer.

Some are long-term residents in psychiatric institutions, others are on the fringes of society, just inside the cusp of (apparent) normality.

And they are all remarkable, exceptional people.

And they all have this in common:

They are focussed, committed, and  they direct all their energy into one project consistently, over a number of years  which can range from one to three decades.

If you have this kind of commitment you too could in theory create exquisite things.

Your ideas might not ‘work’, but if you are creative in this life, and you leave a body of work behind you that is intriguing and beguiling and fills people with wonder and amazement and awe, you have added something of lasting value to this world. You may even have fulfilled your God-given purpose.

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 7 – Arriving Where You Started and Knowing The Place For the First Time

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.

mountain view Great Dividing Range
mountain view Great Dividing Range

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:

  1. Mountain at end of road in Wales.
  2. Hedge parsley in Kent.
  3. Dream of the sea
  4. Mount Neel Kanth in India.
  5. Violin passage in Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”
  6. Twilight on the beach at Mynt, Pembrokeshire coastline, West Wales
  7. Taize service in church
  8. Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury
  9. The woodland between Conishead Priory & Morecambe Bay, Barrow-in-Furness
  10. St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral
  11. On the mountain top at Binna Burra, Queensland.
  12. 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!

“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 4 – Cottingley Fairy Photographs and Esoteric Teachings

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

Theosophical Society
Theosophical Society

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

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

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

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

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

So what is Theosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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