Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Posts tagged ‘sacred spaces’

Holywell Retreat, A Place of Spiritual Inspiration on the Sussex Coast

I’ve written before in this blog about those sacred spaces which are known in Ancient Celtic terms as thin places.

View of Beachy Head from Holywell Retreat - photo credit Abigail Robinson

View of Beachy Head from Holywell Retreat – photo credit Abigail Robinson

These are places where you are led to believe that the veil between the visible and the invisible worlds is thin. They don’t have to be obviously religious places. In fact once I read of someone who had a religious experience whilst crossing London Bridge in the rush hour. For that person, London Bridge became a thin place.

A thin place may be any place where you have new or happy or inspirational thoughts. And one of my most popular topics on this blog is places I love.

But quite often, probably because our ability to tune into spiritual inspiration is hindered by stress, anxiety, tension and so on, our thin places are literally places of tranquillity where we can move apart from the preoccupations of our daily life.

the beach at Holywell Retreat - photo credit Abigail Robinson

the beach at Holywell Retreat – photo credit Abigail Robinson

Such a place for me, recently, was Holywell Retreat between Eastbourne and Beachy Head. I was there with a friend and my two teenage children just a few days ago.

The weather was mild and warm, the atmosphere still and hushed. A few people were around, but it wasn’t crowded. This was the end of the Easter holiday, and not yet the high season for tourism in Eastbourne. The sea washed over the stony beach. The white cliffs of Beachy Head were directly ahead of us.

A few people sat on benches watching the sea. It occurred to me that, had I not been planning to drive back to Warwick in a couple of hours, I could happily have stayed there all day in this dreamlike state, feeling the warmth on my skin, listening to the murmur of the sea against the pebbles on the beach, gazing at the white cliffs stretching out to the horizon.

Everything that might cause me anxiety melted away. And above all, I was present in the moment. So were my two children, as they wandered around the beach, and so too was my friend. I dare to believe that each one of us was living fully in the present, as you do in the space between sleeping and waking, when your dreams still linger with you.

Do you have a thin place? Or perhaps it is so special to you that you don’t want to reveal its location! Please share in the comments.

 

 

Sacred Spaces in the English Landscape and Places of Inspiration: Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral

Stonehenge 17 Aug 2013 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Stonehenge 17 Aug 2013 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Throughout the English landscape there’s evidence that our ancestors shaped the land, to conform to their own mythological landscape.

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.

Salisbury Cathedral. Its spire is the tallest cathedral spire in England  (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Salisbury Cathedral. Its spire is the tallest cathedral spire in England (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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)

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.

Prisoners of Conscience window in Salisbury Cathedral (designed by Gabriel Loire; dedicated to prisoners of conscience throughout the world. (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Prisoners of Conscience window in Salisbury Cathedral (designed by Gabriel Loire; dedicated to prisoners of conscience throughout the world. (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Another view of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

Another view of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

Gazing Out to Sea: The Beauty of the English Coastline

I recently visited Beachy Head, East Sussex, with a friend and  my two teenage children.

Shining cliff (photo  credit: Abigail Robinson)

Shining cliff (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

As we walked along the cliftop, we all agreed: Where in the world could we go that’s more beautiful than this?

Beachy Head, together with the Seven Sisters Country Park and Birling Gap are all protected by The National Trust and they are  a short drive  out of Eastbourne on the south coast.

on Birling Gap Beach (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

on Birling Gap Beach (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

 

Bright path (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

Bright path (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

I was born and brought up in Kent, and it was only thirty five minutes drive from where we lived to the south coast. Camber Sands was a particular favourite, and we regularly visited and ran over the open dunes, usually going on afterwards to the lovely old fishing town Rye, with its evocative fifteenth century Mermaid Inn.

On every trip, I felt the excitement of that first view of the sea.

And now, I say to my own children, just as my father said to us: “who’ll be the first to catch a glimpse of the sea?”

Everything depends upon our own inner state, as we contemplate such landscapes, which can then become sacred spaces.

gazing out to sea (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

gazing out to sea (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

For me, standing on a cliff gazing out to sea is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever. 

Sheila & Abigail on Birling  Gap Beach (photo credit; Jamie Robinson)

Sheila & Abigail on Birling Gap Beach (photo credit; Jamie Robinson)

Places of Inspiration Part 7: Memories, Dreams, Reflections Among the Kookaburras on an Australian Mountain Lookout

Margaret Silf wrote a book called Sacred Spaces in which she explored the various stages of our life-journey in terms of geographical locations. Everything has a symbolic meaning – bridge, crossing place, lake, wood, ford, spring, river, well  – in the ancient Celtic view of the world. And I believe many of us find that the value of a special place lies not only in itself but in the extent to which our memories, dreams and reflections are threaded through it.

So it is for me with Jolly’s Lookout – number 7 in my mini-series Places of Inspiration. Halfway up a mountain near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, it’s a place where I’ve meditated, socialised, and reached turning points in my life. Jolly’s Lookout is equally loved by picnickers and kookaburras.   It holds memories and has inhabited my dreams. For me, past and future coalesced here. The view has it all, in terms of “soul space” – a valley, a city, a bay, distant mountains. All these hold a symbolic power, a special symbolism for the life-journey.

 

Tourist Map of Australia

Tourist Map of Australia

You can see where Brisbane is here on this map of Australia.

Jolly’s Lookout  – so named after William Jolly, the first Lord Mayor of Greater Brisbane – is a place of happy times  – lunchtime picnics, night-time barbeques, gatherings of local groups who come to eat together then play games afterwards.  In 2007 I was able to take my 12-year-old daughter there and she has shared my love of this inspiring mountain viewpoint ever since.

My daughter Abigail at Jolly's Lookout

My daughter Abigail at Jolly’s Lookout

This lookout is in open eucalypt forest. If you continue up the road from here to Mount Glorious, you may hear bellbirds, and enjoy walks through subtropical rainforest.

a possum in a tree at night

a possum in a tree at night

At night it is the haunt of possums, their bright eyes shining in the torchlight as  visitors come to hang their storm lanterns from the overhanging branches and prepare their barbecues.

A close up of a goana

A close up of a goana

And often if you come at dusk you will find a visiting goana, also keen to share your picnic.

kookaburra

kookaburra

It is likewise home to numerous kookaburras, who love their opportunity to swoop and snatch from a hapless visitor’s fork perhaps a nice chicken breast or piece of steak, foolishly lifted into the air, and held there for a split second before the mouth of the picnicker can close around it.

The view from Jolly’s Lookout is breathtaking. It takes in the Samford Valley, the city of Brisbane, Moreton Bay, and beyond that, further north, up towards the Sunshine Coast, the bizarre and fascinating shapes of the Glasshouse Mountains, so named by Captain Cook purely from the impression they made on him as he sailed past in 1770. During the time I lived in Australia – four and a half years between 1986 and 1990 – I visited Jolly’s Lookout many times.

picnic table at Jolly's Lookout May 2012

picnic table at Jolly’s Lookout May 2012

Is there a special place where you have happy memories, perhaps of wandering alone, or a place where you were part of a social gathering or party that comes vividly to mind whenever you think of the place? Are your memories, dreams and reflections threaded through it? Please share your thoughts about your special place, in the comments below.

The Pessimistic Optimism of the Long-Distance Creative Writer

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

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

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

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

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

 Not long ago I attended an evening on Discernment, and an image was presented to us: “You can spend years knocking on doors.  Some doors lead to broom cupboards and some to elevator shafts.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 She went on to say: 

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

Water, Rock, Moon and Ancient Stone

Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire

Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire

Imagine the Warwickshire countryside in silence and darkness. A rabbit running from the headlights. Imagine a radiant moon and bright stars. The fresh rich smell of silage in the night. A tiny ancient church on a hill, lit only by candles within. Imagine rocks, water, Celtic prayers and songs – and you’ll know what I was doing last night.

Within the church with its rough stone walls are tall candlesticks and centuries-old choir stalls and pews. And a small group of people  with torches.

We were there with our leader, Annie Heppenstall , to commemorate the life of St Non, Celtic saint – the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. St David’s Day is 1st March, and St Non’s Day is 3rd March. To celebrate the highlights of the Celtic calendar in a special place like the church at Morton Bagot recalls the Celtic idea of “a thin place” – a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. I’ve written of this before in my blog post about Sacred Spaces. Many of us can name special places throughout the British Isles which we have felt to be “a thin place.” And this tiny church on the hill is one of them.

St Non of Wales presents, in common with many saints, an example of a life which encountered trauma yet overcame. She was an educated woman who chose to devote herself to life as a nun; raped by a prince of the region, she gave birth alone  on a clifftop in a raging storm. When the child she bore grew old enough she entrusted him to the church for his upbringing as many did in those days and resumed her life as a nun. Her son grew to become a holy man himself, and we know him as St David.

For us today, the example of St Non is one of a woman who suffered, lived through trauma and crisis, and triumphed over a bad situation,  coming out the other side, working faithfully with her changed circumstances and then courageously taking up her path again. On the site in Pembrokeshire where Non gave birth, to this day, a pure spring of water flows out from the bedrock where many have come to pray for healing.

SC Skillman

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