The Fatal Flaw in Human Nature, Castles in the Air, and Dreams and Visions

My recent visit to an English Heritage castle, Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire, stirred up some reflections on life.20170501_124937-1

A visit to a medieval castle cannot help remind you that this great pile represents in stone the major themes in human nature: war, power, wealth, moral and economic hierarchies, social injustice and religion.

Of course what we choose to focus on when we visit a castle is conditioned by the story we attach to it; and when I visit my nearest EH castle at Kenilworth my mind is usually full of the intriguing romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, because that’s the angle English Heritage love to take.

However at Goodrich Castle, several different images whirled around my mind: a chapel in a gatehouse with arrow slits in it, murder holes, double portcullis, double gates, two drawbridges, luxury accommodation and all the contemporary mod cons for the aristocratic family and their friends, and the reminder that the 200 servants would have just dossed down anywhere they could find that was as warm and comfortable as possible.20170501_112727

I found myself thinking about three things:

First, social justice.

We’re very conscious of it now in our society, only because our eyes have been opened to it; perceptions have changed. To modern Christian eyes social justice has always been at the heart of the gospel. But has it? For many centuries the most dedicated Christians were oblivious to it. So has it always been there, and they were just wilfully blind? Or is it only there because we’ve formed a political agenda for it?

Second, religion and violence.

They were pious Christians with rich Chapels and they had all the arrangements in place to hurl boiling oil on people and shoot arrows at them through slits in the walls of their chapel even as they were worshipping. But can we ever judge those who lived in a different age by our own values and standards in very different times? Many who oppose the Christian faith now cite its history as evidence that it is sheer folly. To what extent can we judge the truth of a system of thought/ a religion/philosophy/worldview by its human history?

Third, human nature.

In church recently someone said to me, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed. My view is that human nature is fatally flawed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there could be some improvement.” This reminded me that the teachings of Jesus go against human nature. You cannot actually follow through the logical implications of Jesus’ teaching without battling human nature.

What is human nature anyway? With the benefit of hindsight we see the behaviour of medieval castle inhabitants as folly, and it all seems very black and white to us. Future generations looking back will see and think exactly the same about our behaviour now, in 2017, down in our very own microcosm.

Many of our own “dreams” are foolish, vain things – “wishful thinking, ” “pipe dreams”, “castles in the air”. They are not worthy of being fulfilled and are not designed to be fulfilled, but are destined to dissipate in the desert air.

All we can do is take little steps forward according to what seems right, or helpful, or appropriate to us at the time.

We always have to see our “dreams” in this context, of failed, fatally flawed, human nature. And to realise that we’re down here in the microcosm and can only see through a glass darkly, notwithstanding all our little dreams and visions.

 

 

People of Inspiration: Russ Parker, Poet, Priest, Author, and Champion of Celtic Spirituality and Healing Dreams

My upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit tells the story of a young woman who defies a sinister spiritual healer.

A Passionate Spirit, the new paranormal thriller from SC Skillman, due to be published by Matador on 28 November 2015
A Passionate Spirit, the new paranormal thriller from SC Skillman, due to be published by Matador on 28 November 2015

The novel is about a conflict between good and evil, and I am fascinated by the idea of great beauty used to mask malevolent spiritual power. But the story also deals with the subject of healing, and what part psychic and spiritual power can play in this.

Among many who inspired me during the course of research for this novel I may number the Rev Russ Parker, whom one may describe as “an unconventional priest” (along with one of the principal characters in my novel).  He writes non-fiction books and poetry, he works in such areas as international listening and reconciliation, healing wounded histories, both of individuals and communities, and he explores the ways in which dreams and Celtic spirituality and a much freer attitude to spiritual matters may all open up our being and contribute to our healing.

I first heard Russ Parker speak at a local retreat centre several years ago, and he made a strong impact on me then. Since then I’ve heard him speak a number of times and have also attended a weekend retreat led by him about the Road to Emmaus. In addition I’ve read several of his books. Foremost among those which most impressed me are: Healing Dreams, Requiem Healing, Healing Death’s Wounds, and Wild Spirit of the Living God. So impressed was I by Russ, that I suggested a particular poem of his be read aloud at my father’s funeral, with a few personal biographical twists. This poem is called “The View From Here”. Afterwards some who were at the funeral service said, “That was the most uplifting funeral I have ever been to.” I believe this was in no small part due to the power of Russ’s poem.

Russ manages to be wise, vulnerable, poignant, down-to-earth, moving and funny during the sessions he leads. I don’t believe it’s possible to come out without having been entertained, inspired, uplifted, intellectually challenged or emotionally stirred – unless you’re in a coma at the time.

I listened to Russ speaking about Visions five years ago at a church in Derby. He spoke about how a vision takes an increasing grip on your life. Visions, he said, are something God brings that disturbs us. Sometimes they have their timetables. This is the way vision work, he said: it may be that God spoke to you two years ago, but has put you on pause. Maybe today – or at a time of His choosing in the future – he will press the unpause button.

We should learn to “hold our vision and wait with it until God fires the release gun.” I’ve held my vision for a long time, and I too am looking forward to the firing of that release gun!

The Archetypal Appeal of the Vista

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These are two images of the Syon Vista – one of the three great vistas in Kew Gardens which together form a triangle between Pagoda, Palm House and riverside viewpoint. And as I stood there a few days ago, I was reminded of why we love a long, straight vista. The vista, or avenue, draws the spectator forwards along it, to the central vanishing point. It represents our dearest wish: that life may be like that. And perhaps it may be – in our dreams. Instead, in reality, our lives twist and turn and diverge and backtrack. The path has many confusing cul-de-sacs. We fall down potholes. The path leads through marshy ground, and we nearly sink beneath the surface. The path may be a perilous mountain track, or it may be piled with jagged boulders.

But a grand vista is none of these things. Instead, it progresses smoothly into a secure, warm, welcoming future.  We find it comforting, reassuring, uplifiting. Avenues represent human control over the landscape, imposing order on a chaotic world. And since imposing control on the landscape is a major, expensive task, the grand avenue is the province of the wealthy and the powerful. Capability Brown  demonstrated his ability to create dreams from landscape – at a cost. His clients found the grand vista a perfect way to reassure themselves of their status.

Windsor Great Park boasts a vista – the Long Walk, first set out by Charles II. And as it was developed in time, it became an ideal route for ceremonial rides. George IV reaped the benefit of the vista, however, not merely by public display although he was indeed very fond of that. No – in addition he had between 20 and 30 miles of neatly planted avenues to ride along, from which the public was wholly excluded.

I suggest that a vista means many things to us – and foremost among them, hope, dreams, clarity, destiny, goals, the future, focus, direction, drive, ambition, vision. All those things we either long for, or are told we must have, or we aspire to.

On the straight vista through life there are no snakes, no ladders, no forks, no bogs, no potholes, no detours. The goal, our destiny, is always in sight; and we are always progressing smoothly towards it. Nevertheless, alongside our love of grand avenues and vistas, we also respond to great stories full of twists and turns. And the reason, I suspect, is that  both play their part in our understanding of life. Dreams and reality intermingle; the ideal and the real guide each other.

SC Skillman