Tag Archives: William James

Winter Nights – a Christmas meditation

The beautiful solstice poem by Susan Cooper which I shared in my last post, and which proved a very popular read,  has got me reflecting on winter, this Christmas Eve. It is wet and windy in Glasgow tonight, neither very cold nor very seasonal. But the daffs and snowdrops’ green shoots are peeping though. They know that spring isn’t far away!

But in the meantime, we need winter. We need the dark. Within the year’s natural cycle, the diurnal alternation of light and dark brings restful silence at night and the restorative power of sleep, without which all creatures including us would burn out and die before their time.

We are in danger of forgetting this – at our peril – as an increasingly technology-driven culture sweeps the world, creating the illusion that we can live sustainably and healthily in defiance of the ancient rhythms set by the great cycles of nature.

On the Scottish island where I grew up, however, nature was omnipresent. One snowy winter’s dusk, I failed to return home from primary school. A snowstorm was blowing up with a fierce gale. Worried, my mother sent out a search party who found me in a state of some distress, almost white with snow, pinned against a fence. A slight child, I had been blown and held there by the wind.

Where I grew up, we didn’t need to read books to understand the fierce destructive power of nature as well as its unearthly beauty. Followers of this blog will know from its new header, how much I love the Northern Lights which I used to see each winter, magic dancers in the night sky  above the island of my birth.

From those childhood experiences on, I have walked the well trodden path underlying all faiths which seeks ways of affirming connection with that vast Power which runs nature, the Universe and everything, reconciling dark and light, going way beyond time.

Whilst reflecting on the profoundly mysterious and paradoxical relationship between light and dark, with which we humans have always wrestled in one form or another, the phrase ‘dazzling darkness’ came to mind. It persisted for days, until eventually I located the source.

It occurs in a fascinating article, which I had first read in 2002, titled “A RELUCTANT MYSTIC: God-Consciousness not Guru Worship” by John Wren-Lewis. ( from Self & Society Vol 29 Number 6 Feb-March 2002 (pp 22-24)

The author describes how, at the age of nearly sixty, retired and with a distinguished career as a scientist behind him,  he had spiritual consciousness “thrust upon me….without working for it, desiring it, or even believing in it.”

It was 1983. Wren-Lewis was in Thailand, in a hospital bed, hovering between life and death, having eaten a poisoned sweet given to him by a would-be thief. What happened next, a ‘near death experience’(NDE), he describes as follows:

“I simply entered – or rather, was – a timeless, spaceless void which in some indescribable way was total aliveness – an almost palpable blackness that was yet somehow radiant. Trying to find words for it afterwards, I recalled the mysterious line of Henry Vaughan’s poem The Night:  ‘There is in God, some say, a deep and dazzling darkness’….”

His return to life, as the medical staff gradually won their battle to save him, was not in any way accompanied by the typical NDE’s classic sense of regret or loss at having to go back to the world of the everyday. It was, in fact, “nothing like a return….more like an act of creation whereby the timeless, spaceless Dark budded out into manifestation”. Furthermore, the experience was “indescribably wonderful.”

In Wren-Lewis’ own words “I now know exactly why the Book of Genesis says that God looked upon all that He had made – not just beautiful sunsets, but dreary hospital rooms and traumatised sixty-year old bodies – and saw that it was very good.”

Moreover, this heightened awareness did not leave him. A permanent shift, without any effort at all, into what he calls “God-consciousness” caused him to do further reading and research beyond accounts of NDEs into the “once-despised world of mystical literature and spiritual movements”.

But he rejects the notion held by experts in many religious traditions that the path to God-consciousness, or Enlightenment, or Nirvana requires years or even lifetimes of intensive spiritual effort. After all, he’d been handed “the pearl of great price on a plate” without ever seeking it, and found God-consciousness to be quintessentially ordinary and obvious – a feature emphasised by many mystics.

I was so intrigued by Wren-Lewis’ startling account  that I re-read the great Victorian psychologist William James’ classic book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” for the first time in nearly thirty years. This confirmed what I had already known but forgotten: a great many people who have profound religious or mystical experiences have them in nature.

I felt grateful then for my powerful and threatening experience that winter’s night in early childhood. The awesome power of nature, had circumstances been a little different, could have taken my life from me then before it had even begun. And for those brilliant encounters with the Northern Lights, so long ago but still clearly remembered. They affirmed my need for ‘God consciousness’ – long before I could ever articulate it coherently for myself.

We need awe: it points our vision towards the sacred. So, readers, embrace the darkness if you can, this winter’s Christmas Eve – you never can tell what wonders may reveal themselves ….

River Kelvin Dec 2010

River Kelvin Dec 2010

FESTIVE GREETINGS EVERYONE! THANKS FOR YOUR CONTINUING SUPPORT VIA VISITS, COMMENTS AND EMAILS – AND MAY 2014 BE A FULFILLING YEAR.

*****

950 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Favourite Quote: ‘On Prayer’ by Frederic W.H.Myers

I am glad that you have asked me about prayer, because I have rather strong ideas on the subject. First consider what are the facts. There exists around us a spiritual universe, and that universe is in actual relation with the material. From the spiritual universe comes the energy which maintains the material; the energy which makes the life of each individual spirit. Our spirits are supported by a perpetual indrawal of this energy, and the vigor of that indrawal is perpetually changing, much as the vigor of our absorption of material nutriment changes from hour to hour.

I call these ‘facts’ because I think that some scheme of this kind is the only one consistent with our actual evidence, too complex to summarise here. How, then, should we act on these facts? Plainly we must endeavour to draw in as much spiritual life as possible, and we must place our minds in any attitude which experience shows to be favourable to such indrawal. Prayer is the general name for that attitude of open and earnest expectancy. If we then ask to whom to pray, the answer (strangely enough) must be that that does not much matter…..

(from a letter by Frederic W. H. Myers to a friend, quoted in William James’

“Varieties of Religious Experience”

( pp 508-9)

Winter Nights – embracing the darkness

 

A core memory from my Hebridean childhood is located in winter’s depths. Whilst dashing out to play after our evening meal, running up the garden path, breath frosty on the clear cold air, a glance at the pitch dark sky stopped me dead. A magical swirling dance of colour was washing the Northern sky with translucent radiance. I held my breath, friends forgotten,  gazing for a long time at the wonderful display. Gradually, inevitably, it faded and vanished.

This first experience of awe has remained etched on memory. It imprinted on my soul, at a very young age, a deep intuitive sense that there is a sublime mystery at the core of the interplay between light and dark.

 

The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights

Subsequent adult reading provided a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of the aurora borealis. But science cannot explain the sense of wonder and awe which the Northern Lights has evoked in countless numbers of us since our remote ancestors scanned the skies, seeing the Divine in natural beauty, and eventually in its predictable rhythms. Knowing that the Moon, for example, had its pattern of waxing and waning enabled our ancestors to plan the best times for planting, travelling, and timing their religious rituals. But the Moon’s guiding light could only be accessed in the dark of night.

We need winter. We may not like it much, especially in the frequently wet, grey dreariness of the West of Scotland at this time of year! But we need it, and the darkness that goes with it. A long rest refreshes the earth, revitalises it; new life quietly germinates in the dark, bursting forth in the miraculous renewal of spring.

We need the dark. Within the year’s natural cycle, the diurnal alternation of light and dark brings restful silence at night and the restorative power of sleep, without which all creatures including us would burn out and die before their time. We are in danger of forgetting this – at our peril – as an increasingly technology-driven culture sweeps the world, creating the illusion that we can live sustainably and healthily in defiance of the ancient rhythms set by the great cycles of nature.

One snowy winter’s dusk, I failed to return home from primary school. A snowstorm was blowing up with a fierce gale. Worried, my mother sent out a search party. I was found, in a state of some distress, almost white with snow, pinned against a fence. A slight child, I had been blown and held there by the wind. Where I grew up, we didn’t need to read books to understand the fierce destructive power of nature as well as its unearthly beauty.

From those childhood experiences on, I have walked the well trodden path underlying all faiths which seeks ways of affirming connection with that vast Power which runs nature, the Universe and everything, reconciling dark and light, going way beyond time.

Whilst reflecting on the profoundly mysterious and paradoxical relationship between light and dark, with which we humans have always wrestled in one form or another, the phrase ‘dazzling darkness’ came to mind. It persisted for days, until eventually I located the source.

It occurs in a fascinating article, which I had first read in 2002, titled

“A RELUCTANT MYSTIC: God-Consciousness not Guru Worship” by John Wren-Lewis. (1)

The author describes how, at the age of nearly sixty, retired and with a distinguished career as a scientist behind him,  he had spiritual consciousness “thrust upon me….without working for it, desiring it, or even believing in it.”

It was 1983. Wren-Lewis was in Thailand, in a hospital bed, hovering between life and death, having eaten a poisoned sweet given to him by a would-be thief. What happened next, a ‘near death experience’(NDE), he describes as follows:

 

“I simply entered – or rather, was – a timeless, spaceless void which in some indescribable way was total aliveness – an almost palpable blackness that was yet somehow radiant. Trying to find words for it afterwards, I recalled the mysterious line of Henry Vaughan’s poem The Night:

‘There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness’
.”

His return to life, as the medical staff gradually won their battle to save him, was not in any way accompanied by the typical NDE’s classic sense of regret or loss at having to go back to the world of the everyday. It was, in fact, “nothing like a return….more like an act of creation whereby the timeless, spaceless Dark budded out into manifestation”. Furthermore, the experience was “indescribably wonderful.”

In Wren-Lewis’ own words “I now know exactly why the Book of Genesis says that God looked upon all that He had made – not just beautiful sunsets, but dreary hospital rooms and traumatised sixty-year old bodies – and saw that it was very good.”

Moreover, this heightened awareness did not leave him. A permanent shift, without any effort at all, into what he calls “God-consciousness” caused him to do further reading and research beyond accounts of NDEs into the “once-despised world of mystical literature and spiritual movements”. But he rejects the notion held by experts in many religious traditions that the path to God-consciousness, or Enlightenment, or Nirvana requires years or even lifetimes of intensive spiritual effort. After all, he’d been handed “the pearl of great price on a plate” without ever seeking it, and found God-consciousness to be quintessentially ordinary and obvious – a feature emphasised by many mystics.

I was so intrigued by Wren-Lewis’ startling account  that I re-read the great Victorian psychologist William James’ classic book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” for the first time in nearly thirty years. This confirmed what I had already known but forgotten: a great many people who have profound religious or mystical experiences have them in nature.

I felt grateful then for that brilliant encounter with the Northern Lights, so long ago but still clearly remembered, which affirmed my need for ‘God consciousness’ before I could ever articulate it.

We need awe: it points our vision towards the sacred. So, readers, embrace the darkness if you can, these winter nights – you never can tell what wonders may reveal themselves ….

(1) from Self & Society Vol 29 Number 6 Feb-March 2002 (pp 22-24)

 

(published in ‘Magnificat’ magazine (UK) winter/spring 2007 )

1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page