Wednesday, 12 March 2008


I have not enjoyed many “mystical experiences” (as they are usually called) but, throughout life, there have been some. The Yorkshire auto-didact, auto-biographer, traveller (on a horse) and novelist, William Holt, who died twenty years ago, said to me, “I am not dis-satisfied with life, but I am un-satisfied. Unsatisfied means that you like what is on the menu, but you don’t have enough of it on your plate.” That is how I feel about those occasions when time evaporated, the moment was detached, eternal - and, no, it wasn’t in a dentist’s chair or an operation, but from absorption in beauty, or perhaps art.

The first was when I was eight years of age. My Dad was teaching me to ride a bicycle. He did this by walking besides me, holding the saddle as I cycled the Cheshire lanes, and sometimes, on a flat stretch where there was no traffic (there was little traffic anywhere, of course) letting me free to balance myself.

A couple of miles of this and, naturally, Dad needed to call at a public house. A favourite was The Vine” in Dunham, which had a garden planted with orchard trees. He left me outside with a lemonade. One day he tried me with cider. I was abandoned for some time - I think Dad had a liking for the barmaid. He came out with another cider; his face was fiery with smiles. It was late Spring, sunny and still. Bees fussed over the flower beds. Sparrows and bright chaffinches hopped and flitted after insects, they foraged dropped crisps and sandwiches. I was the only one there, sat underneath a blossoming, old pear tree through which the sunlight filtered; a light more pink than normal because the blossom was at its perfection, dense, yet half-transparent. Growing drowsy, I tipped into seeming weightless, from peace and happiness. Time vanished - Dad could have stayed in there for a few minutes or for half the day, I would not have known. Time was replaced by absorption in an elevated sense of beauty. Probably my first sense of it, certainly that I can recall. Although it was also my first experience of being tipsy, that is not what has remained potent in memory. I had no language for this experience then, and it seems to me that I have come across little sufficient to it since.

Yet, through the several repeats, it is at the heart of why I write or paint at all. It has only rarely been reached through inebriation. It has sometimes arrived through a commonplace task, building, repairing, cooking, gardening, and when walking, in the slow rambling disorganised non-strenuous fashion that is mine, staring about me; or through shared friendship, or love, or through a discovery of the intellect. Sometimes through listening to and feeling the harmonies of the Universe, (the music of the spheres?) in the wind, under clear stars, in the sun by the sea. It can come from glimpsing the swing of a bird. It has never arrived when bidden. It is always a surprise. In that (and for other reasons) it is different to a sense of beauty, which may be sought, in the countryside, a person, a book, an art gallery. This is a visitation, that comes when it will.

The most recent occurred a few months ago, sitting in the Church at Bolton Abbey, which is on the bank of the River Wharfe, near Ilkley in Yorkshire. It isn’t the most beautiful church I know, yet despite some restoration and the Pugin windows, it holds the old atmosphere in a way often lacked by many better preserved churches. Cistercian chant was being played from a cd behind the altar screen. (The Ensemble Organum dir. by Marcel Peres, produced by harmoni mundi - I learned later when I bought a copy). This seems a little naff, doesn’t it, but the sound reproduction was so good that one might be convinced that the monks themselves were beyond the screen. I know little about the meaning of the Mass, so it was abstract music to me, yet I sat and didn't move a muscle for a long time.

This wasn't difficult - in fact I couldn’t move. Later, I thought that perhaps I had been meditating without realising it. I was carried on a sense of dissolving into eternity. Much of the time, I stared at a candle flame that was nearby. I felt out of time and space, so that a child crying or shouting, a mother showing her child the windows, people passing by - there were a number of strays in the church - a bird or shouts outside, did not interrupt my feeling, even though I heard them. It occurs to me that perhaps I enjoyed an inkling of what Buddhists feel when they can set fire to themselves, or of what the early Christian martyrs understood. A spiritual anaesthetic, -to be modern and banal about - though I am so very far from that state of spiritual beatitude. And I suppose that is what the mystics have been telling us for centuries, everywhere, yet we don't listen to them. The Church at Bolton Abbey possesses an uninterrupted list of the Priors, followed by the Vicars, back to the 12th century, and I envied them then, because I hope that they felt all of this to a much greater degree than I. Perhaps they had perceptions that are no longer sufficiently recognised, but that we need. I hope death will feel this way, I thought after leaving Bolton Abbey: it will do very well for me, if it is. The world and my loved ones can go on with their affairs, and I am at peace with that.

I believe that most people have this same experience at some times in their lives - it is not a prerogative of theologians, philosophers or the educated; perhaps it is actually more difficult for them. It is possible that one does not recognise it, thinking simply, “No matter what, life is good, I am happy". It certainly has much to do with happiness - of a kind opposed to the “happiness” that, (against the evidence), we usually persist in believing is part of our more and more sophisticated materialism. We also know that happiness is in escaping as well as in fulfilling ourselves. (Some of us more in need of one than the other, and some needing both. More times than I care to recall, I have felt the need to escape myself.) But I am not writing merely of that kind of subjective happiness - which is its component, or perhaps its symptom. Ecstasy is a better word, and ecstasy of this kind is a good kind of fulfilment or escape … more fruitful than suicide, which is the other way of escaping, i.e. of killing the disliked part of oneself. (Visionary ecstasy - and mortal suicide - are they the opposites of one another; two sides of a coin?)
But it is not the whole. This ecstasy is a congregation of forces: spirituality, past experience, hopes, memories, preparedness - some, or all of these - coming together to defy our “rational” model of the Universe. It inspires in us our sense of timelessness, which, even scientists often believe, is the true reality. We do indeed exist in a continuum of time and space, without beginning or end, where substance is infinitely transmuted.

And perhaps some do not recognise it when it comes, or at any rate do not share it with others. For this crucial human experience, we have so little language. Considering its importance, there is relatively little articulation in poetry and art. It is curious how quickly its verbal expressions come to look fusty. Despite their brilliant subject-matter, they are often furred-over with melancholy, Mathew Arnold-ish. Too many have been the desperate writings of faded spirits. (I hope I am not now joining their company.) The modern poet R.S. Thomas looked vividly but oh, so sadly, beyond himself. The American poet Gary Snyder gave it expression with a refreshed language and a love of physical activity combined with Buddhism. Wordsworth expressed it lucidly. William Blake made the most vital run at it, perhaps because of the energy of his rebellion against Materialism and the “prison of the senses five” that led him “To see a World in a grain of a sand …. And Eternity in an hour.” It is now too out of fashion to be much attempted; words such as “eternity” appear too simplistic for the modern sensibility; we are easier with simple, entertaining matters, that fit with simple, entertaining words; and one has to appreciate it as the most important subjective experience one will have, to wish to express it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think I have ever experienced the depth of the experiences you describe, but there are (quite often) moments of what I call 'bliss' that figure all of a sudden, without warning, and perhaps only for seconds, but nevertheless that leave one feeling sublimely content and euphoric - most recently driving home down a country lane, and as I breached the top of a hill, the sun was just setting over the hill beyond, rays of gorgeously coloured light filled the sky and it happened - I suddenly felt so happy, for no apparent reason. It's about nothing in particular, and about everything - it just hits you in the solar plexus and you are transported. Another time, deeply engrossed in a book, and far away in another world, I looked up accross the kitchen table to find my partner, equally absorbed in the Sunday Papers, and it hit again - that life just doesn't get any better that this!
Similar experiences have happened, listening to a Maria Callas recording; when looking at the stained glass windows of York Minster; and discovering the ancient underground crypt at Worcester Cathedral - all moments of pure bliss and wonderment, breathtaking and euphoric.
As long as these experiences keep happening from time to time, I can cope with the rest of the world, and as you say, if death is like this, I shan't mind so very much.