I suppose the God Squad started it when they came calling at university and the atheist me saying that it wasn’t about being ‘persuaded’ or ‘reasoned with’, it was simply that they saw one side of the coin and I saw the other… until the coin was tossed and flipped and there was no point in arguing. Yet my curiosity was awakened and it kept me open and enquiring.
In my childhood, Christianity had seemed too black and white: do good and get rewarded or be bad and get punished. This sounded like a dim version of karma but one that was pretty irrelevant, hardly ever played out in the real world. On the other hand, the intellectual Marxist view that I pretended to embrace was equally fraught with inner contradiction and unproven belief. So there I was – wandering, wondering, seeking.
From the American poets and writers that I was discovering, such as the wonderful free verse of Charles Olson or the declamatory voice of Allen Ginsberg, I picked up an interest in Zen. And, like so many of my contemporaries, I flirted with its playfulness. Its definite attraction was that it offered the freedom and individuality of spirituality without the supposed rigidity and self-declared certainty of religion.
This fitted in well with my degree course in French and Philosophy, particularly in the study of Sartre’s existentialism (‘You are what you make yourself’) and the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein. At the same time, I was beginning to muse on these subjects in my poetry and in my attempts at song-writing!
But then the coin did, indeed, flip.
When my daughter was born, I took to giving her the night-time feeds. Remarkably, as I held her in my arms with the night quiet and cold outside, I felt that I too was being held within the loving arms of the Divine, and that same presence was also holding the whole created order of the universe within that same love. For me, this was the very presence of a loving God. It hardly mattered what name was used, it was the direct experience, this personal encounter, that was important.
Well, I wondered, where do I go from here? The only route that seemed sensible was to visit the local church and I walked around it a couple of times; it was dark and rather uninviting, and I began to doubt whether this was the right thing to do. I took the next step anyway and rang the vicar, explaining that I felt I had to ‘return’ to the Church but… We met in the knave and he said, pointing to the altar, “See that man on the cross? His arms are open wide, accepting all who come. So come along and see!”
This was not the welcome I expected. The church I had left in my youth had seemed judgemental, rigid, backward-looking and sure of its own superiority. What I found now was a church with a wide range of spirituality, where it was safe to ask questions and to express doubts, and to be an individual rather than a cypher. That was, in short, the beginning of a new path that led me to undergo selection and then training to be ordained as a Church of England priest.
Yet within that experience I came to appreciate a breadth of spirituality in my visits to mosques, Sikh gurdwaras and Buddhist temples; and always I found ways in which my own Christian faith could be deepened by these encounters. For instance, the Hindu-Buddhist tradition discovers ‘God’ within human consciousness, in much the same way that silent contemplation and meditation in the Christian tradition reveal the divine within us (‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’).
The source of being found in the Father, the consciousness of the Logos found in the Son and the joy that flows from the Spirit, are equally paralleled in the Being, Consciousness and Bliss of the Upanishads. This is close to the spirituality of St John of the Cross:
‘That you may know everything,
seek to know nothing.
That you may possess all things,
seek to possess nothing.
That you may be everything,
seek to be nothing.’
By this path, it is faith that teaches us truths beyond the rational, beyond the empirical. It is the silent contemplation, the bleak mystery of the despair of the Cross, the dark night of faith that, instead of teaching us facts, leads us to the unknowable. As the vicar had said to me, we are loved unconditionally despite everything we have done (or not done) and those who are searching or feeling despair may find this mystical experience by developing that silent contemplation.
And it was not lost on me that so many of the phrases at the heart of my faith – ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen’ or ‘The Word became flesh’ – held echoes of the Zen that I had played with. When we consider them silently, enter into their mystery, just maybe we arrive at a wordless moment of intuition, the satori.
So it is all of this that I attempt to deal with in my poetry!
Although I began writing at fifteen, it took a while to move beyond the typical youthful concerns and begin to attempt to grapple with spirituality. I came to experience the mysticism of the spirit in the natural world and in people, with all their frailty, strength and resilience.
I was particularly inspired by the rugged coastline, clear skies and wide vistas of North Wales. There are many places often called ‘thin’, where Earth and Heaven seem to touch, and it was there in the blood-red sunsets and the quiet dawns that the Divine seemed truly palpable. I met an old priest who said he had only encountered God once, when he drove over the mountains to take an early service and the mist lay low in the valley beneath, larks rising and singing in the limpid blue sky above. And, as hospital chaplain, when I asked a severely disabled stroke victim (who would pass the next day) what I could do for her, she reached across to me with her good hand, touched my arm and throatily whispered “Pray”.
The only way I know how to express my experience is in language, however beyond words the truth of our consciousness often seems to be. And so was born The House of Being, written in language that we seek to understand whilst hoping the reader may move beyond language. It is not a religious book, but rather a collection that looks beneath the surface of life in all its earthly forms. Naturally, several pieces are inspired by my ministry (such as Reading the Creed, The Llangystennin Bell) but there is a focus throughout on our everyday life (My Beard, Why I Hate Mushrooms).
With every phrase, every pause, every exact choice of word, the book hopes to lead the reader into that silent contemplation that may be both the beginning and the end of belief.
The House of Being is the winner of the Local Legend national Spiritual Writing Competition.