On a retreat day I attended in January 2019 we were asked to bring something that represented our spiritual journey. The poem here was the piece that I chose to share, in it I describe one of my early contemplative experiences as a child of about 6. I had a number of these, only ever one in church and that was whilst singing to the hymn ‘It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be.’ I was about 8 years of age at the time, I remember being totally compelled by the words and then all of a sudden there was a strange sensation of my heart catching fire and I became completely absorbed in God’s presence. My other childhood mystic experiences came mainly whilst I was out in nature or whilst I was tucked up in bed at night where I would have endless conversations with God and never understood what it was to be separate from that presence.
My religious upbringing was in the Methodist church which I loved for so many reasons but as I grew older and became more influenced by the somewhat cerebral teaching I found it increasingly difficult to hang on to the inner sense of God’s presence. The God I had known intuitively seemed very different from the god I was learning about in church. This god seemed distant even judgemental and I struggled to relate so at the age of 20 I left the church and went off to see if I could find something that would enable me to reconnect with the inner presence of God that had now become lost to me.
I searched in the new age for a while and also explored different forms of meditation. I discovered some of the more feminine aspects of spirituality which helped me as a counterbalance to the patriarchal religion that I had always known. But it was Transcendental Meditation that set me off on the path to inner silence. On learning to achieve this inner silence through TM, I quickly dropped the mantra (which didn’t sit well with my western sense of spirituality) and developed a regular daily practice of silent contemplation using words such as ‘peace’, or ‘still’ to anchor me back whenever I needed to refocus. I have maintained this daily practice, on the whole, for some 35 years with only occasional breaks.
It was around 25 years ago that’s my biggest and most profound mystic experience happened. At this point I didn’t have any affinity with a religious or spiritual group and hadn’t for many, many years. One evening during contemplation, in what was a very low point in my life, I began to talk to God as I had done when I was a child. I felt total peace fill me, the piece that passes all understanding and I knew all would be well.
A few days later, again one evening, I became overwhelmed with Christ’s presence. It was a conscious awakening but few words could describe it. My conscious awareness took on a bright, almost brilliant quality and Christ’s voice (an inner voice) said ‘I have come to show you a different way‘ He went on..’I want you to look through my eyes‘. After pondering this for a short while I attempted to imagine what it might be like to see the world through Christ’s eyes. Then the voice said ‘No don’t try to imagine, I want you to actually look through my eyes‘. So I placed my consciousness inside the body of Christ so I could see what it was like to look through his eyes (I realise how utterly strange this might seem to the reader), and then, in the blink of an eye everything changed for me. There was a piercing truth that broke through everything I had ever known or believed. Suddenly I saw all the scripture I had ever learnt in my 20 years of churchgoing in a whole new deep and mystic light. This was my second heart warming experience but this time it was almost too much to bear and went on burning for very many weeks, maybe longer. There was a bliss and as sense of union that is indescribable but I knew that I would never want anything other than this and the life that this would have in store for me from here on in.
I told no one about this for months as I tried to process what had happened. I had been so far from the Christian church for very many years that I didn’t really have anyone I could talk to. But months later I plucked up the courage to go and find the nearest Methodist minister who, thank goodness, was himself sufficiently awake enough to be able to help me make sense of this earth shattering awakening, essentially he became a midwife for this new beginning.
Along with this awakening came a calling, it felt like a call to preach and share in a way that would enable people to access for themselves a deeper understanding of the interior path, though it would be a very long time before I was ready to make those tentative steps of sharing in this way.
To cut many years worth of this story short I eventually trained as a Methodist local preacher, successfully candidated for ordained ministry and then completed a BA in theology and ministry at Wesley College in Bristol.
One of the modules for the first year of this course was Christian spirituality which I readily signed up for and there, within a few weeks, I encountered for the first time the desert fathers and mothers and the great Christian mystics. I was hooked. Here were people who were practising and teaching pure silence as I had been doing for many years by now. Who knew the Christian church had a whole tradition of inner spirituality dating back centuries? Finally I had found my tribe! The lives of the desert fathers and mothers formed the basis of my dissertation for that degree and I later completed an MA in the contemplative practice of desert spirituality, as it might speak to the 21st century. My own spiritual direction and learning is now rooted in the Benedictine tradition as an oblate at Prinknash Abby.
As I prepared at college to go out into ministry I vowed that every church in which I was stationed would have a space to learn about inner spirituality, a vow which I have kept for sixteen years of ministry and in every church. Even after I moved on those groups have continued to meet and share in contemplative silence, Lectio Divina and intentional spiritual development.
Over the years, since this awakening, I have come to know the Christian mystics well and I particularly love the medieval mystics. They have taught me about my own apophatic inclinations, have held my hand through some of the darkest stages of contemplative development and have encouraged me to hang on in there when the going has got tough as it inevitably does. Meister Eckhart, St John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, the author of the Cloud of unknowing, Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich have been companions over the years.
I m now a spiritual director and offer both individual and group direction as well as retreat leadership. I am exploring writing as a contemplative and hoping to produce helpful material in the form of meditations, prayers, reflections and guidance for the contemplative journey.
I remain convicted of my call to Methodist Ministry and long to see Methodism grow and develop in many new ways but in particular I would like to see a culture of spiritual direction as one of its highest priorities. Karl Rahner once said ‘the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all’. I believe this was prophetic and as the world is seemingly showing the green shoots of awakening to a non-dual consciousness I would want the Methodist Church to be at the forefront of enabling that birthing.