Shadowlands and the magic lantern…

Every so often, I need a break from whatever is currently occupying my attention. Occasionally, I will watch a film. These are usually whatever I can find online and I seldom have a clear idea of what I fancy until something catches my eye.

Now, I freely admit that I am useless where films are concerned. I have neither been a movie buff, nor followed fashion. I’ve never… except for one brief period in Paris… had access to a cinema that showed arthouse films and even many of the cultural and cinematic classics escaped me, including those popular movies counted as old favourites by many.

Most movies aimed primarily at women have never really attracted me; Gone with the Wind was fifty years old before I saw it, I never did see Grease and I only watched Dirty Dancing only because it was a Christmas present. Anything more modern than that has probably escaped my notice until recently. Most of the films I know well are the black and white ones that hit the TV screen during my childhood. Stuart, who has excellent taste in films, has stopped asking ‘if I have seen’ and merely assumes, quite rightly, that I probably haven’t.

Wandering through what is available free online, I can be drawn by some weird and wonderful things. It may be a name or a screenshot, a title or a premise. I have watched some appallingly bad films… some so bad I just had to keep watching… as well as finding some real gems. Just because everyone else has seen them, doesn’t stop them being new to me… and within those gems are sometimes odd details that set me off thinking.

One such detail was a moment in Shadowlands, a biographical film by Richard Attenborough, based upon the marriage of C.S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia stories to American author Joy Davidman. Having read much of his work and being completely unaware of this film, I felt almost duty-bound to take a couple of hours off to watch Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Lewis. The dialogue was well written, his performance as well crafted as always, and it is a very moving film. There is a moment within the film when the grief-stricken ‘Lewis’ cries out, and it stopped me in my tracks…

“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time – waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

For one, brief and fleeting instant, I understood something I have always known. ‘It doesn’t change God – it changes me.’

Prayer can take many forms, prayers are offered for many reasons… but prayer, as I personally understand it, need not always be religious.

As a child at Sunday-school, we were taught a very simplistic idea of prayer. Given that our world was but a pale shadow of the heaven to which we were supposed to aspire, we were taught how to pray in the hope of getting there. I could never quite get my head around the idea that by kneeling humbly in prayer we would be able to convince any god to give us what we want. I was never convinced, either, that a god big enough to create the entire universe was just waiting for my rote-learned praise and/or apologies and requests. The way we were being taught to pray made me feel as if we were treating God like a pick ‘n’ mix counter.

Didn’t ‘He’ get fed up listening to ‘bless Mummy and Daddy and Grandma and Grandad and…’ ad nauseum? Why should ‘He’ make me a good girl? If ‘He’d’ already made me, shouldn’t I at least be doing that on my own?

So I fell out with prayer for a while. Or with religious dogma. Or both. But the conviction of some vast and cosmic Intellect, the guiding Principle behind Creation, never left and, as I grew up a little more, I began to seek a new way to pray.

I found it in the land… in the way the heather covers the hills in summer, in beech woods carpeted with bluebells, in the sparkle of minerals in rocks and the chorus of birds that greets the rising and going down of the sun. Prayer was not about mouthing a few platitudes to a god, abasing oneself or presenting him with a shopping list. I felt it should be a continual celebration of the life we have and share. Prayer was not something to do at all… it was something to be.

With that revelation came the beginnings of joy and an inner freedom that remains to this day. That was why the phrase from the film had struck home; I recognised it… “because I can’t help myself.” And seeing life as the prayer has certainly changed me.

I am not sure I agree with the rest of the quote though. ‘It doesn’t change God’… I think it might, though not in the way we were taught as children, when we were given to understand that our supplications might change the mind of God and convince ‘Him’ to grant our wishes, like the genie in a magic lantern.

I no longer believe this world to be a pale shadow of anything… I believe it to be itself, just as it is and, that, if we are here, it is for, and with, a purpose.

If we, and all we know as life are part of one universal Life, do we not ‘change God’ through the essence of our experience? And, if we see life itself as the prayer, and live our lives within it, then we are adding to a well of understanding from which we may all drink.

A path of the heart

“For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”
― Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge

Recently a name has kept on cropping up that takes me back several decades. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the books of Carlos Castaneda, an intriguing figure who, with the unlikeliest of stories, managed to capture the imagination of a generation of spiritual seekers.

The first books to hit the shelves were written when he was an anthropology student. They purported to be true accounts of a meeting with Don Juan, a Yaqui Man of Knowledge of a lineage of Toltec Seers… and of the author’s training and subsequent journeying into ‘nonordinary reality’. Originally hailed as accurate and authentic, the veracity of these books has since been called into question and opinions are still divided, much as one would expect given the fantastic nature of the experiences recounted by Castaneda. His personal life too has come in for much criticism and speculation and that shadow hangs heavy over his work.

There appears to be an automatic connection between an artist’s way of life and the way we, as a society, value their works. Many much-loved artists, writers and musicians have fallen out of favour when their personal lives have hit the tabloids over the past few decades, although, place a century or two between the work and our sensibilities and we seem less ready to pass sweeping and dismissive judgements. I do not think that there is an automatic correlation between the value of art and the morality and veracity… or otherwise… of its creator. Writers of fiction are not castigated but applauded for invention and yet readers still learn from their books. Had Castaneda’s books been marketed as fiction, he might not have had the same publicity, but what made sense to his readers would still have made sense and changed their world view.

For me, it simply doesn’t matter what kid of man Castaneda was in his personal life or if the actual encounters and events were true or not; what matters is the way that reading those books made me think, feel and question a reality that appeared solidly set in the stone of normality. It matters not at all to me what they were supposed to teach, it matters only what I, personally, was able to learn through my experience and interaction with his words and the way those words opened a door into the world for me. Truth, in this sense, has nothing to do with fact. It is a personal perception.

I have been dealing with a similar dichotomy on my own travels, where the persona of a long-dead seer has made herself felt. Imagination… racial memory…the mind clothing facts in a dramatic scenario? I do not question. It doesn’t matter. The experience allows me to touch something of the past in a way mere facts could not, bringing it to life for me… and, as such, it carries its own truth and teaches me through the way it touches my heart.

Did Castaneda ever meet a Don Juan or a Don Genaro? Or live through the surreal journeys and visions he describes? Perhaps he did… maybe he didn’t… it could be that he only ever met them in his imagination or lived them in dream. To meet those thoughts, speculations and images in the mind, with enough clarity to be able to write them down as a coherent story is, necessarily, to be changed by them. And isn’t that the nature of learning? In that sense reality as we know it ceases to have any bearing. Even if the man was simply deluded, or at worst an out and out charlatan, would it really matter? Not if his words serve to unlock something in the minds of his readers that makes the world a richer, more beautiful place, that brings it to a vibrant life they might otherwise have missed, or allows them to unfold their own inner potential or address their fears?

“All human thought, all our ideas, our aspirations, our dreams, experience and knowledge are recorded in books. All the accumulated wisdom of mankind… you never know what you will find, even in the trashiest romantic novel. Treat books with respect.”My mother.

There are many such books … fiction presented as fact, fact painted as fiction, teachings hidden in a story. There are also many such teachers, whose personal lives may seem questionable, elusive or remain an enigma, like T. Lobsang Rampa, whose works were amongst the earliest to make me question reality and begin to seek a deeper understanding. Yet through their works perhaps we are able to touch something we would otherwise have missed, something that changes our view of the world, of ourselves, or of life itself. Not through them… fallible human personalities identical to our own, some of whom may not even realise the impact or origin of what they write… but through the response of our own heart and mind and what we alone can bring to that alchemy of understanding. It is only in what we each, as individuals, can do with those teachings, found like stray diamonds on the path, that makes them of value to us… or not.

Does it matter if we view the Holy Books of any religion as factual, allegory or fiction if they change the world for one soul and allow them to live in grace? Or if we have chosen our life path for the love of a Lion, a Yaqui Indian or a Bear of little brain, as long as it guides us to be the best we can be? Personally, I don’t think so. It isn’t the origin of realisation that matters but the resulting change to our heart and soul.

Those changes are not something that can be taught, indoctrinated or imposed, they are unique to each of us and can only be experienced and known. They are a flowering within that comes when the earth of the heart opens to the seeds of understanding, and what grows there sets it roots in the soul, breaking apart our preconceptions and allowing the petals of our being to unfold in the Light.

By any other name…

Aslan, Susan and Lucy, illustration by Pauline Baynes

Illustration by Pauline Baynes for the cover of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis

Last night I had multiple tabs open across the computer screen, a to-do list from Hades and the mind set to accomplish it all. Instead, I spent hours talking to a friend and to my son.

As parents we do our best for our children. We try to give them the strongest grounding we can in all the things that matter to us, be that manners or morals, education or faith. It doesn’t matter where we are, what social standing we have or lack, it is just what we do. We love them. What else could we do? The same thing applies to teachers. It is often said that the greatest joy of any teacher is when they see the student surpass them. In that there is very little difference between the two roles.

My own upbringing was eclectic and I was encouraged to seek answers for myself. I tried to pass that along to my children. The results were both surprising and amusing, like the fun and games we had at primary school, when my very young son decided God must be a ‘she’… and later, a ‘he-she’. The one thing I never wanted to do was give my sons all the answers and ask them to swallow them like a pill. After all, I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I do have may, in all fairness, be wrong. They work for me and give me a philosophy and faith that guides me. That, I think, is all one can ever truly claim.

But if I couldn’t and wouldn’t give them the answers, I could, perhaps, point them in the direction of the questions. And answer the ones they asked from as many alternative viewpoints as I could, giving them the freedom to follow their own hearts, while I shared with them what was in mine.

The dramatic events that touched our family a few years ago threw up many such questions and at the time, the only place we could find the answers was within. I could say faith is a purely subjective thing, but I don’t believe that to be true. I think that at times like these when we reach ‘further up and further in’, as C.S.Lewis put it in ‘The Last Battle’ we can find Something… call it what you will… that reaches out also to us.

Part of last night’s conversation centred around Divinity. Does it matter what Name you put to your idea of that Force of sheer Being or the symbol or mind picture you use for yourself in the silence of the heart? This was one of the questions asked. Personally, I don’t think so. What matters most is the intent behind the way you choose to live.

Tash, illustration by Pauline Baynes

Tash, illustration by Pauline Baynes

I was reminded of a favourite passage from Lewis’s Narnia books, where the young Calormene, Emeth, who has worshipped Tash all his life comes face to face with Aslan. The Lion seems to the young man to be all that his heart has ever sought, yet he has been true to his own god. He is welcomed by Aslan, but admits his devotion to Tash to the Lion. The Lion explains that all good that is done is taken as service to Him, no matter what the name used. Even as a small child that passage stuck. As did the final part of that encounter. Emeth tells the tale of his encounter with Aslan to those who find him beside the way:

“…Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And that, I think, is true. We will find what we seek…in faith, in love and friendship… in all aspects of life, if we pursue it with the passion of a whole heart.

It occurred to me then, speaking of Aslan, that the Lion was perhaps the earliest point in my life where I felt Love, both for and from Divinity, even though, being so very young, I did not understand it as such at the time. It wasn’t difficult to simply feel it back then.

Of course, we grow up. We go through the questioning times of adolescence and into adulthood and the simplicity of childhood can be lost under the weight of responsibility, the constraints of everyday life and the active intellect. Listening on the phone last night, answering from the heart, as we discussed the meaning of life, I realised something I had barely noticed creeping up on me.

Having spent decades seeking understanding down many strange pathways and ponderings, devouring books and tying my mind in knots with abstract thought, I had eventually come to realise that what I sought outside was already there, ‘inside’. There was no separation, no distance, no need to reach outward. Only to look ‘further up and further in‘. Only to Be.

I had come full circle… or perhaps back to the same place I was as a child, only on a different level of a spiral of understanding. But it is just as clean and simple after all.

C.S.Lewis wrote in ‘Prince Caspian’:

““Aslan” said Lucy “you’re bigger”.

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger”.”

And it is still Love.

Aslan, Egypt and the surgeon’s knife

The writer, Clive Staples Lewis, is best known as the creator of the Narnia books, much loved by several generations of children. It may pass unnoticed to the eyes of a child that the story of Aslan, the great Lion, bears a striking resemblance to that of Jesus. It matters little whether the child makes that connection in their mind, to those who fall in love with the landscape of Narnia, Aslan will hold a special place in their heart and children of all faiths can learn the basic lessons of honesty, kindness, courage and, above all, love from these stories. Children see no religious separateness until they learn it from the world or their own experience.

Cover art by Pauline Baynes, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Cover art by Pauline Baynes, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Raised in the Christian faith, Lewis had become an atheist in his teens, believing, like many others, that a world created by any God he could conceive would have been less imperfect. Yet he said that even then, he was “angry with God for not existing”. He was to come back to Christianity “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape,” and many of his later works reflect a faith built upon a deeper understanding of how the world moves.

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

That Lewis was no stranger to the concept of necessary evil is evident, even at the very birth of the world of Narnia, when Jadis, a witch from another world, comes into the fledgling land, brought via the streets of London from her own decaying world. It is centuries later in the life of Narnia when four children wander through the back of a wardrobe and find the perpetual winter of the White Witch… once known as Jadis. It is because of the introduction of this evil at the birth of the world that Aslan is slain and comes back to life. Without the presence of evil, that sacrifice and resurrection would not have been possible.

Yet the essence of that story is far older than Christianity. In ancient Egypt the gods Set and Osiris were brothers. Set, the darker twin, was responsible for the death of Osiris… a death which permitted the green god of fertility to be ‘reborn’ as king of the Underworld. The fratricide was also the direct cause of the mystical conception and birth of Horus and the subsequent Contending between the young Horus and Set was what allowed the Child to assume his true place as the Hawk of the Sun.

Set is seen as the embodiment of evil… yet paradoxically, he was also the Protector of the Boat of Ra, defending it against the elder and monstrous creature that swallowed the sun each night, as well as Defender of Maat… Truth. A statue showing the coronation of Rameses III has Set and Horus standing, on equal terms, to bless the pharaoh.

image source:
Horus and Set blessing the pharaoh. image source

Here too, Set is not true evil, only a perception of evil… a force that has the potential to both destroy… and enable. Without his presence in the story, the story, and thus the creation of the mythos of Egypt… a complex and sophisticated vision of the creation of the universe and all it holds… could not have come into being.

“What had my brother (Set) hoped to prove, the mastery over my golden Hawk… or revenge for his own mutilation? Or was he perhaps once again the unwitting Right Arm? These things deserve thought… for from the eyes came sun and moon and the lotus of rebirth … and from Horus’ seed Set brought forth the disc of the Sun from his crown, a Light for the crown of Wisdom. There is meaning to this for those who seek it.” The Osiriad

Dion Fortune, the Qabalist, wrote of the concepts of positive and negative evil… defining the latter as being ‘the thrust-block of Good’ as well as the catabolic principle, the ‘Scavenger of the Gods’ that ‘clears up behind the advancing tide of evolution’.

In our own lives, we see the force of necessary evil in action… usually in retrospect. Just as the surgeon’s knife may hurt when it cuts, so too it can excise the tumour that threatens our lives. At the time, as we are beset by problems, contending with all manner of challenges and feeling as if our world is falling apart, it is difficult to see any deeper than the ‘evil’ that we perceive. Yet, once we are through the dark time and out on the other side, we may begin to see many bright consequences that have grown from our choices and reactions.

The challenges we face may be dire as we traverse them, walking through a black tunnel full of fear that drags at our limbs like cold tendrils. When we look back, we may see other routes we could have taken, we may see the things we have now ‘lost’ and left behind… but we see them from a place we have reached through the courage to walk onwards and face our fears. In order to grow we must always leave behind those things that no longer serve. We have a choice… to cower and stay still or to walk forward… and eventually reach a place of light.