8.

Meaningless specks or divine sparks

If the universe is truly of divine origin then we should expect the divine to permeate everything, even, and perhaps especially, human beings. One materialist vision is of humankind as being merely inconsequential specks of dust lost in the vastness of a meaningless universe. The contrary divine vision is of a very special creation which could not have happened were not the universe from its very birth, in the first millisecond of the so-called ‘big bang’, finely-tuned to the nth degree and programmed to produce intelligent life. That’s not what ‘creationists’ say; the fine-tuning is what scientists have discovered, although many secular scientists would, of course, deny the divine bit.

At the peats

Margaret at the peats

A messenger from You Know Who?

So when someone phoned me one day in the autumn of 1999, and said she was a Christian and that she had a message for me, I thought ‘Ah, could this be a messenger from You Know Who?’ Well, I didn’t discount it entirely! I had gradually been waking up from my agnostic slumber and, at the least, seeing the divine in natural phenomena. Could this divine vision also be applied to people?

To say that the phone-call surprised me would be an understatement. I had first met Margaret in the early 1960s when we were both in our late teens. We dated for two or three months and then we parted. I never expected to see her ever again. Not long after, she married someone else and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter. Six or seven years later, I also married.

At the time when she phoned she was a widow and I was a divorcee. She said there was something she had to tell me, but she couldn’t tell me over the phone. Herself and a friend were going to be at a Gospel event in Skye the following day, could I meet her at the tent. I hummed and hawed. I imagined she was on a mission to convert me. I said I might be there and left it at that. After coming off the phone, I decided not to go.

Go Margaret, go!

The next night Margaret and her friend are at the Gospel event, but no sign of Myles. But God is persistent! Margaret and her friend are listening to the preacher and he’s talking about telling people about the Gospel and not to hide your light under a basket but to go and tell people. And then he said ‘Go David, go, go Margaret, go!’ Her friend gave Margaret a nudge, ‘You’ll have to phone him,’ she said. She had no intention of doing so, but because of what the preacher had said she reluctantly phoned me again.

The dream

I agreed to meet her the next day in a café in nearby Portree. I was intrigued and wanted to find out what she had to tell me. It turned out that five years previously, when she was going through a hard patch in her life, she had had a dream about me. The dream troubled her for years and she couldn’t get rid of it and she kept thinking and praying about me. She thought if she met me and told me about the dream that that would be a duty discharged and she would be rid of the burden. Hence the reason for her wanting to meet me.

In the dream, she had seen this person in front of her walking through a gate and into a beautiful green place. She was happy and felt that the person understood her and was sympathetic. When he turned round, she recognised him as me, although my hair had turned gray.

At first she didn’t tell anyone about the dream. Eventually, she told a preacher she met at a Gospel event. He thought that the dream was from God. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but I certainly didn’t dismiss the possibility that God was using someone to remind me of His existence. In the years to come, I would certainly get confirmation that such was the case.

7.

Testimonies

Since becoming a Christian, I’ve heard many testimonies from people telling how they came to believe. Many were in their teens and twenties. How I envied these people. It was sometimes hearing a sermon that fitted perfectly with the state of soul they were in that was the turning point. Sometimes they were in a place of despair with life problems and God in Jesus became real to them and they were rescued. Sometimes it was a verse from the Bible that was the final release.

Listening to these people, I realise I must be a bit offbeat. My struggle was intellectual and went on for most of my life. Did other people not have these struggles and if not why not? For example, I argued that the experiences of God which people had were subjective. No doubt the experiences were real for the people concerned, but they could be explained psychologically. If God were real, He could quite easily perform an objective miracle to prove that He existed, like writing his name permanently in the sky. Why didn’t He do this?

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Solar system

The DNA code and cosmic fine-tuning

At the time I didn’t realise that God had already done this and much more besides. The miracle of the written code is much nearer to every one of us than the sky; it is in the DNA code written in nearly all the estimated 37 trillion cells of every human body, including mine and yours. Each cell contains the information – equivalent to a library of books – needed to build a human body. Such incredibly complex and intelligent information doesn’t come without an intelligent source.

Couple that with the latest findings of cosmology and you have what would appear to be proof of an intelligent creator. What  astrophysicists have found is that the universe had a beginning and that if it weren’t for the incredible fine-tuning of the constants of nature, there would be no DNA and therefore no life as we know it. The universe appears to be fine-tuned for intelligent life.

Invisible attributes

In the context of these contemporary discoveries, the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1:19-20 seem even more remarkable: ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.’ (ESV)

A glimpse of the divine

In my fifties I was beginning to see the divine in nature, but it was more from poetic intuition than from what was being discovered by scientists. Many of the  poems in my fourth collection A’ Gabhail Ris (Accepting) 1994 show me to be lost in the quagmire of postmodernism, but the second last poem in the book called ‘Òran’ / Song is different:

I saw the sun rising / an innocent ball in the sky // and I had a feeling of dread (chorus) // I saw the little birds / how artfully they answer … // I saw how you loved me / although I couldn’t always understand it … // I saw the big people / how they killed their own kind … // I saw I’d never understand it / although I’d live to a hundred … // I saw the amazing steadfastness / of the atoms in the waves … // I saw that the black brine / has no feelings for the drowned … // I saw the amazing speed/distance / light travels in space … // I saw the distress / suffered unexpectedly … // I saw you world of graces / turning like a jewel in space … // I remembered how Scripture said / the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom // and I had a feeling of dread. (translated)

Nature can give us a thousand hints which we cannot ignore. These hints build into an holistic intuition, and then a near certainty that nature itself is speaking to us with a divine voice. Well that’s how I felt anyway.  I was on the way to losing my agnostic materialist baggage.

 

 

A move to Skye

It was in 1992, after I separated from my wife, that I moved from the Isle of Mull to Flodigarry, Skye, where I was born, and where I had lived for some time in my younger days. I certainly had an attachment to the place and in some way it was a spiritual attachment. It was like a feeling of going home. I might have got this feeling for place from my mother who had a great love for and attachment to Flodigarry, where she was brought up.

I’ve already spoken of strange coincidences in my life and one instance of what seemed like a premonition. After I came to Skye things happened which could be classed as outside the run of normal cause and effect events. These events were to challenge my scepticism and belief in naturalism.

 

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The Twa Dugs in question

Do dogs have a sixth sense?

I had two dogs at the time, yellow Labradors. They were beautiful, friendly dogs as Labradors tend to be. It is said that dogs, and horses, have a heightened sense for things which are outside the run of the normal. When we lived in Edinburgh, they were sometimes put into a lean-to shed in the yard at the back of my in-laws’ house. They simply hated being put in that shed. They panicked and would gnaw at the wooden door, continually trying to get out. They weren’t like that with other buildings, just this shed.

When I moved to Skye, I built a new house on the croft. While the house was being built, I lived in a caravan beside the old croft house, while the dogs were kept in the old house and garden. One day, when the new house was near completion, I took them up to it, with the intention taking them inside. But would they come in! No, not a bit of it. Normally, they would follow me anywhere. But this time they made their stand outside the front door and wouldn’t budge. They were sensing something, but what it was I have no idea.

Ghostly footsteps and a caterwauling cat

But something even stranger happened a few years after moving into the new house. The dogs had died, but I still had a cat called Sguab (brush). The incident I am about to recall involved this cat. It was a beautiful summer’s day. I went to the shop for the papers and was sitting reading them in the living room when I heard footsteps as if on gravel outside. I assumed it was my neighbour, who sometimes came to visit. I went to the door but there was no-one there. A couple of hours later, I was in another room working at the computer. From where I was sitting I could see the cat. It was sitting outside the kitchen door and looking towards the open front door, which was a few metres away. Suddenly, it started caterwauling and its fur stood on end. It was as if it was seeing something at the door. I took it up and stroked it and it quietened down. I thought it might have been a dog and I went out and had a good look round, but there was nothing.

I associated the footsteps I had heard earlier with the cat’s behaviour. The fact that the cat was apparently ‘seeing’ something two hours after me hearing the footsteps was extremely strange. Yet it was also strangely comforting. It assured me that it wasn’t just in my mind. The cat had also ‘seen’ something.

The pursuit

Meantime, the state of my soul had not mended much. I was still a person filled with intellectual doubts about the nature of God and even whether He existed. I read books on philosophy, popular science, religion and cosmology, but they brought me no nearer to answering the question I had set myself in my teens.  What is the truth about life? The ‘hound of heaven’ was pursuing me, not I Him, although I didn’t realise it at the time. But the chase was going to heat up.

5.

An experience in my teens

From the mid 1990s  (when I was in my fifties) doubts began to accumulate in my mind as to the truth of materialism, that is, that matter and material energy is all that there is. Looking back at my life as a whole, there were a number of personal experiences I had which increased my doubts.

In my late teens I was on a ship anchored off Lisbon in the Tagus river in Portugal when I had a rather strange experience. We were lifting anchor and it was getting dark and the mate asked two of the crew to get a portable light from the number 1 hold. We were carrying a cargo of iron ore. When going down the ladder in the dark one of the men, who was from Glasgow, fell on to the iron ore and hurt himself quite badly. He was taken to hospital in Lisbon. The strange thing was that that morning as I was walking in the alley near his cabin I had a sudden ominous feeling about the person who was to have the accident.

The challenge

I often wondered afterwards, how could there be any knowledge of the future if everything is naturalistic. It didn’t fit in with the materialist hypothesis. Not much else happened in my twenties and thirties to threaten my belief in naturalism. Although one rather odd thing did happen in my early twenties when I was in lodgings in Inverness and working as a prison officer. I was standing in the lounge in the lodgings and thinking, okay God if you exist prove it to me. I looked down and there on an ashtray lying on the table was the word ‘Challenge’. It must have referred to a brand of whisky! I never imagined at the time that fifty years later the challenge would be met in an unbelievable way.

A weird coincidence

It was in the mid 1980s that something very strange happened. I had been thinking of the symbol of the ‘way’ for a long time and had wanted to write a poem on this theme. The way, or the tao, of course, has a long history as a symbol of a spiritual path in Eastern religions and in Christianity. It’s what Jung would call an archetype, something deep in the psyche which can have various consequences in the world of outer experience. I was deeply into Jung at the time.

Often the first lines of a poem would come to me and I would have to write them down or I would lose the poem. On the road from Inverness to Mull I stopped in Fort William for a bite to eat and as I waited for my food I started writing the verses ‘Mending the Road’. The ‘road’ of course is a metaphor for the ‘way’ or the ‘tao’,  and for me at the time the ‘way’, or life itself, seemed meaningless. It was ‘the road that goes nowhere’. I had written two thirds of the poem, but how would it finish? I didn’t know:

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(The cover of A’ Caradh an Rathaid)

Mending the road

With a yellow oilskin on / I mend the road, / and fill the holes / with tar and gravel. / I remember the tar / how the bubbles would break / in the heat of youth. / Now we / mend the road / that goes nowhere.// A man came who said: / Put it there, my friend – / the road breaks beneath our feet. / The heart’s tar hardens, / no sun to swell it. / It descends and climbs – / there is no ascent/salvation – / the only one for remedy. // A bird on the twig / singing by itself: little boy, little boy, / don’t worry, / don’t worry, / there is no road in the sky, / why do you mend / the road that goes nowhere? // The road is so devious / mobile, tortuous, / hidden from view, / the endless vein-webs / in the body of creation, / one moment so whole / and the next in smithereens.

In the restaurant, I had got as far as the word ‘smithereens’, and decided to finish the verses later. I went for a walk along the street and heard music coming from a bar. There I had a brief conversation with a middle-aged man. I had never met him in my life. To my astonishment he was a road worker who drove a lorry with aggregate for the road works outside Fort William. Another archetype for Jung was the wise old man. It was as if I had met the realization of the archetype in the flesh, and the archetype of the way was also at work. Later I finished the poem as follows:

 Don’t believe, don’t believe / that it goes nowhere / (said the old man of the road); / everything will ripen / and the heart will be satisfied / with a symbol, / with the arteries’ warm blood / and everything will arrive in its place / as in the beginning. For now, fill the holes / and go forward: / everyone must travel/pass on – / and be mending.

This incident, this meaningful coincidence, had a powerful effect on me. It made me wonder if there might be meaning to life after all.

Another coincidence

In the late 1980s a similar event happened while I was living in Mull. The family were away and I was on my own in the house. I very seldom went to church but this Saturday night in bed a verse came strongly to my mind and I had the urge to go to church in the morning. The verse was ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.  When I went to church that was the very verse the man preached on. I was amazed.

I sat in the back seat and opened the Bible for the singing. It was the Free Church and there’s no notice to say which psalm they’re going to sing. The Bible opened at psalm 25. Seconds later the preacher announced the verses to be sung. It was psalm 25; they included verses 4-5: ‘Shew me thy ways, o Lord; / thy paths, o teach thou me: / And do thou lead me in the truth, / therein my teacher be: / For thou art God that dost / to me salvation send, / And I upon thee all the day / expecting do attend.

Was there something, someone, trying to tell me something? I was certainly being softened up from being a hard-nosed sceptic to a feeling that there might be something ‘beyond the veil’ after all.

 

4.

Between scientism and transcendence

In the last post I referred to the poetry collection A’ Càradh an Rathaid (Mending the Road), published when I was forty-four. From what I wrote, it is obvious that in my thinking I was somewhere between scientism and a yearning for transcendence. Scientism being roughly the idea that only knowledge that can be gained by the application of the scientific method is true or even relevant. So religious ideas, including belief in God, are only subjective myths – archaic beliefs that humankind will outgrow.

At the time I didn’t realise how totally crass such a point of view is, that is, that science is the only true knowledge.  So I could write such things as:

This is all there is

Think about it, there is only this / on this day in Mull. / There is only this – / autumn and the leaves falling, / the cosmic dance / at the base of the tree amidst the dust; / matter dancing / and laughing, laughing / and dancing. (translated)

At the base of the tree of life there is dust and blind dancing and laughter, probably mocking laughter. I was struggling to believe that there was something better than this. I was wanting to believe there was something more, so I could also write:

Stones on Orkney

Photo – Scott Murray

The stone

I grip the purity stone / from circumstance to circumstance, / wave-moving, tide-heaving, / amidst the small and great stones, / I grip it with a deathly grip. / And always the sea / shifting, / polishing it, making us / closer together, splitting us. / I can’t think / of a time when you weren’t there. / But also, at the same time, / I sometimes think you are just a dream. (translated)

There is something in us (or in some of us) – call it intuition or whatever – that tells us that scientism cannot be right. It was this something that I called ‘the purity stone’. I suppose one could also call it a nascent faith, but in my case how minutely nascent it was! Yet, I didn’t want to lose this feeling completely – that there was something transcendent. I studied religions, including Buddhism, so I could write this while on holiday in Skye in the 1980s:

 

Tree

I see a tree, / three feet of the trunk; / I see no more. / It must be high, / the trunk is huge – / o God, it must be high. // I see a ray / coming from the clouds / high up in the cliff / in the shadow of Sgurr nan Strì. / It must be intense; / my eyes couldn’t stand the light / if I should see the sun. // I saw a glimpse of your beauty, / Christ and Buddha, / an intense light / and a blossoming tree / although I saw but a tiny bit. (translated)

It’s instructive that I lumped Christ and Buddha together. I wouldn’t do that now. Now, I look on Buddhism more as a philosophy, no doubt with its useful points for directing human behaviour. But what it lacks for me is the idea of God as agent, something that Christianity has in abundance. And, incidentally, that’s also the great lack with scientism – that it doesn’t and cannot, with its reductionist methodology, take the free action even of the human agent into account. (I’m not talking about science in general but the extreme way of thinking sometimes termed ‘scientism.)

There is a poem in A’ Càradh an Rathaid which is a key text for me from the point of view of my spiritual biography, which is what I’m attempting to write. I’ve highlighted the most relevant part in bold. I wrote this when I was forty:

Looking Back

 

Forty and still blind / without an answer (and I never will have) / for the universal questions / – despite these being all there is, / although we often deceive ourselves / when we see a day like today / fresh, bright, and the sun gilding the earth, / grass, street and bay. I’d wish then there weren’t such questions, / as the question of death, truth, / or what Love, God, Christ means, /and a thousand other things undisclosed, / until my brain is a whirlpool – / but I return, and return again / in my shell of a boat. I thought once there was an answer, / that fruit would fall from the tree of knowledge / and that I’d eat the apple of wisdom, or that a voice would speak / with undeniable authority / from the pillar of fire. Nothing but silence. / Nothing but miracle after miracle / as anybody must confess / who considers Nature or one atom / of the world’s material, but all natural, reasonable, / to an extent. What I wanted was a trumpet, a fire, / which would prove there was something intelligent / beyond the veil. / The world / or God (whatever kind of being it is) / doesn’t work like that. Nothing but silence – / and a feeling that cannot be expressed / that there are things that want to speak, / and that do, and do not quite reach us / because they don’t speak our language. They will come one day, perhaps, pouring / out of some sky. / But before that happens perhaps we won’t care / not care at all. (translated)

 

I was asking God, many would say foolishly!, to prove to me in a miraculous way that there was a supranatural side to life. Little did I imagine that many years later the prayer would be answered, but not until I was in my late 50s. Yes, before then I had had hints that the materialist hypothesis wasn’t true, but not the kind of compelling evidence that I was later to have. In the next post I’ll be telling of these hints that I had which started me to doubt the truth of materialism.

 

 

 

 

 

3.

Rebellion

In the previous post I described how the verse in my first collection, Eileanan (1980) showed me to be a rationalist and an agnostic, a person as far from God as it is possible to be. This was how I was in my teens and twenties. The march of science and philosophy had disproved the God my parents believed in, or so I thought at the time. This attitude of mine was to continue into my thirties and early forties. To myself I would say, ‘I want to believe but I can’t’.

Little did I realise at the time that this rationalising was all an excuse to not believe in God; it was a rebellion of the will, not the intellect. I valued my autonomy, my freedom to sin. As long as one didn’t hurt anyone else, that was okay then! It was an ‘as if God were there’ morality. God isn’t really there, (hasn’t modern thought done away with Him) but let’s act as if He is! For if we don’t, then anything is allowed, and the world will be murder – literally. Better to pretend God is there.

Moon with birch tree near Braco

Moon over Braco   Photo: Scott Murray

Silent moon time

The evidence of how I thought about life and the spiritual side of things in my thirties and early forties is in two verse collections, Bailtean (Gairm, 1987) and A’ Càradh an Rathaid (Coiscéim, 1988). Why did A’ Càradh an Rathaid (Mending the Road)  come out so quickly after Bailtean (Villages)? Normally there would be a gap of many years between collections. The reason was that, at the time, Coiscéim asked me for a collection and I gathered together, wisely or unwisely, what scraps I had that hadn’t been published in Bailtean.

Perhaps the two most relevant poems in Bailtean which show what I was thinking about spiritual matters are ‘Silent Moon’ and ‘The Great Artist’. The ‘moon’ represents the divine and it is ‘silent’; there is only ‘nature’s laws’ and the despair of the decaying world:

Silent Moon

We / in the wood. / Above it the sun, / above it the moon. / Moon world, / sun world, / the one burning, / the one wan. / The moon is pale / in the same sky / in which the leaves are falling. / If I should catch the pale moon / the sun would fall / if I should catch the leaf.// Mud smell / in the brown path, / the leaf falling / according to nature’s laws, / and dying. / It will fall forever, / dispersing, uniting.// The pale leaf / in the mud, the white swan on the wave / and the sun without light.// What town is this / that is so silent? / For God’s sake / say something / about unity, about scattering.// The leaf broke in a thousand pieces. / The moon was silent. (translated)

 The ‘sun’ represents reason and the rationalising power. ‘If I should catch the pale moon’, that is, if the divine were real for me, ‘the sun would fall’, that is, my rationalising would cease. What the poem is saying is that I need something supernatural – or supranatural – to convince me of the divine reality. But ‘The moon is silent’.

On the surface, ‘The Great Artist’ would appear to contradict ‘Silent Moon, but it doesn’t really. It celebrates the sublime beauty of nature, but not a personal God who can speak to the heart:

The Great Artist

In the silence of the wood / where the sun / gilds the winter grass / and everything is still / in the clearing, / I thought of the great artist – / so skilled a painter, / so fluent a musician, / the world’s chief poet: / I thought that He / also deserved praise, / that He wishes to be extolled / for his terrible visions. I will certainly take His picture home / and hang it / beside the Picasso. / The birds will sing their love / in the happiness between us. (translated)

 If anything, this is a sadder poem than the previous one. The incredible beauty of nature makes us yearn for the divine to speak to us, but it is an impersonal speaking; certainly not enough to satisfy the immortal desires of the heart. The phrase ‘hang it / beside the Picasso’ says all that needs to be said.

In the next post I’ll look at some relevant poems from A’ Càradh an Rathaid. It was about this time that I took an interest in the work of the psychologist Carl Jung and his writing on synchronicity or meaningful coincidence. The title poem in the book is about such a coincidence. That and a few other events that took place in my life made me start to question the purely materialist point of view, although the supranatural things that were to happen were far in the future.

 

2.

Early verse

From the age of 12, I wrote verses in English, but once I learned to write in Gaelic I wrote in that language. Gaelic was the language of the heart and I felt that what I wrote was more authentic in my mother tongue. I looked on poetry as a means of telling the truth about the world as I perceived it. It wasn’t until 1980, when I was 36, that my first collection Eileanan was published by the Celtic Department, University of Glasgow.

I feel this is important for the story I’m going to tell. Let me explain why. Because of the strangeness, and indeed incredible nature, of what happened many years later, and that led to my conversion and to me becoming a Christian, it was important to have evidence of what I believed and how I felt in earlier years. The poetry I wrote then is the evidence.

To my own mind at the time, I wanted the truth about life wherever it led, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  And in my twenties and thirties I wrote verse which showed exactly what I believed. I was a rationalist and an agnostic. I was as far from God as it is possible to be. The following poem depicts what I thought it was like for an unbeliever in the modern world. The foundations of faith had been shaken. Life was ‘without root, without guide.’

Sea Plant

I’m a sea plant / shaken from the shores of the world. / Perhaps

we’ll meet / (there’s a chance, / one among many) / in the middle of

the ocean, / that you were also / raised / in Calvin’s earth, / the pre-

Copernican sky above you.

And the day came / when the stars fell / and the sky broke

asunder, / and you lost your land-made form, / floating / you and

I / forever more / on the cold empty seas / without root, without

guide.  (translated)

This poem hints strongly at what had been lost. The sure Word of God and the solid ground that Calvin believed in has been overwhelmed by advances in science and modern thought. Belief in God and morality itself is all at sea. My parents’ religion is in tatters, or so it seemed to me at the time.

Kensaleyre, Skye

Kensaleyre, Isle of Skye   Photo: Steve Taylor

With love to Eve

And yet also in this early poetry there is a longing for something more. In ‘B’ fheàrr leam’ (I wish) I’m intrigued with the paradoxes of time and eternity:

I wish I had a plane / to take me out from the stars. / I’d see the universe through a telescope / from outside time and space. / I’d understand I was formless / and that light was not needed to see – / How could there be light / in a place without matter? (translated)

And although I couldn’t see a way to truly believe, I was reluctant to believe that the human being was entirely due to the processes of time and chance, as the following verses show. They are from a group of poems called ‘With Love to Eve’:

You were there from everlasting / before the mountains were created / like a flower in God’s eye. // The scientist in vain will say / that time and chance made you / in the hot fire of the world // but the poet well knows // that you were there from the beginning // with your coming destined. // In your great beauty you were / enfolded in the pith of the universe, / a spirit ready to flame // out of the spirit that is. What use is poetry / if all you are is dust? // If all you are is dust / what use is music and poetry, / and what is our life but a scream. (translated)

It would be many years before the incredible events I spoke of earlier were to happen. Meantime, I continued to explore and to question and to doubt.