Archives for posts with tag: the Sacred

Small fungi on bark

Photo – Scott Murray


‘Whither shall I go from thy spirit’

Reading Otto and Eliade (see previous post) made me look on the fall of the stick, and other things that had happened, as an irruption of the sacred or the divine. Of course, we couldn’t say with certainty what had made the stick fall, but the fact that it had fallen a number of times with no-one near it was quite extraordinary. And the precision with which it fell was even more extraordinary. By that I mean that on a number of occasions it fell at precisely the right time to give us what appeared to be a message. For example, when Margaret was taking the Hoover out of the cupboard  it seemed to ‘know’ what she was thinking, and we acted accordingly. To me it seemed as if the ‘wholly other’, as Otto describes it, was making itself manifest.

Commemorating a sacred space

This made me want to commemorate what had become a sacred space. So I bought a small table and placed it in the hallway. On the table I placed a framed image of the Turin shroud Jesus, a candle to symbolise God, a white stone for the Holy Spirit and a framed icon of the Virgin Mary. I wanted a white dove to represent the Holy Spirit but as I didn’t have one, a stone would have to do temporalily. The shroud picture had been in my possession for many years. I always thought it was an amazing and moving image.

Another ‘coincidence’

The iconic image of the Virgin Mary was sent to me in the post by my good friend the Romanian poet who had told me about Eliade. In early January 2010 I  was busy writing Island Conversion (Margaret had completed her part of it) and had just come to the point in the book  where I tell how she had introduced me to The Sacred and the Profane by Eliade when I heard the postman drop off a letter. It was a postcard from her with an iconic golden-coloured image of the Virgin and child. The coincidence prompted me to put the card in a frame and place it on the table beside the other items. Margaret remembered she had an unused golden frame she had bought some ten years previously. The card fitted it perfectly.

God’s dealing with us

It is now 2016 and the table is still there. It is a daily reminder of what happened in 2008 and what has happened since.  For what happened since Island Conversion was published in 2011 is even more remarkable, if that is possible, and it very much concerns the table that was set up in remembrance of God’s dealings with us. For, yes, I personally believed it was God who was dealing with us. Looking back over my life and all that has happened, I couldn’t believe otherwise. The things that happened were tremendous and mysterious – it was indeed a time of the mysterium tremendum as Otto called the numinous presence of the ‘wholly other.’

The picture of Christ falls

So I move on from the events recorded in Island Conversion to tell what happened in 2012 and after. I had planned to go to Romania in September 2012 to take part in a poetry event. By May the plane tickets had been booked and we were both set for going. On the evening of the 28th May I was walking into the living room past the table in the hallway when the shroud picture of Jesus fell off the table and on to the floor. I was utterly stunned. But I didn’t have time to take it in. One or two minutes later the phone went. It was a friend from Wales who was one of the organisers of the Romanian trip. I was too shocked to mention the fall of the picture. We discussed what we would be doing in Romania.

We decide not to go

After I came off the phone Margaret and I sat down in the living room facing each other. What did it all mean? What could it mean? My immediate reaction was to cancel the trip to Romania. I had a sense of foreboding and I said to Margaret I wasn’t going. Her immediate reaction was relief. She felt it was the right thing to do. The plane tickets were cancelled and I had to apologise to my friends in Wales and Romania.

Margaret’s illness

Margaret had been complaining with her stomach for a number of weeks, pain and indigestion. She was treated for helicobacter pylori, a treatable bacterial infection which can cause indigestion. When she didn’t respond to treatment she was sent for further investigation. On the 28th June she was given a diagnosis of stomach cancer.

It was then we realised what the fall of the picture probably meant. It was warning us of future events. There were trials ahead, but with God’s help these would be overcome. One thing was sure. There was no way we could have gone to Romania in September. At that time Margaret would be going through a course of chemotherapy in preparation for an operation.

But the fact that the picture fell was a great comfort. We knew that something immeasurably greater than us was in control of our lives. Anything could have fallen, but it was the picture of Christ.




The Christ gate

It was in September 2008, months after the second fall of the stick, that it dawned on me that the dream Margaret had in the mid-nineties, and that led to our marriage, could have had a specific religious meaning. In the dream she had seen me going through a gate and she had followed. Now that I had accepted Christ as my saviour I could see that this gate could be interpreted as the Christ gate. We were entering a new life together and the new life was a spiritual life.

Psalm 37

Other things that happened around this time reinforced the feeling that things weren’t just happening by chance. I was in church and we sang verses 3-4 of psalm 37 ‘Set thou thy trust upon the Lord …’ Many years before, my late father had written these verses on a piece of paper and given them to me. The only time he had ever done such a thing. At the time I didn’t take them to heart. The minister, of course, didn’t know this but, rather unsettling for me, he asked for the same verses to be sung again –  in Gaelic this time – at the end of the service.

Some time after, Margaret remembered that she had a plaque she had been given by friends when she left Surrey in the 1980s. It had words from verse 4, ‘Delight thyself in God; he’ll give thine heart’s desire to thee. Coincidences or an overarching providence? With all that was happening, it seemed more like the latter.

Pilgrim’s Progress

After the first two falls of the stick in July 2008, the process of emptying the loft was proceeding well. By the middle of August I had almost completed the task. We had planned a coach holiday in August in the Cotswolds but at the last minute I cancelled the holiday and Margaret wasn’t all that pleased. The following day she was up early. She had had a vision of John Bunyan and of being in a prison. When she looked up John Bunyan on the computer she discovered that he had written Pilgrim’s Progress – or part of it – in Bedford Jail, something of which she had been unaware.

Later in the morning I was up in the loft. There were one or two boxes still to be cleared at the end of the loft. I looked into one box and there, staring me in the face, was a copy of the Pilgrim’s Progress in Gaelic, which I didn’t know I had. I could see from what was written in it that it had been given to my father by a minister. I came down the ladder and handed it to Margaret, saying ‘This is for you’. Later in the week she was visiting a friend and she told her friend the story. ‘Oh’, said her friend, ‘I was looking through some books in the bookshelves and I came across a copy of the Pilgrim’s Progress in English. You can take it with you.’

The Idea of the Holy

It was about this time that I became more and more intrigued with the idea of the holy or sacred. I realised that modern life had desacralised everything. Capitalism and the profit motive and materialism (of both kinds) meant that nothing was set apart as holy and untouchable. Everything could be used and abused because they didn’t have a divine source. The world had become secular.

A book I was reading at the time The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto paints a very different picture. He talks about the numinous and the feeling of dread human beings experience when faced with the overwhelming nature of the ‘wholly other’. It is the creature meeting the creator. When the numinous breaks through into human experience, it goes beyond fear. It is indeed a peculiar kind of dread which cannot be described in words. The book is not for the faint-hearted but it might change one’s attitude to what the term ‘holy’ means, as it did mine.

The Sacred and the Profane

Another book which influenced my thinking at the time was The Sacred and the Profane by the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade. It was rather strange how I came to read this book. A friend knew of my interest in Rudolph Otto and he introduced me by email to a Romanian scholar and poet who he knew was also interested in Otto. It was her who recommended Eliade’s book to me. Decades before, the name Eliade had come to me in a dream but I didn’t know who he was at the time. I presumed he was a poet and that I would one day come across him.

The other strange thing is that I had also dreamed, decades before, of the face of the poet who recommended the book to me. The image of the face and the name Eliade had stuck with me, although I wouldn’t know for many years what significance they would have in my life.

The religious and the nonreligious

It turned out that Eliade was a famed historian of world religion and an authority on myth, symbol and religion. He had been influenced by Otto. His book was an eye-opener for me. He shows how there are, and always have been, people who are religious and aware of the sacred and the numinous, (because they have experienced it) and how there are others who are nonreligious and completely unaware that this fundamental reality exists. Nowadays, the nonreligious are in the majority and their world is a secular world and completely desacralised.


Eliade speaks a lot of how there can be a religious and sacred space. That is, a space where the numinous or the ‘wholly other’ has broken through and revealed itself. He calls this act of manifestation of the sacred a hierophany, that is, something sacred showing itself. It can manifest itself in ordinary objects, as a stone or a tree. But for the Christian the supreme hierophany is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. He says, ‘In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act – the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural “profane” world.’

(Contnd from entry 94)

stick in hall
(The stick in question Photo: M. Caimbeul)

Effect the fall of the stick had on me

The fall of the stick on five occasions was a profound experience for me. It shattered all the pretences I had in regarding the world from a naturalistic perspective. For both of us, what happened was no less than a miracle. Not merely was one of the fundamental laws of nature broken – the law of gravity – but the stick appeared to be giving us specific messages. I was awestruck. In my younger sceptical days I had wanted proof of the supernatural. Well, here was living proof of an extra-mundane dimension. But more was to come.

The loft access

Road to Damascus’ experiences

But before I carry on with the story, I should make one thing clear. As a Christian, I don’t believe ‘road to Damascus’ experiences are necessary for conversion. As far as I’m aware, most converts don’t have these experiences. What is important is the conviction of being a sinner before a holy God, true repentance and trusting in Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins and rose from the dead, and making a public confession. Everybody is different. I needed something that would break me from the post-Enlightenment scourge of naturalism. Not everybody does.

At the risk of repeating myself, the reason I’m telling our story is because it overturns and refutes the prevailing postmodernist world-view in the West, that there is no supernatural agency or dimension. There is and it has been proved to us beyond doubt in our lives. What I am about to recount is not explicable in naturalistic terms.

A reminder of what happened

A friend from Romania recommended a book to me The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade. In it Eliade discusses the sacred space. When something deemed to be sacred happened, the person or tribe would commemorate the occasion with a memorial of some kind. Such Jacob did at Bethel when God met with him in a dream. He used the stone on which he had lain his head as a memorial. Reading Eliade’s book reinforced an idea I had to have something to remind us of God’s dealings with us.

Table in hall
(The table in question Photo: M. Caimbeul)

The table placed in the hall

So at the end of 2009 I bought a small table and placed it in the hall with 4 items on it – a candle as a symbol of God, a Turin shroud image of Jesus, an image of the Madonna and child, and a white stone representing the Holy Spirit. (At the time I didn’t have a white dove, but I was to get one later.) This table was meant as a constant reminder of the presence of the Lord.

The first fall of the Jesus picture

On May 28 2012 something remarkable happened. I was walking past the table into the living room when the framed picture of Jesus fell off the table on to the floor. Margaret was in the living room on the other side of the wall from the the table and she heard the clatter. I was entering the living room. She could see that I wasn’t near the picture. We were both dumbstruck. We just didn’t know what it meant.

The phone call

Two minutes later, and before we could discuss it properly, the phone went. It was a poet friend from Wales. We were meant to go to Romania in September for poetry workshops. I had already booked the plane tickets with KLM. We chatted about what we would do in Romania. And all the time at the back of my mind was what had happened with the picture just minutes before, although I didn’t mention it to my friend. I was worried.

When I came off the phone, Margaret and I sat opposite each other with the same question on our minds, What did the fall of the picture mean? We were so worried that very reluctantly I cancelled the trip to Romania.

Bad and good news

It was exactly one month from the fall of the picture that it all began to make sense. The 28th June 2012 is etched on both our memories. It was the day Margaret was given a diagnosis of stomach cancer. The trip could not have happened because in September she was going through a course of chemotherapy. To our minds, the fall of the picture was a warning of what was to come.

Fortunately for Margaret, the cancer was at stage 1 and could be operated on. This happened in November 2012 and we thank God that she has made a full recovery.
(to be contnd)

Loch Hàsco below the Quiraing


A recap


In my previous blog I commented on the implications for the Christian of Chagall’s images in the painting White Crucifixion and also the image of the vividly red barbed wire, one of 5 photos I received from my friend Scott Murray on the day I wrote the commentary on the painting (blog 60).
A brief recap of what happened: I had finished writing the blog on Sunday afternoon of 18th August when the 5 photos came from Scott. He had no idea what the subject of my blog was, yet the images he sent fitted perfectly with what I was saying. It was as if the risen Christ was saying: ‘Look, what you have written is incomplete, I will provide the rest.’ Not only that, but when Scott was taking the photo of the barbed wire that afternoon, the words from a Bob Dylan lyric came to him ‘She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns’ etc and also the thought of Easter.


Flower of the Okra plant (2)


(Photo: Scott Murray)


The cross and the rope


Here I want to comment on the 4 other photos Scott sent and their possible spiritual and metaphorical significance. One is of masses of rope tied to the wreck of a boat in Vatersay. The vertical timber and the horizontal strake make a cross. The cross and the strake behind have red paint on them. There are pieces of old dried jagged seaweed on the cross. For me the red paint symbolizes the blood that was missing from Chagall’s cross. The jagged seaweed could symbolize thorns. The rope could symbolize the bondage of the Jews and of mankind. They are everything that Chagall’s sanitized cross is not. His is a tau cross, shaped like a T. This one has an obvious upper arm.


The window-pane with ice drops


There is a photo of a window-pane with icicles and frozen drops of rain. The icicles and ice drops are beautifully coloured, shades of violet and white against a dark background. Considering that the subject of Chagall’s painting is the approaching Holocaust, this image is a powerful memorial of that unimaginable horror.


Cùl nan Cnoc from Rubha nam Bràithrean




Chains on top of a strainer in Vatersay


Of all five images, perhaps this is the most intriguing and, for me, the most profound. The post represents the axis mundi or the cosmic tree. It is a symbol of the connection of heaven, or the world of the Sacred, with earth. Mircea Eliade, a major historian of religion, discusses this symbolism in his book The Sacred and the Profane. He acknowledges the disconnect between how contemporary human beings see the world in secular terms only, in contrast to the past where the world only had meaning in terms of the Sacred.
So, for me, this post in Vatersay represents this axis mundi. But it is in poor shape, as befits a world where the Holocaust could happen. The chains represent the Nazis’ total rejection of the Sacred. They are completely cut off from Heaven and the Sacred. The chains could also symbolize bondage, the bondage of the Jews by the Nazis and also how the Nazis were in their own form of bondage, the bondage of evil.


Sweet pea


(Photo: Scott Murray)


The barbed wire and the web


The last image is the barbed wire and the partial spider’s web. Is it being constructed or destroyed? Whatever, it is a powerful image and it awakens many ideas of what it could mean or represent. A spider’s web is of course a symbol of prey and a victim. That they were a victim was true of European Jewry as it was true of Jesus on the cross. Yet Jesus was victim only temporarily. He is now victor and Lord. He is the true axis mundi.


The apparently weak web is in contrast to the strong and cruel barbed wire. But the web symbolizes love and faith. The wire though strong and cruel is dead. The web is of the living and will survive long after the wire is rust. The Jews survived despite the Nazi onslaught. The Sacred in the end is stronger than the profane, despite all appearances to the contrary.

I had a short note back from the American professor who calls himself Skeptic. He says: “I’m intrigued by one of your headings, ‘God’s revelation of himself in nature.’ I happen to be a biology professor and all I see is ‘nature red in tooth and claw.’ Everything I see can be explained naturalistically. There is no need to invoke a God of the gaps. Everything arises naturally from nature. As for faith, surely that is believing things without evidence. And as for intuition, that is even a sillier idea. If we can’t believe the sensible data in front of us, we are lost. I have never had much time for armchair philosophers. There is no substitute for fieldwork. Go out and look young man.”

Sweet pea
(Photo: Scott Murray)

Dear Skeptic,

Thank you for responding to my last blog and thank you for regarding me as a ‘young man.’ I only wish! But whether one is old or young is immaterial. What matters, surely, is if one’s assessment of what philosophers call ‘reality’ is true to our human reality or not. Your reference to the importance of‘sensible data’ and that everything can be explained ‘naturalistically’ gives me a very important handle on your worldview. It appears to me to be very near the empirical views of David Hume, the 18th century philosopher who, despite being ‘armchair’, is still the darling of the sceptics. Empiricists like Hume believed that all our knowledge derives from our sensible impressions and that causal relations are in the mind. An extreme empiricism of this kind is self-defeating because it leads to mind-numbing scepticism. Fortunately, Kant, who was at least as great a philosopher as Hume, (in my humble opinion much greater) disagreed with Hume and showed, I think, that the empiricists were wrong.

wild hyacinth_Vatersay
(Photo: Scott Murray)

The aspects again
My apologies if I have mistaken your worldview. You advise me to do fieldwork. I have a great admiration for those who do, but no-one could do fieldwork without intuition. For me, it’s part of what Dooyeweerd calls ‘naive’ or ordinary experience. We are all born into this reality of the the 15 aspects. To remind you they are: Pistical (15) faith, certitude, surrender; Ethical (14) love (in ethical relationships); Juridical (13) lawfulness, justice; Aesthetic (12) beauty, harmony; Economic (11) frugality, moderation; Social (10) social intercourse; Lingual (9) symbolic signification, language; Historical/Formative (8) formative power, culture; Logical-analytical (7) distinguishing, identifying difference; Sensitive (6) feeling, affect, emotion; Biotic (5) organic life, vitality, Physical (4) energy, force, change, dynamics, Kinematic (3) mobility, mechanical motion, Spatial (2) continuous extension, Numerical (1) number, discrete quantity (based on Troost, 2012, p.77)

God in his primordial act of Creation created all aspects as a unity in diversity, just as a beam of white light will enter a prism and be released as different colours. I suspect that you give priority or even exclusiveness to one or two aspects such as the Physical and the Biotic. As a faith person, I want to grasp and come to grips with all aspects, not just one or two.

The intuition of wholeness
Anyway, I want to get back to intuition and to explaining how intuition tells me there is a God. We are given intuition in ‘naive experience.’ One of the strongest intuitions is the intuition of wholeness. As a biologist I’m sure you marvel at the whole-forming ability of the physical organism. The nature of the human mind is such that we are constantly creating wholeness and indeed crying out for wholeness. We see the artist framing her painting which she feels is a whole because of the way the elements fit together, the colour tones and so on. The poet integrates image, sound and sense to make an integrated whole. The physicist wants a theory that unites various observations. The theologian and philosopher want a system that will unite all observations. In other words, in every heart there is the desire for the absolute. I believe this intuition, this instinct has been placed there by the Creator.


The intuition of integration
Part of this human intuiting faculty is the ability to take in a thousand facets or facts about reality and to integrate them in a unity. This is the vision that Dooyeweerd has. The unity of the aspects happens in the selfhood, or what the Bible calls the heart. Everyone is born with this naive experience of unity. (This is the opposite of Hume’s view of the self, at least his initial view. When he looked for the self he could find only a series of impressions). For me, this amazing unity in diversity points with absolute certainty to a unifier, a Creator.

The intuition of the sacred or holy
These intuitions of wholeness and integration are very much tied to the intuition of the holy. One feels this as an intuition in its own right. It’s the mere creature in opposition to the Creator of all that exists. The creation points to the Creator but the gulf is felt to be immense. Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy (1923) identifies this as a feeling of awe and dread. We are utterly dumbstruck before the reality of something which we cannot understand. But there is also something else. Because we are fallen from the image of God in us, we feel sinful and defiled before a Being who is absolutely perfect and absolutely righteous.
In future blogs I’ll cover the other two headings I mentioned earlier, namely, ‘God’s revelation of himself in history’ and the other heading, which you found strange, ‘God’s revelation of himself in nature.’
Maol Ìosa

Garden roses

The romantic vision and the abandonment of the sacred in the 20th century west. More snippets from the diary.

Wednesday 30th January 2013

The German painter Friedrich

Today I was reading about the German painter Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840). He was certainly different and his paintings are deliberately full of romantic and spiritual vision. He belonged to the Dresden Romantics who rejected the classical age as being over rational and instead looked to the irrational and mystical aspects of nature and experience. Friedrich was influenced by the poet Kosegarten who regarded nature as ‘Christ’s bible’. Friedrich’s landscapes are indeed allegories of the inner life where the sea, the ships, the trees and even the rocks are given spiritual meanings. ‘The divine is everywhere,’ said Friedrich, ‘even in a grain of sand.’

Monday 4th February 2013

We had a few days in Inverness. Margaret saw the surgeon. The news for her was good; she doesn’t need to have any more chemotherapy and he seemed pleased with her progress.

Saturday 2nd March 2013

The Scream (1893)

I’ve been looking at the life and work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) the Norwegian painter, probably best known for his painting The Scream (1893). Of all the artists I’ve looked at so far, he probably best represents the bohemian spirit of the 20th century. Until his nervous breakdown in 1908, he depicted the inner emotions with tremendous power. Often these show his own obsessions with death, sex and love. After his breakdown his work was much less introspective.

The abandonment of the sacred

For me his paintings graphically represent the existential angst of modern man. His paintings indeed give a bleak and sometimes painful vision of what it means to live without hope and without God in the world. The lithograph Madonna (1895-1902) is a prime example of how the sacred has been transformed into something entirely profane. The image of the woman is highly sexual and yet strongly represents death. The holy child has become an evil looking foetus. It is indeed an image which should send a shiver through our soul, a prophecy of what the soul of the century, at least in Europe, would become.

Munch’s The Dance of Life

I wrote a poem about Munch’s painting The Dance of Life (1899-1900). This shows three women at different stages of the life of the soul. The colours of their dresses are strongly symbolic. The first woman in white represents innocence and is eagerly approaching the dance. The middle woman in a deep red dress represents desire and sexual passion while the woman in black on the right looks on in loneliness and despair. The moon in the Friedrich painting represents Christ, here it merely represents fertility and the mystery of sex.