Monthly Archives: August 2020

Spiritual homelands 1

What is a spiritual homeland?  I suppose it means somewhere one’s spirit feels at home. The sensations are deep and resonate within. What emerges in these posts is that one also doesn’t have to live there to access it.

Like the poet Kathleen Raine, I too was born in Ilford, Essex. Raine is rude about Ilford as a spiritual place. She writes,

‘Ilford, considered as a spiritual state, is the place of those who do not wish to (or who cannot be) fully conscious, because full consciousness would perhaps make life unendurable … It is no wonder that in the Ilfords there are more who fear than who desire the stirrings of consciousness. For one who escapes, many more must be thrown back to suffer in a prison-house made only more intolerable by every glimpse of the world of unattainable freedom.’

So how is it that some places feel spiritual, and even from far off and rarely or never visited still become a spiritual homeland? Raine’s mother was from Scotland, spoke Scots, and from her Raine inherited a love of poetry and the past. There is a melancholy to the Scots language mainly because it has been so taken over by English, it’s not the Gaelic of the islands but the language from the North East coast and the southern borders – Kathleen Raine says it is because the Scots language is so entwined with the hills and mountains and streams. It is not the language of the town, or the suburbs, though some is spoken in Glasgow.

For many Scottish people who moved south there is a lingering sense of displacement. I have lived in England all my life, but every summer we went to Montrose, on the NE coast where my father came from, and where Scots is still spoken, and once or twice to the Highlands to see my other relatives. Something of what Scotland meant got into my psyche (as it clearly did for Kathleen Raine) and experiences of past generations rise up from the collective unconscious.

The poet Violet Jacob (1863-1946) was born in Montrose and her poem ‘I saw the wild geese’ especially the sung version is about this sort of longing and yearning for a spiritual homeland.

‘Oh tell me what was on yer road, ye roarin’ norlan’ Wind,
As ye cam’ blawin’ frae the land that’s niver frae my mind?
My feet they traivel England, but I’m deein’ for the north.’
‘My man, I heard the siller tides rin up the Firth o Forth.’

‘Aye, Wind, I ken them weel eneuch, and fine they fa’ and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creepin’ mist on yonder shore that lies,
But tell me, ere ye passed them by, what saw ye on the way?’
‘My man, I rocked the rovin’ gulls that sail abune the Tay.’

‘But saw ye naething, leein’ Wind, afore ye cam’ to Fife?
There’s muckle lyin’ ‘yont the Tay that’s mair to me nor life.’
‘My man, I swept the Angus braes ye hae’na trod for years.’
‘O Wind, forgi’e a hameless loon that canna see for tears!’

‘And far abune the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o’ beatin’ wings, wi’ their heids towards the sea,
And aye their cryin’ voices trailed ahint them on the air –’
‘O Wind, hae maircy, haud yer whisht, for I daurna listen mair!’

the wounded stag 4

William Johnston writes of Mary as our mystical companion – ‘one whose eyes are fixed on the wounded stag’ and who tells us how to live when she says ‘do whatever he tells you’. Johnston says that Mary is an atmosphere of love in which we can walk, and an atmosphere in which we can be spiritually guided. Jesus came from her and she was with him at his death, she too is part of the resurrection. ‘She is always there – because she shares pre-eminently in the mystery of Christ into which the Christian mystic is necessarily drawn’. It is, he says, nothing initially to do with loving Mary but rather in accepting her love which appears gratuitously. ‘As the wounded stag appears on the hill, so also on the hill appears one of whom it was said, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also”. As Jesus was wounded with love, so Mary is also wounded with love for us.’ Then perhaps in being loved we are able to reciprocate.

Carl Jung was very taken in the 1950s by the increasing evidence in the catholic church of the importance of Mary for people. He believed that the reintroduction of the feminine went some way to provide a balance to the heavily masculine aspects of the church. He saw that there had been a deep longing in people for the glorification of the feminine (perhaps after the bloodbath of two world wars dominated by men killing each other, and indeed anyone else who got in the way). Jung welcomed the idea to recognize Mary as the Queen of Heaven. ‘Anyone who has followed with attention the visions of Mary which have been increasing in numbers over the past few decades, and has taken their psychological significance into account, might have known what was brewing. The fact especially that it was largely children who had the visions might have given pause for thought, for in such cases the collective unconscious is always at work’.  Jung saw that this sort of movement was a balance to the patriarchal arguments of reason and history. More recently there has been acceptance of the feminine principle of Sophia as the Holy Spirit. Here is the cool breeze and the gentle healing.

The wounded stag is Jesus, and Mary ever alongside him is wounded in turn. And then opening to mystery in contemplative prayer we too become aware of our wounds and also wounded all over again by our increasing awareness of the wounded world in which we live. Then there comes a change of heart and a change in consciousness. Johnston sees that it is this woundedness that demands of us a total commitment to justice and non-violence, if we allow ourselves to know our own pain, then there can be no alternative to knowing the pain of others and our fellow creatures and trying not to make it worse.

The wounded stag 3

If God is more present in darkness than in light we are encouraged to stay with the shadow to go through it – rather than run away or repress it. This is what William Johnston calls the night of the senses where all our faculties expand helping us to receive communications which come from the wounded stag – from the darkness of God that becomes a light for us.

Two stanzas from the Spiritual Canticle by St John of the Cross describes this time of spiritual nourishment:

‘My Beloved, the mountains,

And lonely wooded valleys,

Strange islands,

and resounding rivers,

the whistling of love-stirring breezes,


the tranquil night

at the time of the rising dawn,

silent music,

sounding solitude,

the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.’

The soul is graced and blessed by closer connection to the peace of God. This is a giving God who feels present and who helps us. Johnston distinguishes this healing night of the senses (it reminds me of Thomas Merton’s piece on the night spirit and the dawn air in the Ox Mountain parable) with the night of the spirit.

The night of the spirit is concerned with meaning. Traditionally religion provides the symbols for our spiritual nourishment such as ‘God our Father, Jesus our saviour, the story of scriptures and the story of life after death’ but the deeper we go into ourselves and into the shadow and the more we expand spiritually so the symbols come to lose their meaning.

‘They no longer talk to us about God, or anything. Only one symbol remains: emptiness, darkness, absence. A terrible night is now caused by loss of meaning.’

In other words everything we thought we believed in looks hollow, empty, and insubstantial as if it turns to ashes… Our clear beliefs become faded as we enter a thick, thick cloud. This is the cloud of unknowing where all the sweet comforting beliefs seem to dissolve into uncertainty.

Johnston quotes the experiences of Therese of Lisieux who in spite of the darkness continued to write and speak enthusiastically about the love of God and His mercy – though at heart she felt an atheist. What had initially felt for many years as a warm sense of loving presence created an upsetting sense of absence – her reasons for belief fell away. Yet she claimed that she now made more acts of faith than at any time before. This became a faith that was therefore pure as it was without cultural or social props, or symbolism, or feeling good or because of theology or mystical experiences. ‘She believed because she believed. She believed God for God. And this is pure faith.’

the wounded stag 2


‘The wounded stag is in sight on the hill, cooled by the breeze of your flight’.

The mystery of Christ is the mystery of love. In the same way that the wounded stag is wounded by the wound of the other so Christ is wounded by our wounds. Through contemplation, we in turn open ourselves up to the wounds in nature and in our fellow creatures – the wounds of all sentient beings. Contemplation and also awareness of our inner world leads us to be more aware of others, more vulnerable and more sensitive – sometimes this feels too much. The news is full of suffering – the suffering of people, animals, the environment and the pain inflicted by greed, hate and destruction. What to do? How to cope?

In his stanza John of the Cross uses the word ‘cooled’ and his commentary says that ‘as a breeze cools and refreshes a person worn out by the heat, so this breeze of love refreshes and renews the one burning with the fire of love’. Our woundedness is met in a deep connection with Christ.  ‘The breeze of love’ – is here the love of God. What John offers us is the experience of Jesus who was once pinned down and is now free and this can help us believe in the possibility of change. So strangely we become more vulnerable, in greater touch with suffering but also offered healing through the same spiritual practice of contemplative prayer.

William Johnston sees that God is present in all wounds and all hurts. This is why he believes that God is more present in darkness than in light and in times of desolation than in times of consolation. He sees that contemplative prayer has much in common with psychotherapy. ‘In both cases one is painfully and inescapably brought face to face with one’s shadow.’ However for Johnston there is a difference in that ‘the mystic is healed by calling with faith on Jesus the saviour … psychologists will never understand the human psyche with all its altered states until they look carefully at the mystical journey towards wholeness’.