The primacy of experience – Kathleen Raine

A weeping Madonna from Syracuse in 1953, verified by the RC Church and commemorated in a Mass in August 2020 

The poet and writer Kathleen Raine wrote about spiritual searching and the primacy of experience in her book Autobiographies – originally written in the 1970s. In her preface to the new edition published in 1991, Raine writes of the book as a way of offering her contribution to the whole – seeing civilisation as an unending communication and participation of shared thoughts, experiences and visions, a collective pilgrimage and a universal quest. Each life is a ‘story’ – one of personal experiences with its own beginning, middle, and, end: ‘we become what we are’. But as Raine adds ‘do we ever feel that we are really that person whose part we play? Are we not all nameless, boundless, something beyond our individual selves?’

In the last part of her story, she sees that what she calls One Consciousness needs some other form than a ‘Church’ – it’s not that the Reality to be communicated is any different – as it is forever, but rather there has to be ‘a change in our manner of receiving what is to be received.’ The outer structures are no longer working. She affirms Jung’s idea that we need to meet the divine in the psyche. Such ‘Reality’ cannot be defined ‘but only experienced’.  This is a Reality that cannot be bound by any of the forms which it may at any one time embody, although Raine believes that at different times of our lives we need the various supports on offer.

Support can come from rituals, rites, icons, visions and images. She gives an example of her friend (at the time a Professor of Russian at Cambridge) seeing with her own eyes and transfixed by:

‘a weeping icon of the Virgin, whose tears, as minute as seed pearls, proportionate to her paper face, ran down ceaselessly, so that the bottom of the cheap print was sodden like blotting paper. It is all the same whether the weeping figure be of paper or of dreams; that which weeps may use any vehicle, for there is a weeper!’

We might be incredulous or shocked that divine Presence can even bother to appear in an item made of cheap paint and paper, but the sacramental, the ultimate Reality meets us where it meets us. It is through the quality of the experience that we recognise the holy, the numinous, and Raine describes how in certain dreams and visions she has known that Presence. No one knows the whole, but only parts of it. In the west:

‘Perhaps the soul is, in its very nature, “naturally Christian’; but who can set limits to the inexhaustible in-dwelling Imagination? Of those few I have been shown in dreams most are themselves central symbols of the Christian mysteries: the Tree, holy well, the sign of the Cross, and that sword of light once held in my dreaming hand.’

Perhaps, she adds, that this numinosity belonging to the source, previously projected onto symbolic enactments by the priest in the liturgy and potentially available to everyone [as it always was], can be seen as a sign of a deepening spiritual maturity. Clinging to the external forms limits us, but rediscovering within ourselves the informing Presence lives on.