Christmas Eve 1978. My father was lying unconscious at home, terminally ill with a brain tumour. He’d been unconscious for a week, so there was no possibility of there being any last words from him. Mother’s bed stood next to his, my brother had taken the only spare room and I was accommodated in the house next door. (Our neighbour was away for Christmas.) We had taken turns with Dad and now said goodnight to each other and went to bed.
As I left the house to go next door, I suddenly felt a sense of great beauty and joy; I could hear “unsung” music and was conscious of “invisible” colours and light, as if heaven’s door had opened, and I had a wonderful sense of belonging and that everything was all right. I later remembered that I had read religious books about such music and light, but I didn’t think of that then. I went next door, climbed the stairs and lay on the bed in a dream, happy – yes, actually happy – at a time when I should have been suffering terribly. I slept.
My brother woke me in the first quarter-hour of Christmas Day. Dad had just died and instantly it felt like a heavy iron door slamming shut, and an awful black feeling engulfed me; it hurt like a terrible wound. We called the doctor and the undertaker and did our best to survive Christmas 1978.
I’ve been reading fairly recently about “thin places”: “In Celtic religion, the space between the spiritual world and the physical world is thin in certain places, and there the two worlds are almost connected.” From this, why not “thin times”, such as Christmas? Examples may include times of acute pleasure or overwhelming peace and beauty, great music or art or the result of prayer, meditation or inspiration. Whatever they are, they will be deeply moving. A verse that I learned as a little child was: “God is everywhere.” That means in the earth, the sea, the sky, the bogey-hole under the stairs – even in our thoughts. Our spiritual faculty reflects something that is timeless deep inside us, and we are reminded of this divine unity in thin times and places. I’ve had a few celestial experiences, such as being surrounded by white light and golden light, and I’ve read about these in Unitarian books and journals, among others, so I know that I’m not on thin ice here. (Yes, please stay with me!) One of the most notable entries is from the Unitarian, the Rev. J. Estlin Carpenter, a giant of a scholar and pioneer of comparative religion, whose celestial experience was so strong and compelling that it affected him for the rest of his life. It was never repeated, so it must have been some experience indeed!
A characteristic of spiritual experiences is a wonderful feeling of well-being and a sense of the unity of everything – “All is one” in this world and beyond. I’m careful about using the word “love”, because this can mean anything from crude lust to sublime devotion, from yucky schmaltz to the purest sentiment. Here I’ll use it in its highest sense: there is an overwhelming feeling of oneness and love so powerful that it conquers all suffering, all evil. There is no question such as: “Why does God let bad things happen?” because all is one: we can’t blame God. Jesus had this oneness with God; saints and mystics in most religions might have it, and we ourselves might find it in prayer and meditation. But sometimes it may spring upon us without warning and in the most forbidding circumstances, as happened to me on Christmas Eve so long ago. All is one; God is everywhere – in every Thing, Person or Circumstance, and in thin times and places we are somehow more sensitive to this.
Christmas Day is special; there’s no doubt about that. Even atheists may feel it. I know that spiritual experiences can be explained by “realists”, who think that they hold a copyright on truth and reason. But there is more to life than physical experience. They think they are well-developed, at the leading edge of the sciences of body, mind and things-in-a-dish-on-a-scientist’s-bench. No mention of spirit: “that’s all in the mind”.
But even many such tough-thinking people feel differently on Christmas Day, as those battle-weary German and British soldiers felt, when they played football and exchanged cigarettes in No-Man’s Land, when the dreadful gunfire paused for a while and some of our boys and theirs, bless them, sang “Silent Night” together – two languages with the same tune: music and light in the terrible darkness. I send warmest wishes to all our members and friends in Newcastle for Christmas, and when the New Year comes may you go from strength to strength in joy and peace and well-being.