A personal account
I will start by saying that I completely reject the God described in many parts of many scriptures of many religions. I reject any God of dictats and demands, threats and control and prisons of the mind. The great romantic poet Blake refers to ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ which aptly depicts the effect of fundamentalist, literal application of scripture on the psyches of those subjected to the dominance of those powerful men who wield it. I reject this God as a man-made construct, defined by ancient peoples all over the world who projected their own thoughts onto a creation entirely of their imagination, a creature to dread, as capricious and unpredictable as they themselves. This God could comfort a person with one hand and beat them up with the other. This God could bully, cajole, manipulate, coerce, love passionately and reject utterly. This is a caricature of a person. I am not there for that.
Outside of religion, however, I have experienced something so profound and awesome that I can only refer to it as God as I have no other words for it. The first time was when I was at a play park with my two year old daughter and my newborn baby. Abi was playing on the swings and the slides while Kirstin slept peacefully in her pram. I smelled freshly cut grass and the sun shone. I wasn’t in an especially good mood and nothing special had happened that morning but as Abi climbed off the climbing frame and ran towards me something amazing happened. I saw her blonde hair as a halo of light and I was rooted to the spot as tingling warmth filled me from the scalp to the toes and tears filled my eyes. I recognised the feelings in language such as ‘happiness’, ‘goodness’, ‘joy’, ‘wellbeing’, ‘wonder’ and ‘awe’ but the reality is that language can’t touch it. It was momentary and I continued with my day but felt glowy and blessed for hours afterwards.
The second time was when I was hosting a Swiss girl. The visit had been arranged by a Swiss friend of mine who had taught this girl and knew that she was looking for an opportunity to stay with an English family and improve her English. She was seventeen at the time. I hosted her on the basis that she would have free meals and accommodation and would help around the house and with the children after finishing college. A few weeks into the visit it became apparent that she was hiding away from friends and spending a lot of time alone in her room. I felt concerned that she was down and lonely and decided to host a surprise 18th birthday party. I contacted her college class and invited people over and two of her best friends planned to come and stay for a week from Switzerland. The day before the party, while she was at college, I made her favourite cake: black forest gateau. As I stood alone in the kitchen, mixing and stirring, I was filled with the tingling feeling, again from head to toe. This time, however, it was the most powerful experience I’ve ever had and I was completely unable to move. It was as though I was surrounded and filled with a mighty force that was totally impossible to resist. I stood, tears filling my eyes, and a thought came to me that my guest’s dad was incredibly proud of her. I didn’t hear a voice or anything like that. It was my own thought in that moment. As the tingling subsided and I came back to normal, I was consumed by what had happened. I considered that things like that don’t happen for no reason and decided to share it with the girl. Later that night I knocked on her door and said that I wanted to share something with her that might sound very peculiar and might make her feel uncomfortable and awkward but that I thought it was important and good. She agreed to hear it and I explained as best as I could what had happened and that I strongly believed that her dad was incredibly proud of her on this, her eighteenth birthday. She immediately started to cry and continued to cry for some time as I tried to comfort her, worried about what I’d done. When she calmed down, she explained that she had been very down and sad as her eighteenth birthday approached, because she so missed her dad, who had died in a car crash when she was seven. She had wondered how he would feel towards her now as she was approaching adulthood and she had imagined speaking with him and how it would go. I don’t believe that her father’s spirit came to me and I can’t explain what happened. At no point in my life before nor since have I had a psychic Sally tendency and I find it all quite inexplicable but nonetheless it was wonderful and healing in that moment.
My third spiritual experience occurred when I was driving home from work. At that point in my life my family was seriously struggling. My marriage had crashed and my second child was seriously unwell with bulimia that had taken her to very dark places indeed and my worst fears had been realised: one of my children suffering. I couldn’t fix her. I couldn’t change it. I’d fought for many months to get the appropriate treatment but mental health services were underfunded and nothing was available, not even privately. I was permanently tense, filled with anxiety and prone to my panic spilling over into everything. My job was the least stressful part of my life and the only place where I felt competent and appreciated. As I drove home I saw a large, ominous, navy-blue cloud spreading over my area of Leicester, the area I was driving towards, which represented how my life felt. Then the tingling started, spreading from my head to my feet, and I had the thought: ‘it’s only a cloud’. The tears came and I had to pull off the road until I was more composed. But the relief that I felt was immense as I understood that the sun would shine again. One day (big reveal: it did).
My last experience, and the one that has prompted me to write, was last night, as I drove home from the Level four counselling course that I am undertaking. I have been slowly stripping back masks and defences since commencing my training, and have unbelievably freed myself from decades of disordered eating. This has left me feeling strange. It’s like losing a frenemy. I didn’t like my food and body obsession but I did know it and knew where I was with it. I have, therefore, been feeling a little untethered and naked without the strictures of my multitudinous food and exercise rules. Last night, I had opened up to my fellow trainee about my unfortunate tendency to feel as though I’m not real without some big project or self-improvement programme – as though me, as I am, is nothing and nobody, not good enough, insubstantial and empty. Thinking back it’s easy to understand why I experience a lack of identity, filled as I was with fundamentalist rules, expectations, shame and fear. I easily go to shame, feeling ashamed of many aspects of myself on a daily basis. My social anxiety is sometimes unbearable. I hide it but it’s horrible. I compare myself to others and usually estimate myself to be less worthy and less important. Having shared these things in the group, I was driving home feeling vulnerable, when the moon peeped through the clouds, fuzzy-edged in mist, and it reminded me of posters depicting God. As I imagined that the light was God, I realised that I was leaning forwards, open-hearted and trusting towards my understanding of God, and the tingling began. This time, I recognised it and welcomed it. I said ‘thank you’. It was a blessing. Again, I cried and had to pull over. To consider that God was there and not to be afraid has previously felt unimaginable for me.
I don’t like the name ‘God’. It is too biblical and Christian and patriarchal for me. I don’t know what else to call this thing, however, so God it remains. I don’t believe that it’s a person or a humanoid. To me it feels like some type of energy or power that is in us and all around us. It seems that it can manifest itself in moments of vulnerability or love, and can manifest through imagery, thoughts and an open heart and mind. It is unpredictable and can’t be summoned or manipulated. It appears when it appears and although we can’t summon it, we can block it through our cynicism and closed mindedness. When it fills me it feels like a blessing. It exists outside of words. I could try to describe it but ‘good’, ‘pure’, ‘holy’ and ‘awesome’ are inadequate. Our language is as limiting as our bodies and minds. This power may or may not be harmless. I would not like to be held by that particular force if I was guilty of malice or cruelty. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.
Those who use their concept of God to tell others what to do are just bullies. I believe that people within organised religions can and do have equally valid experiences of God. The only people I respect are those who speak from their own experience of God, not their dogmas and their doctrines. My mum is one such person. My Christian brother is another.
I am aware that calling this power anything is just another language label. It might not be anything more than chemicals in our brains. If this is the case, our brains are truly marvellous. I continue to believe, however, that this power is bigger than any individual human. It can connect and heal and it exists in us all as what the Quakers call the God within. Perhaps we, collectively, are both God and Devil. For now, however, I will live in the blessing of the moments I’ve had and trust that there will be more.