The last post but one rather took the piss out of spiritualists without actually coming out and declaring spiritualism a total crock. Nevertheless, almost any spiritualist gathering you attend will compel the conclusion that this is a thin and platitudinous non-religion for the credulous, a weekly hour of reassurance for the cosy-minded that while the body dies and decays, the soul goes on strolling, chatting and having lunch at the pub with friends in a sunshiny place every bit as nice as Harrogate. Presumably this desire that post-mortem life be Life As We Know It only rather nicer is what prompted Rudolf Steiner’s remark that ‘the spiritualist is the worst materialist of all.’ There doesn’t seem to be much point in dying if it simply means that you go on living with no bills in a house you no longer need to repair, dust or hoover, nor is it clear why a soul would choose to incarnate in the first place if there is so little difference between the physical and spiritual realms. If something does live on, and it's simply me as I was in physical life, then life and the hereafter seem equally pointless.
Like most people who attend spiritualist churches, I first went after the shock of a death, in my case that of a potential boyfriend after a very brief holiday romance. Pretty much all I knew of Nicholas was his handsome face and gorgeous body, and the joyful brotherliness of male to male sex, as most of the time we’d spent together had been naked in each other’s arms. A car crash in the Athenian suburb of Nea Smyrni killed him, whilst I got away with some spectacular but transient bruising and trivial cuts from broken glass. I don’t remember the impact. I do remember waking up thinking I was in bed, and then as the mental murk cleared, noting as from a distance the tiny Citroen 2CV oddly elongated around me, the windscreen shattered and opaque so that it looked incongruously like a pane of ice at four o’ clock of a warm May morning. Nicholas in his pale blue shirt was slumped over the steering wheel, blood running down his cheek. I observed with detachment that my legs were shaking like terrified dogs. Roof-lights of ambulances appeared, and then there were people gathering around the car, neighbours who had been awoken by the noise of the crash, and the paramedics they had summoned. They took Nicholas away. A kind lady climbed into the vacated driver’s seat and held my hand and talked to me in English until the paramedics helped me out of the car and into another ambulance. A puddle of blood as from a beheading lay beside the car. It didn’t inspire confidence in the insistence of paramedics, nurses and doctors over the ensuing two hours that Nicholas was OK, just a bit concussed. He died soon after we got to the Asklipeio hospital in Voula. He was twenty-five.
At my parents’ in England two days later I knew that by then Nicholas would have been buried, and that his beautiful body was starting to putrefy, and the persistent image was unbearable. I thought of his family and their massive, unencompassable loss, the fact hitting them over and over, waking to it each morning for years to come. I think this was the first irreversible, irremediable brute fact I had ever consciously faced. Every adverse circumstance I had known up to that point had been fluid and negotiable, with choices and reasonable hope of a favourable settlement. This one held no such hope, and I urgently needed to believe I could bargain with it. That’s how I ended up at Slaithwaite spiritualist church to see Una (q.v.) do her thing, among people who had long since negotiated terms with the Reaper and decided he was more like a commissionaire.
During the tea break at that first meeting, a lady who said she was a medium talked to me. We had never met before. ‘There’s studying and learning around you’ she said. Stupidly, I didn’t know what she meant. Why didn't I? Wasn’t I a teacher? ‘My gatekeeper [i.e., spirit guide – a nun, apparently] is telling me that you could become really involved in this’ she continued. I think I laughed out loud at the suggestion. Where did she get the information about studying and learning? Maybe I talked a bit posh for Slaithwaite? Maybe the aloofness I’m often taxed with strikes some as a sign of pointy-headedness? I don’t know. At least my denial didn’t cause her to retract and embark on a series of guesses. It amuses me now that I didn't connect the remark about studying with the fact that I had been a teacher for eight years. Several months later another medium made the same remark to me and I reacted in the same puzzled manner. At the time I felt that I merely occupied classrooms, a teacher in name only, always afraid of being exposed as a fraud.
Back in Cambridge I went to the university library and cycled home with the pannier stuffed with books about psychic research – serious stuff, mind, not the New Age twaddle that filled gondolas at Dillons: ‘Thirty Days to an Out of Body Experience’ was one example of the woo-woo on offer. This proposed a regime of meditation to CDs of squealing cetaceans, gallons of herbal infusions, a diet of tofu and on day thirty, the injunction to ‘allow yourself to leave your body’. Most people I knew lumped all ‘supernatural’ stuff together, though, and during the time I was off work recovering from the aches, bruises and depression, a colleague rang me and asked me what I was doing to keep myself occupied. I told her what I was reading. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘I do wish you were reading cook books instead.’
The volume and quality of psychical research carried out over the last hundred years by scientifically qualified minds is not yet generally recognised. It is too easily assumed that material which relates to posthumous communications is largely confined to the ramblings of uneducated mediums, and to listeners whose minds have been disturbed and made credulous by grief, with a consequent loss of all critical faculty. This is an erroneous and unrealistic view. The actual situation is otherwise. (Beard, 1980)A more sympathetic colleague suggested that in the spiritualist church I had begun to attend on Sunday evenings there would be several ‘strands’, people with different motives for attending, not simply grief but curiosity and scepticism. She was right. One regular was a Ph.D. student from one of the university science departments, and he got a great deal more flak from colleagues than I ever did. I fancied myself as a researcher, and every Sunday I endured the hymn-singing and the sphincter-puckering ‘philosophy’ that stands in for a sermon, and then watched the guest medium and the sitters she was addressing, noting the extent to which they conformed to or departed from the usual discourse of fishing for leads and swallowing the bait. One medium down from Newcastle told an over-eager sitter 'you've fed me that detail, love, so it's not valid as evidence'. She correctly identified a lady behind me as a first timer, then said that the communicator was a leather-jacketed young man of sixteen or so, killed in a motorbike accident no more than two days earlier.
‘It’s my grandson,’ said the woman, amazed, dazed and tearful. The lad was barely cold, it seemed. This caused several people in our bit of the room to brim up, and even I, an ass, was onion-eyed. I suppose it’s possible that the medium and the woman were a double act, mimes who spent their weekends travelling round the country performing this and other little set-pieces. Indeed many would maintain that complicity of some sort was the only explanation. It doesn’t satisfy me, though. First, why bother? They only got travel expenses for these these gigs, no fee. Secondly, it would not be hard to rumble such a scam: you need only witness the same trick twice in separate venues. Thirdly, it seems unlikely to me that these mediums, who were mostly motherly ladies you might otherwise see scanning your purchases at Sainsbury's, were illusionists and mentalists as skilled in suggestion and showmanship as Derren Brown. But maybe I’m just being a naïf snob.
This post is getting way too long, so anyone who is curious as to what the ‘serious stuff’ I mentioned earlier might have a look at ‘Living On’* for a starter. In the thirty years since it was published, neuroscience has kicked the soul’s butt pretty hard, and the book might well be no more than an elegantly-written unconscious exposition of human self-delusion.
If Spiritualism in some of its manifestations is rather vulgar and sentimental, it remains, I think, pretty harmless. The people who attend services regularly are united in having experienced grief and in establishing a modus vivendi with it, and such an experience has the possibility of making one compassionate and hopeful rather than crushed and embittered at the loss of those one loves. Spiritualists have no belief in a final judgement or eternal hell, and consequently no need to worry about how they and others stack up in the obedience-to-God stakes, leading to a lack of judgmentalism. So however soft in the head it may often be, spiritualism has its heart in the right place.
‘There’s summat just ‘ere,’ Una said the first time I saw her, touching her own forehead in the place where my invisible bit of glass resides. ‘A bit of broken bone or summat, but it won’t do no arm.’
28th June 2013: A more recent book in the same vein as Beard's is Trevor Hamilton's 'Tell My Mother I'm Not Dead: a case study in mediumship research', a very moving, honest and objective account of sittings with mediums and research into the literature on psi phenomena that the author undertook after his son was killed in an accident.
Beard, P., 1980. Living On. Norwich: Pilgrim Books
Hamilton, T., 2012. Tell My Mother I'm Not Dead Exeter: Imprint Academic
Believe it because it makes you feel better...? Not a good enough reason, Carl.
which they utter as they go hence?
I am parted from my brethren.
All my friends do I abandon and go hence.
But whither I go, that understand I not,
neither what shall become of me yonder;
only God who hath summoned me knoweth.
But make commemoration of me with the song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn; but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
We go forth on the path eternal, and as condemned,
with downcast faces, present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
If thou hast shown mercy unto man, o man,
that same mercy shall be shown thee there;
and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
the same shall there deliver thee from want.
If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
the same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Youth and the beauty of the body fade at the hour of death,
and the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed.
The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered,
the shapeliness of the neck destroyed; and the other parts have become numb,
nor often say: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
With ecstasy are we inflamed if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder?
That there is
Let us all, also, enter into Christ that we may cry aloud thus unto God:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Text From The Order for the Burial of Dead Priests, translated from Greek by Isabel Hapgood