Spiritual versus Religious by SC Skillman

We may often hear people describe themselves as 'spiritual' but not 'religious'.

Some lifelong Christians may find it challenging to imagine themselves into the position of someone in this society who feels deeply 'spiritual' and to be 'on a spiritual path' and yet want nothing to do with the church, or with what they see as 'established' religion.

I explore this in my novel Mystical Circles, largely based on my own experience.

Set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills, not far from my present home, it focuses upon an esoteric group based in an idyllic retreat centre, in a converted farmhouse. When freelance journalist Juliet discovers her young sister Zoe has fallen in love with the charismatic leader of the group, she hurries there from London, terrified it's a cult and determined to rescue Zoe. 

But she is unprepared for what her investigations will uncover. Intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

This gives me a wonderful opportunity to explore many of the different personalities I have encountered in such groups, along with the charismatic leaders who have enthralled me in the past, before I became a Christian. 

Christianity, of course, is not proof either from the allure of charismatic leaders: as St Paul says, 'Beware of false prophets: by their fruit may you know them.'

My own past journey led me from the insights of Laurens Van Der Post and Sir Alister Hardy of the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford, onto the inspirational writings of Dr Raynor Johnson via a mystical mountain in the Himalayas (Mount Neelkanth near Badrinath) to a dream yoga course in Brisbane Forest Park. The retreat centre for Mystical Circles draws upon many such places I've visited but one of the main ones is Hawkwood College, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, where I spent an enchanting weekend with a spiritual study group.

I also must have explored most of the spiritual (non-Christian) opportunities London has to offer, when I lived there: from the Theosophical Society to the Spiritualist Association via White Eagle Lodge in Kensington. The teachings of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh by no means passed me by; lured from a talk in the Charing Cross Hotel, I spent a weekend at his Hertfordshire branch Medina Rajneesh. In both places I experienced Dynamic Meditation and his own brand of group therapy. All this has provided a rich source for my fiction.

Since then I have been delighted to read books by authors familiar with some of my experiences: London: A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert and The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment by Isobel Losada both strongly resonated with me.

When it comes to putting these kinds of experiences in a novel, though, I believe that character and their motivations and relationships come first, and plot often arises as you get to know your characters really well and watch them responding to and reacting against each other. So I started with the colourful medley of people I have met during the course of my journey and let them drive the plot. The inevitable conflict of idealism, real life, troubled, vulnerable people and those who are tempted to exploit them, forms a rich mixture. 

One of my favourite characters is Theo, a troubled young Christian clergyman, sensitive, discerning, but himself very vulnerable, who is is all about 'coming alongside those on a spiritual journey'.

I loved writing Theo. After Juliet, he too is something fresh who enters the hothouse environment of the group, and he believes in listening to people in a non-judgmental way. He helps others see themselves differently and how they might move forward in their journeys of self-knowledge. But also he is someone whose background hides a mystery and that creates an extra sense of intrigue about him.

Using our own experiences in fiction is a rich source of raw material, and I wonder how many of us can say that is true of their own novels, or whether it has mostly come from rigorous research and imagination?

SC Skillman lives in Warwick and writes psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction, and non-fiction about local history. She is the author of 'Mystical Circles', 'A Passionate Spirit',  and 'Perilous Path' under her own imprint (Luminarie); and her books 'Paranormal Warwickshire' and 'Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire' are published by Amberley. Her third book for Amberley, 'A-Z of Warwick' is nearly complete and will be released in 2023.

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