Filling up the ‘God shaped hole’

In her teens Shirley du Boulay fell in love with a beech tree. If this sounds like some hyper Green Party activity it is not. What she went through was a mystical experience akin to those of many saints, and some poets and artists, echoes here of Vaughan, Traherne, Blake, Wordsworth, and Samuel Palmer. She felt herself confronted with or in touch with the highest essential power of creation, with God in fact, the creator of all things. It was an unusual, but by no means unknown event.

Fully grown up, Shirley du Boulay was for some 12 years a television producer in the religious department of the BBC. In this capacity she would have been very influential in what appeared on the screen by way of religious coverage and so would have affected the lives of many millions: a sobering thought.

Back in 1978 she resigned and has since pursued her own spiritual quest in both the East and the West. She is the author of some ten previous books which have increasingly dealt with the mystical element in life.

The first of them was a biography of Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, a person whose initial idea is now an essential part of social life, a good example of just how the idea of a single individual can change the world for the better.

As a practised biographer she has sought to extract the essential from the lives of others, and here she turns those skills to good account with the inner history of her own spiritual quest. Raised an Anglican with leanings towards Catholicism, it has been for her a remarkable journey, leading her to ponder an interesting thought.

“I wonder if there would be any atheists left, I wonder if the word atheism would have a meaning, if we used the term the Old Testament God used of himself? Who can deny ‘I AM THAT I AM’ who can deny the voice of BEING itself?”  It was an apprehension of that Being she encountered in her childhood beech tree.

Our natures

She refers to the notion of there existing in the world “a God shaped hole” which the human religious instinct – which seems to be built into our very natures, our human genetic structure even, despite what Dawkins and others say. There is, she suggests, an urge to fill this hole that drives us all.

Yet many people seem content to interpose any and every kind of religious activity, street protest, elaborate rituals, doctrinal disputes, theological discourse, even journalism, between themselves and a direct encounter with God.

They might recall the experience of St Thomas Aquinas (to which Miss du Boulay alludes) who underwent a profound mystical experience late in life from which he emerged to say that all his work till them – the many volumes of the Summa Theologica included – were as “mere straw” compared with what he had then seen and what had been revealed to him.

It is the search for this experience in her own life that Shirley du Boulay describes in her very accessible style. It has taken her on a long pilgrimage, into many other cultures and religions. But in the end, like T. S. Eliot, she returns to the place where she started from and knows it for the first time.

What she wrote about in her biography of Teresa of Avila, she now relates from her own experiences.

This is a profoundly moving book, one which has already been widely welcomed by a broad range of critics of many points of view. It is a book which will awake echoes in the hearts and minds of many of readers, and perhaps lead others to attempt a renewal of their own lives in the light of what she writes.