by Tim Stead
from Signs of the Times No. 54 - Jul 2014
The writer of some of the most significant spiritual biographies of recent decades has finally turned the spotlight on herself and provided us with, as she calls it, 'an experience of contemporary spiritual life' - a brave exposé of her own inner spiritual journeying and exploring which seems to have covered pretty much all of the huge variety of spiritual traditions and experiences which have been floating around the western world in the last 50 years.
Du Boulay was for 25 years a religious broadcaster for the BBC but later turned her attention to writing biographies of, among others, Desmond Tutu, Bede Griffiths, Teresa of Avila. But her motivation and inspiration always, it seems, came from her own fascination with and determination to experience for herself all that was around her – all that was being explored by others right from the early days when the 'melting pot' of spiritualities began to simmer during the early 60s.
Du Boulay was no distant observer, though. When she saw things happening she wanted to get involved and try them out. And this she has been doing for 40 years, though, importantly without ever losing her own critical faculties. The nature of spiritual experience is that you have to actually experience it to know what is being talked about. On the other hand, to completely jettison any critical thought leaves the practitioner very vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous gurus or unhealthy and potentially damaging experiences. Du Boulay, then, has provided us with a very valuable model for how best to explore. She has been there and tried things out, has expressed caution where that has been appropriate but has affirmed that which has been valuable.
So, starting with her own early momentary experience of transcendence as a school girl, she moves on to her engagement with the eastern forms of meditation which suddenly started sprouting in the UK in the 60s. Then, from her vantage point as religious broadcaster, she explored pretty much everything that was going – especially all those aspects of what later became known as “New Age”. A surprise move came through the influence of John Harriott, a rising star in the more open end of the Jesuit movement and who she later married, when she became a card carrying Roman Catholic. This period is interesting in contrast to much else in her life as she found herself settling within one of the more traditional forms. This, no doubt, was an important part of the journey too – giving her vital experience of what it is like actually to settle and to submit (as much as she could ever submit to anything!) to an outward form and the constrictions of an institution. However the journey did not end there and there were further explorations of pilgrimaging, shamanic journeying, interfaith experience, living with more than one spiritual tradition at the same time and later the whole experience of writing spiritual biographies.
So where does it all end? Well, to tell you would take a key element from the pleasure of reading a book which might get you asking yourself this question all the way through. Where, indeed, will such an open exploratory and adventurous spiritual seeker end? Will she ever find what she has been looking for? Was it only ever new experiences that 'turned her on'? Is she really just a spiritual experiences junkie? Well, all I can say is, read to the end to discover and try not to judge until you get there. Of course the only thing to add is that Du Boulay is still very much alive and seeking and trying out new things – checking out the recent explosion of Mindfulness meditation for one thing. Perhaps there will yet be a postscript even to this book. Or perhaps she has finally, after all this journeying, come home to where she will now remain.
This book was a delight to read and a very important part of the discussion about the value of the myriad spiritualities around in the western world today as well as the whole business of personal exploration beyond what we have been told are the accepted 'safe' boundaries. Do read it – and get me going in conversation at this year’s Modern Church conference to which, it seems to me, it is entirely relevant.
Tim Stead is priest in charge at Holy Trinity Headington Quarry, Oxford and Vice Chair of Modern Church.