Holy Night

Vincent Tilsley

Vincent became a TV editor and writer at the age of 24 and continued in this career for 20 years. In 1978 he started work as a therapist. This article, written by Vincent, fills in many of the details of his life story.

I discovered the Universe in the long hot summer of 1976, at the age of 45. The bedsit I'd just moved into had the one advantage of being on the seafront, so if I wanted to lie on the beach and listen to the waves, and let the rhythm of them relax me into a state of consciousness I could never quite achieve in the meditation class I'd recently joined, I only had to cross the road. Late at night was best, when the shingle was still warm from another blazing day and there were lots more stars in the sky than people on the beach..

Stars! Although I'd been taught no science I'd picked up enough along the way to know that the sun I'd watched setting earlier in the day was but one middleaged, medium-size star out of billions in this one galaxy alone; that there were billions more galaxies out there with yet more billions of stars in each one of them; and that the whole thing had flared forth from something smaller than the point of a needle. As if beauty weren't enough, I was being drawn into the realms of awe.

And, of course, I could educate myself further in these awesome facts, and did, but what I couldn't do in a library was experience what waited for me in those long small hours on Brighton beach, lulled by the soft swish of wave on shingle, just gazing, gazing, gazing, at stars, stars, stars. Learning only the physical facts about a universe fifteen billion years across and still expanding could easily have made me feel even more insignificant than I already did at that point in my life. But what I experienced on the beach was just the opposite.

Because whether it came quickly or slowly on any particular night, a moment always seemed to arrive when the boundaries between me and the stars began to blur and then, if only for that moment, vanish. I was no longer tiny me down here looking up at huge them out there. The nearest analogy I could think of (which felt quite inadequate, rather trite, and very helpful) was the experience I'd had of singing in the school choir, especially when it was enlarged for special occasions to upward of 50 or 60 of us. When we really got going on something like the Alleluiah chorus I felt anything but diminished. On the contrary, I soon became so identified with what I was now part of, not only of the choir but of the music itself, that I felt uplifted into the wholeness of it - yet without any loss of my own individuality. That was the amazing thing; I felt personally magnified. I had begun, I suppose, to touch upon the nature of transcendence. And so it was again, nearly thirty years later, on Brighton beach. And this choir was even bigger.

(There's a story, by the way, that just as Handel finished writing the last few bars of the Messiah, his landlady, concerned that she hadn't seen him for several days, fortuitously chose that very moment to come into his apartment to see if he was all right. She needn't have worried. There was the great composer, kneeling in the midst of countless sheets of music scattered all over the floor, looking up at her with tears of rapture streaming down his face. When at last he could speak, he said: "Methought the Heavens did open, and I did see the great God Himself.")

I didn't imagine I'd got that far on Brighton beach, I should add, but I had begun to feel that I knew what he meant.

All of which was part of a sorely needed healing process which was only just beginning to emerge into my life - a life which had recently made a remarkably good job of falling to bits. Not long before, I'd been a tv dramatist of repute and good fortune, but after two successful decades as such I had begun - at first gradually, then more quickly, and in the end quite suddenly - to lose my ability to do it, to such an extent that I hadn't written a word now for more than two years. My growing sense of panic had eventually got so out of hand that every aspect of my life was affected and collapsed into a sort of chaos. The unsurprising outcome was: me, here, on my own, jobless, in a bedsit - and even this by the grace of Social Security. Depression scarcely described it.

Of course 'writer's block' is a well-known hazard, usually inexplicable, and to my thinking at the time sufficient in itself to account for my downfall. But if that's why I'd made such an appalling mess of everything, I thought, then surely I could put it all back together again - if only my ability to write were restored to me. I felt bad enough, God knows, about the harm I'd done along the way, especially to those I most cared for, to see that some sort of retribution was my due - but this? What could I do for those others, or any others, if the only thing I was any good at stayed paralysed? Do what you like to me, I silently proclaimed to a deity I'd never believed in, paralyse me into a wheelchair if you must, but give me my writing back! I had landed in that foxhole which is supposed to contain no atheists, and if ever there was a time for Him to put in an appearance and settle the matter, this was it.

He didn't. Which created a further obstacle to my accepting another mode of healing which had already presented itself. It happened that just before I discovered the companionship of the Universe I was offered a new kind of companionship with the human race. What was undeniably attractive about it was that it came from a group of people drawn from all walks of life who had managed to make just as big a mess of it as I had, but were now recovering and rebuilding, often with notable success. They seemed as authentic as they were friendly, but they told me that central to their programme was a belief in a "Higher Power". By now it had become a sort of negative article of faith with me that there wasn't one, and I was determined not to start telling myself lies again. The least I could do was try to be honest in my misery and accept that the lonely path of atheism was probably the only true and truly courageous one. There was a dignity to that which 1 needed to hang onto, having become very short on dignity.

Not that I'd wanted to be an atheist, I explained. Ever since childhood I'd been aware of a sort of hole in me which quietly ached for something more to life. Later, during the years of my decline, I even found myself sneaking into churches (provided they were safely empty) to see if I couldn't make some sort of contact with whatever It really was. My attempts at prayer were as genuine as was my growing anxiety, but - same old story - evoked no response whatever. As the writing block got worse I even bullied myself into attending an actual service or two, only to emerge feeling more desolate than when I went in, not to mention trying to avoid an embarrassing handshake with the vicar on the way out in case he said he hoped I'd come again and I'd hear myself say that I would - then scuttling off to beat myself up some more for telling another lie. How many corners can you paint yourself into?

Well, here was another one, one that somehow felt too personal and paltry to relate. The last script I'd tried and failed to write was a sort of science fiction version of the traditional Nativity story. The idea in itself seemed full of potential but at the same time extremely hard to write - so what was I doing, choosing something as difficult as that when I couldn't handle even the simple things? Giving myself a challenge to rise to? Well, perhaps ... but I was uncomfortably aware of another agenda. I suspected that what I was really up to was not for the benefit of a TV audience, or even of my disappearing bank account, but to attract the attention (the very favourable attention) of God himself, by flattering him with a good write-up. If he really did exist, why not use the very gift he'd given me in order to win his approval? Which sounds almost reasonable in its way, but brought with it that familiar old feeling of trying to curry favour in exactly the same way I did at school with an intimidating master, or even a feared older boy. I was sucking up again! Into my Forties now, and here I was, that same smarmy little creep, still trying to be teacher's pet because I was too fearful to cope with life on its own terms. Result: I spent the worst part of the next year writing half a dozen pages of pathetic drivel ... and that was the end of me as a writer. Full stop. Not even a pass mark for trying, just pointed firmly in the direction, alone and broke, of bedsit land, which I took to be the equivalent of the dumb row. So: what happens now?

A whole lot of things, as it turned out, especially during one particular late night meditation on the beach which, if I could put a date to it, I would celebrate every year. The shingle was as warm as usual, the stars as bright, and as I lay there trying to remember something I'd read earlier about there being more cells in your body than there are stars in the Universe - or was it the other way round? - anyway, trillions of both - my mind suddenly took off on a jocular little jaunt of its own, and then presented me with a twinkling new thought. Try to imagine that all those cells which go to make up you each had its own form of individual consciousness. Now: how could they know about you? How could they? You'd be way outside their compass of understanding, so big that even those who intuited that there must be some higher level of being than the one they knew, couldn't begin to prove it by any reasonable means. They might construct some garbled belief system about a magical and omnipotent You who could meet all their needs (provided always that they got on Your right side); or they could end up deciding that it was saner and safer to dismiss You as an obvious piece of wishful thinking that they were better off without.

It was astonishing how far that simple thought took me over the next few weeks. A lot of it was quite funny, too. I kept imagining snatches of dialogue between a rather neurotic little cell who couldn't help worrying about that very problem - whether they were all part of something infinitely bigger which was the Ultimate Reality - and a slightly obnoxious, slap-on-the- back pragmatist cell who kept telling the ditherer to pull himself together, mystical nonsense like that never helped anyone, the reality is you're born, you live, you die, you try to do your best in between, and that's all there is to it - settle for that, my friend, and you can actually be quite happy. "I suppose you're right," says the miserably spiritual one, lying.

The flowering of this first heady intimation of interconnectedness as being the basic principle of all life seemed to have no end of variations. Imagine, for instance, the stars themselves as having some sort of reflective consciousness: how could they know that they too were cells in something hugely bigger? Or that that bigger entity was itself but a tiny part of an even bigger one? And where does that line of thought inevitably take you in the end but to the conclusion that All really is One? In which case, was I any less meaningful or important to It than were the cells in my own body to me?

Thus ended what for me were barren years of searching for a God who was 'out there' somewhere. Such a notion now made no more sense than would the components of my own self trying to find me 'out there', separate from them. "God is closer to you than you are to yourself" says the Sufi poet Rumi. If I'd already known that quote I'd have nailed it to my life-mast there and then. (It occurred to me at the same time that if life hadn't seen fit to present me with an indigestible chunk of heavy trouble, I wouldn't have known what Rumi, whoever the hell he might be, was talking about.)

It would be another fifteen years or so before this deepening sense of the seamless entanglement of all-that-is reached something like clarity. That finally came when I first saw Brian Swimme's Canticle to the Cosmos, and by then life had introduced me to a few other things I'd needed to know first. The first and most obvious was that there was no further call on me to defend my tattered integrity against the concept of a "Higher Power". If anything, I'd gone even further than my new friends. I hadn't come to believe in a God; I now believed there was nothing but God. Looking back, it seems I'd begun to discover the rudiments of Creation Centered Spirituality before I'd ever heard of it.

And life began to bear other fruit. The Buddhist group I went to for meditation classes decided to open a vegetarian cafe and was asking for volunteers to work in the kitchen. I jumped at it, starting as a washer-up, moving up to chopping the vegetables and boiling the rice, and then - oh joy! - being shown how to make a nut roast! Compared to watching my first customer take his first forkful of my first nut roast, the old thrill of seeing my name and writer's credit come up on the TV screen wasn't in the same class.

By this time I had also discovered the mountainous spirit of Carl Jung, with its rich mix of the earth's sagacity with the living presence of its eternal mystery. To me that is a union which bestows the dignity of wholeness (rather, thank God, than perfection) on all of us, and I scoured the library for whatever books I could find by or about him. It would be easy to devote this entire essay to the effect that Jung had, and still has, upon me; as it is, here's just one quote which was particularly helpful in that period of surprised discovery that my path really was a spiritual one. "It is no easy matter to live a life which is modelled on Christ's, but it is unspeakably harder to live one's own life as truly as Christ lived his." I've got that permanently nailed to the same mast as the Rumi saying.

Another mere miracle: my physical cravings had gone. I had become increasingly dependent on the help of whatever mood-altering substance (not only alcohol) worked best to keep me writing, only to find that (1) increasingly, they stop working; and (2) by then, they've got you. The astonishing thing now was not only that the craving had disappeared, but that I hadn't even noticed it go! One day it just wasn't there, nor could I remember if it had been there the day before or the day before that. To what did I owe such a stealthy deliverance? I don't know how much Higher a Power can get, nor how it might perform its work more modestly. (This also cured me of my assumption that miracles had to be the sort of dramatic events you'd expect to see in a Cecil B. de Mille movie. The really big ones are the ones you don't notice.)

And now - at last! - here is how my writing came back. (You knew it would, didn't you?) The early news was both good and bad. Good in that during those first bedsit years I did manage to write a couple of one-act plays which were performed with success by an excellent local drama group. Bad in that I had found them so difficult and painfully slow to write that it was obvious I'd never get back into professional writing on an output of less than one short script a year.

Answer: more therapy. I'd sometimes get the odd cheque in the post from the sale of past works, never for much but always very welcome, and whenever this happened I'd book myself in for a few more sessions of therapy, especially when I found that there was a Jungian analyst practising nearby. I still nursed the belief that this was the only way to unblock my writing into its old speed and fluency. Now; I can't remember how or when this happened, but at some point in the proceedings I began to feel that the therapist had a much better job than I ever did. So why not be the man who treats people who have things like writer's blocks instead of being the man who's got one? The only trouble with that was: I couldn't begin to afford the training.

Then I saw an advert for a course in psychotherapy which not only sounded really rather good but was decidedly less expensive than the kind of Jungian training I'd dearly have liked; and even though this less exalted method of treatment was still beyond my reach it was less ridiculously so, so at least I could dream about it, couldn't I? Within that same week one of those unexpected cheques dropped through the letter box, this one even more surprising than usual because it was actually big enough to pay for the first part of the advertised course, with a few quid left over for the fares to London! I signed up the same day.

I worked hard over the next two years, passed the exams, went somewhat nervously into practice - and flourished! It would be nice to tell you about my next twenty years as a therapist, but I must jump the gap back to writing, that being what this article is about, and which at that time I assumed I'd given up for good. The fact that it kept vaguely nagging at me was only natural, I thought, an old habit not to be taken seriously by someone who now had a busily different life. This remained much the case through into the mid 90's, when I first saw Canticle to the Cosmos. For some reason which I couldn't at first put my finger on, I found myself remembering that old Nativity story I'd burned out on so long ago, and before Canticle was even half way through that first viewing (I was to see the whole thing, not only that time round but six times more over as many years!) I knew beyond any doubt that I would have to have another go at it.

And so I did. It's taken me almost exactly those same years of Canticle watching to write Holy Night, which only now am I getting into final shape before launching it out in search of a publisher (it's now taken the form of a novel). I've no idea what's going to happen then, of course, but I think the most important things already have. First, I feel that as a piece of work it's up a league from anything I've written before; which means not only that I'm a writer again, but the one I was meant to become in the first place. Which leads to the next realisation, that thirty years ago I couldn't have written Holy Night anyway, not even if my life and writing career had remained happy and untroubled. I'd had too little experience of reality then to know that reality is precisely what the Nativity story is actually about: an allegory of nothing less than the new birth of our relationship with the Universe.

It seems to me that I had needed to know failure before I could know this; the kind of failure that leads to bedsits and stars, to Buddhists and nut roasts, to climbing mountains with Carl Jung, and then to working with people who were as unhappy as I had once been because they too had lost the thread of their own stories; then, as I went on to discover the works of Swimme and Berry, of Fox and MacGillis and Spretnak and Sartouris and Roszak and all that wondrously growing band of others, I was led to the revelation that life itself is a story - and that I'm part of the plot. Ironic, isn't it, that I as a story teller hadn't known that! Only when I did could I move past my previously cute little idea that the star over Bethlehem might be dramatised as a kind of hi-tech spaceship from some other galaxy, and ascend instead into a hugely more radical concept, indeed a whole new mind-set, that while it might still look like a space ship, and its angelic crew rather like astronauts, what it really is is a manifestation of the Universe itself, come from a dimension beyond time and space - as, it seems, when you think of what Brian Swimme calls 'space foam', do we all.


Post Script: Since this article was written, GreenSpirit is delighted to have published Holy Night. It is available from GreenSpirit Books, further details at: www.greenspirit.org.uk/holynight/buy.htm