‘A Sacred Something’ – Spiritual Awareness Within the Great Outdoors

To begin with, a testimony:

I was born in a little Midland village, Oxton, Nr Nottingham, to be exact, and when I was 3 weeks old my mother died. I lived with my maternal Grandfather in the same little village, until my father remarried when I was six. One day when I was between 4 and 5, I wandered down the village street (not much traffic in those days) and went into a small field. It was triangular in shape and I remember the ground rose very steeply, like a high bank when you got inside the gate. I had never been in this little field before, but it was summer, and I remember particularly the cuckoo flowers laden with cuckoo spit, and the birds singing. Suddenly I heard my name spoken, quite clearly several times, and I experienced such a feeling of intense happiness that I cannot find the words to describe it. I lingered for ages and ages, and while I stayed the sense of love surrounding me stayed with me, but when eventually I simply had to return to the road it went away. Child though I was, I returned over and over to that same field and would stand endlessly waiting to hear my name and for the wonderful feeling of happiness to come again. But it never did.

As interesting and as moving as this testimony is, it is the postscript that is perhaps most poignant and thought-provoking:

I don’t know whether there was really any connection, but it was about this time that my father decided on the person he eventually married, and when he did marry a year or so later, they took me and moved down to the south of England. I never saw my grandfather for ten years, nor anyone for that matter who cared for me, and during those ten years, until I, with the help of certain people, escaped, and was smuggled back to my grandfather, I was made to endure the most awful physical and mental cruelty that the mind of man could devise. I have always wondered if my mother, wherever she was, knew what lay ahead of me, that day when I stood in the field, and made an enormous effort to reach me, but of course, I could be wrong. In fairness I must say, that many many times in the years to follow, I prayed to her – and God – in loneliness, terror and despair and I never again sensed her presence, or felt her near me again (2422).

You might have already guessed where this account came from. It’s one of many thousands with comparable detail currently housed in the archive of the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC). Many of you will already be familiar with this treasure trove of religious and spiritual experiences, but very quickly, in case you’re not, this archive was established almost exactly fifty years ago by Alister Hardy, a marine biologist who differed from many of his scientific peers in asserting the importance and evolutionary significance of humankind’s capacity for having religious and spiritual experiences. He started collecting such experiences – rather like a biologist might collect species –  in 1969: stimulated, in part, by his desire to test his ‘evolutionary significance’ thesis. There are currently well over 6000 accounts housed at the archive’s current home at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the numbers increase almost daily. There’s a more detailed chapter on the origin and development of the archive in my book Lightforms, to which I would refer you if you’re interested in more detail on this.  (Fox, 2008, p. 32).

One of the earliest accounts submitted to the archive was sent by a 47 year-old student teacher in 1970 and details an experience which occurred when – and I quote him – ‘I was left very much to myself in a rural setting.’ He writes:

A particular moment came when, overwhelmed by what seemed the utter futility of things, I utterly broke down and, in blind desperation (sitting alone by the margin of some field) spoke into space something like, “Oh, God! You come and see to my life, I can’t run it alone’. I did not, of course, expect any response.

However, a response – if ‘response’ is the right word – appears not to have been long in coming, for in the very next paragraph he continues:

Following this I sat quietly, feeling exhausted, for some minutes. I was then aware of a curious ‘light’ which seemed to grow up within me, and which became stronger and more defined as the minutes passed. I cannot now say how long it took to develop, but the ‘ecstasy’ lasted over roughly three weeks. The main sensation was of being loved, a flood of sweetness of great strength, without any element of sentimentality or anything but itself. The description is quite inadequate. I also felt a unification of myself with the external world: I did not lose my own identity, yet all things and I somehow entered into each other, all things seemed to ‘speak’ to me…Something was communicated to me, not in words or images, but in another form of knowing. Towards the end of the period I was aware that the ‘light’ was being withdrawn (793).

Taken together, the two experiences I’ve cited so far raise many questions and invite a variety of responses. What I’d like to draw especial attention to here is the rural context of each: for it is one which features in several other archival accounts also.

In fact, this morning I shall seek to present and examine a number of RERC accounts with ‘rural’ at their heart. This will be done primarily by describing and examining a number of accounts describing experiences containing recognisable rural motifs. In the process, I will present a small number of hitherto unpublished accounts: once again from within the archive. Hand in hand with this analysis – and partly as a result of it – will be an application for those involved with the rural church to be aware of the nature of distinctly rural religious experiences and to be equipped to deal with them if and when the need arises. As I hope will become clear, a number of patterns emerge when these kinds of archival accounts are examined. Indeed, such patterning will be a thread that runs throughout this talk, and one which will lead to a number of intriguing conclusions related to the talk’s aims overall.

Common features

In fact, this patterning has already begun to emerge. A comparison of the two testimonies with which we started reveals some interesting features that they both share. Each account details a transient experience, overwhelmingly positive, with love – from some apparently transcendent source – as a key feature. There is also a shared sense of something being communicated: the subject’s name in the first account and the sense that all things were somehow ‘speaking’ to the subject in the second. Indeed, it is not difficult to see both accounts in terms of something fundamental about reality being conveyed: its basic goodness, despite circumstances – either future or present – which may appear to strongly suggest the contrary. Of course, there are contrasts too: a growing, inner, light is a key feature of the second account but entirely absent in the first and an audible ‘component’ – the calling of a name – is present in the first but not in the second. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to see a commonality across the accounts, despite the obvious contrasts. And, of course, we may note the setting of each: the first subject devotes considerable attention to a description of what she was doing when the event occurred – wandering down a village street, entering a small triangular field, passing ‘cuckoo flowers laden with cuckoo spit’, hearing the birds singing – whilst the second alludes to being alone in a rural setting. It is clear, however, that both experiences share such a rural context, quite apart from other similarities and differences which they contain.

Consideration of some further RERC archival testimonies may make this ‘unity-in-diversity’ clearer still. The next one I’m going to read is from a female subject describing an experience that took place during early spring:

There were primroses and bluebells in the woods and hedges. Birds, little lambs with their mothers in the fields – when suddenly I was aware of an intense electrical vibration going right through me. You will understand it is difficult to put into words, but there was no pain, only the feeling of pulsating LIFE. I was aware, too, of this same ELECTRICAL LIFE FORCE coming from the little lambs, flowers, trees, grass, stones, even the earth itself, at different intensity of vibration.

Around each flower and animal, even every individual blade of grass was an aura of light, and pervading everything was a wonderful Love, Joy & Peace. I knew within myself that this was the Power of God – I was attuning to His SPIRIT – i.e the Living Spirit, in all things, and WITHIN me. This was God – a wonderful MIND of Love, Life, Light, Wisdom and Power, manifesting through all things (1633).

This account highlights a key difficulty confronting any researcher who attempts to use the archive in order to examine experiences with a fundamentally rural aspect: it is not always clear from the description if this aspect is actually present, unless – as with the second account, examined earlier – the writer makes that clear. Often, it needs to be inferred: from the detail the respondent gives. However, as regards the account we’ve just heard, the inference seems clearly warranted by the writer’s description of: ‘Birds, little lambs with their mothers in the fields…the little lambs, flowers, trees, grass, stones…’ Once located within such a setting, the patterning which we have already begun to uncover can be discerned once more: the apparently transcendent source or ‘ground’ of the event, its overwhelmingly positive nature, and the presence of light and love. There is also a hint of the ‘oneness’ of all things as described by the subject of account two (‘This was God – a wonderful MIND of Love, Life, Light, Wisdom and Power, manifesting through all things’) and the strong sense conveyed by the writer that the experience eludes adequate description. This places it firmly both with account one – we recall that subject’s assertion that ‘I cannot find the words to describe it’ – and account two where, you will recall, the subject wrote that his description was ‘quite inadequate’. We note, also, some features of this third account that are not present in the other two: in particular the ‘illumination’ of the landscape by a seemingly all-pervading aura of light, love, joy and peace. Whilst the feelings are very familiar, the sense that the landscape has undergone some kind of transcendental illumination is one which we have not encountered before.

It is certainly a marked feature of the next account, which took place at an Anglican retreat in Devonshire. The subject writes:

I had been through a bad time, with a miserable tangled love-affair which had really cancelled itself out, leaving me feeling utterly disintegrated and guilty almost to the point of insanity, I couldn’t go on like that any longer, and my mother persuaded me, as I felt too dubious of the outcome to go to a psychiatrist, even if I could have afforded it, to go to this retreat and see if I could sort myself out in the peacefulness of the atmosphere.

For some days I felt absolutely insulated in my own misery, and unable to take part properly in what was going on. When the Sister in charge of the Retreat saw that I did not take Communion she tried to find out what the trouble was and persuaded me to go to Confession. This I did, and afterwards took Communion and then went for a long walk by myself along the country lanes. Suddenly the whole scene seemed lit up, irradiated, transformed in some way, the colours and shapes of trees & flowers, and especially, I remember, a field of corn, heightened and intensified, I felt a kind of liberation, for the first time in months I felt myself relaxed and smiling at the beauty of everything, and later able to smile also & to communicate with people; the future which had seemed blank and unimaginable seemed to open out as if one had found a pleasant road round the corner instead of ending up in a cul-de-sac. Though it took me some time to get really back to normal, and though later on there were other bad patches, this does seem to have been what they call a “turning-point”. Looking back on it, it really seems like an authentic experience, not one semi-deliberately worked up by the imagination (1640).

Once again, there is a strong case for inferring a rural setting: the subject writes of a long walk along country lanes and a field of corn. There is also a vivid description of a strangely-illuminated landscape and the entire episode seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, by the subject’s own admission it appears to have been a turning-point: creating a ‘way out’ of a situation which previously had been one of blankness and misery. In this way, we are reminded of the second account, above, in which the experience also arrived, as it were ‘on cue’: transforming a situation of ‘desperation’ into something else entirely.

This transformational motif is certainly very apparent in the following account which I first examined in my book Lightforms and which occurred in the midst of a period of longing for a child after a miscarriage. It is also particularly noteworthy for containing a rather unusual postscript. Three months after the miscarriage, the subject writes, ‘my feelings were near despair as I was walking down the country road to do shopping in the village.’ Then:

Suddenly I was enveloped (I can only call it that) and lifted high above the high bank and tall hedge on top, as though by unseen and unfelt hands, enveloped in a wonderful living brilliant light. I saw a small deserted quarry or cutting below, but everything, plants, bushes, even the stones on the far side were exuding a pulsating life and bathed in an unearthly bright golden light. It seemed an eternity I was held aloft with the most wonderful glow of peace and awareness of the wonder of God.

Then I found myself standing on the road and looked to see if anyone had seen me, it was so vivid, no-one was in sight. I walked on, to the shops, but with an unutterable feeling of peace within me. My longing for another child just disappeared.

Next comes the postscript:

A few days afterwards, as the bank and hedge were too high to look over, I found by going up a side path I could look down, and it was as I had seen it, only the scene was just normal. We were newcomers to the area, and I had never wondered what was behind the high bank and hedge (3865).

This is in many ways a remarkable account. Firstly, we may list the features it contains that we have already had cause to note: its transiency, the overwhelmingly positive nature of the experience (together with its transformative aspect), the presence of a light motif, and the clear rural setting. Most striking of all, though, is the unusual out-of-body aspect which links with the corroborative feature at the end: a motif which we have not yet encountered. For during the experience, the writer claims that she was lifted above the country landscape and as a consequence was able to see ‘a small deserted quarry or cutting below.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, a few days later the subject sought to confirm the detail of what she had seen and, sure enough, the landscape was as she had seen it. What makes this even more impressive is her assertion that being new to the area, she had no knowledge prior to the experience of what could be seen from a vantage point above the bank and hedge.

We shall have more to say, below, about the out-of-body aspect to this kind of experiencing. For now, it will be enough to note again the consistent unity-in-diversity of the sorts of experiences we are examining; suggesting, as it does, that religious experiences in rural settings contain several clear and distinguishing features despite some obvious differences of detail too.

Such features are very much in evidence in the following account. First of all, we note the context of crisis. As with several of the experiences already examined, the subject was in a state of distress when his experience occurred: in this instance created by tension within his family together with confusion over a relationship which had led to ‘[a] greenstick fracture of the heart.’ The rural context is plainly implied also; the subject describing being ‘alone in unspoilt, wild, natural and open surroundings.’ Next comes the experience. He writes:

Throwing my bike into some heather I lay down, closed my eyes and began to lap up the warmth of the sun. There was no specific trigger for the experience that followed that I can recall other than the general disposition of my mind and the things I was preoccupied with. But it seemed as if I drifted out into some great light and became aware of some Being or presence which I call God. I found my awareness flooded, however, with a perfect and total realisation of the interdependence of God and my Self. They were, in some absolute and imperative way, necessary to the existence of each other. The emotions that I felt were more of utter wonder & joy, amazement & delight. I do not think the time that elapsed during this experience, measured by the clock, could have been more than a minute, if that, but the vision that I had perceived encompassed an awareness of time and space like nothing I had known before.

The realisation was so strong that it stayed with me when I became aware once more of where I was. I was then filled with another imperative – to find a means to write down what had happened. Fortunately I found an old cigarette packet and a stub of pencil (4029).

The familiar motifs will now be all too apparent: the overwhelming positivity of the experience, the light; even some sort of transformation is implied by the fact that the experience remained with the subject when he was back in ‘normal’ awareness to the extent of impelling him to cast around for something to record it with. Overall, it is as if we are being confronted with a consistent ‘set’ of experiences that possess a number of ‘family resemblances’: despite the differences of detail that exist outside of their ‘core’ components.

It is tempting to go on multiplying accounts such as those we have been examining but it is hoped that the above analysis has done enough to satisfy this paper’s primary aim: to introduce the archival content to those involved in the rural church. That there is an imperative to the rural church to take such accounts, as it were, at ‘face value’, is reinforced by their consistency, for such patterning as we have unearthed is surely evidence that we are not dealing with accounts that have been fabricated or have arisen from dreams or delusional states. Quite the contrary: they seem purposive and meaningful. Further, they seem helpful; particularly for those whose lives they turn around and transform.

The rural ‘aspect’ of religious experiencing which this paper has been tracking invites another cluster of questions at this point: one that has not yet been considered. For it will hopefully have become clear that every experience so far examined occurred outdoors. Is this, then, a fundamental feature of rural experiences? Is the outdoor setting invariant – or at least part of a common pattern – or are there exceptions to this? In talking of the ‘great outdoors’, might we discern the existence of distinctly rural experiences that took place indoors too?

Indoor experiences

Once again, the complexities of analysis are compounded by the need to infer context from what respondents write. Did an experience that happened in a bedroom or kitchen, for example, occur in an urban or rural setting? Often, it is simply impossible to know. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that rural settings and motifs are more readily apparent when outdoor experiences are being narrated. As we have already seen, there are descriptions of villages, lambs, fields, country lanes, and so on. We cannot count on anything so specific when looking for indoor experiences – for obvious reasons.

These problems notwithstanding, sometimes enough information is given to allow the researcher to infer an indoor context. The following – hitherto unpublished – account was submitted to the RERC archive on 22nd March 1978 and describes an experience that the respondent underwent the previous year. Helpfully, the subject locates it as having occurred in a ‘small village church.’ She writes:

At this church, they have the same hymns over and over again; & I think someone may have made remarks about it because, about a year ago, they started having meetings in the evenings, & requests for favourite hymns, & these were then sung at the meetings. Having no singing voice, I did not attend. But around about that time, I think some of these hymns “got themselves” into the Services too! Anyway, I suddenly found myself confronted by a very old favourite that used to be sung at the church where my father & I used to go, when I was about 10 years old.

It had a strange effect upon me; I stood perfectly still, & allowed the music to pour over me – (it’s usually the music one loves, isn’t it?) – and as this happened, I went back, in mind, & became again a small girl standing next [to] my father, & yet at the same time aware of being in the village church (where I actually stood).

During the last verse, I looked up – I think spiritually if that is possible – because I saw my father’s face looking at me, it seemed to be in a sort of golden light – just his face; he gave a slightly twisted smile with one eyebrow raised – & vanished!

Of course, I expect most people would say I conjured him up from my subconscious by intense concentration on, & enjoyment of, being a girl again, & having him standing by me. But I wonder if anyone would be able to explain why my father, who married in his mid-50’s & had a practically bald head, with only a few white hairs – had all his hair & was looking about 35 years old?! (He died 47 years ago). (1665)

This remarkable account certainly contains some of the features that we have encountered before. The light feature is present, although unusual in that it appears to have ‘framed’ or manifested a particular and identifiable ‘presence’: the subject’s long-dead father. That the experience was positive may be reasonably inferred although it is notable that there is nothing of the peace, wonder, joy and love of earlier accounts. Absent, also, is any indication that the experience was in any way transformative: perhaps because the respondent was not in a situation of distress or crisis when her experience occurred. It was clearly a rural account, however: despite being in some senses markedly different from any we have examined up to this point.

The following – also hitherto unpublished – account is also unusual. In fact, it contains features that I have not encountered in any other archival – or, indeed, any other – testimony: whether of the rural ‘type’ or of any other kind. As with the above account, an indoor rural setting may reasonably be inferred from the subject’s description of it as having taken place ‘in a tiny village chapel.’ He follows this with a brief allusion to the fact that he was a lay preacher and that on the occasion in question he was preaching in the chapel. The main experience follows:

Quite without any unusual context as I carried on the worship, I ceased to be aware of my taking any active part, let alone conduct[ing] the service myself. My only experience was that of sitting behind myself in the pulpit (noting that I had very square shoulders) whilst I wondered how it came about that I was watching myself conducting the service.

Those acquainted with the literature on so-called out-of-body experiences will be aware that they can occur within a variety of contexts. We have already examined one which took place when the subject was merely walking down a country road to the village shops. This one appears to have occurred when the lay preacher was worshipping within the wider context of the conducting of a service within the village chapel, although it is notable that he was ‘unaware’ of ‘taking any active part.’ Even the use of ‘sitting’ to denote the out-of-body ‘posture’ (‘sitting behind myself’) is not without precedent: it occurs, for example, within a very celebrated near-death experience in which the subject, Pam Reynolds, ‘awoke’ during an operation to find herself ‘sitting on’ the lead surgeon’s shoulder (Sabom, 1998, p. 41). However, the occurrence of such an experience whilst the subject was in some sense conducting a church service is unusual. It is not nearly so unusual, however, as the reaction it provoked in the congregation. The respondent goes on:

In this case, however, the effect on the small congregation of villagers, perhaps thirty or forty people in all – the effect of what I myself was aware seemed to be shared by the people present. Some seemed to be in a state of near-collapse, others were white-faced and a few tearful, some just sitting limply. Such was the confusion that even now I cannot recall how the service ended, or how I got home, some seven or eight miles away (147).

It is rather unfortunate that the subject’s description of his experience is somewhat jumbled here. What, for example, is meant by the phrase: ‘the effect of what I myself was aware seemed to be shared by the people present’? Is he trying to imply that the congregation was sharing his own awareness of being ‘out-of-body’? That seems to be the most obvious reading. But in what sense were they aware? In the sense that they could somehow see him sitting behind himself? Or in the sense that they, too, were sharing the experience by undergoing it themselves at the same time? We simply cannot know. My own first reaction was that they were sharing the experience in the first of these two senses: that they became aware of his disembodiedness, and that this awareness led them to the state of near-collapse, tearfulness, confusion and so on. If this interpretation is correct, then we are presented in this account with something very unusual indeed: a group of people in one (indoor, rural) place being aware of the out-of-body state of another person standing – or, rather, sitting – before them. There is nothing like this anywhere in the literature on out-of-body experiences as far as I am aware. The nearest we have is the notion of the ‘empathic’ NDE and/or laboratory experiments in which persons allegedly able to leave their bodies at will are able to provoke reactions in animals placed nearby (for the purpose of corroborating their out-of-body claims). But an alternative reading cannot be ruled out: that the subject’s state of being outside of himself was shared by the congregation, and this was the cause of the furore. This brings us into the realm of charismatic worship, although even here descriptions of disembodiedness during religious ecstasy are hardly common (albeit not entirely unknown).

Either way, it is clear that this experience differs in virtually every way from those we have encountered so far. There is no light, no love, and whilst transformation of those present -including the subject – cannot be entirely discounted, there is no sense that it was a positive transformation. Indeed, the whole experience is conveyed in a way that suggests that it was rather unpleasant for all concerned: certainly at the time. Indeed, confusion seems to be the dominant motif: a confusion so marked that it rendered the subject unable to describe how the service ended or how he got home.

Troubling testimonies

There is an element of confusion in the following account also. The subject begins by locating his experience ‘at a remote Lakeland Inn’ during Eastertime in 1959. On Easter Sunday the subject and his travelling companion decided on a walk before bedtime, when the following strange episode occurred:

It was a beautiful night, with no moon & only the stars & the outline of the mountains to be seen, & not a sound to be heard.

After a quarter of a mile along the lonely lane our two shadows appeared in front of us & continuing for a further ten minutes got brighter & sharper as if a bright light was behind us, but there was no light & no moon, & eventually the vision faded.

I don’t mind saying that I was troubled & possibly frightened as if I was in the presence of something beyond understanding & even my learned friend was shaken (2519).

Even more frightening is the following account. The subject writes:

On a lovely Monday when the sun was shining and the trees had just fully come into leaf we were staying in our cottage in the country. The cottage is situated by the sea and an attractive smaller wood where I have been walking many times with our dog, on my own or with my husband.

This Monday my husband suggested visiting another wood which was about ten minutes by car and go for a walk with the dog there. This wood turned out to be much larger and equally beautifully situated by sea. As we went into the wood our little dog, who never went far away from us, would not leave us at all, but walked all the time between us, which very much puzzled us. When we had walked for a while deeper into this wood I noticed a large impressive swan lying with its wings and neck already stretched out. It was clear that it had not been dead for a long time. I had already by then started to feel uneasy and had a sense of horror which I had never experienced before and definitely not in a wood.

As we progressed we found several dead birds along the path. We also reached an open space where there had been a bonfire. I felt more and more anxious and eventually said to my husband: ‘I don’t know how you feel but I have a sense of evil and horror in this wood.’ My husband then said that he had not wanted to tell me but he had heard that a satanic cult had used the wood. I wanted to go home immediately. I find it extraordinary that human evil can change the whole atmosphere in a large wood (5218).

I hesitated before including this account in this talk. For one thing, it may be objected that it does not really describe a religious experience: indeed, that only its rural setting qualifies it in any way for inclusion. It certainly bears no comparison either with the ‘patterned’ accounts with which the paper began, nor with the previous accounts in which confusion and perplexity predominated. Instead, it seems much more negative – at the very furthest extreme from the accounts of love, peace, and joy with which we began. There is certainly no light, here: rather, a growing sense of dread and evil as the subjects and their dog venture further and further into the scene. Nonetheless, I deemed it worthy of inclusion as a further reminder that rural accounts of anomalous – even, in some sense, spiritual – experiences may not all be benign, helpful, uplifting or positively transformative. In alerting the rural church of the need to engage with and respond to experiences of a positive nature, it seemed right to extend that alert to encompass events at the other end of the spiritual ‘spectrum’.

There is much more that could be said here that really would take us beyond the aims of this talk. Suffice to say that the archive contains a significant number of negative experiences within a variety of contexts that invite examination and reflection.

Conclusions

As we close, a number of conclusions can, it seems, be stated very clearly. One is that the RERC archive contains testimonies which should alert the rural church to the presence of religious and spiritual experiences occurring within specifically rural contexts and containing a number of recognisable motifs. Whilst the pattern is by no means invariant, enough commonality across accounts has been uncovered to allow future researchers to be on the lookout for overwhelmingly positive, transformative experiences containing recognisable motifs such as love, light, and the communication of ‘deep truths’ germane to subjects’ needs: particularly when those subjects are attempting to negotiate crisis-points within their lives. Indeed, this talk has given rise to at least a suspicion that a more systematic search of the RERC archive would reveal very many more specifically rural accounts upon which to base any future studies, particularly given that its concentration on rural accounts was something of a ‘spin off’ from other projects devoted to other aspects of religious experiencing: pre-eminently those involving out-of-body and near-death experiences, episodes of transcendent love, and experiences involving various ‘lightforms’. Attempting a more detailed study using, for example, a keyword search of the archive using trigger words with specifically rural aspects would likely uncover very many more accounts. My inclusion of a small but significant number of hitherto unpublished rural experiences lends weight to this contention. But there are many such possibilities awaiting those who might accept such challenges.

Overall, it seems clear thatsomething is clearly happening in areas for which the rural church has pastoral responsibility and which the rural church would do well to take careful note of. My own experience in dealing with these sorts of testimonies within a variety of contexts has been that subjects above all seek acceptance and validation of their experiences. Sometimes something else is required; particularly where experiences have been troubling and/or the occasion of ontological shock. Indeed, this paper’s inclusion of negative accounts is also a signal that more varied interventions might be needed. To these ends, there are many resources available to the rural church: from those offered by organisations such as the Churches Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies to those offered by groups trained in dealing with various types of ‘spiritual emergency’. What seems unhelpful – and what may need to be deliberately avoided – is any pre-eminent attempt to look for neurophysiological correlates or brain-based ‘explanations’ of subjects’ experiences when what those subjects really need is something more simply affirmative and sympathetic.

In his unpublished autobiography, Hardy wrote that “There is no doubt that as a boy I was becoming what might be described as a nature mystic. Somehow, I felt the presence of something which was beyond and yet in a way part of all the things that thrilled me – the wildflowers, and indeed the insects too.” (Hay, 2011, p. 49). The archive to which he devoted so much attention suggests that Hardy was by no means alone in experiencing the rural landscape in this way, and that his ‘sacred something’ was – and is – shared by very many others also.

Text of a talk I gave to the Churches Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, September 4th, 2021. Numbers in brackets after the testimonies refer to the numbering of the accounts within the RERC archive.

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