Many Voices; Sacred Spaces: Exploring Religious, Spiritual and Transcendent Experiences within the RERC Archive

A Scent of Violets

The account that follows describes an experience of a Sister in a neo-natal Theatre, some fifty or so years ago. She was twenty-three at the time, and had just been listening to the words of a surgeon who had been holding a dead baby’s heart while trying to explain what it was – a failed operation to repair a Fallot’s Tetralogy – that had led to such a tragic and untimely death. In her own words, the Sister describes what happened next:

Suddenly the room and theatre were permeated with the scent of violets and [an] almost tangible sense of peace. The surgeon, a hard-bitten Australian, comments on the scent, no source could be found.

Since this time I have felt no pain at any death. I am sure of the presence of – who knows? Love, peace, God?

I have no personal fear of death despite threats of hell and purgatory in my life prior to this event. No longer do I fear, or feel angry with God because of a child’s death.

I am married, have three children, work as a Sister in a neo-natal Theatre. In fact, a hard-headed professional woman. The peace is still in me.

I have never discussed this “experience” with anyone other than the staff present at the time. All had smelled the perfume. This has always puzzled, not obsessed me, but has upheld faith in love (696)*.

For the last twenty-five years I have been privileged to work with and share testimonies like these: as a researcher, writer, and speaker. Central to and foundational for this work has been the RERC archive, currently housed at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Lampeter. As I type these words I’m aware that most readers of Psychical Studies will be familiar with both the archive and its founder, but for those who do not share that familiarity some words of introduction may be necessary before we proceed.

The RERC Archive

As things stand, the RERC archive is an ever-expanding collection of more than 6000 mostly unpublished accounts of religious, spiritual, and other out-of-the-ordinary experiences first established by a marine biologist, Alister Hardy, in 1969. Originally housed at Manchester College, Oxford, Hardy established the archive with a specific purpose in mind: to effect a kind of ‘reconciliation’ between the worlds of nature and the spirit. This seems an odd objective for a marine biologist to pursue, but Hardy was no ordinary marine biologist and his achievements were many and varied, stretching back almost to the very beginning of the twentieth century. A charismatic and unusual man whom history seems to have almost entirely overlooked, he was nonetheless in many ways far ahead of his time, and in the early decades of the twentieth century, when many people were arguing that scientific discoveries marked the end of anything spiritual or supernatural, Hardy profoundly disagreed. Instead – and he was to continue to assert this throughout his life – he sought a reconciliation between the ‘worlds’ of science and the spirit, assiduously collecting accounts of experiences of the spiritual and the transcendent in order to achieve precisely this objective.

His maverick spirit finds neat summation in his lifetime’s assertion that far from disproving a spiritual ‘something’ to life, evolution actually required it, enabling us to adapt and survive in ways that would otherwise have been impossible. Indeed, it was religion itself, he argued, that often prevented people from appreciating the spiritual dimension to life. Hence, for the archive he established, he was not in the least concerned to collect ecclesiastical notices, reports of church services, obituaries of church dignitaries, or such. Instead, like William James before him, he was keen to examine the ‘wellsprings’ of the religious sense: those experiences of transcendence that ‘bubble up’ as invisible realities to fill, to inspire, and to change experients.

In the event, Hardy got more than he bargained for. Over fifty years on from its establishment, the RERC archive presently contains experiences across a wide range of ‘types’: Near-Death Experiences, orb encounters, feelings of transcendent love, visions, premonitions, and other ‘types’ of religious and spiritual experiences involving each and every sense (and, often, none). I was first privileged to access the archive when I worked at Westminster College, Oxford, in the mid-1990s and since then I’ve worked with it – latterly online – more-or-less continually: exploring its rich range of accounts in books, articles and talks dealing with Near-Death Experiences, experiences of love and light, after-death communications, UFOs, experiences of a ‘divine presence’, and others. I’m currently examining accounts detailing experiences involving supernatural ‘scents’, from which the experience with which this article began was taken. In what follows, I would like to share some of the things I’ve learned about such experiences – and about the analysis of testimonies to such experiences – during my twenty-five years of research.

Sacred Space

One of the very first things that my research in the archive taught me was that every time I opened or accessed a testimony I was entering a sacred space and sharing something very special: as if I was treading on holy ground that another had trodden and later described. It felt – and has always felt – such a privilege to read a description of something so wonderful. There are very many examples that could be used to illustrate this, and I came across the one that follows when researching for a project on unusual experiences of light. Writing to Sir Alister Hardy, the subject shared how:

As far back as I can remember there has been a sweet, cool presence in and around me – someone called it a Dazzling Darkness. This varies in intensity. It is in everything and is always there. On the rare occasions when it has receded I’ve felt frightened and alone. It is in me, it knows about me and I belong to it, but it is not a Person, so that praying in words seems crude. I prefer to ‘inhale it’ at prayer time, or at quiet moments in the day. I find this presence strongly in old churches, some old houses, in wild countryside, music, and in a few people. About 3 times it has intensified into what I suppose could be the mystical experience – a pinkish golden light which was in everything, was love, and made everything look beautiful, even Council Houses and a Corporation bus (489).

This account, one of the very earliest submitted to the archive, typifies many. The presence is often there although sometimes it recedes. It is not really an ‘it’, but it is not a person either. Indeed, there is something extra- or supra-linguistic about ‘it’ so that all attempts to pray in words appear, to the subject, crude. Rather, this ‘Dazzling Darkness’ is best inhaled; although even there the writer has put ‘inhaled’ in inverted commas. Certain spaces seem to embody or to convey it: sacred and profane. Occasionally it becomes intensified to the point of visibility, and that is when everything is transformed – even council buildings and a bus.

I have often wondered about the subjects who sent their experiences to the archive. Who were they? Who are they? What would it be like to meet them? Could I have picked them out in a crowd? And always that sense of treading on another’s holy ground: even though the sharing was, in a sense, an invitation to be there. In fact, I have sometimes wondered if analysis of any kind is an appropriate thing to do with such narratives. Did their writers really mean for anybody to explore them in the way that I have done? To put them under a sort of analytical microscope in a search for things like shared contexts and common features? I confess that it has not always felt quite right.

Over time I have tried to adapt my work environment to the accounts with which I have been working: to create some sort of sacred space appropriate to their content. I put on Gregorian chant; light a candle; say a prayer. Can you sacralise a laboratory? Perhaps the key is to make it less like a laboratory and more like a sacred space itself. I have tried, at least, although in more recent years this has been made more difficult by the fact that nowadays I read the accounts off a computer screen rather than from a printed page. This is not in the least to denigrate the excellent work done on fully computerising the archive in recent years. It is just that I wonder what difference it makes when a researcher reads an experience on a screen, rather than in some other, older, form. The same when writing an experience down, come to that. Very few were typed in the early days.

Testimonies and Windows

From where I sit as I write this I can see the tips of the trees across the road, waving in the chill breeze of a cold, early March, morning. Above and behind them the sky is a uniform, dull, grey, but if I stand up, go to the window, and look down, there is at least a little more variety: the green of the grass verge, for example, and the muddy brown of a path that runs parallel to the road. As mundane and vaguely depressing as the view might be, however, I’m reasonably sure that it looks like that. If I go outside and cross the road I might feel the chill wind and the perspective will change but the view will be unmistakably the same view: the trees, the colours, the road.

I hadn’t been researching in the archive long before I realised something important: testimonies are not windows. They are not transparent ‘portals’ into another’s experience. Instead, they are much more complex than this. More opaque. In fact: I very quickly came to realise that testimony – as distinguished to the experience being relayed in testimony – is what analysis should primarily seek to explain. And whilst there is nothing terribly original or earth-shattering in this observation, a number of things follow from it: particularly as regards the testimonies in the RERC archive.

In this regard, consider the following account extract, in which a subject describes her experience some forty years after it occurred:

Then…there must be a blank. I will never know for how long, because I was only in my normal conscious mind with normal faculties as I came out of it. Everywhere surrounding me was this white, bright, sparkling light, like the sun on frosty snow, like a million diamonds, and there was no cornfield, no trees, no sky, this light was everywhere; my ordinary eyes were open, but I was not seeing with them. It can only have lasted a moment I think or I would have fallen over.

The feeling was indescribable, but I have never experienced anything in the years that followed that can compare with that glorious moment; it was blissful, uplifting, I felt open-mouthed wonder.

I wrote it down, but I never told anybody (4405).

Whilst in some archival cases there are visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or other apparently sensory experiences, in many others there is nothing like this at all, as the above account makes clear. It is of a ‘type’ in which no senses – in the accepted sense – seem to be involved at all; one that seems to completely elude conceptual ‘capture.’ No words are adequate to describe it; indeed, for the subject language seems to have broken down at the point at which her experience occurred. Hence, she writes, it was ‘indescribable’; there has been nothing like it in the forty years since. To be sure, the language of physical description is used – ‘light was everywhere’ – but it is immediately qualified: ‘my ordinary eyes were open, but I was not seeing with them.’ Even time seems to have stopped – ‘I will never know for how long…’ – and overall it is the language of feeling that predominates: it was ‘glorious’, ‘blissful’, ‘uplifting’, ‘I felt open-mouthed wonder.’

The ‘Problem’ of Language

It is no news that mystical-type experiences are ineffable. But in a testimony, the subject is trying to put such an experience into words. To bridge the ‘gap’ between his or her own experience and the reader’s. To encode in language that which cannot be encoded for an audience – real or imagined – that may be quite unfamiliar with that which is being described. Indeed, it is interesting that the subject of the above account ends her description with the admission that ‘I never told anybody.’ Why so? Why such silence? Was the experience too precious to share? Was no opportunity afforded until Sir Alister Hardy asked? Or was it an experience that, although written down at the time, was simply impossible to tell? Whatever the reason, we are a long way from looking through windows at trees here. Instead, it seems that these kinds of experiences create their own complexities whilst the understanding of these kinds of testimonies calls for rather special methodologies.

The ’Problem’ of Privacy

As if these considerations were not enough to create such complexities within analysis, there are more to consider. If the tree as viewed through my window looks different to the way it did yesterday – a branch missing or the trunk leaning somewhat – I can always call my wife in to look through the window to give me a ‘second opinion.’ I can even write down what I see and she can check my narrative for accuracy. And this is true for many other things too, for in the everyday run of things, many (if not most) experiences and/or claims to experiences can be checked, compared and confirmed. Overwhelmingly, however, this is not the case with the vast majority of accounts within the RERC archive.

As an example, we might consider the very many unusual experiences of light contained there. In a study which I undertook between 2001 and 2008, I examined almost 400 archival accounts containing descriptions of experiences of unusual light – ‘orbs’, beams, rays, shafts, ‘brightenings’ of the landscape, and so on – but only ten turned out to have been shared by more than one person, and even here there were no ‘corroborating’ descriptions: only the writer’s own assertion that somebody else was present to experience the ‘same thing.’ How, then, could I go beyond the testimony of the ‘sole witness’?

In the event, I looked for corroboration in a different way: by looking across the near-400 accounts in search of common features. As a result, a ‘common core’ emerged: typically (but not invariably), such light-events occurred at times of deep, existential, crisis, representing ‘turning-points’ in the lives of subjects and setting them on new, more meaningfully and spiritually enriched, paths. It was a pattern that recurred again and again and one that was confirmed a few years later when I undertook a similar archival study examining claimed experiences of transcendent love.

For sure, such an approach did not allow me to confirm (or disconfirm) every detail within any single account, but it did allow me to detect trends and patterns suggestive of the fact that something recognisably similar was occurring to many different persons. That despite the number of different (and private) perspectives, they were looking – and hence permitting me to look – at the ’same thing.’

Not Everything ‘Fits’

This is not to say, of course, that there is not diversity within the RERC archive. It is a vast and rich resource, and despite the intriguing number of accounts containing descriptions of experiences sharing common features there are many outliers: things that just don’t ‘fit.’ Often, these are the most interesting accounts of all. Consider, for example, the following account, which I recently uncovered during my latest study of experiences involving olfactory ‘elements.’ On the evening of the same day as her husband’s funeral, the writer describes how:

[A] very strong smell of carnations came close to me….I was then aware I was not alone in my flat; the next moment something was at the back of my easy chair, lightly touching my hair. I was petrified, not having this experience before. I got up from my chair and moved over to the sideboard and this thing, what-ever, who-ever it was, followed me; the room began to get freezing cold. I walked slowly to the front door to get out in the warm July air; the door was as if it had been glued, I had to put my hand in the letter box and use all my power to open it; this thing was still at the back of me; getting colder and colder. I stayed at a Mrs —— that night, it was terrible, the noises, then an icy cold feeling would go right through my body to come out at the other end, this was happening at 3 minute intervals. I was very glad when it became day light (4416).

Initially it appears that the writer is describing some form of after-death communication here: in fact, there are twenty-three accounts within the archive containing olfactory features, such as the scent of flowers, suggestive of an attempt at communication with a living person on the part of somebody recently deceased. However, such experiences are usually described in overwhelmingly positive terms. Not so here. In fact, the account contains several disturbing features: not least the fact that the frightening presence seems intent on pursuing – even, perhaps, trapping – the subject. I know of nothing else in the after-death communication literature that is anything like this: if, indeed, an after-death communication is what is being described here.  It is difficult to know: not least because the account contains so many atypical features of such an experience.

‘By Their Fruits…’

Account 4416, complete with its litany of disturbing events, is not unique in being an archival account detailing a negative experience, but it is in something of a minority. In an archival study published in 1999, for example, Merete Demant Jakobsen found 170 accounts of what she dubbed ‘negative spiritual experiences’ from an analysis of the first 4000 accounts. These included experiences of evil within a variety of contexts and amounted to 4.25% of the total number examined: a very small percentage. Overwhelmingly, then, it would seem that the kinds of experiences submitted to the RERC throughout its history have been positive: a fact borne out by the kinds of effects that they have on their – often grateful – subjects. This has been a consistent finding of my own archival exploration and it seems appropriate to end this brief summary of my research with a couple of examples of such positive ‘fruits.’ In the first, a 41 year-old subject awoke from a night time encounter with a ‘huge light…[entering] my heart [to] fill it with an overpowering love…’ to find that she ‘was immediately aware of this love & joy still completely filling me. I had to tell my family of it, although I knew they would think me “odd.” I told them I was “reborn”, although I had never before heard that expression…(1829).

Another example of positive ‘fruits’ following an experience of light and love is similarly striking:

Following the experience I was physically tireless. My mind raced with new concepts, perspectives & awareness. I lost about 15 lbs in 2 weeks. I felt excitement about lots of ideas that seemed to be entering my mind. I had a sense of ultimate good for all people, possibly connected with death, if not life. I wanted to shout from the rooftops that God existed, that he loves us as we are, no matter who we are, and that his plan encompasses all men…My conduct has changed in that I no longer feel it is necessary to search for love. It is enough for me to have known that “experience” and just see what the future holds (2764).

The subject of the above account joins many hundreds of others whose lives were changed by their encounters with transcendent realities. For those of us who have not – or not yet – been privileged enough to join them, there is at least a sort of vicarious sharing to be had from reading what they themselves have written. Their testimonies may not be windows in a strictest sense, yet they give us glimpses nonetheless. I feel privileged to have been afforded such glimpses in my research: and grateful to Sir Alister Hardy for the rich archival legacy which has enabled me to do so.

*Numbers in brackets refer to the account numbers within the archive.

This article first appeared in Psychical Studies: Journal of the Unitarian Society for Psychical Studies, Issue No 102, Spring 2023, pp. 12 – 22