One of the reasons I suspect beautiful waterfalls and so on are attractive when people (including me) talk about spirituality is that they exalt but do not challenge. The Great Bell Chant by Thich Nhat Hanh is a wonderful example of a series of pictures and text that mostly show natural beauty – “the beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower.” [3’23”] – waterfalls from a great height, whales, then Masai leaping, monks walking. But pay attention to the children at around 5’15” and see where they are, what they are doing. Meditation is about truth. Thick Nhat Hanh has worked with the war refugees from his homeland: Boat People who saw the same crippling suffering we see in the refugees from Syria, from Africa. In the same way, in the Great Bell Chant there are children gleaning from a rubbish tip. This is not comfortable living for people who want to Zen their home – however much I look enviously at their photos of libraries, sunrooms, bathrooms!
In the same way, the film that reduced me to tears last night has an ambiguity: when I sit in a comfortable cinema, watching expensive SFX and carefully coached acting and think about the anger of grief and loss, I spectate a deep – but hugely uncomfortable and potentially damaging – spiritual experience. So there’s my disclaimer. In reading A Monster Calls and seeing the film many people will be challenged. The critics were ambivalent. Variety didn’t like it; their advert-heavy review linked here says “we’ve heard the same lesson countless times before in other movies” (I’d disagree, but it shows the tone of their review), others refer to a “cheap tear-jerker” but Rotten Tomatoes is at least somewhat warmer. So it is on the level of the protagonist’s experience rather than the success of the book or film that I want to ask these questions:
Can a spiritual experience be damaging? Can trauma be a spiritual experience?
There are a number of gnomic statements we might at least look at here: “The best way out is always through,” “We learn through suffering,” etc., and it is Philip Sheldrake in Spirituality and History who really pulls these to pieces for me in considering spirituality in a post-Holocaust era. Spirituality, when it is at its most genuine, confronts pain. The easy inspirational poster draws on the spirituality-laden themes of waves and whales, maybe, but can we tell Patrick Ness’ protagonist Conor these things, as he struggles with his nightmare, facing the ravaging decline of his mother? Will the poster help the war child?
This is where the earlier editions of A Monster Calls are so powerful: the illustrations (echoed in the film) show a menacing creature, full of earth and storm and history and danger, from the grasping hands of the half-title page and the stalking wildman of the cover. This is a Lud-like demigod, who shows no mercy at one level but in a deeper way is the psychopomp who leads Conor through the death he has to face. And the message this creature brings to suffering Conor is simple beyond a motivational poster’s reach: “If you speak the truth, you will be able to face whatever comes.”
Misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. It is open to willful or stupid misinterpretation (as Teresa of Avila discovered); it is open to manipulation even (almost) to the point of murder as Katharina von Hohenzollern discovered; it is open to the demagogue, the cruel, the convincing psychopath. In this sense, it can be damaging. There is another sense, too, in that someone who is misled might move to convince themselves – to allow themselves to be convinced by that cruel demagogue – to hurt others, to despise them. And sometimes the urge is simply to give up on them. The Headmistress after Conor attacks his bully sums this last position up in her first words: “I don’t even know what to say.” They reminded me of my tutor’s comment on my weekly test at University when I came back from my mother’s funeral: Forgiven for this week. He didn’t even know what to say – and maybe neither did I. How does anyone come back from something huge and have something to say? At best, perhaps, we can say that spiritual experience is like any experience: it has a yesterday and a tomorrow.
Or perhaps it has, rather, an inside and an outside: an enclosed and controllable aspect, and the wild, Ent-like, elemental rage Kathleen Raine (whom I quote more here) so vividly depicts in her Northumbrian sequence:
The storm beats on my window-pane,
Night stands at my bed-foot,
Let in the fear,
Let in the pain,
Let in the trees that toss and groan,
Let in the north tonight.
This spiritual experience (of loss, of choice, of change) is going to change the boy Conor forever. He is left (more or less) without a father and without this magic (is that the right word?) spiritual guide: the losses he sustains are huge. The reason this traumatic loss of so much is – we guess – not going to damage him, is this lesson he learns at the end: “All you have to do is tell the truth.”