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Not content to stop in Rome

27 June 2014

David Winter on a biographer's life

borchee © iStockphoto

Concerned with the spiritual and the religious: Shirley Du Boulay

Concerned with the spiritual and the religious: Shirley Du Boulay

A Silent Melody: An experience of contemporary spiritual life
Shirley Du Boulay
DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT522 )

THIS is a brilliant but ultimately baffling book, which keeps on asking questions and even proposing answers, but is never totally convinced by any of them. Shirley du Boulay is a gifted biographer and former BBC television producer. It is easy to be mesmerised by the beauty of her visions and metaphors, and yet even at the end of the book she is still struggling with the question that has haunted her days: "how can religion and spirituality be brought closer together?"

The book is a kind of autobiography (and all the better for that) with theological, experiential, and didactic overtones. We meet her when she is a child, enthralled by a mystic encounter with a beech tree, and when she is a religious television producer forty years ago, whose programmes focused the camera lens on the beating heartof the spirit rather than the practice of religion. In the 1960s and '70sshe was a child of her time: Hare Krishna, flower power, the Maharishi Yogi, and "All you need is love". It's all here and much more: no spiritual cupboard is left unsearched.

But then she met and fell in love with John Harriott, a Jesuit priest and writer, a man of deep religious faith and yet profoundly spiritual. She found in him a living example of religion and spirituality at one. He left the Society of Jesus, was laicised, and they married. Hehad, and has, a profound effect on her life, despite his prematuredeath in 1990. Not without questioning, she was eventually received into the Roman Catholic Church, and was for a while won over by the liturgy, the music, the incense, and the sacramental "presence". There are some rather ungenerous contrasts between this experience of the RC Church in that post-conciliar springtime and the cold, wordy Anglicanism of her childhood. Eventually, after Harriott's death, still strugglingwith the disciplines of religion compared with what she sees asthe glorious liberty of unfettered spirituality, she ceased to practise the faith that she had so recently embraced.

Struggling to find purpose for the rest of her life, she threw herself into an intensely private search for an answer. A 150-mile pilgrimage on foot from Winchester to Canterbury was part of it, but so were stranger spiritual elements, including an exploration of shamanism, complete with the search for her "power animal" from the spirit world. It turned out to be a horse from her Berkshire childhood.

Even at the end of the book - which is not, of course, necessarily the end of the journey - she is wrestling with the same question. She quotes, without entirely endorsing, the answer of two academic researchers: "To step into a worship service is to find one's attention being directed away from oneself towards something higher. By contrast . . . to enter into the holistic milieu is to find attention directed towards oneself and one's inner life." That, in a way, sums up the argument, but it also tells in simple words the story of this book. In her own words, "it is an attempt to pin down the butterfly while longing to live in its freedom and glory." "I would dearly love", she writes, "to belong to a religion, to give myself heart and soul and to find all the answers to my questions . . . but,in the end, I have failed. I cannot give myself heart and soul to one tradition to the exclusion of all the others". Hers is a vivid, powerful, and moving book, but at the end the deer still pants for the water brooks, thirsty but confused.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC

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