I do not believe that one can say anything with certainty about the source of 'enlightenment'. Visual images, on the contrary, can sometimes be traced, and even though the conclusion can never be certain.
There are number of images for which I always feel a particular fascination. For instance, I always get goose bumps when I imagine a group sitting around a campfire at sunset. Such a scene appears, by the way, in my novel Revelation of fire, and a similar party sits by a riverbank in the 'modern apocryphal' ‘Nog een messias’.
Until recently I had no idea why I repeatedly visualize this image when I allow my imagination to roam.
While reading ‘Het Numineuze’ by the Dutch theologist Tjeu van den Berk, I realized I had had several numinous experiences in my childhood. Just like almost everybody else, I did not take these experiences seriously. Yet they apparently had an influence on the choices I was later to make in my literary work. It could be that this group around a campfire scene is connected to those experiences.
I call the very first numinous experience which I can remember the ‘stroke of magic’. I was about six years old and sat on a blanket on the ground. My grandmother was next to me doing needlework. We were sitting in front of our house on a road that stretched between fields which disappeared over the horizon. It was evening. At a certain point I was given a bag full of scraps of cloth to look at by my grandmother. I emptied the scraps out of the bag and was amazed by the brilliant colours which suddenly appeared on the grey blanket. When I looked away from the pieces of cloth I saw a brilliant golden ball glowing above the road. The sun had reached the height at which you can look at it without hurting your eyes. The metamorphose of the blanket and the sun seemed as like a stroke of magic by which everything in my field of vision became enchanted. It was an ecstatic moment filled with sheer joy to be alive.
It is as though thus experience set off a kind of chain reaction. I had a similar experience later when I was around ten years old. This time I was sitting on a riverbank with my family. We were having a picnic on a warm summer day, and had just finished eating. We had already packed up most of the things in our bags but there were still of few things lying on the blanket on the sand. (It is in itself quite unusual that I can still remember such an insignificant detail.) As the sun began to set, there was nobody on the beach except us. My father gathered a few dry branches in the bushes at the edge of the beach and made a campfire. I do not believe that I was particularly pleased by it. I was tired and sat quietly. The adults were busy talking and did not pay any attention to me. There voices were soft and calm. The new ’stroke of magic’ took place when the sun, which again appeared as a golden glowing ball sinking towards the horizon, suddenly stood in my field of vision. Once again I had the familiar feeling of ecstasy: everything which I saw or heard made me intensely happy, the blanket, the things on top of it, the sand, the campfire, the voices. It was such a strong feeling that I shut my eyes and immersed myself completely in my insane feeling of happiness. I sat there like that for a time just listening to the sounds, and it remained enchanting. Recently I saw the connection between this memory and the following passage from ‘Nog en messias’, in which the main character says about himself:
“I sat with closed eyes listening to what was happening. The voices of the people sitting by the fire, the zooming of the mosquitoes which hovered around us in search of blood, the snapping of burning branches, the singing of the birds, the humming and crackling, the sighing which came from persons unidentified. These, and still countless other sounds for which no word exists, gathered together for a single temporary symphony. Hearing is more receptive to the oneness of Life than the eye, which skims over the hard surface of things. The number of sounds which you hear in a symphony is not important. Much more significant is the sensation of space that reveals itself through hearing them. The soul remembers this sensation because it once resided there, where the upper and the lower are equal, where it knew that nothing is permanent, and that the separation is nothing other than a rising wave.”
A fragment from Revelation of Fire:
Before me lay an entire panorama of the region, where everything shone brightly – the wet sand, the river, the sky. I went back to the tent for the axe, and found a dead tree in the forest, which I hauled down to the river. After I chopped it up, I lit a fire. Now, in the encircling space, I felt the presence of the four basic elements of existence: earth, air, fire and water. Life had achieved such a degree of completeness, that if anything or anyone were now to be added to it, that feeling of sufficiency would not be augmented, but diminished.
I can not imagine that as 10-year-old girl I searched for the reason for my joy. I would probably not have recognized my feeling in the descriptions above. But still, both of these fragments are rooted in the memory of that emotion. The memory still has the same energy that overwhelmed me at the time. It is a wonder, that which can grow out of a numinous experience in childhood. Or how they also resonate within art and mysticism. There is, moreover, something in ‘ Nog een messias’ which does not apparently have anything to do with the ten-year-old girl on the riverbank. But I know for a fact that it is also based on the feeling that I had as I sat with my eyes closed listening to the voices around me. I cannot confuse that feeling with any other.
“We sat on the ground. Before our eyes was a burning fire, next to us the streaming river. Our faces were cooled by the wind. And I heard in the conversations on the Fisher’s Beach the echo of other conversations taking place under the heavens. Conversations that had once taken place next to a lake, on a mountain, in a garden. And just as it had then, these free thoughts brought the calm joy of religion as soon as the words had been uttered. It was a simple religion without any rules, regulations or rituals. A religion that was, quite unnoticed, inhaled and exhaled just like the air.”