My Spiritual Journey

(Based on a talk given at West Grove Unitarian Church, Cardiff UK on 19 March 2000)



I later found out some very unpleasant things about Sai Baba, but the period we spent at his ashram was a turning point in my life. At this time I also became aware of the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, which has also influenced me considerably over the years. One of the principles of this faith “is union and concord amongst the children of men”. In the words of its founder, Baha’u’llah:

"From the beginning of time the light of unity hath shed its divine radiance upon the world, and the greatest means for the promotion of that unity is for the peoples of the world to understand one another's writing and speech. Thus will the earth be regarded as one country and one home. The most glorious fruit of the tree of knowledge is this exalted word: Of one tree are all ye the fruit, and of one bough the leaves. Let no-one glory in this that they love their country, let them rather glory in this: that they love their kind. Blessed are they that attain thereunto. Blessed are they that act accordingly".

Sai Baba instead taught that there was no need to change one’s religion. If one were a Muslim, one could remain a Muslim. If one were a Christian, one could remain a Christian. Which was fine for some, but I wasn’t anything. I came from the Christian west, but really knew nothing of Christianity. And then I was given a book, there in the Ashram: a life of St Francis, whom I knew only as someone who had preached to a congregation of birds. But now I found that he was a great soul, a Mahatma, a Sannyasi who had renounced the world of commerce, of business, to devote his life to the service of the poor, the sick and the lepers, and to the witness of the Gospel. And a poet too. And here is a prayer St Francis wrote:

Lord make me an instrument of Your peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love,
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


Well, maybe. I would say that it is in living selflessly that we are born to eternal life. It is perhaps worth remembering that this prayer was permanently devalued when Margaret Thatcher quoted it on her election victory in 1979, as for the next ten years she did exactly the opposite, sowing division and enmity. But let the dead bury the dead, let the past look after itself.

At any rate, returning to my personal story, from Sai Baba’s ashram we made our way back, not to Britain, but to Italy, intent on living a life of prayer and simple work in the fields, Ora et Labora, according to the rule of Saint Benedict, another Mahatma, a great soul who was born, like Francis, not far from our new home in the foothills of the Apennines. And there I set about exploring the universe of Catholicism, walking in the footsteps of Francis, barefooted and head in the clouds. Actually when people used to ask me why I always went around with my head in the clouds (which they did quite often, it being a common Italian expression) I replied “I’m searching for the Sun”.

I met some great people in the Catholic Church, most notably a priest with a large belly and an even larger heart who had founded a community of and for the disabled, and who taught me, or reminded me, of the gospel of service to the last and the least, to the people who don’t count and are not counted. 

And I also began to read the written gospel, the record of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and found that there never was any greater poetry than this. However, when I was challenged to return to the Church of my Fathers, or more precisely of my Grandmothers, through the baptism I had never undergone as a child, I looked in the Book and read:

"But you are not to be called “Master”, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers [and sisters]. And do not call anyone on earth “father” for you have one Father and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called “teacher”, for you have one Teacher, the Christ, the Indwelling Spirit. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted". (Matthew 23: 8-12)

And I went straight out and bought myself a bumper sticker to put on the back of my car saying: “No Popery Here”. Well, I would have done, if they had sold such things in Italy. Instead I found a small group of Protestants: Methodists and Waldensians, and found out where Ralph Waldo Emerson got his middle name from, and where Thoreau’s beloved Pond got its name, Walden. So here is a short history lesson (mostly from - now defunct. See instead this potted history of the Waldensian churches).

Pierre Vaudès, or Peter Waldo, or Valdesius, was a merchant in Lyon and an older contemporary of St Francis.  In 1173 Waldo abandoned his life as a merchant, gave all his goods to the poor, and dedicated his life to preaching, along with his disciples who came to be known as the "Poor Men of Lyon". He was expelled from the city because of his anticlerical sentiments, yet this banishment had an effect opposite to that intended, and in fact served to disseminate Waldensian doctrines throughout the south of France. At the Council of Verona in 1184 the movement was officially condemned and its adherents excommunicated, thus forcing the Waldensians to go into hiding to escape from the Inquisition and from periodic massacres. Despite this persecution, the movement soon spread outside its area of origin, reaching into northern Italy and Bohemia, where it was apparently introduced by Waldo himself.

Caught up in the crusade launched by Pope Innocent III against the Albigensians of Provence, the Waldensians of that region paid the price in blood to the forces of religious intolerance and were totally eradicated. The few survivors made their way to the Pellice, Chisone and Germanasca valleys in what is now the province of Turin in northern Italy and, they are still to be found in those areas, where they speak a Provencal dialect and profess a Protestant faith.

With the coming of the Counter-Reformation, persecutions increased again. The Waldensians of Provence were exterminated during the first half of the 16th century, but they resisted tenaciously in Piedmont. In 1532 they joined the Reformation, accepting the tenets and organisation of Calvinism, a regrettable development perhaps, but understandable. Geneva was a neighbour and offered a helping hand. But the persecutions continued.  On April 24th, 1655, the Duke of Savoy, Charles Emmanule II, sent an expedition against the Waldensians. Over 1,700 people were massacred. Not even prisoners were spared in what became known as the "Piedmontese Easter".  The great English poet John Milton, as Foreign Secretary, wrote an official protest on behalf of Cromwell's Government and sent letters to the other Protestant countries so that the protest should be as widely known as possible.

And here is the poem that Milton wrote in protest against these events:


Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter'd saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev'n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipp'd stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese that roll'd
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubl'd to the hills, and they
To Heav'n. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
O'er all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

In 1686 Piedmontese and French troops penetrated the valleys where, having exterminated a large part of the population, they incarcerated most of the survivors in Piedmontese prisons, while a few escaped to Geneva. In the summer of 1686, a small band managed to fight their way back the valleys from Switzerland in what became known as the "Glorious Return". While the movement was completely eradicated in southern France, the Waldensians of the valleys were able to secure a treaty from the Piedmontese government in 1690 and there followed a period of relative peace and security. An Edict of Tolerance, issued by the house of Savoy in 1848 finally guaranteed freedom of action and civil rights to Waldensians.

I had the privilege, and it was another of the high points of my life, to attend the Synod of this Mother of all Free Churches, in Torre Pellice, in the Waldensian Valleys north of Turin, and to take part in the debates. On the back wall of the meeting room, the Casa Valdese, is a fresco showing a tree holding an open book and breaking out of solid rock, commemorating the long struggle for religious freedom.

Another symbol on prominent display is a candle surrounded by the motto of the Waldensian Church:

Lux Lucet in Tenebris.

The light shines in darkness, and the darkness cannot understand it. - John 1:5

But, as has been said, neither can the darkness put out the light. By a roundabout way the Waldensian candle may have been an inspiration for the Unitarian symbol of the flaming chalice, which originated in what is now the Czech Republic:

The independent Waldensian tradition which survived in Bohemia was part of the humus of heresy which developed into the reforming spirit of Jan Huss and the Unitarian teachings of Francis David in Transylvania. So this movement, hidden in the mountains of Italy, has links with Unitarianism too.


Back to: PART ONE - PILGRIM'S PROGRESS ------------------------------- On to: PART THREE - WALES AND THE WORLD