How I came to write a doctoral thesis on Alice A. Bailey

It was 2001 and the twin towers had fallen the month before. 9/11 marked an event in my own personal story as my mother chose that day to migrate back to Australia, leaving me alone with my twin daughters in the UK. I was a high school teacher at the time, and that year I was teaching a small group of students A level Religious Studies. For the coursework component, they all chose to write an essay on the New Age, or alternative spirituality, as it is now known. They had no idea the woman teaching them was an esoteric thinker with a profound interest in Theosophy and the occult, and one figure in particular: Alice Bailey.

New Age

A Turning Point

I was dedicated as ever to being the best teacher I could be, but while I worked hard at my job something nagged at me, some part of me that remained unfulfilled. I wanted to strive for higher things, maybe teach at tertiary level. I thought I would undertake a PhD. I could study part time and somehow fit it in to my already overloaded life.

I searched for universities with a progressive religious studies department offering distance education and ended up emailing my old university, The Open University, where I gained a First-class Honours degree many years before. I received no reply. Then I was told there was a fault in the system and would I re-send. I did. Still nothing. I sent another email. Silence. I waited. Months passed. I had just about given up on the idea. Then, one day in February 2002, I took my students to Warwick University to research their coursework essays. We visited the library and then browsed the bookstore.

On a bottom shelf, looking a bit battered, was a book on alternative spiritualities, co-edited by a Dr Marion Bowman, based at the University of Bath. Realising its value to my students, I bought the book (scoring a discount because of its poor condition) and we all went home.

Marion Bowman

I still have the receipt!

 

That afternoon, in my inbox was an email from the same Dr Marion Bowman. To my astonishment she now worked at the OU! She said she had received my email but she couldn’t open it and would I re-send it. I did, going into a ramble about how I wanted to research something on the nature of god, throwing in Alice Bailey as an afterthought. She emailed me back within the half hour. Then came the phone call. Alice Bailey, she said, you must do a PhD on Alice Bailey. She urged me to study full time. Apply for a scholarship. I could scarcely believe it. I gazed at the row of Blue Books on my shelf. It felt like fate.

A Crisis

But the workings of fate are mysterious and not always straightforward. I did apply for that scholarship, but before I could tell my school what was happening, the OU contacted them for a reference. Ouch. By now it was March. The headmaster was understanding but my head of department was not. It was Mother’s Day when she phoned me and gave me a piece of her mind. She was so angry I had to hold the phone away from my ear. As she ranted, something in me snapped. I had been putting up with her shenanigans for years.

I went on stress leave. I contacted my union. I was about to put in a grievance. I wanted to quit and study but the scholarship was a pittance and I would never have survived. I was in a real quandary. Then life started intervening and everything went wrong. My whole back fence fell down in a storm. I had problems with tax. My daughters missed their grandmother and one was especially unhappy. Everything was pointing to me returning to Australia.

A life-changing decision

I arrived in Australia in May 2002. An old friend put me onto the School of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney who offered distance education. I contacted them, found a marvellous supervisor in Dr Lesley Kuhn, applied, and secured a handsome scholarship, far in excess of what I had been offered in the UK. It almost made up for the sadness I felt at leaving my home, my career, my friends, my life – all of it, especially my A level students. I still have the farewell card they gave me (the school kept the true story quiet and word went around that I was ill).

I have never been sure if I made the right choice leaving England, but that first university residential school in Sydney I was walking on air. Everything about it was surreal. The people I met, the friendships formed, the chance encounters on the long journey there and back – the entire experience had a definite charge to it. I felt endorsed, sanctioned and somewhat revered as those who knew of Alice Bailey also knew what an enormous undertaking I was embracing. (My thesis, The Texts of Alice A. Bailey: An Inquiry into the Role of Esotericism in Transforming Consciousness, is available online)

In 2007, a year after I received my doctorate, I secured a job working for a high-profile literary agent. It was Mary Cunnane who urged me to write a biography of Alice Bailey. Instead, years later and after much hesitation I wrote The Unlikely Occultist: a biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey. The novel is a labour of love and service, in honour of a truly remarkable woman who deserves to be far better known and appreciated.

Alice A. Bailey

 

How Alice Bailey entered my life

I have been told many a time that when a seeker draws near to Alice Bailey, strange things happen and life seems to have a charge to it that it didn’t have before. Here is my story…

Alice Bailey

Finding Astrology

In 1990 I moved to Perth, Western Australia, and within a few weeks of my arrival I stumbled on astrology. I was staying in a cockroach-infested flat and one morning I decided to rid the place of the infestation by setting off an insecticide bomb. Only it meant I had to leave the flat for eight hours. It was summer, I had no money, so where would I go? I walked to the nearest library, and as I entered the air-conditioned cool, my eyes were drawn to some shelves containing the reference section – dictionaries and the like. In amongst the other ordinary books was an astrological ephemeris, a book detailing the daily positions of the planets in our solar system in relation to the zodiac for a period of a hundred years. I took the book and sat down to peruse the pages.

I found I had no trouble understanding the information. I knew all the glyphs and what each meant. It didn’t even occur to me that this in itself was a bit weird. How did I know all this? In the front of that particular edition were instructions on how to cast your own horoscope. I went to the front desk and acquired some scrap paper. A couple of hours later I had my chart, bar the rising sign. It turned out I needed another book to calculate that, so I headed to the state library in the city centre, found said book, and did the calculation. Then, I went home. I thought nothing of it.

Three days later, I was invited by a friend – who had the lease on the cockroach-infested flat – for coffee in town. He introduced me to another friend, a lecturer at a nearby university. This lecturer offered to drive me home and on the way he asked me about my interests. I told him, tentatively, that I had just discovered astrology and told him the story. He swung by his office and directed me to a bottom shelf behind the door. There, hidden away was a row of astrology books! He told me to take what I wanted. I selected twelve books. That night, I didn’t sleep. I was up, with the cockroaches. I didn’t know it then, but those cockroaches were the catalyst for a protracted phase of self-discovery and New Age exploring.

An Alice Bailey Book

Three years passed and I was studying for a diploma in transpersonal counselling. On the course I made a friend, enigmatic Claudio. Our friendship was intense and laced with romance although we both knew it wouldn’t last. He invited me back to his house one evening and while I stood in the hall he disappeared, returning a few moments later with a book proffered on upturned palms. It was dark blue and carried the title “Esoteric Astrology”. I gazed in wonder. ‘A gift,’ he said. He went on to explain how he had packed up his possessions in Adelaide some months before, as he prepared to drive across the desert to Perth, and he could only take with him what he could fit in his car. He saw the book, which he had bought in a second-hand book store, and hesitated. What on earth did he want to keep that book for? It weighed a fair bit, he had no interest in astrology and had never heard of Alice Bailey. But it seemed important and he felt compelled to keep it. When he met me, he realised why. ‘This book is meant for you,’ he said.

Esoteric Astrology

I had not heard of Alice Bailey either, but I took the book home and devoured it. There was something so intriguing and compelling about the writing, even as I scarcely understood a word of what was written. I wanted to know. And that desire, that need to know propelled me forwards.

Alice Bailey marked the end of that part of my journey. My life became very, very hard after that. I endured a decade of struggle and testing. A period of darkness in which I was forced to prove my worth as a human being. At the end of the decade, Alice Bailey unexpectedly re-entered my life. That story is even stranger than this.

Over the years I have bought the whole collection of Alice Bailey’s writings. I have read most. Something changed when I first encountered the Blue Books. I changed. The way I understood reality shifted. I will try to explain that shift another time.

I have always held the Alice Bailey teachings lightly and have never considered myself an adherent, but there is no need to be. All esoteric knowledge  is charged with a certain energy. Only, the knowledge exists behind a veil and to pass through that veil and enter into the realm, you need to have an esoteric disposition. What is that? Well, unbeknownst to me until I met the cockroaches, I had no idea I had one.

Twenty-five years later, and that early interest has culminated in The Unlikely Occultist: A biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey

Review: Harlequin’s Riddle by Rachel Nightingale

Here’s my review of a sensational debut novel by Australian author and award-winning playwright, Rachel Nightingale. It might look like a YA fantasy novel, but don’t be fooled! Read on and discover why I am in rapture over this book.

“The Gazini Players are proud to present
For your Edification and Enjoyment
Tales of great Joy, and of great Woe

Ten years ago, Mina’s beloved older brother disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again.

On the eve of Mina’s own departure with a troupe, her father tells her she has a special gift for story telling, a gift he silenced years before in fear of her ability to call visions into being with her stories.

Mina soon discovers that the travelling players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality. While trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, she discovers a dark secret to the players’ onstage antics. Torn between finding her brother or exposing the truth about the players, could her gifts as a story teller offer a way to solve Harlequin’s riddle?”

*****

It is a stark fact that for the last few decades the major players in the book publishing industry have chosen to be led by their sales teams, and commissioning editors must bow to their publisher’s bottom line. Editors may fall in love with a story, want to praise it from the rooftops, but they are stuck with having to tell the author the harsh truth that their sales department, not known for vision and decidedly risk averse, have deemed the work unsaleable. It happens time and again that a truly great work slips through the cracks and ends up – because it IS truly a great work – being picked up by one of the lesser known small presses. If you want to read excellent original fiction, hunt out works released by reputable small presses.

Harlequin’s Riddle is one of those books, for Rachel Nightingale has composed a work of remarkable vision and depth of insight, a work narrated in an accessible and enchanting style; gentle, inviting, sensory, like silk and gossamer. The pace is slow at first, but never meandering, and quickens at each plot point, as what begins as a quest evolves into a dark mystery.

 Harlequin’s Riddle is a story of illusion and make believe in art and theatre. The novel opens with Mina watching a travelling theatre troupe perform in her village as she misses her older brother, Paolo, who took off with a troupe a decade before, and never returned. She was seven when he left, and she’s seventeen when with her mother’s blessing she joins the theatre troupe in the hope of finding him. The reader is swept along on the aspirations, hopes and dreams of innocence, a false innocence for Mina’s childhood scars are many, and the grief and anguish and betrayal are buried so deep Mina is numb to them, until they surface and form a destabilising force, propelling her into understanding and ultimately wholeness.

Despite the fictitious setting, Nightingale paints an evocative portrait of medieval Italy with its rugged coastline, its quaint villages, forests and northern lakes. The author’s depiction of the theatre troupe with their colourful sets and costumes is vibrant and alive and enthralling, the reader provided a privileged view, looking over Mina’s shoulder at the other players and the audience. Much of the story involves the travellers journeying in their wagons to the Festival of Lights held in the large city of Aurea, and again, the reader is swept along for the ride as the troupe cope with various dramas and adventures along the way. There is much here to entertain every reader, young and old, the final quarter of the novel dripping with visual splendour.

On another level, Harlequin’s Riddle is less a tale of Mina’s quest to find her brother, and more a study of the nature of imagination and creativity, that curious moment of conjuring, bringing into being that which we inwardly see, and seeing that which we inwardly describe – words and pictures, which comes first? The creative process, at the moment of conception, differs between the arts and among artists, but always there is a point of manifestation and it is this that fills the pages of Harlequin’s Riddle.

Coupled with the theme of creativity and the creative process are ideas of spirituality and healing, the very quality we access when we transcend ordinary reality in creative imaginative acts, is also a powerful source of beneficial transformation and healing. Nightingale calls this multidimensional realm Tarya. It is what esotericists call the ‘inner planes’, and it is here that the deeper essence of Harlequin’s Riddle is apparent. 

Entering Tarya involves altering your state of awareness, undergoing an out of body experience, and engaging in astral travel. Tarya is the realm of the shaman, the magus, the trickster, the psychopomp. Here is a small taste of Tarya.

“A subtle buzzing of hidden energy surrounded her. She looked down on distant mountains, and nearby trees, and people, many people, and each shape glimmered with light, layer upon layer of light, blurring outlines of real objects. There were intricate spiderwebs laid across the whole scene, gold threads wrapped around and over everything.”

In the villages, the players are feared for it is known they have occult or arcane power, one that destroys as it sets out to give joy. Unlike the players, Mina has the gift of storytelling, and she accesses Tarya differently, going far beyond the realms accessed by the players, realms that are connected to the  living earth, to enter the purer planes of existence, where spiritual wisdom resides. This innate ability sets her apart, leads her into danger and ultimately drives her quest.

There is much to reflect on in Harlequin’s Riddle, and much to appreciate. Harlequin’s Riddle  is a story to lose yourself in, and can be read on many levels. It isn’t necessary to understand anything about the occult or arcani to appreciate the novel, although the astute reader will recognise Harlequin’s Riddle  as a transpersonal journey, one of initiation and healing. Nightingale has penned a unique and exquisite tale that deserves to be widely known, a story with a depth of awareness and understanding that will hold special appeal to those with an interest in alternative spiritualities. In the final analysis, Harlequin’s Riddle a work of intelligence and refinement that I can only compare to an Ursula le Guin, with overtones of Umberto Eco in theme but not in compositional style. A visionary fiction masterpiece.

Harlequin’s Riddle is available through all good booksellers.

Buy your copy here

Find Rachel Nightingale here