Saturday, January 3, 2009

Face to Faith

More than just a means of transport, flying can take us to new spiritual places too.

Grant us "that peace which the world cannot give". This line from an Anglican evening prayer, it seems to me, defines the essence one strives for in spiritual meditation. That moment of complete peace - spiritual transcendence, if you like - can be awoken by many things, such as poetry, music or the beauty of nature.

I've always been passionate about flying. For me, it offers moments of inner peace that I've rarely found on earth. Whether in a small plane at 2,000 feet or a large airliner at 35,000 feet, I feel the exhilaration that comes from rising into the sky, seeing the earth from a new perspective and contemplating eternity.

I believe, too, that humankind's quest to fly was motivated by a desire to reach the "realms of glory" - where some say God and the angels dwell. I wanted to find out in the course of two programmes for the BBC World Service whether anyone agreed with this theory, and with the notion that flying today can still be a spiritual experience.

Some of the earliest attempts to fly were made by churchmen. I asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu if he thought this quest had a spiritual dimension. "I would say that somewhere in our DNA lies this longing to be set free from the entanglement of the earth," he said. "Up in the sky is transcendence, God's abode, the abode of angels and the good spirits."

The concepts of heaven and angels exist to some degree in all three major monotheistic religions. I heard from Asgar Halim Rajput, a Muslim chaplain at Heathrow airport, about the Islamic belief that in the course of a single night the Prophet Muhammad was taken up to heaven to be told by God how to establish prayer on Earth.

Jewish liturgy, Rabbi Pete Tobias told me, has "a number of mentions of God enfolding us in divine wings. The idea of wings as a metaphor, as well as being spiritual, the talk of rising up into the sky can be quite comforting."

One of the works of contemporary composer John Tavener is called simply Angels. "People think that I have heard the angels because they hear it in my music," he said. "Certainly I look at the sky, but it's a subconscious influence."

But I could not overlook the dark side of flying: the environmental damage and the role of aircraft in war and terrorism. Environmentalist George Monbiot's response to the first issue was blunt: "We simply have to fly less than we do today." Addressing the question of war, Andrew Motion read a new poem, called Coming into Land, based on the writings of a young British airman killed in the second world war. He explained that "as often as we think that leaving the earth is a sort of rise into a transcendent state which defies time and gravity, so coming into land is the equal and opposite, which is to say it is like dying".

Despite this I still found plenty of support for my central thesis. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull author Richard Bach said that when he flew in a small plane he became "part of a creature that has never existed on earth before - a combination of a machine that can fly and a soul that yearns to fly". Indian-born astronaut Sunita Williams spoke of outer space giving one "the perspective of looking back on our planet, and realising there are bigger forces out there."

Perhaps pilots are best placed to experience the spirituality of flight. But there are opportunities for the rest of us, even in these days of mundane air travel, if we look out of an airliner window. One summer evening, after a long and stressful wait at Dublin airport, our plane finally took off. We climbed into an uncluttered, stress-free world, above clouds tinged by an orange glow from the disappearing sun. There in front of me was a full moon, like a giant circle of tissue paper pasted on to a fading blue background, the way it can never look from the earth. I was, for those few moments, in heaven, experiencing that peace which the world cannot give.

Gerald Butt presents Realms of Glory on the BBC World Service's Heart and Soul beginning 3 January