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The Knife, The Helmet & The Cross

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Jenny: Hallo, and welcome to Woman’s Hour!

Today we learn about Talking Newspapers, discuss the impact of wind turbines on tourism, and find out how to make the perfect Bread and Butter Pudding.But first we are going to meet a woman who believes she has lived before. In the studio with me is Fran, a retired academic and volunteer librarian. Hallo Fran! Would you like to explain to the listeners how this idea came to you?

Fran: Let me say first of all that millions of men and women before me have been convinced of reincarnation, of living more lives than one. It is still a strong tenet of numerous faiths and cultures, most famously in Hinduism. But I was a complete sceptic until a series of extraordinary experiences changed my mind. 

Jenny: What happened? 

Fran: It was just an ordinary day. I was on my own, standing in the kitchen, about to prepare vegetables. In the cutlery drawer was one knife that, oddly, I had never used since picking it up for about 50p at a summer fair. Nothing wrong with it - good sharp blade, rugged bone handle, perfect tool for the job. So I took it from the tray and was about to cut the carrots when the strangest feeling came over me. I stopped. I just stood there holding this knife in my right hand, exploring the sensations that now overwhelmed me. 

Jenny: What were you feeling? 

Fran: It was my face ... the skin on my face. My cheeks felt as though something was covering them. Then I knew exactly what it was; touching my face on each side was the soft leather lining of a protective cheek-guard. I was wearing a Roman military helmet; and also, I realised, a man’s clothing and leather sandals. I was no longer Fran holding a cook’s knife in her kitchen; I was a Roman legionary wielding a sharp weapon ... on a rough track in the Kent countryside. 

Jenny: You had moved, somehow? 

Fran: No - not exactly. I just knew this was where I was, because it was a vivid reality in my mind’s eye. And I wasn’t alone. In front of me, cowering in the grass, was an old man. He was in my way. As a member of the invading forces I was supposed to despatch him there and then with the army-issue knife I had just drawn from my belt. But I just stood there, frozen. I couldn’t do it, Jenny. 

Jenny: Why not? 

Fran: For several minutes I waited, amazed by what was happening to me and puzzled by the impasse. Then the realisation dawned on me that a new belief had interfered in my army training: I had encountered Christianity. Thou shalt not kill! This defenceless old chap was completely at my mercy, and I was now painfully torn between what I perceived as my duty and the compassion that I now knew Christ was asking me to show my brother man. Picking up that knife so like the one the Roman soldier always carried had brought a pivotal memory rushing back into my twentieth-century consciousness and connected two moments nearly two thousand years apart. 

Jenny: How do you know it was a memory and not a fantasy? How do you know it was your memory and not someone else’s? Or, obviously, something you read? 

Fran: I ask myself the same questions over and over again. I can’t prove the reality of the memory I was reliving in my kitchen that day; all I can say is that it had the intense emotional impact of any personal experience painfully recalled. And it was only the beginning. 

Jenny: Why? What happened next? 

Fran: Immediately, nothing. I stood over the old man; neither of us moved. Then the scene dissolved. The images of the grassy track and the crouching man faded. The touch of the helmet lightened and was gone. I was fully my normal self again, in the lighted kitchen, holding a bone-handled knife, and wondering what on earth had really just happened - and what it all meant!

Jenny: Do you think this peculiar episode did have meaning?

Fran: Undoubtedly. Because from that moment on I lost the irrational fear of knives that had bothered me for years. That fear must have lodged in my unconscious mind ever since my life as an embattled legionary, and the appalling dilemma into which my new Christian conviction had thrown me. And this was just the first of a number of past-life memories whose recall healed old scars and resolved old conflicts. Some, astonishingly, were shared; one close friend remembered serving with me in the legion, and even being part of my life in a far more distant incarnation whose memory surfaced during a holiday abroad. She, in fact, helped to confirm my first-century Roman identity by driving me over to the coastal fort at Reculver. It was astonishing! As soon as my feet stepped onto the turf by the walls all the physical sensations came back. I was wearing my helmet, tunic and sandals again. I was, in a sense, home. Wandering through the ruins, the feeling that overwhelmed me was quite unexpected: utter boredom! The time I had spent there during the Roman occupation had been spent staring gloomily out to sea, watching for threats that never came, and killing time with dice games. Not very romantic, was it?

Jenny: My goodness, no! What you are saying is that if it had been a fantasy you would have dreamed up something far more exciting?

Fran: Exactly. And it wasn’t the only unglamorous life that came back to teach me... because, you know, we aren’t really supposed to remember our past; we are meant to be getting on with this life, continually growing as souls. Sometimes though we need to let go of baggage we have been carrying for hundreds of years, unnecessary stuff that is holding us back, getting in the way. Allowing ourselves to remember is one way to confront the debris in our unconscious and get rid of it for good. Then we can move on. Being nervous around knives was an issue I needed to deal with, I suppose. 

Jenny: The treatment worked! 

Fran: The treatment worked. Oh I have learned so much! Why I shall always be a Christian - not just because of the Roman episode, but another ordinary life in India during the Raj, when I was orphaned and then rescued by an English clergyman who put me to work in his kitchen but treated me as one of the family ... there were many layers to that memory, that life, and it took weeks to work through. It reduced me to tears. That’s another thing I learned - when a memory makes you cry, you have touched the truth. 

Jenny: What was an English cleric doing in nineteenth-century India? 

Fran: You may well ask! That really perplexed me. I did discover where I was living at that time - I had seen clearly what the trees and the soil were like, so when I found myself looking at the identical environment on TV one evening, it was obvious I’d been in the area around Bombay. Eventually I learned that Protestant missionaries had been active in Maharashtra for at least a hundred years. This is the nearest I have come, I suppose, to proving - at least to myself - that such memories are not merely a product of wishful thinking. That Indian experience was particularly vivid, like a waking dream.

In fact one of my lives did come back in a dream! Complete with a name. Next morning I dug around on the internet and found not only a record of her existence but a picture of her memorial with her name carved into the plinth. 

Jenny: Amazing! 

Fran: And what is more, one detail that had bothered me about the Roman memory was eventually resolved when I moved to Wales. Never had I come across any reference to the helmet cheek-guards being lined, yet logically they would have to be, as bare metal against the skin would burn it in the sun and freeze it on an icy day. So, when I visited the mediaeval armoury in Conwy, I spoke to the man in charge - and he pointed to his display cabinet. There was the replica helmet , complete with its essential leather lining.

Jenny: My goodness! 

Fran: As I say, I was a sceptic about such things for years; I am a thinking woman. But these experiences have opened my mind to human truths that have been taught by religion for thousands of years but science now dismisses as consoling superstition. Many people have episodes of far memory, but are reluctant to share them, for fear of ridicule. 

Jenny: Well Fran, the listeners will have to make up their own minds on reincarnation, but thank you for giving us so much food for thought today.

And talking of food - it’s time for that Bread-and-Butter Pudding!