Feeling After God Is a Dangerous Business

Would you climb a mountain if you knew for sure that you could have a spiritual experience at the top? Would you go down into a river? About fifty years ago, theologian Harvey Cox predicted that religion would decline in the face of modern progress, and many educated people agreed. They were skeptical about all matters religious or spiritual. But his prophecy did not turn out to be accurate.

Many people began looking for spiritual experience again, evidenced by such widely diverse phenomena as the New Age movement, the popularity of the Pentecostal movement, and the growing number of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” What they have in common is the desire for an experiential connection to the larger reality, to the mysterious, to the divine. But for many this is still unfamiliar terrain. What is Spirit anyway? What is the Mystery that connects and upholds all life? By what signs would we recognize it if we experienced it?

September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration). Photo by Russell Lee.

September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration) Photo by Russell Lee.

One group of people who thought they had the answer were the snake handling churches of the Appalachian south. Perhaps they offer a cautionary tale. Dennis Covington wrote about them in his book Salvation on Sand Mountain. He entered into the world of the “Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following.” Its name and its practices were drawn from an obscure verse at the end of the gospel of Mark: “And these signs shall follow those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”

Interpreting these words literally, their church services regularly invite believers into prayers for healing, the handling of rattlesnakes, and the drinking of strychnine poison. While on the surface, it doesn’t sound like this would play well as an advertisement for divine encounters, the author was amazed to find himself drawn more and more into the power of their experience. What began as a journalistic investigation became a much more personal exploration.

Eventually, he too joined in, and took up serpents. He described it like this:

I didn’t stop to think about it. I just gave in. I stepped forward and took the snake with both hands. I turned to face the congregation and lifted the rattlesnake up toward the light. And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else had disappeared… all gone, all faded to white. The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees… The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light… I knew then why the handlers took up serpents.

 What makes an experience a spiritual experience? By what signs would we recognize it? Is an experience of ecstasy an experience of God? Covington would later compare the ecstasy of snake handling to the adrenaline induced high of being on a battlefield, surrounded by the risk of death. But eventually, he mistrusted this emotional surge. It wasn’t the physical danger that drove him away. Rather, it was the dogmatism of the spirit-filled preachers, who condemned him when he didn’t accept their whole system of beliefs. Near the end he remarked, “Feeling after God is dangerous business.”

The Seed of God

The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote,

The seed of God exists in us…
Pear seed grows up into pear tree.
Nut seed grows up into nut tree—
God seed into God.

What might we do together if we remembered that each of us has the seed of God inside? Antoine de St. Exupery, in The Little Prince, tells us “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Each one of us is like Jack and the Beanstalk. Each one of us has within us this spark of divinity, like a Mystery Seed, a seed of what we might become, fully alive. And we also have some husk that tries to keep it contained and hidden. We have to plant those seeds, let them break apart, tend them, and help them to grow. If we let those Mystery Seeds grow, like Jack with his beanstalk, we will become much more than we ever imagined.

I can’t help but think of one of the elders I knew in the congregation in which I served on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Her name was Ellie. Ellie died at the age of ninety-four. She had always suffered from a stutter. As a child, she was sent to all the specialists that her prominent father could afford, and nothing cured the stutter. But in the midst of this, Ellie was able to find her voice.

She became a writer, both in her career, and in her passion for politics and social justice. She was a speechwriter for several political campaigns and an active member of the League of Women Voters. She was also active in the nuclear freeze movement. Somehow, she didn’t need to get rid of her stutter to bring forth her voice. It was almost as if her stutter helped her to find her voice. It was like an old husk, long ago cracked open, lying almost unnoticed around the bright flower of a plant that had grown from her heart. She had brought forth her latent divinity.Violets in Tree MJ DSC05246

Quote from Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), from “The Nobleman” in Meister Eckhart, From Whom God Hid Nothing: Sermons, Writings and Sayings

Latent Divinity

During our ministry retreat, Rev. Ray Tetrault invited us to move beneath the turmoil of politics, beneath the struggle of winning or losing elections, to the place where all that we value finds its roots. He called it “latent divinity.” I knew that he meant what I have been calling the Mystery Seed. Sometimes we get caught up in words, but at our retreat we were not worrying about that. We were letting ourselves go to the deeper place that Ray was invoking. Latent divinity is like a spark of the sacred, hidden inside each of us, burning like a glimmer of light and beauty and possibility.

I had written in my email to my family, “I believe that the presence of God is in every being on earth, every shoreline, every tree, every rainfall, every turtle, every person.  Even the word God is incomplete. The doors of my heart have expanded open like that. We are all bright sparks of light.” 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

In the silence of the retreat, I could feel that spark in my heart, that Mystery Seed of life and love. I could imagine that seed of divinity in every person alive, pulsing to grow, laboring to be born, and I realized just a glimpse of how beautiful we are. In that place of Mystery, we are all connected, and anything is possible. In that place of Mystery, there is hope for the problems facing our world.

I could also feel how the seed of divinity in me was surrounded by an old husk of separation and division. I was attached to that old husk, that part of me that needs to feel separate from others. That old husk didn’t want to be connected with those who disagreed with me, or to see divinity in people who believed differently from me. I just wanted my side to win. But in order for divinity to grow in me, I would have to let go of the husk of separation.

What Is Really Going On?

Tree Reflection DSC03816One fall, I was on retreat with other ministers, and our retreat leader was a priest, Rev. Ray Tetrault. He was a friend of one of my colleagues and known to us as a passionate advocate for social justice. Our task together was to reflect on the politics of our time, in light of our role as spiritual leaders.

He started us off with an unlikely reference from the gospel of Luke, familiar from the Christmas story. Luke tells us that a census was called during the time when Herod was the king of Judea, Augustus was caesar of the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Ray reminded us that they were the politicians in charge of the regional and imperial governments some two thousand years ago.

But what was really going on?” he asked. Something mysterious. In a small town, a baby had just been born—we know him as John the Baptist—and something new was beginning that would literally transform the world. This new thing emerged, not from those at the top, but from underneath, from an unexpected and hidden place.

Since our retreat was happening just before the national elections, all of us were sitting there with many stirred up feelings about the issues facing our country. It would have been easy to talk together about our political leaders, our concerns and our analysis. But Ray invited us instead to be silent, to listen deep in the quiet of our hearts, underneath our thoughts and feelings. He invited us to reflect on the question: “What is really going on?” What else might be happening here in our own time and country, underneath, unseen, and yet full of potential significance? What is really going on?

We kept the silence for an hour, and then we shared from our hearts. The next day we went back into silence, and then shared again from that deeper place. When I went into the silence, I felt something like a seed in my heart that was swelling and expanding, and also something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

I remembered an email that I had sent a few days earlier to my family members. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and my parents are both still alive. I have family living in Michigan, Texas, Montana, and West Virginia. I remember that my family was excited when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, but mostly we had not been very involved in politics. Now we have vast disagreements among us. In fact, the deep religious and political divisions in our country are directly mirrored in my family.

I had been moved to send an email to my family members about my feelings and concerns about the elections, and about the spiritual beliefs underlying my hopes and fears. Then others started replying: several of my sisters, my father, a niece and a nephew sent emails to all the others. Many began by expressing fear that if they shared their beliefs, others might reject them, but still they wanted to take the risk. And even those with very strong views kept repeating that, in spite of these differences, they loved each member of the family and hoped that everyone still loved them.

Somehow, in the midst of the cultural divisions facing our nation, we had ventured across the walls of politics and religion, painfully but hopefully, to share our truths with love. Our differences were deep, and our emails did not make them go away. But we were touching each other at a deeper level than our differences. And that gave me hope for facing the divide in our nation. In the silence of the retreat, I was realizing the mysterious unfolding that had taken place in our email conversation. It felt something like a seed in my heart swelling and expanding, something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

Growing a Soul

Fiddlehead New DSC00242Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said “Life is just a chance to grow a soul.” He was known for standing up against injustice, and working on behalf of freedom, democracy and equality. For Davies, being fully alive meant living according to these values, and shaping the future toward a vision of connection and community. He spoke of the inner life at the heart of his actions:

“There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery… Fern Grow DSC03761_2In the mind’s dimness a light will shine; in the spirit’s stillness it will be as though a voice had spoken; the heart that was lonely will know who it was it yearned for, and the life of the soul will be one with the life that is God.”

For Davies, growing the soul means attuning ourselves to this inner light, becoming one with the life that is God.

The soul is not a passive object of salvation or protection, but a living capacity within all of us for a deepening awareness of connection and mystery. The Mystery Seed is another name for the soul. A seed is meant to be planted and to grow. To grow our souls means to foster our inner awareness of the connections between all beings, our inner awareness of the Mystery that is within us and within all.

Quotes from Davies from an article by Manish Mishra

The Soul Is a Doorway

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the soul as our capacity to directly experience the divine. He criticized the religions of his time for merely setting up rules and dogmas that followed the traditions of the past but offered no opportunities for today. He said,

…within this erring passionate mortal self, sits a supreme calm immortal mind, whose powers I do not know, but it is stronger than I am, it is wiser than I am…I seek counsel of it in my doubts, I repair to it in my dangers, I pray to it in my undertakings. It is the door of my access to the Father… It is the perception of this depth in human nature—this infinitude belonging to every man that has been born—which has given new value to the habits of reflexion and solitude.

Fern water rocks MJ DSC04376The soul for Emerson was linked to his understanding of the divine, not as a being external to us, but present within us, available to us. The soul was like a well whose depth kept getting deeper—there was no limit to this interior life, it was a doorway into the infinite.

The fifteenth century Indian poet Kabir also speaks about the soul as our capacity to experience the divine. He said:

Jump into experience while you are alive!
…What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.

Kabir suggests that we can’t wait for some sort of salvation after we die. He reminds us that we must cultivate this seed—it won’t grow automatically. We must do the work of our souls now, right here, we must connect with the Mystery while we are alive.

The Mystery Seed

AcornsWhat shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?
                          David Whyte

Soul is another spiritual word with a lot of baggage. As a child, I learned that my soul was the part of me that lived after I died. If I was good, my soul would go to heaven. If I was bad, it might go to hell. If I was somewhere in between, my soul would go to purgatory before it could go to heaven. And the souls of babies that hadn’t been baptized went to limbo. There was a complex geography of souls to learn, and a lot of fear about what happened after we died.

Many churches tell us they want to save our souls, and I have heard old stories about people selling their soul to the devil in exchange for some favor. A while back, I heard a story of a young atheist who sold his soul on eBay. He got $504 from the highest bidder. I wondered how the highest bidder was expected to take possession of his soul? It turned out that what he actually auctioned off was the chance for the highest bidder to send him to the church of their choice.

Just what is the soul anyway? Is it something we can buy and sell? Is it something to be saved or lost? Just for a little while, try to set aside the definitions of the soul that you may have learned but that don’t work for you. Let us see if we can find some better uses for the word. I want to think of soul in the context of spirituality as we have redefined it. Our soul is our capacity to experience our connection to the larger reality of which we are a part. Our soul is our point of connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery within all that is.

Come with me into the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. When his mother and he are in desperate straits, Jack trades their cow for some magical bean seeds. The bean seeds grow overnight into a vine that reaches up to heaven. There he encounters an evil giant, who eats human beings, but Jack is able to escape with a magical hen that lays golden eggs, and a golden harp that plays by itself. He learns from a fairy that the giant’s castle is actually his very own—he is really a prince whose father was killed by the giant. In the end, he kills the giant, and recovers his hidden inheritance.

So what does this have to do with our soul? The bean seeds enable Jack to connect with who he really is, and with a larger reality beyond the small cabin he shares with his mother. The soul is like those magical bean seeds. We are so much more than we can imagine! We might say that inside each of us is a Mystery Seed, a seed of what we might become, fully alive. This Mystery Seed is our potential to connect with the larger Mystery of which we are a part. This seed is not just in some of us, not just in fairy tales or kings or saints, but in every one of us.

Poem from “What To Remember When Waking,” in The House of Belonging