I grew up with a father who was a mystic. My father didn’t merely believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart too.
My father later described to me his own pivotal experience, which occurred when I was about eight years old. He told me that one day in prayer he had offered his life to God unreservedly. A few days later he was lifted to a state of spiritual bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. It was during the time when the Russian cosmonauts became the first human beings to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and when he tried to explain what had happened for him, that became his metaphor—he was lifted out of this world. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.
Living with a mystical father was a powerful gift for me. From my earliest memories, I was familiar with the idea that God could touch our lives. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation someone was listening. God lived in our house like another member of the family. God was talked about as a source of infinite Love. I experienced moments of being held in the care of a strong and cherishing presence.
When I take seriously the interconnected web of all existence, when I begin to try to experience it, I also come face to face with my own attachment to separation. There is more to awakening than a mystical appreciation of the beauty of the larger whole. Something within me, and I believe within all of us, is afraid of opening the heart. I am afraid of feeling the pain of other people, I am afraid of feeling the pain of the earth. I am afraid of letting go of my illusion of control, I am afraid of being hurt by other people, or emptied out by other people. It seems easier to distract myself than to pay attention to the fear around my heart.
But this too is a part of the dance. We have to be aware of our separateness in order to come to awareness of our unity. Because here we are. Here I am in this moment, alive and part of the great circle of life. All the feelings I feel, including fear and separation, are part of the universe at this moment. And, what I have learned from many teachers, is that somehow the only task that matters, the only dance I must do, is to pay attention to the task of the present moment. I am asked to take one step forward, to make the one next choice.
There are many teachers of meditation, in many different traditions. I do not have a particular formula to teach you to use to experience the divine. But many of the mystical systems within the world traditions actually do teach practices, the purpose of which is to help us to work with our fear, and our attachment to separation, and to bring us to that experience of higher consciousness. The Buddha encouraged people not to believe what he taught, but rather to try it out and test it for themselves. If you want such a formal practice, finding a meditation group with which to work can be very helpful.
Even without a formal practice, we can take small steps. If we can notice the thread of connection between ourselves and one other being, that is a step. When I eat a piece of bread, I might call to mind that I am joining this bread together with my own body—it is becoming human in me. Why do people pray before eating, in so many cultures? There is something about the process of eating that reminds us of our threads of connection.
Even as you sit here reading, notice the sounds that send vibrations across anyone nearby.
If you are outside or near a window, feel the sun on your cheek, and realize that you have a thread of connection across thousands of miles of space—its light is reaching you.
Notice the gravity pulling your body to the ground, attaching you to the chair and the floor beneath your feet.
Notice your breathing, the air going in and out of your nose and mouth.
When you go into the kitchen, and drink a glass of water or a cup of coffee, think about how your body is also a form of water—70% water, and imagine that your hand is pouring water into water.
When you talk to a friend or a stranger, imagine the divine spark inside of them and inside of you, and see how that affects the greeting you bring.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if we use the word God, or God-ing, or light, or love. It doesn’t matter what we call it. What we are reaching for is larger than language, larger than thought. But it is already deep within us—closer than breathing, closer than a song, closer than the DNA of each cell of our bodies. The threads of connection already weave their way into the center of our being, and hold us one to the other. There is a blessing in it, when we can feel it and see it. There is a sense of coming home and a feeling of belonging. May it be so. May we awaken like the spring flowers.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is not much discussion about God—in fact, Buddhism has been called a religion without a God. But more to the point, the Buddha was said to regard such questions as irrelevant. The point of his teaching was to enable people to overcome suffering. By the practice of meditation, we might come to understand ourselves from the perspective of the larger whole—once we gained such a perspective, we would no longer be attached to the pains and desires of the individual life of the individual self. We would reach nirvana.
However, the theologian in me can’t fail to notice that this experience–transcending the self to encounter the unity of everything–is common to the mystics of most traditions–and in many of those traditions, that experience of the larger unity is described as the experience of God. J.D. Salinger, who was a student of Zen Buddhism and Vedantic Hinduism, wrote an account of a moment of such insight in his short story “Teddy.”
“I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all,” Teddy said. “It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was a tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”
There are many paths to the awareness of the larger whole. Some paths use the word God, and others do not. Using the word God is one way to express the beauty and awe we encounter in the mystery of the interconnected universe. But the word God is not a proper name. We can just as easily call it Mystery, or Light, or the Evolving Universe, or Love.
Sometimes I think we should abandon the word God, because of all the oppression and abuse that have been engendered by those who claim to be acting on God’s behalf. But at other times, that is the very reason I want to use that word. I know how healing it can be, for someone who has been banished from the realm of the holy, to recognize that they too are part of ultimate reality and value. How better to say it, in our world, than to claim that we all belong to the realm of God?
The story “Teddy,” was originally published in the January 31, 1953 issue of The New Yorker and reprinted in the collection, Nine Stories.
Winifred Gallagher, in her memoir, Working on God, chronicled her own spiritual search in the context of what she called “millennial spirituality among the neo-agnostics.” Neo-agnostics are well-educated skeptics who are mistrustful of traditional religious dogma. Unlike believers, neo-agnostics don’t have ready answers to the big questions about the meaning of life. But unlike secular atheists, they sense something important beyond the tools of intellect and learning.
As part of her search, Gallagher studied Zen Buddhist meditation. She was curious about the Zen experience of kensho, which is translated as “see nature.” Kensho is a sudden, ecstatic transformation of a person’s perception of reality. She describes one practitioner’s experience of kensho:
One morning toward the end of a retreat, he despaired of his practice and wished to ‘turn back to the “normal” world.’ For some reason, he recalled the roshi saying ‘Keep your eyes open or you will miss it!’ Suddenly, he says… ‘the teacup in front of me seemed to “fly apart” and all the constituent matter in the cup, and in my body, and in the universe, were the same from all past to all future for endless time. I saw that what seems to be me or a cup is only due to where my self was sitting. This experience totally freed my self from the coming and going and caused the greatest gratitude to well up in my heart.
The word Buddha means the awakened one, and Buddhism offers itself as a method for waking up to the deep unity of reality all around us. Gallagher discovered, however, that Zen practitioners actually put little attention on these peak spiritual experiences. Part of their realization seems to be that ultimately ecstatic experiences do not matter, except perhaps as a help to waking up. The center of devotion for Zen is in the humble and simple practice of sitting and breathing meditation.
There is a similar lesson in the story of Elijah told in the Hebrew Bible. Elijah had displayed the power of his God Yahweh with great signs and wonders in a showdown with the prophets of the God Baal. But the queen, who was loyal to Baal and unconvinced by miracles, wanted to kill him, and he had to flee for his life. He walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
The story goes on to say that he was told to wait out on the mountain and Yahweh would be passing by. Then there came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire there came the sound of a still small voice, like a gentle breeze. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak, for he knew that Yahweh was near.
Rabbi Burton Visottzky says, “A miracle is not God, but that which calls your attention to God, as pyrotechnics do. You have to stop, look—pay attention—before you hear God’s voice. Otherwise, you miss the miracle.”
I come from a peculiar perspective on the topic of spirituality, because I grew up with a father who is a mystic. He later described to me his own pivotal experience of God. He told me he was lifted to a state of bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, that he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.
When I was growing up, this God lived in our house like another member of the family. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation that someone was there listening. The other side of this story was that my father was far from perfect—he could be dogmatic about his experiences and beliefs, and critical of his children. He got angry and sad and frustrated and disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, he was and is a good and loving man. But once I grew up enough to form my own opinions, I realized that spiritual experiences were no guarantee of emotional compassion, or accuracy in the search for knowledge. Just because my father could have a spiritual experience, did not mean he was always right.
The biggest challenge for me in this regard came when my journey took a very different turn than my father’s. Our family had become involved in the Catholic Pentecostal movement, which in many ways was a very empowering and spiritually nurturing community for a teenage spiritual seeker. But during my last years of college, the Pentecostals were shaping themselves into a more institutional structure, and I found myself repelled by their hierarchical and sexist understandings of community. Where the Spirit seemed to be leading them was very different from where I felt the Spirit was leading me.
My great helper through that time was a woman professor of the Bible, who taught me about scholarly interpretation of sacred texts and the dangers of fundamentalism. I have talked about that in another post. But I learned, then, that we cannot abandon mind and intellect, as we search for spiritual experience. We’d like to think that people who have spiritual experience will be always compassionate and wise. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way.
Our experience of the larger reality, the great Mystery, is mediated by our human limitations and our human failings. We must keep our eyes open. Spiritual community can be used to hurt and to oppress, as well as to help and uplift. Spiritual conviction can be used for destruction as well as for compassion. Jesus once said that you can know a tree by its fruit, and the apostle Paul wrote, “The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We too must pay attention to the fruits that are borne by spiritual experience.
Eventually, my own spiritual and intellectual journey led me out of Christianity, and I became a part of the feminist revival of the Goddess. On the one hand, it could be said I was rejecting everything my father stood for. But on the other hand, the essence of the gospel message—the message of liberation for the downtrodden—had opened a door for this next stage of my journey. And it was a similar journey to his—a journey of being called beyond the familiar, into a new experience of reality; a journey of trusting this inner calling and conviction more than outer definitions.
Even though my father and I are worlds apart in the details of our spiritual expression, we can still sometimes find a deep connection because of the inner core of our spiritual journeying. My relationship to my father teaches me about the complications of searching after spirituality as experience. We must trust our own experience, we must honor the experience of others, but we must weigh everything according to our deep values.
The Unitarian side of my church’s heritage partly developed in response to what it saw as an excessive focus on “feeling after God” in the Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century. During the Great Awakening, revival preachers were traveling across the countryside stirring people into a frenzy of religious devotion. Salvation was marked by conversion experiences of great emotional intensity. The underside of this fervor was a pessimistic theology that claimed that all human beings were inherently evil and destined to eternal damnation. Salvation was seen as a literal rescue from this horrific fate. An emotional conversion experience marked you as one of the saved.
By contrast, the preachers who were my forebears mistrusted this approach of salvation by catharsis. They advocated a religion based on reason and character, and believed we might participate in the process of spiritual growth. God, they said, would not despise our use of the intellect which he had given us. Reason and character have remained hallmarks of our faith.
Unitarianism became known as a religion comfortable with words, mistrustful of emotion. Yet from the beginning there were Unitarians who worried about the coldness of such a reasonable approach. Ralph Waldo Emerson, called “the father of American spirituality,” complained about it:
“Where now sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origins in heaven?… The test of a true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul…”
Is it possible to find a faith which charms both the mind and the soul? Can intellect and ecstasy co-exist?
Emerson quoted from “The Divinity School Address” in Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism
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?
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.”