The Limits of Mystical Experience

Rainbow in Branches DSC03269I 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.

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God is not an angry judge

The God of judgement has been a prevalent theme throughout the course of American history because of the influence of John Calvin. He lived from 1509-1564, and was an important figure in the Protestant Reformation in Europe; he was heavily influenced himself by the earlier work of St. Augustine. Calvin’s teachings became known as Calvinism. He is important to our American story because the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to America were Calvinists.

Calvin preached the total depravity of human beings. Because of original sin, he said, all human beings were born evil, and had no capacity to goodness or to connection to God. However, according to Calvin, God chose to unleash his anger on Jesus, who willingly died so that some people could be granted salvation. The people who were saved were called the “elect,” or the chosen. These people were predestined to holiness, and all other people were doomed to bear the anger of God for their sins, and to suffer in hell. It did not matter whether you tried to be good—that wasn’t enough to get you into heaven.

This was the preaching of the earliest New England pastors, and it was revitalized in a religious movement known as the Great Awakening in the early 1700’s. The Great Awakening was marked by an appeal to emotion, rather than intellect, and the goal was to provoke emotional conversion experiences. If you had one of these conversion experiences, it was considered a sign that you might be among the elect. Again, these were “fire and brimstone” sermons—lifting up the torments of sin and hell, and the likelihood of damnation if one didn’t find salvation.Firey Furnace MJ DSC02606_2

But some preachers found a different inspiration. They asked, “If God is our father, then how can a father condemn his children?” People knew how much they loved their own children. If as human beings they only wanted the best for their children, wouldn’t a heavenly father be even more loving than we could be. Wouldn’t a father want to save all of his children from the torments of hell?

A man named John Murray had asked these questions in England, and been branded a heretic. He came to America in 1770 to try to get away from all that. There is a wonderful story about him being shipwrecked off the coast of New Jersey, right where a farmer named Thomas Potter had built a chapel, waiting for someone who would preach about universal salvation. And so John Murray did.

This was the beginning of the religious movement in American called Universalism: a deep devotion to the idea that God is love, and that God’s love reached everyone, and there was no such thing as hell. This was quite a radical notion in 18th century America. The most influential of the early Universalist preachers was the Rev. Hosea Ballou. He and others went around the countryside, spreading their message among the working people and farmers, and many Universalist churches were started. When the preacher Rev. Thomas Barnes came to Maine in 1799, that was the start of Universalism in Portland, and the beginnings of my own congregation.

People used to argue with Hosea Ballou—they would say, “if there is no threat of hell, why would anyone be good, or obey the law.” Ballou used to respond, “what kind of goodness is it, if you are only doing it to avoid hell? I don’t need the threat of hell to practice goodness.”

Guilt or Love?

Steeple MJ DSC01914One of my hopes in this blog has been to expand our understanding of what God might be, what Mystery and Spirit might be, because so many people have been wounded by the false Gods of our culture. I want to take a closer look at one of those false Gods that I believe has hurt many people. If you have rejected the idea of God, perhaps you’ll recognize the one I am talking about. So I invite you to persevere with me as we explore it a little bit.

I think we can identify two approaches that people have taken to our relationship with the powers greater than ourselves. In one, the powers, the Gods, the Spirits were dangerous forces, and religious ritual was enlisted to appease these forces, and make the people safe from them. In the other, the Gods, the Spirits were benevolent forces, and religious ritual was enlisted to call upon the forces for help in dealing with the challenges of living. I am simplifying it of course, but still, there have been particular times in history when this battle between dangerous or fearful forces and kind and loving forces was in full blaze, and sometimes within the same religion.

When I was a child, I learned about one such conflict between a judging fearful God and a loving God. As a Catholic, I used to read about the lives of the saints, and one saint I liked a lot was Margaret Mary Alacoque. She lived during the 17th century in France. Just before her time, there had been a theologian named Cornelius Jansen who emphasized the idea of original sin. He believed that people were unworthy and evil, and only a few would be saved. Jansen discouraged people from participating in the communion ritual that happened every Sunday, saying it was reserved for only the very holy.

Sacred Heart

But Margaret Mary began to have visions—in her visions she saw Jesus, and she saw his heart, as if it were outside of his body, burning with love. He told her that God was full of love for people, and that God wanted to help people. Now, for those of you who have been Catholic, you may remember seeing pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It became an important devotion in Catholic life.

For me, this story was a gift—first of all, I thought it was cool that she had visions, and could talk to Jesus. But more importantly, this story told me that I was loved by God. All Catholic children learn a lot of guilt, and lessons about original sin, and mortal and venial sins, can weigh heavily upon us. But this story shifted the balance for me—it helped me to know deep in my heart that God was love, and that God loved me.

Now, I am guessing that very few people have ever heard of Cornelius Jansen or Margaret Mary, but perhaps you have your own memories of a church in which you felt guilt and shame, in which you learned that you were a sinner, or unworthy. Those ideas are just as pervasive today as in former centuries. The God of judgement has been a prevalent theme throughout the course of American history because of the teachings of someone much more famous that Jansen. More on that tomorrow.

Beyond Language

If God is God, if that concept is to have any meaning for me, then I need to go back to the language of mythos—the language that leads us through language into that which lies beyond language.

Karen Armstrong describes a ritual that used language in this way, during the tenth century BCE in India. The Indians of that time gave the name Brahman to the unseen principle beyond the gods, the sacred energy that held all the world together, and in fact was the all of reality. The Brahmin priests developed the Brahmodya competition.

The contestants began by going on a retreat in the forest where they performed spiritual exercises, such as fasting and breath control, that concentrated their minds and induced a different type of consciousness. [The] goal [of the contest] was to find a verbal formula to define the Brahman, [but then it went beyond that.] The challenger asked an enigmatic question, and his opponent had to reply in a way that was apt but equally inscrutable. The winner was the contestant who reduced his opponents to silence–and in that moment of silence, when language revealed its inadequacy, the Brahman was present; it became manifest only in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech.

How often do we carry language to the very limits of language, and enter that kind of silence?Sunlight in Water

I remember something I learned when I was an undergraduate student at Aquinas College. The very wordy Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas had said, at the end of his days, that all of his work was like grass, and should be burned in the fire. There was no way to put the true reality into words. I was lucky enough to grow up reading the words of the Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, who moved beyond the dogmatic Catholicism of their time and my time, into a relationship with the divine that was beyond all dogma, beyond all images.

One of those mystics was a Dominican preacher, Meister Eckart. In the pre-modern 13th century he wrote:

For if you love God as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person, and as he is image–all this must go! Then how should I love him? You should love him as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is–pure, unmixed, bright “One” separated from all duality; and in that One we should sink eternally down, out of “something” into “nothing.”

I think my experience was rather unusual for kids my age. But it reminds me that even in the most dogmatic of situations, that element of mythos is not totally lost from our world. Even among the fundamentalists, I know that there are people who move beyond narrow literal images into something beyond—something more silent and mysterious and expansive. So when I criticize that system, I do not mean to imply that there can be no authentic spirituality among them. I do mean to challenge the solidification of those images of God into an idol, and into a weapon to condemn those of us who choose a different path.

Quotes cited in Karen Armstrong, A Case for God

Words about God: Reason vs. Myth

People have been searching for God, and making idols about God for a very long time. But we have some particular ways of doing it in the modern era. I believe one such phenomenon that has become an idolatry of our time is Biblical literalism. Fundamentalists claim to be bringing back the fundamentals of ancient Christianity, but in fact, their version of Christianity has not existed anywhere prior to the last one hundred years or so. They claim that every word in the Bible is the literal and factual truth. But scholar of religion Karen Armstrong reminds us that literalism is a very modern way to read the Bible, a way that was unheard of prior to this era. In A Case for God, she talks about the historical context for our modern idols.

After the destruction by the Romans of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, during the first century of what we call the Christian Era, there were various groups of Jews wrestling with their new religious predicament—much of the Hebrew Scriptures were centered around the temple, and the rites and rituals of the temple, but now there was no temple.

One group of rabbis began to re-work their faith into a guide for living as if the temple was everywhere, and how they lived should reflect the priestly status of all the Jewish people. They began to develop new practices for living, and created the beginnings of classical Judaism. They felt perfectly free to re-arrange the Biblical texts, or draw new meaning out of them, use them metaphorically, or even disagree with them. Eventually, a body of literature grew up around this effort, that we now call the Talmud.

There was also another group of Jews making new meaning out of the old scriptures. They were re-interpreting the old texts around the person of their teacher Jesus, whom they saw as the Messiah, who had been crucified by the Romans. They too re-arranged texts, interpreted them metaphorically, and added new writings and practices. They too were grappling as Jews with a temple-less Jewish faith, though now we call them the early Christians. But neither these early Christians, nor the rabbis who shaped the faith of Judaism, were biblical literalists.

Karen Armstrong writes that before the modern era, which was beginning about the time that Columbus set sail for America,

“religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because [they believed] it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms.”

Armstrong talks about how in premodern cultures there were two recognized ways of acquiring knowledge. Logos, or reason, “was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.” Mythos, or myth, “focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside of the remit of logos.” The modern world is a world devoted to scientific reason, and has lost track of the meaning of myth—in fact, myth is now defined as something that is not true. But in pre-modern times, myth was the common language of religion, and helped people to wrestle with the challenges that were not so easily solved by reason. Mythic words were meant to be a doorway into that which was beyond words.

The language of myth was linked to the practice of ritual, in which people entered into a communal experience of story in a way that transcended logical thought or emotion. They were brought to the limits of their rational understanding, into the presence of the mysterious and ineffable, and emerged with a new capacity for living within the tragedy and bliss of this world. Religion was not something that people thought, but something that they did. People who put in the hard work and perseverance it required “discovered a transcendent dimension of life” that was also “identical with the deepest levels of their being.” Potholes flow DSC00653

Exchanging God for an Idol?

Stone TowerIn the story of Exodus, we read that Moses led the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt, with the help of great miracles performed by their God. As they traveled through the desert, they survived with the help of more miracles. They made an agreement with God—he would continue to protect and lead them and they would serve him forever. Then Moses went up the mountain to talk to God, to receive the law.

But after forty days and nights, the people grew restless, and asked Moses’ brother Aaron to build them another God to worship, saying “we don’t know what has happened to this Moses.” Aaron asked for all their gold earrings, melted them down, and formed them into the shape of a golden calf. Then the people brought sacrifices and burnt offerings, and began to create a great celebration for this calf God.

Well, the story goes on to tell us that God was angry, and Moses was angry, and many lives were lost, before the people repented and reconciled. But that is not what is most interesting to me about this story. What I find most curious is that even though this group of people had been up close and personal with God, even though God freed them, and did miracles to feed them—they still forgot all about that after only forty days. They wanted something solid that they could worship—and so they exchanged their God for an idol.

It is an old story, but it still rings true today. Human beings have a perennial problem. We are very quick to turn any idea or experience of God into an idol—something solidified, defined, predictable, and under control.

Think about the image of God that many of us absorbed as children from our American culture. This God is an old white man with a beard and a long white robe who sits on a golden throne in heaven. Remember him? He is supposed to control things on earth and grant favors to the good people who pray to him, while punishing the people who do bad things. There are plenty of preachers who will tell you that if you are good and give your life to Jesus and your money to them, that God will make you prosperous and successful and healthy.

And if you don’t follow their prescriptions, well, you’d better beware. A certain televangelist I won’t name blamed a number of disasters on pagans, feminists, and gays and lesbians. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he claimed that the Haitian people had been cursed by God, because they had made a deal with the devil during their 19th century liberation struggle.

I don’t believe in that God. Maybe that televangelist doesn’t want to see it, but I have noticed that goodness can go hand in hand with poverty, illness and misfortune, and those who are wealthy can more than occasionally be selfish, greedy, and downright mean. I don’t believe in a God who blesses the prosperous people and curses the misfortunate people. I think that particular God is a kind of idol, a golden calf, created by people to prop up their own prejudice or insecurity, and apparently, to put other people down.

Reality is a Dance

Kayaker Reality is a dance between making plans, and responding to small and large disruptions. So to embark on a spiritual journey is to grow our capacity to practice, to plan, to wait outside, and then to embrace all that reality offers.

A spiritual practice is meant to help us develop the skill of embracing what comes to us as an opportunity to wake up. A spiritual practice helps us to be fully present and to pay attention. If we have not been practicing, we can get thrown off by life’s disruptions, become grumpy and anxious, shut down or reactive. In fact, that can happen even when we have been practicing. Kayak Tipped OverBut I know from long experience that the more I practice this embrace of reality, the easier it becomes to shift from resistance to curiosity, from crankiness to compassion.

The spiritual journey is our search for an immediate, personal experience of the larger reality, our connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery that connects and upholds life. Let us go back for a moment to an experiment.

Notice the energy in your heart right now.
If you wish, create an invitation in your heart, open your heart to experience the larger Mystery that connects and upholds all life.

As feelings come up, imagine your breath filling and embracing those feelings. Be present to what emerges in your heart. If you feel emptiness, breathe into the emptiness. If you feel joy, breathe into the joy. If you feel confused, breathe into the confusion.

The beginning and the ending of spiritual practice are in paying attention to the energy of the present moment.

After the wondrous, after the experience of Mystery, we must always come back to the everyday. In pagan rituals, they say we must “ground the energy.” We remember to eat food or have a drink of water. In Buddhism, there is a saying, “after the ecstasy, the laundry.” Sanity is being able to switch our consciousness from the mysterious to the ordinary. Life is not static, it keeps moving. We are not meant to remain in emptiness or in ecstatic feelings. We are meant to be fully involved in all that life is about. Says one Western lama, “What became clear is that spiritual practice is only what you’re doing now. Anything else is a fantasy.”

The most important grounding is how our spiritual experience affects the rest of our living. In the end, we may ask, What is spirituality for? I would answer that our experience of the Mystery that connects and upholds life is meant to bring greater power and resources into growing in community with all that lives. Authentic spiritual practice will energize us for greater kindness, compassion, peace, and humility. May it be so.

In the waterQuote from Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy the Laundry, (New York: Bantam, 2000). p. 126