Posts Tagged ‘mystical experience’

PSALM 46

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Religion is often criticized as so much whistling in the dark. Under the harsh and unforgiving conditions of mortality, human beings have a desperate need to believe they are supported by providence and that their existence doesn’t just end in oblivion. The plain fact of the matter is that we’re thrown into existence and fall out of it without so much as a sigh of indifference from the universe.

Now it may be true that religion frequently ascribes to its god more supremacy and control over what’s going on than he or she genuinely deserves. To an outsider it can sometimes sound as if God is nothing more than a personification of what the ancient Greeks named Fate – the universal principle or ultimate agency by which the order of things is presumably prescribed: a.k.a. “God’s sovereign plan.” Such belief in an absolute necessity behind everything is at least more comforting than the idea of it all as random and utterly pointless.

But maybe it’s not human insecurity that best explains the phenomenon of religion. Could it be that a mystical insight rather than neurotic anxiety underlies our many concepts of God? Perhaps it’s not primarily our fear of death that compelled the first thought and stories of God. More likely it was the intuition that our existence is grounded in a present mystery we cannot explain, but which supports us, inhabits us, confronts us, and transcends us in the marvelous adventure of being alive.

What’s more, this present mystery is provident – for here you are! The breath in your lungs, the beat of your heart, your living body and the countless life-lines connecting you to the earth and its moon, to our Sun and the spinning planets, into the galaxy and out to that One Song (uni-verse) that’s been topping the charts now for the past 15 billion years – all of it is conspiring to open a window of awareness on this very moment.

You blink, and it opens again.

JOHN 14:15-21

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
He abides with you, and he will be in you. This simple shift from “with” to “in” marks the transforming moment of what we can call mystical experience. In fact, it’s helpful to put these two positions together with a third for a more complete picture of spiritual awakening and faith development.

So let’s begin with a third position, really first in the sequence, which corresponds to the popular view of God or Spirit as “outside” you – up there in heaven or over there in the temple sanctuary; in short, somewhere else. The category of supernatural intervention is also part of this cluster of ideas, where God is regarded as “over nature,” managing the cosmos and human history from behind the curtain, as it were.

Religion can become completely preoccupied here: coordinating the rituals, defending an orthodoxy, managing a budget, and maintaining its membership roster. In a sense, because God is outside the system, religion takes on the responsibility of carrying on in his absence. It determines who’s in and who’s out, and in many Christian traditions an emphasis on the (future) Second Coming of Jesus serves to reinforce the church’s authority in the meantime. Until the Boss gets back, we’re in charge.

So that’s the position of the divine as “outside.”

At some point faith deepens and God is encountered in a more personal way. The one who, according to the myths, made the world, stepped into history a long time ago, supervises everything from above, and will eventually wrap it all up, is also right here with me. God cares for me and maybe has a plan for my life. God wants me to reach out and get involved, to help my neighbor and do what is right.

True enough, religion can also exploit believers at this level of spirituality. How do you know what God wants? We are called, charged, and ordained to speak God’s Word into your life. You want to cultivate a personal relationship with God? Very well. Here are all the materials to help you do that – sermons, fellowships, lesson plans, retreats, mission trips, daily devotions, etc.

Pretty soon and I’m safely folded into “the program.”

Jesus guided his disciples through this descent of faith, from orthodox doctrines to a more personal quest for God. He talked about God in third person in order to make a connection with their current beliefs. But then he began to translate the divine mystery into second-person references, of you and your neighbor. Yes, God loves the world; but we need to cooperate with God’s love and help it reach those in need.

That’s as far as most religions get, if we’re lucky. As we said, they frequently fall short, getting caught up in the power trip of mind-control, expanding its facilities, and telling people what to do. Even if it does its job well, however, religion can only approach the threshold of the fully awakened spiritual life. There it must wait for the individual to emerge again from communion with God and step back into the practical concerns of daily life.

Jesus invited those who were ready for it, into a position with God where distinctions start to fall away. “The Spirit will be in you.”  Not outside of you or even with you, but deep within – deeper even than your own sense of self, as the very ground of your being. This experience of mystical communion is too deep for words to reach and express.

The thirteenth-century German mystic Eckhart von Hochheim (Meister Eckhart) declared: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

PSALM 31:9-16

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eye wastes away from grief,
    my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
    and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
    a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
    those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
    terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
    as they plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

Along the course of spiritual development a neophyte becomes a “true believer,” where the questions of faith are gradually resolved and replaced with the answers of doctrine. The searching question of God gives way to orthodox theories about God. An open and curious mind gradually closes down on certainties.

When you are taught that God loves you, watches out for you, and will intervene on your behalf in times of trouble, the naive expectation is that God will come through. But what happens when he doesn’t? Is it that God doesn’t see your suffering? Is he watching but just doesn’t care? Could it be that God is aware of your suffering and desperately wants to help you, but is limited in his power to do so? Such are the new questions that stretch and threaten the definitions of orthodoxy.

One way of “saving God” – or saving your concept of God – is to take responsibility for his silence or absence. Perhaps you don’t deserve God’s help. Maybe you’ve done something to disqualify yourself from divine favor. What if God is punishing you with this ordeal, for a sin you have conveniently forgotten? Or it might be that your faith is not what it needs to be and God is actually subjecting you to this pain or loss in order to make you stronger.

And so on.

But the evolutionary arc leading from neophyte to true believer doesn’t end there, without a significant amount of what might be called spiritual frustration where the soul’s journey to fulfillment is stymied and cut short of its intended goal. Beyond the “true believer” stance of religious commitment and doctrinal certainty is the mystical experience. In that place, on the other side of truth as it were, there is no theological possessive such as might prompt the soul to say, “You are my God.”

In the experience of divine presence, this moment is enough. There is nothing else.