Thirty-three years ago yesterday I had a profound experience of God’s presence in the midst of a Eucharist. I won’t go into all the details of that life-changing evening here; if you have The Aspiring Mystic, you can read all about it in chapter one; otherwise, you can find it elsewhere on my website by following this link: A Contemporary Mystical Experience?
As I strive to finish editing my book, I’ve thought a lot about that evening over the past few days. I was only 16 then; I’m 49 now, so it was 2/3 of my current lifetime ago. I did not yet have a driver’s license; I had never tasted Scotch or dropped acid, and yes, I was a virgin. All I knew about “what I wanted to be when I grew up” was that I loved to write. Before the events of 2-5-77, religion was not particularly important to me; sure, my family and I went to church every Sunday and I was active as an acolyte and a member of the youth group, but I did not have “a personal relationship with the Lord,” to use the evangelical jargon; to use language more congenial with my spiritual identity today, I would say “I had not yet entered fully and consciously into the splendor of the Christian mystery.” So I had no idea what was in store for me when, in the midst of a weekend retreat for High Schoolers, I participated in the Communion Service and experienced a luminous shift in my awareness characterized by the experience of love and light.
This, to use rather crude language, blew me away, and so the following morning — thirty-three years ago today — I prayed to God, expressing sorrow for my failings and offering myself to him. So I made a decision for Christ that morning. But I was also making a decision that, whatever had happened to me the night before, I wanted more of it and I was willing to dedicate my life to going after it.
And I’m still rolling.
It has been quite a ride, taking me from that Lutheran point of entry into the world of Neopentecostalism and the Charismatic Renewal; disillusioned by what I found in that neighborhood, I swore off religion and like the Buddha spent a season or three chasing after sex, drugs and rock and roll; when that project ran out of gas I took refuge in the Episcopal Church and discovered Christian meditation through the Shalem Institute. But around that time I also began exploring the literature of Goddess spirituality, Wicca and Druidism. That blossomed into a full-time commitment to explore Neopaganism that lasted for the better part of a decade, until a long-gestating interest in Catholicism and the desire to continue my exploration of Christian mysticism within the container of contemplative and monastic spirituality impelled me to enter the Church of Rome. But even this is no static place to be, for I continue to explore such things as the emergence conversation, neo-monasticism, Celtic Christianity, Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, and every now and then interest in non-Christian mysticism flares up in me as well.
So what have I learned in 33 years?
I think I’m a little less inclined to rush to judgment today than I was in my teen years. I went from being convinced that the waters I tasted could only be drawn from the Christian well; to an equal certitude that those waters were entirely universal and could best be tasted outside of the institutional church, to figuring that the relationship between “pure” mystical experience and its religious, social, historical and cultural context is far too intricate for any of us to easily untangle, and therefore we need to both honor — but not be imprisoned by — the religious milieu in which we conduct our spiritual exercises.
I’m also a bit more cognizant of the gentleness of time and the grand leisure of eternity. When I was 16 I had never met death; my parents were healthy, no tragedy had visited our family, and even natural loss hadn’t been part of our lives since my grandfather’s passing when I was a child too small to understand. A third of a century later, not only have I offered hospitality to death through the loss of one several good friends, my mother-in-law, my mother, and two cats, but I remain continually conscious of death’s nearness through the illness of my father and my stepdaughter. For me, death brings both a sense of how precious time is, but also how expansive eternity is. It seems that every time I grieve (yes, I’m grieving right now, go read the last four days in this blog if you haven’t already), I come through the grief with a deepened sense of how my earthly life is perched at the shore of the vast ocean of eternity. Standing on the beach of time and gazing into the limitless blue of the water and sky of heaven, I am reminded that God, heaven, and eternity are not far from us, but indeed knitted and enfolded within us. This is why I am convinced that Christianity should not be understood as a project for “going to heaven after we die.” Rather, the mysteries of Christ are all about heaven coming to us, right here, and right now. And part of that encounter with heaven is the opportunity to relax out of our ordinary anxieties and to taste the unhurried wonder of what Richard Rohr has dubbed “the naked now.”
I’ve never had another “mystical experience” as dramatic or mind-shattering as what surprised me on that February night 33 years ago. This is probably because I’ve hungered for it too much. Where before it came to me as a gift unbidden, in its wake I fell into the trap of what Chögyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism” — the tendency to grasp for experience, to try to consume mysticism the same way we gobble up chocolate at Hallowe’en or corn chips at a Mexican restaurant. To reduce transformations in consciousness to a graspable treat is, alas, to pretty much miss the point altogether. It’s taken me a long time to figure that one out, and I still have to remind myself from time to time that opening ourselves to the Great Mystery means something other than just trying to “feel the presence of Christ” in my mind or my heart. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a sense of God’s nearness and presence; Christian teaching affirms that God is always present, and so if we can open our eyes and heart to recognize and acknowledge this reality, that is a good thing indeed. But mysticism — the Christian mystery — takes us to a place where “feeling God” is hardly even a matter of concern.
I give thanks for how my mind was, basically, rebooted back in February 1977. Back then I didn’t know what I was hungering for; I just knew that I was hungry. Then my mind was blown away, and I got busy trying to learn that the trick is not to be so busy. Now I hunger for God, and sometimes that degenerates into hungering for the experience of God. But that’s okay. Eternity is a leisurely place, and I have all the time in the world to pick myself up when I fall.