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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Moved and Mystified

I’ve been reading an intriguing book this week: The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.  I haven’t finished it yet, so I won’t say more about the argument now, though I feel a blog coming on.  (If the title sounds a trifle racy, let me assure you that it’s a serious book.  It looks at the ‘can-do’ success culture that is endemic in the organisational and business world of today, and asks whether it makes sense to live and work this way.  More soon.)

Early on, Burkeman talks about a meeting he had with a self-confessed Stoic (yes, I didn’t know either that people still followed Stoicism as a rigorous philosophical life path inspired by the apostles Seneca and Marcus Aurelius). ‘Keith’ describes how he looks back to a defining incident when he was walking in the park one day.  It was, he says, ‘a shift in perspective – the kind of jolting insight that often gets described as a “spiritual experience”.  “It was quite a short thing…. just a minute or two.  But suddenly I was…directly aware of how everything was connected together in space and time…like travelling out into space, perceiving the universe as a whole, and seeing everything connected together in exactly the way it was meant to be.  As something finished and complete.’  

When I read that I asked myself: what are the unforgettable spiritual high points of my own life?  There are many: being baptised as a teenager, getting married, being ordained, holding my first child as she emerged from the womb, my grandmother’s funeral, and other times. What these have in common is that they are rites of passage.  At liminal times like these, we are in a state of mind that the social anthropologists call communitas.  We feel alive in a different way, even in grief.  Our emotions are heightened, our sensitivities more acute.  We feel closer to other people crossing the same threshold, and we often feel closer to God.

But I had to work harder to recall experiences quite like Keith’s.  I think I have only ever had two.  One was as a schoolboy when I sang the top line of Bach’s St John Passion. I blogged about this a few months ago.  I look back on it as a profoundly religious experience of ‘the Other’ that opened the doors of my perception in a wholly new way. In my evangelical past, I spoke about it as realising, through the music of the passion, that Jesus died ‘for me’.  That is still at the heart of my story and the cross is at the heart of my spirituality.  But I now see how much bigger and wider was the spiritual world into which this heightened awareness was leading me, what the psalms call ‘a large place’.  It was if existence began to be charged with a new and wonderful meaning. 

The other happened about 12 years ago.  I was out walking on my own among the fells of the Dark Peak around Kinder Scout.  In that part of England you are never far from dense population centres: Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.  Yet the hills are as bleak as any in the Pennines.  It is the nearest England gets to desert.  The wind and rain can howl across the watershed and then you could think yourself at the end of the world.  But on this day it was sunny and warm, calm and peaceful.  Yet for no reason that I could think of, the landscape suddenly began to glow with a hot luminescence that was ominous and threatening.  It was if everything was metamorphosed into a parched, lifeless wilderness.  I felt unutterably alone, forlorn, abandoned.  I must have stood still in this state for a minute or two.  And then I noticed that there was a steady movement in the corner of my eye.  It was traffic on the main road snaking over the fells in the far distance.  Cars and lorries: how reassuring they seemed!  Gradually, my mind cleared and my vision returned to normal. The grass faded to green, the sky to blue.  Grouse were chattering happily.  A curlew swung across the sky.  The warm peat underfoot radiated earthy scents. All was well.

For a few years I tried to ‘make sense’ of this disturbing experience.  I linked it with the Bach moment, and used the time-honoured language of consolation and desolation to try to speak about it.  But the words ran out.  I had to learn Wittgenstein’s dictum that if we can’t speak about something, we should be silent.  And maybe the test of any experience we think of as ‘mystical’ is perhaps that we should struggle to put it into words at all. 

But there is one thing I can confidently say about these two events. In Keith’s language, I became in a new way directly aware of how everything was connected together in space and time.  With Bach that brought the promise of salvation, peace and goodness.  On the Peak I was lonely, afraid, struggling not to be overwhelmed by the presence of the Mysterium tremens et fascinans.  Both times I felt that for a few moments I was at one with this great Presence that infuses and energises the cosmos, one with reality, one with God. It was a profound sense both of connection and of simplicity.

I don’t want to claim too much.  I don't think I am a ‘mystic’.  If these were mystical experiences, two are enough for a life-time.  ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’  When Semele pestered her lover Zeus to show himself as he really was, it killed her.  Ordinariness is good, the slow, steady rhythms of prayer, discipleship, relationships, Christian service.  Enough, while we wait for the vision of God, to practise what living faith requires of us: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord our God. And know that all of life is gift. 

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