A Gathering of Yellow... Northern Maine
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Today, I share words and an experience from April 2005, then give some reflections on it in the present. In 2005, I was a pastor. I served in the United Methodist Church. I am no longer a pastor and not affiliated formally with a religion. While religious, not of a religion, anonymity - in a spiritual sense - is my Calling. In 2005 - as now - I lived under contemplative vows shaped by the Gospel of Jesus, the Rule of St. Benedict, and the long line of spiritual ancestors who sought to honor their Calling outside the mainstream. I never found a home in the United Methodist Church or any other religion, though I tried into my mid-50s. I eventually, thankfully, gave up. To live at the edges of the familiar is to find there is no institution in which to find a home for the heart - the heart is universal. Home is Somewhere else, yet fully right here and now. To belong to Life means you belong nowhere else; you belong with Everyone. In bodily form, you move about the myriad manifestations as the Witness of all. You are there, but not there.
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You never can arrive at heaven
for heaven is not a place to begin with, but
you can be awakened to heaven
once and again and again and again until
heaven is all you see ...
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Whether alone or in community, we can experience an odd strangeness, one that comes over us, overwhelms us, and threatens our sense of safe confines - we have been drawn to the edge of familiarity. One way this placeless place has been referred to is by "the numinous." In the Prayer of Silence, for example, we can bump up against this Otherness and feel we are going to lose ourselves in some vastness from which we might never, it seems, return. The bump feels like an earthquake. Here, we experience the "fear of the Lord," the tremendous, sometimes frightening, mystery. The Hebrew Scriptures often speak of this yirat yihvah' . And, while the experience may include fear as we understand it, that is not always the case - often, a better reading is "awe."
What is our response? One response is drowning out the mystery with familiar routines of sound and action. Eugene H. Peterson, in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, writes, "Uneasy with the unknown, again like children, we run around crazily, yelling and screaming, trying to put our stamp of familiarity on it." "We attempt," he says, "to get rid of the mystery by making our presence large and noisy."
Possibly Peterson's description is somewhat exaggerated, at least for most responses. Maybe, however, it is not. His remark points to behavior incongruent with sacred time and place. In such action, we seek to place ourselves, with our agendas, including our movement and sound, on center stage, diffusing the power of the Sacred Otherness that has pulled us to the boundary of the territory of our know-how.
A second response at the edges of the familiar to which the Holy Spirit leads us is domestication. Here, we do not try to drown out the mystery; we seek to trap it within the boundaries of words, dogmas, clichés, and, yes, prayers. Most Christians would not call this "blasphemy" and would not see such as using God's name in vain, a violation of the second commandment of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not use the name of the LORD, your God, in vain (or, emptily)" (Exodus 20.7). However, Peterson connects the domestication of mystery with violating the sacred name and calls such blasphemy.
How are we to respond to this tremendous mystery? There is no one way to respond. However, common responses will be or include silence, crying, confusion, uncertainty, and stillness. Sometimes, the response will be fearfulness. Sometimes, we will feel an ecstatic joy, and we may shout or dance or sing. At times, we might say nothing. At other times, some spontaneous ejaculation like "Wow!" or "Praise God!" might rush forth as a response of gratitude and delight.
This past week, at Eucharist with other Christians on retreat, I knelt at the altar with bowed head in adoration and silence. I had just swallowed the bread and new wine. Surprisingly, suddenly, tears welled up. I began crying. I stopped only to start again. I finally got up from the altar, and I sat down. I started crying again. A friend and pastor sensed my state. She walked over. She sat beside me and placed my head against her chest. I cried more, and, after stopping again, I lifted my head. Then, I cried even harder, once more held in her embrace. That was my response. The response was silence and weeping with the Presence - an awed, overwhelmed captivation to the Otherness. ALL could seem to do was weep with a weeping that I cannot and could never give a reason for except that something in me had been touched deeply by Love, All Loves Excelling.
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I recall vividly that night around an altar at the retreat of pastors and denominational leaders in Leesburg, Florida. It seems a long time ago and another world - in a sense, it was. Not being affiliated with any religious group and worshipping with Quakers is a world apart from that setting. I was an inclusive, progressive, contemplative pastor trying to thrive in an evangelical, conservative, wordy world not meant for me, that could not hold and honor my soul or its leanings into the Quiet.
Denominational leaders had much advice, but little talk came forth about our need to listen to the Inner Guide inwardly. Odd how we humans can keep futility trying to think ourselves out of the sad situations we thought ourselves into, piling thought on thought, and the situation getting sadder the more we try to manage it through what we think. Rightly does the Benedictine Rule begin, "Listen," not "Think" and not "Do."
Those tears bore the pain of many years - a lifetime - the agony of feeling out-of-place most of my life. To feel left out, that one does not belong, that one is somehow odd, for a child and youth can be a harrowing crucifixion. It is trying enough for an adult. What else was in those tears? I do not know. I know tears speak, sometimes more truthfully than we do. Tears can bypass the mind, whereas the mind often reshapes the truth to better fit the way it prefers. And, sometimes, it takes us years to live into, even see, the message of the tears. Tears are flowing incarnations of intangible wisdom.
What was lasting about that moment in Florida? Love. Love appeared as the Unseen, the Wholly Love. Love heals, and often tears are the sign of healing we cannot consciously manage and may not even know we need. For those who frequent the Silence, most often, healing happens below awareness. The heart - gateway to Spirit - takes the mind into itself, and the Light Itself heals.
The context around that altar was of Love. Friends and co-pilgrims gathered together, kneeling to receive a symbol of Love, and ingesting the Message in a physically intimate manner - it is one thing to hear a message, another to drink and eat it. This Message was placed in cupped hands and poured into our open mouths - cupped hands and open mouths signify receptivity.
Yes, this was a broken, imperfect people even as I was - am... and we are. Yet, that was part of the Message - a fallible, faulty people, often stumbling over itself in trying to find its way - gathering to receive the Living Word - Unconditional Love, welcoming all - no one comes into the Light unbroken. Yet, the Message is the mirror of our innate, pristine perfection - not in a moral sense but a being sense. As we knelt there, we were already pure as the Light.
And the friend who took me into her embrace... She offered herself a refuge, a safe place. She became the Christ for me - Christ holding Christ. She lived out the Message she had taken into herself through bread and wine. She became the Message in flesh-and-blood. I recall Jesus' speaking as Wisdom Teacher, words in the Gospel of Matthew 11.28f.: "Come to me, all you exhausted and loaded down, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke (i.e., discipleship, studies) upon you, for I am gentle and humble in spirit. And you will find rest for yourselves, for my yoke is easy and my burden light [in comparison]."
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If we are drawn to the borders of our before known, we have been led there for a purpose. We do not take ourselves there, and it is unwise to do so. Grace prepares the self for the encounter. I used to push myself into this border space: that was dangerous to the self. Experiencing too much too soon can fracture the ego. Likewise, if we are not prepared well, we may have an experience that the self-system cannot integrate - it is too much. This is a reason I strongly discourage using psychedelics.
Engaging ploys for a visit to "heaven" - visions, bilocation, locution, channeling ... - is ego at work, self seeking to appropriate to itself Spirit. These manifestations, generally, are not of pure Spirit but delusional mind-phantoms: occultic, psychic. With the sages, I say, pay little attention to these mind chimeras. Just wait, they will pass like all phenomena: they are waves of Consciousness just like eating ice cream is.
Yes, one may have genuine, unsolicited psychic-like experiences from pure Spirit - these are of-Spirit, unlike those arising from ego. These of-Spirit need to be carefully discerned as to the origin, not attached to, and not sought. Having someone to talk over these experiences with, one more schooled in the Way, is wise. The of-Spirit experiences, like the purely psychic, will pass. Learn from these encounters but do not cling to them.
So, we do not seek to follow some advice to rush to the boundary of known-and-unknown, as in the present popularity of books on shamanism to an American culture quite unprepared to touch the Otherness. Yet, it appears exotic and exciting, and such attracts those immersed in the secularized spiritual marketplace. Persons oft prefer the drive-through to the heavens, not the slow plod taught by the sages of ages. Yet, the slow plod is the only way to mature spirituality, even as it is the way of human growth emotionally and physically. Even if one has a profound edge experience, it will have to be integrated, so one cannot avoid the slow plod. One has to return from that edge experience to his or her normal consciousness status. If one refuses such integration, the experience is lost and is only a memory.
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Yet, writing of these experiences can be misleading as to their nature. Not all such boundary visits are alarming - like spiritual fireworks. As one matures in the spiritual Life, the border visits become less striking. A reason for this is that one is living closer to the boundary as her or his norm.
As to being drawn to the edge, we may not understand why, and likely we will not, at least at that time. When Love draws us there and meets us there, what is there to fear? If fear arises, which it might, that is okay. Pure Presence can be overwhelming, baffling, and appear threatening - we are not accustomed to purity. Unadorned Life is a threat to our ego and life-as-has-been. Yet, at those edges, we learn to yield, trust, and be thankful for the Grace that led us there and leads us onward to other edges, horizon to horizon.
The role of the edge is partly for shaping us into the likeness of the Love that ushered us there; certainly, it is not for us to live vacant of interest in this world and its needs. We live with one foot in time and one in timelessness; however, the edge reminds us to live from timelessness into time. From out of the world, we can best help the world. No amount of spiritual experience frees us from this paradox. Yet, if we are all caught up in the world, bogged down in the surfaces, we cannot be free to serve the world to our fullest potential.
The more we are drawn into Love, the more we are Love. The edge is about Love, not about a fantastic exploration. The border of the known is humiliating to the ego, so we are more humble. Suppose we have a spiritual experience not humiliating to the ego, so it is not disempowering its sense of control and centrality. In that case, we need to question the experience - which may not be spiritual at all - or how we are relating to it.
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As I have observed, in the last 25 years of vowed life, one grows into becoming welcoming and more comfortable living at the edge - rather than just visiting occasionally. The contemplative Way is living at the edge. Christian contemplatives have referred to this as living in the Presence of God or Union with God. This way, however, does not mean the edge of the familiar does not arise as before. We never know when Grace will take us to another meeting at the edge of our familiar. Yet, would we want it any other way? I would not. I cherish all the edges I was drawn to, and I value now living at the border between the known and unknown daily and nightly.
I recall a video of a man of age 103. He was preparing for bodily death. He walked up to his closet, took out a coat, and put it on. He looked like he was going to an important dress-up occasion. He said he would give the listeners one lesson he had learned: take risks. He said he was about to take another risk by dying. He did not know, he said, what would be waiting on the other side. Yet, he was cheerful. He was at peace crossing the border. See, every visit to the edge is a preparation for our death, also. In fact, each visit we make to the edge of the familiar invites us to die to our familiar world and, so, live in a bigger world than our past.
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Now, what to say or not to others about these edge visits? It is best to stay silent. One may have a spiritual guide or confidant to share this with. Such visitations are not for broadcasting. I once shared a numinous experience in a sermon with my congregation. Later, I realized it was a mistake. I could feel this even as I was sharing it. Cherish your edge experiences, explore them in prayer, and integrate them into daily life.
Now, as with much guidance, there are exceptions - there may be occasions for sharing a breakthrough - I do at times in my work - but do so only after prayerful discernment. I have discerned it is usually best only to share the fruit of such experiences: to manifest how these experiences have taught me and shaped my life. Too easily the ego can co-opt a Spirit experience. The ego can hold up spiritual experiences like trophies, seducing others to admire what we have been led to, as though it is our achievement - it is not. Here, the early desert ascetic from Alexandria, Egypt, Amma Syncletica (4th Century) is sagacious: "Just as a treasure that is exposed loses its value, so a virtue which is known vanishes; just as wax melts when it is near fire, so the soul is destroyed by praise and loses all the results of its labor." Silence is a wise way to preserve the sublime epiphanies given you as gift, not for ownership or self-promotion.
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What was once a surprising breakthrough becomes the normal. We are not so much taken into it, as we grow into it, or in the words of the monastic Joan Chittister, in The Monastery of the Heart: "Life grows us more and more -...".
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FOR OUR REFLECTION
Egocentric spirituality just gets one into more intense suffering. Going after the splendor of heaven as an ego project is very different from having heaven open itself up to you. Many so-called spiritual people set about the task of increasing the amount of goodness in their life or the amount of lightness or brightness or happiness. I disagree with that approach entirely. It is an egocentric journey with no nobility in it. More often than not, seeking more goodness or happiness just leads to their exact opposite. I sometimes think that exhaustion is the best tool for enlightenment, as it gets the ego out of the way. It finally just wears down so that the divine can pour through.
*Robert A. Johnson. Balancing Heaven and Earth.
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*(C) Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book is a collection of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.
*Quote of Amma Syncletica is from Laura Swan. The Forgotten Desert Mothers.