Early in a new year, and a leap year at that, I want to take a stab at describing what cannot adequately be described. As a contemplative and a musician, I have met, from time to time, with mystical experiences that beggar explanation, categorization or temporal understanding. In order to do so, a short preface.
At the foundation of Christian spirituality is the very basic principle of awakening or awareness. It comes in many different packages, under numerous ideologies, representative of a host of approaches each with practices that lend themselves to one’s emerging spiritual life.
To become aware is to wake from some form of slumber, sleep or sloth. One of the mysteries of spiritual awareness is that one does not awaken naturally. We are prodded awake by the loving work of God upon the sleeping soul. It requires this nudge of God upon our shoulder before any meaningful process of receptivity and relationship can occur. In order for us to ‘awake to our awakening’ we must receive the whisper of God speaking grace into the spiritual ear of our understanding.
I do not speak so much of the prophetic proclamation to “arise, shine; for your light has come.” No, before we can be so attuned to the prophet’s voice calling us to faithfulness and righteousness, we must first hear the voice of the Lover calling us to succumb to this wooing upon which our only response can be, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
As comforting and romantic as that sounds, however, upon awakening to the first primal strains of the song of God, there comes a dissonance amidst the lilting notes. We awake to beauty and begin to see that which we have always yearned after but of which we were unaware, blind. This, however, can often be a fearful and groggy experience. Cobwebs yet invade our minds unaccustomed to such sharpness of color. Ears that have been plugged up suddenly pop as our inner altitude changes. It is as disorienting as it is invigorating…
I remember places, glimpses into…something; an awareness that hints at a proximity to the indescribable, numinous presence of God. These are never easy things to describe, but there is a delight in the attempt for, in so doing, I am taken back to some of those places. Not always, but for me it is often some dusty, old church or monastery; most often at night, alone. Yet, not alone. As I have since come to believe, they were, as the Celts called them, thin places where a barely perceptible sheath surrounds the holy otherness of God and where comes a mystical awareness of God so immanent that one feels he can literally smell God’s breath, touch God’s skin. These experiences have often made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Ironically, they used to happen often when I was a boy, long before I had any faith lexicon or tidy systematic theology with which to scrub them up and describe them away. I recall one particular time as I lay on our living room floor. I was probably eight or nine years old and, as I did every year, was watching the first snowfall of winter as flakes danced past the streetlight that stood outside our house. In that moment, I became curiously aware of a haunting peace that arrested my sensibilities and held me spellbound in what I can only describe as ‘rightness.’ In that moment, the cosmos and I were one. God, as I now understand God, was laying beside me on the living room floor that night, whispering wordless words to me, convincing me of my place in it all, be it ever so miniscule.
Another such thin place for me was an Anglican Church sanctuary in Nelson, British Columbia where for a number of years I taught at a Highland Bagpiping School (a place where other strange souls like myself learn to tame a five-legged creature destined to arouse suspicions and rouse neighbors). Connections in the community opened the door, figuratively and, in this case, literally, to spend as much time as I wanted in the church sanctuary after everyone else had gone home. I was given a key and carte blanche run of the place.
Most evenings after a long day of bagpipe students, some whiny, some lazy, all of them noisy, I would retire to this sanctuary with my pipes. For an hour or so I would simply play, enjoying the epic reverberance of the sound bouncing off the hard stone walls and floor. It was, for me, the closest I had yet been to what I might have then described as heaven. At times it was 2:00 am before finally getting back to my room.
A third such place was the hospital chapel in the same city. I was falling apart after a recent break-up with a girl to whom I had been engaged. My shattered interior was gradually reintegrated in that little chapel where I would weep and pray for hours, listening to John Michael Talbot, or the Monks of the Weston Priory sing beautifully doleful refrains. It was for me, through gallons of heart-crushing tears, the perfect requiem to my dying peace of mind. It would become the Introit to a new place of healing and restoration, albeit gradually. This is a story best left unfinished…