God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ… My God and your God.”
(Blaise Pascal, 1654)
Recently I wrote about God being a reality to be encountered, experienced, embraced. Wonderful in theory – impossible in practice? I’m not so sure…
I’ve hesitated to write this post. What I want to describe is personal, even slightly private, and I’m not sure it can meaningfully be put into words. And I’m aware it may sound both boastful and plain bonkers – and maybe it is.
Three strands of faith
First, some background. I find it helpful to see faith or spirituality as consisting of three interwoven strands – theological, mystical and practical. This blog is mostly about the theological – thinking through aspects of belief; exploring and trying to express something of the mystery of God in human language.
The mystical is more important to me, though I talk about it less. It’s this idea of encounter with the divine; of directly experiencing something of God’s reality.
And the practical is the outworking of the mystical and theological in daily living and relationships. It’s surely the most important of the three, though it’s the one I fall down on.
Experiencing God in worship
It’s the mystical I want to focus on today. It was experiences of (I believe) encountering God in charismatic worship services that first showed me Christianity could be more than just a set of odd doctrines and religious practices. Rather, at the heart of it all was a living, life-giving, meaning-bringing presence.
It seemed to me that singing those simple, sometimes trite but heartfelt choruses I touched and was touched by something beyond myself, beyond the mundane; something utterly good and real. That experience affected me deeply. And it’s largely this that keeps my faith alive now, when I’ve lost my certainty about so much of the church’s teaching. My heart still believes and desires God, even while my head doubts and struggles.
So for all my scepticism I’m a worshipper, more than a theological thinker – perhaps more than anything. For me, God truly is a reality to be experienced and embraced more than an idea to be discussed, even if my experiences of God’s reality are sporadic glimpses and much of the time it feels like he’s not there at all. And even if talking about the theory is so much easier than ‘practising the presence’.
But just occasionally, beyond explanation or expectation, the veil lifts and for a brief space it seems heaven breaks through. A recent such experience is what prompted this post.
An experience of encounter
As I walked home from work one evening, I began to pray, and somehow this time the prayer seemed to come from a deeper, more real place than my usual uninspired, rather rote prayers. It was a prayer of dissatisfaction, even desperation. I was longing for reality; to be real myself and to encounter the unbounded Reality of God.
So I found myself praying for my whole being to meet with the fullness of God, unlimited by my preconceptions and prejudices about either God or myself; for all of me (including the parts I don’t know or understand) to encounter all of God. I sought to bring myself to God as I was, good and bad, to meet with ‘him’ as he is, asking for God’s grace to bridge the unfathomable gulf between us. I prayed to know God, beyond what I can understand with my finite mind – longing to be completely filled with and immersed in him, my whole being filled with his whole being.
Now this is entirely subjective and I may be mistaken, but it seemed to me that my prayers were answered. As I walked the concrete streets towards New Cross Gate, the dreary urban landscape seemed transformed, transfigured by an oceanic presence within me, a presence of sheer overwhelming goodness and rightness. These are the terribly inadequate words I wrote down afterwards:
Awe and wonder
“Awe and wonder… An all-consuming flame of light, life and love, in which I am burnt up yet emerge more alive, more real, more me than before… not just an experience that I passively watch and that fades, but something I truly participate in and that truly changes me… everything I want is somehow in this encounter, or at least it forms the foundation and context of everything else I desire…”
But it’s impossible to express this kind of thing in words. And reading these words back, they give almost entirely the wrong impression; make it sound both more than it was, and also less.
The experience or encounter itself was largely wordless, or not really about words. It felt like a revelation, but of what exactly I couldn’t say. It felt incredibly important, but hard to explain why. There was no verbal communication from God; just this vast sense of divine presence. And how can anyone describe that? To me it was a sense of elation and elevation; of being fully alive, awake, lifted, filled, completed. And also of being somehow known and completely accepted.
And of course such a feeling is wonderful, yet equally of course the feeling is not really what it’s about. What is it about? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s simply as Julian of Norwich put it:
“Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Keep yourself therein and you shall know and understand more in the same. But you shall never know nor understand any other thing, forever.”
The problem of bliss?
And then I reached the station and boarded my crowded commuter train. Suddenly I was surrounded by people in the most ordinary, everyday setting, and I was still in the middle of ecstatic experience (for want of a better term). I felt that they must surely sense it – was the glow inside me not visible, tangible? And I couldn’t help feeling that I should somehow communicate what I was experiencing, invite these people I didn’t know to partake of this reality beyond any words or categories.
But I couldn’t, or at any rate didn’t, and I’m not sure what would have happened had I tried.
And as the immediate glow of encounter began to fade, there came the worries about what to do with it, about it; what I might have to do or change as a result of it. And it struck me that these experiences can be both transformative and troublesome, stirring up difficult questions to which there are no easy answers.
Was it real? Was it important? What if anything did it mean? Does it (or should it) change anything? Should I seek it again? If I do, would it just be because I wanted the ecstatic feeling – would I want to encounter God if the feeling was missing or was unpleasant? I can only guess at answers to most of these.
Is there a formula or technique for bringing about such an experience, a particular kind of prayer? No. And if there were, that would surely indicate that it was not genuine.
As to whether it was real, I can only say that it was real to me. But of course such a subjective experience can never be a proof of anything. It may have been an illusion, a chemical imbalance, a psychological aberration. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.
And if the experience was genuine, does it invalidate my normal, rote prayers; my normal, low-level experience of God? No, I don’t believe so – these are still the everyday daily bread of my spiritual life.
Does it invalidate other people’s prayers or experiences, requiring that they too should have some ecstatic encounter? Emphatically not. We all experience God in our own ways. But I think some kind of encounter with God is open to all, though it may not be the same for you as for me.
Does it vindicate my theology or my practice, a divine blessing to show that I’m along the right lines? No – if anything, the opposite. In the light of a real experience of God (if such it was), everything I’ve written seems vastly inadequate, unimportant, flawed, foolish. I want to say with Anselm, ‘all my works are as straw’.
Back to normality
And then of course, everything all too quickly returns to normal. Mountaintops aren’t places we can stay, as Peter found at the Transfiguration, though it would be great if we could live in the light of what we’ve known there. But that’s not easy; as C.S. Lewis put it, the air isn’t as clear down here.
I went to church the following Sunday (which I don’t always), and oddly I found it much harder to engage there, to meet with God in the context of a very charismatic worship time. Why? Perhaps just because of personality, and because in this context there seemed much more of an agenda, words and theologies we were supposed to agree with that I didn’t. (I’ve been back again since and found it easier.)
So for now it’s back to normal; but perhaps a normal that looks just slightly different to before. Back to writing the straw. 😉