I gave part of a sermon on mysticism at my church last weekend (the minister gave the other half). Here's the first part of what I had to say:
When I was a kid I wanted to be a saint. Heroic virtue, living life for God alone, the whole shebang. I was planning on being a nun, too, which would probably make that saint thing a little easier accomplish. It’s pretty clear that I didn’t become a nun, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m no saint. What I have become, quite unexpectedly, is a mystic.
My family isn’t overly religious, but I seem to have popped out of the womb with thoughts of religion and spirituality running through my veins. There were Baptist and Mormon stopovers on my basically Catholic journey through youth, and by my young adulthood I was wending my way through Hinduism, Buddhism, and just about any other kind of ism I could find. And I started seeing a pattern: in all the different theologies of all these different groups, somewhere right in the center were the mystics and they were basically all saying the same thing: that our separation is just an illusion, that everything and everyone is part of a larger whole, that we may think that our beliefs and actions divide us but at a deeper level no separation from each other or from God is even possible.
I would feel a shock of “yeah, that’s it, that’s right” recognition every time I read something like this. Over the course of many years this understanding became the foundation of how I understand the world and my place in it. But belief isn’t the same as experience.
I’ve had experiences, over the years: a sudden feeling of unity with everything around, some touch of the divine that shook me profoundly and gave me new eyes to see something or someone. These experiences affected me deeply, but years might pass between them. Until about 6 months ago, I could probably count on one hand the number of experiences I’ve had that I would put in this mystical category; nowadays they’re pretty much coming a couple of times a week.
When I have these experiences, I find myself called up and pulled out of the workaday world. It’s as though I can suddenly see into the true being, the divinity and perfection of everything around me. Every tiny thing. It's overwhelming, this experience, disturbing in some ways. It can be almost painful to see the depth of beauty in every single thing. It's kind of like running around on the peak of a really high mountain: the view is breathtaking, but even so you might pass out from lack of oxygen.
I’ve discovered that having a mystical experience and driving a car don’t go well together, although having a mystical experience and crashing a car will do quite nicely. It’s hard to pay attention to traffic signs when you’re seeing the perfection in everything around you.
And when I’m seeing normally again, sometimes the absurdity of an experience can set me to giggling. A couple of weeks ago I was at a Mexican restaurant munching on chips when I was suddenly transported to a vision of God in everything I could see: every face, every wall – and yes, God in every chip. Another day, right here in this sanctuary, as I was taken over by knowledge of the perfection crowding in all around, I struggled in vain to find a place to look that would help me remain calm, and as I glanced about wildly I looked at the stains in this poor benighted carpet, and every stain was so overflowing with perfection that I felt my heart would be destroyed with its beauty. And I had to laugh at myself once the vision passed.
I know that some of you experience visions like this yourself; others may find the idea interesting and still others might see them as nothing more than delusion. Wherever you stand on the matter, I’m going to ask you to allow me to guide you in a simple imagining of this kind of experience. Please settle yourselves comfortably, perhaps close your eyes or maybe just soften your gaze, and take a few deep breaths as you bring yourself into a place of stillness.
Imagine yourself sitting here, right where you are, intent upon the service. You look at the quilt hanging behind the speaker, blues and yellows and oranges working together to form this image of fire. The depth of beauty in the blue draws your gaze more deeply into the image, and you begin to notice its varied shades and shadows. Such beauty that blue carries; you are struck by it. Then the yellow catches fire beneath your gaze, the oranges and reds almost leaping off the fabric, and again you are struck by its profound beauty.
Your gaze moves to the stones in the wall on either side of the quilt, softer in color but suddenly no less beautiful. The subtle tones, the shadows, all strike you as rich beyond compare. They are so perfect, these tones and shadows, so much the essence of perfection. You find your vision roving; you see the faces of friends and strangers, the black lines of electrical cables on the floor, dried brown leaves that have fallen from a plant and lay scattered, a magnificent tree out one window, a pencil in the pew stall in front of you. Everything, everything strikes you with the force of its beauty, its absolute perfection.
As though scales have fallen from your eyes and you can now see clearly, you have the sudden, disquieting, jarring knowledge that everything is exactly, immutably where and what and who and why it is supposed to be. Everything. Perfection all around in everything you see and don't see, everything you know and don't know, with not so much as a quark able to stray from the perfection that is, and this knowledge of perfection reverberates in your brain and streams in your veins and falls in teardrops down your face. It takes you over, this beauty, this mad power, this total disruption of the ordered world in which we think we live, and your heart breaks open with boundless gratitude for what simply is.
You sit quietly until the knowledge subsides like the flames of a dying fire and you are once again able to breathe the air of what we have chosen to call reality.
Other people have different kinds of experiences, but that’s what it’s like for me. Thank you for letting me share it with you.