Today’s Sermonette – on Spiritual Experience and Worship
While most good Christian believers are spending this Sunday morning in their various churches, temples and other places of worship, I thought I would place a sermonette here for the benefit of us heathen Christian apostates. Actually, my heretical brand of theology ought to make easy pickings for Christians and athiests alike.
My favorite Christian blogsite is Carol Howard Merritt’s Tribal Church. She is a Presbyterian minister, author, and wife of Brian Merritt, aka PastorOfDisaster. I find both Christian sites thoughtful, thought-provoking, meaningful, and bring out the best attributes of a liberal branch of Christianity. Even though I am no longer a Christian, they are a breath of fresh air compared to my rigid and unthinking fundamentalist background. Last week, Tribal Church published an article on spiritual experience that I replied to. Can a non-believer in a personal God, or any god for that matter, have a spiritual experience? I think so. I would like to reprint her article and my reply here – and I sure hope that is okay with the original author:
What makes a spiritual experience spiritual? I mean, besides of course–the connection to God. How does it happen?
We’re in worship, someone stands up during the prayers of the people. With a trembling voice, he thanks the congregation for all their support during his surgery, and there it is. The air is thick with God. We look around the sanctuary, and half the people are crying. What makes it a spiritual experience?
I go on a walk, three times a week. And then one day I see a bird, who’s on the ground. I inch next the bird and she doesn’t move. I’m so close that I almost touch her. I can see her feathers shaking and pain in her eyes. Then suddenly, I’m feeling for the frail bird, and she’s pulled something out of me. I’m connecting with some sort of grief that had been tightly, firmly packed away. And I get a fuller sense that I’m a part of the Ground of all Being, along with this tiny creature.
And when we’re at the bedside of someone who’s dying, and we read Psalm 23 and Romans 8. Have you been there? All of a sudden, that weird fear that’s been lurking about in the room all day leaves, the tension among the relatives dissippates, and the room fills with the waters of abundant life.
And what about the joy? What about that incredible love that gushes all over when you hold your baby for the first time? When you look at the paper-thin fingernails and feel that warm skin.
What makes those experiences spiritual?
Could it be the sense that we’re part of something larger than ourselves? Is it that something in our belly reaches out in the time when we need it the most? Is it the emotions that overtake us? Is it that our haunting insecurities are finally being matched with a divine acceptance? Is it simply the firm knowledge of loving and being loved?
What is it?
I am a frequent jogger. Actually, I run on the desert mountain trails just outside of town. I think you were recently visiting the Grand Canyon? I don’t live anywhere quite as majestic, but at least you understand the sense of hiking up a barren desert hilltop and being able to see forever. That is what I do when I run up those trails. About 5 miles up from the trailhead there is an abandoned tin mine that I like to run to and back down. After running hard for 5 miles facing the mountain side, I reach the tin mine and finally turn around to head down and face the panorama in front of me. I can see so far from there that I can see the swells and dips of the desert topography, and I swear I can actually see the curvature of the earth. Once I turned and saw an enormous cumulonimbus cell forming where I had started, and I knew I had to head down in a hurry. But the enormity of it all, combined with my desolate location, and the absolute silence of the desert, combined with the distant motion of those forming storm clouds makes me feel… … small, tiny, insignificant. Here I am, a skinny, little guy in shorts facing what seems to be infinite surroundings, and I am absolutely overcome with a sense of humility. I have actually stopped in my tracks, taken a deep breath to take it all in, and thanked God that I had the physical ability to experience what I was at that moment – because I just felt the need to thank something for what I was experiencing.
When I make my way back down to the bottom, the surroundings become more familiar, the desert more mundane, and I just concentrate on my breathing. I become exhausted and my thoughts drift from the infinite back to my physical being as I long for a big fat cheeseburger when I get back to my truck. When I finally reach the bottom, that feeling of epiphany is no longer with me. It seems I have left it back on the mountainside, only to be found near that high-altitude tin mine.
Is God any more present at the mundane bottom than at the wondrous top? It seems I have left God up there, yet is that so? It seems that way, yet we don’t want a God who only visits us during moments of euphoria.
I think most religious or spiritual epiphanies are really no different than my experience while jogging. I can remember worship services that just carried me away to a different place, and in the presence of something more awesome than I could ever experience in my usually mundane life. I have never been a fan of contemporary pop or rock music during worship. Give me traditional chanting and liturgical reading where I can focus on the uniqueness of the ceremony and I can really loose myself. Since I hear pop music every day on the radio, there is nothing unique or holy about it, and it does not transport me anywhere. Give me a ceremony that I never experience outside the church walls, and I can truly proclaim like Isaiah once did, “Woa is me, for I am undone….for I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”, a true sense of transcendence and awe!
Again, during these experiences I am transported to the presence of the infinite, and I am humbled. But I only experience this when the conditions are just so. Does God reside in one form of ceremony or worship and not the other?
I have felt that same thing in many contexts. Certain music, both during live performance and on my CD player, literally brings tears to my eyes because of its beauty. How can a string of random musical notes be arranged so that they could possibly do this to me? How can certain words be formed into poetic lines that bring forth such beauty? How can the brush strokes of Monet and Van Gogh transport me to another time and place?
Similarly, many say that they see God at work in the loving actions of the saintly. And indeed, I am humbled and even envious of the character of such people like Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Theresa. But I don’t have to go that far to just admire and be humbled by the many nuns that I have met who have dedicated their lives to care for the severely physically handicapped and deformed children in my town. How can one not see God in these superhuman acts of charity? What is it that produces such devotion?
All these emotional responses, whether religious or secular in nature, bring forth the same feelings of transcendence in me. Is God present in each? Is there a spiritual connection or awareness despite the origin?
I think it is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called, “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. For the moment, whether we are participating in church worship, whether we are on that mountaintop looking down, whether we see beauty in art or in the loving actions of people, we each in our own way, as an act of worship, willingly transport ourselves into those experiences. I don’t think God lives any more on the beautiful mountaintop than down below in the city ghetto, yet that is where I find God, because I create that perception of God there. I can literally leave myself and transcend to something greater, to imagine, to dream, to explore. And I think everyone experiences these spiritual epiphanies at one time or another, despite our spiritual or religious beliefs, or our individual perceptions of God.
So to finally answer what I think of your question, I think that these moments of epiphany are an expression of our own self-awareness. It is an awareness that we are not all there is, and that there is something much larger than us that we are in a symbiotic relationship with. All those people in your worship that are in a spiritual connection with God, the tiny and frightened little bird that is literally at your mercy, the wonder of a new-born infant and the dying hospice patient whom you comfort with Psalm 23 (yes I have been there too) each reminds us how we are all connected in some way to everything else, and we gain a sense of humility before the hugeness of it all.
Well, that’s my lousy opinion anyway. Thanks for reading this long reply.
There you are fellow de-converts. Does this make sense to any Christians out there? Any de-converts? Any hardcore atheists? I think this just goes to show that religious experience is not so simple when moving away from Christianity. Beliefs move in funny ways.
Go ahead and critique me. Tear it apart.
Picture: Freedom of Worship, by Norman Rockwell, 1943