I remember once reading Thomas Merton saying that the people who have had religious experiences never make very good monks. Similarly, The Cloud of Unknowing is not overly impressed with religious experiences. It's not that there is anything wrong with such events in themselves, but rather that they can divert us from the real path along which God seeks to lead us. Now, to a person of Pentecostal extraction, such as myself, this sentiment has caused a bit of soul searching; after all, I have had a few times of being overwhelmed by the Spirit, and in the churches I once attended these things were regarded as acceptable -or even required - in a normal Christian life.
There are, of course, the obvious dangers of shallow experiences. We are all prone to group hysteria, suggestibility and the misinterpretation of indigestion. We all have a remarkable capacity to deceive ourselves and to fall prey to the tricks of our central nervous systems. The Cloud of Unknowing says that all religious experience is, in the final analysis, shallow. But then again, Paul "knew a man" who was caught up to the seventh heaven. There are some people who are able, with remarkably little effort, to atttain a sense of inner light and unity with God which seems for all the world to be the real McCoy. So what could possibly be the problem with that? Well, here's a metaphor which occured to me this afternoon.
The spiritual life is like mountain climbing
Some people are mountain climbers. Some others -the "riders" - through wealth and good fortune are able to rent helicopters and take a fast trip to the top of the mountain. From the top, the helicopter riders enjoy the magnificent views and the the sense of serenity of which they have heard the mountain climbers talking . The riders might be tempted into thinking that their experiences are thus the equivalent of the climbers - superior even, as they have not had to spend so much time and effort; but of course they are mistaken. Mountain climbing is not about the views and the sense of serenity, even though these things happen often in the course of a climb. The benefits of climbing come through facing and overcoming obstacles; through developing skills which will spill over into everyday life; through the transformation which happens when a worthwhile task is undertaken. If the climber gets to the summit and, for all the climb, cloud has obscured the view, little if anything is lost. Conversely, if a climber is forever stopping to admire the view and seek a sense of peace, s/he will never make it to the top. By concentrating on the experiences which are peripheral to climbing, the riders miss the whole point; and the more entrancing the view from the top, the more danger they run of never becoming skilled climbers. It is possible that someone labours their whole life climbing mountains but never once manages to reach the summit. That person is still a far superior climber, in every way, to someone else who can helicopter themselves to the summit on a daily basis and at will.
The Cloud of Unknowing teaches that if we are serious about our spiritual walk, sooner or later we must put ALL our experiences and understandings behind us - put a "cloud of forgetfulness" between us and them - or we will be forever hobbling ourselves with our partially formed ideas about God and the life of the Spirit. Paul may have seen things the rest of us are not privy to, but he allows that experience to enter his writings only once and only briefly. It's not for nothing that Jesus said that we must take up our cross daily if we wish to follow him.