Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Peak Experiences


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.  

5 comments:

Alden said...

The spiritual life is like mountain climbing so you say, and I like this metaphor although I think you have been far too easy on the "riders" - the view these riders obtain is authentic enough but they pay a terrible price in not having been prepared for the revelation that they experience. The journey is preparation for this experience, it enables the experience to be integrated. Not to journey is to become a thief of ones own sanity and soul.

VenDr said...

Thanks. I never really thought of that, and I'm sure you're right. Perhaps though the experience doesn't need a lot of preparation because in the end it's not terribly important. The journey is everything.

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, you might be interested to hear or read what this American Presbyterian church historian has to say about 'The Cloud of Unknowing' and other English mystics:

http://www.worldwide-classroom.com/courses/info/ch310/

The lecture in question is no. 34. He has about the slooowest midwest speaking style you could imagine (sounds like Rev Lovejoy on sedation), but it's interesting to hear an appreciation of medieval spirituality from a Reformed direction.

Alden said...

I was reminded by your post of the not inconsiderable personal cost of some of my own experiences as I tried to short circuit the journey. I was also reminded of another metaphor that speaks of a particular Journey. Its told in C S Lewis's book "The Magician's Nephew" -

- When sent to the garden to pluck an apple from the tree on the high green hill at the end of the lake Digory finds this written on the gate -

"Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forebear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart's desire and find despair"

There is a wonderful image of the Witch who they find in the garden. She has climbed the wall and eaten the fruit –

“The juice was darker than you would expect and had made a horrid stain round her mouth. Digory guessed at once that she must have climbed in over the wall. And he began to see that there might be some sense in that last line about getting your heart’s desire and getting despair along with it. For the Witch looked stronger and prouder than ever, and even, in a way, triumphant; but her face was deadly white, white as salt.”

For me this metaphor makes reference obviously to Christian concepts of altruistic love, of losing your life to find it. There is the implication of a Journey through the golden gate of experience and obedience to the way of altruistic love. This Journey is not to be short circuited by climbing over the wall.

A journey implies a destination. I believe that the destination is as important as the journey – what will we find there??? Hmmmm – I don’t know, I’m still bumbling along on the journey (sometimes blindly climbing walls I shouldn’t and falling down and banging my bloody head).

VenDr said...

Ahhh yes.
Picture yourself in a boat on a river, With tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green, Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,And she's gone.


I remember that particular method of wall climbing well, although for me, oddly, it proved to be part of the path to the gate.

We're at the edge of metaphor here, talking about mountain climbing, and gates and fruit trees and so forth. Yes journeying implies a destination, but in this case it's not quite accurate. Keats calls the world a Vale of soulmaking and it's that sort of concept I'm grasping after. People who don't meditate, or who do it infrequently seem to be stuck with a concept of meditation as an somewhat tricky thing you do in order to reap a benefit of some sort: relaxation, peace of mind, a sense of oneness with God, whatever. This implies that if you can arrive at these things by other means you don't need to bother. But that's not so. There is a sense that with meditation the journey IS the destination. We are here in this 3 dimensional place in order to make our souls and this is accomplished by all the things we would rather avoid: suffering, struggle, discipline, determination. The point of meditation is that it's a battle that requires discipline and commitment. And in committing yourself and struggling with it,you hone the "thing" (sorry about using this imprecise term) that meditation is made of, ie your consciousness. And seeing as as the whole point of life is the development of your soul ie your consciousness, it isn't just a way to an end, it IS in a real sense the end. If you arrive at some experience by some way which doesn't involve this honing of yourself, while it might be pleasant and deep and give you all manner of insight, it does not much move you forward in the real journey of life; and in fact, by occupying your will and memory with such force, it may well divert you. You may even be fooled into thinking that attaining that state again, or something like it, is the whole meaning of life. Believing that, you'd be in deep schtick That's why the Cloud of Unknowing says that no matter how precious it is to you,put your experiences behind you.