Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Golden World

Several times I have listened to a CD series by Robert Johnson called The Golden World. It is the recording of an extended conversation with this wise old man, one of the world's foremost Jungian theorists, reflecting on his life. In particular he tells of and analyses several experiences he has had of The Golden World: times when a sense of the divine has broken into his everyday existence.

I have twice had similar experiences, and many times in my pastoral career other people have reported such happenings. Spiritual experiences are not uncommon, although those who have them sometimes have difficulty talking about them.

Early in my Christian walk, and soon after both of my glimpses of the Golden World I read Thomas Merton, and was surprised by his speaking of one of the brothers in his monastery having a spiritual experience and of what a nuisance it was; how a spiritual experience was likely to greatly inhibit the spiritual growth of that particular monk. It has taken me some decades to discover why Merton was exactly right on that point.

Spiritual experiences are  gifts from God, given because at that point in our lives we need them. This is crucial. We cannot manufacture them ourselves, and we have no real control over them when they are happening. We certainly can't repeat them, and we can't prolong them at will, which is, I think, part of the message of the story of the transfiguration.  They usually come very early in our spiritual lives for the good reason that they signify not that we are especially mature or open in a spiritual sense, but rather the opposite. Spiritual experiences are like the nurturing breast: they are affectionate indulgences given to support or pacify an infant. They are signs of spiritual infancy and they will be increasingly withheld as we grow into our spiritual childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Spiritual experiences are given sparingly by God, because a small amount of God goes a long way. If they are truly  experiences of the divine they will transform us utterly, as did the experience of Isaiah in the temple in the year that King Uzziah died. They are given sparingly also for the reason that they are a trap, and this is what Thomas Merton meant. If we are not wise ( and who of us is? ) we will associate God's presence with what we have felt/seen/heard/tasted/smelt and imagine that unless we can feel/see/hear/taste/smell it again God isn't present. We will sometimes foolishly eschew the disciplines of the spiritual life, hankering instead for the grace which was once so freely given. It is as though, having been helicoptered briefly to the mountain top, we think we do not need to learn the disciplines of mountain climbing or undertake the rigours and dangers of the climb.

There is another danger, the one of mistaking psychological states (which are not in themselves spiritual experiences but can be associated with them and can be mistaken for them) for the presence or absence of God. Many of the practices we use in prayer and worship do produce such experiences. In a crowd there is a euphoria which can be manufactured by lighting, rhythm, repeated use of phrases, suggestion, autosuggestion, posture and crowd dynamics. In meditation there is sometimes a deep sense of inner stillness and peace. These two phenomena are merely mild trance states. They can be easily enough manufactured given the right techniques and environment. Neither of them is God and neither particularly signals the presence or the absence of God but we can fondly imagine that they do.

The blessings of the divine presence are given, albeit infrequently and sparingly, because God wishes us to learn something at that particular point in the early days of our inner journey, and God regards the lesson as so important that the risk are worth it. The task given us with the great experience is not to try and repeat it but to perceive the message which lies at its heart.  But, experienced or not, the divine presence is never absent. The universe is one and all people are one and all is infused with the blinding light of Christ whether we perceive it to be so or not.

4 comments:

NIE said...

Thanks for the post. But you have me worried about the penultimate paragraph…
"In meditation there is a deep sense of inner stillness and peace. These two phenomena are merely mild trance states……."
Kelvin are you talking about Christian meditation here?
Laurence Freeman and the WCCM explain the practice - and emphasise that it IS a practice and discipline - as being the opposite of a trance-like state. We are fully alert, no expectations, no evaluations, just "being" in the Presence. Not imagining anything?
But you know all that, 'cos I learned it from you :)

Kelvin Wright said...

That's kind of my point, Noelene.

But .... sitting still and calmly letting your breath settle, holding a simple mantra in your mind or coming back to your Centering Prayer anchor point (spoken, visual or kinesthetic)will have certain physiological/ psychological effects. One of these is a feeling of deep peace and calm - or it can be. Others are seeing certain colours, and, rarely various little cognitions such as sounds or smells. My point is that these are mere by products of the process and have absolutely no value or meaning in themselves. There are however some schools of meditation (not Christian I might hasten to add) usually run by the sort of meditation "teacher" whose qualifications are having once read a book on the subject and/or having been to a 3 day course, for whom these epiphenomena are the goal and aim of meditation; and who teach that producing them in yourself is a harbinger of imminent self realisation. They are misguided.

Practice. Discipline. In CP terms practicing giving assent to God. Learning to be in the Divine presence without comment, analysis, seeking after great revelation. This is what Christian meditation is.

NIE said...

Oh thanks, Kelvin. I certainly get those points.
So people wouldn't comment on or talk about their "spiritual" experience, even IF they could find the words, because that's not why a Christian meditates. (the ego would have a ball?)
I think Thomas Merton was a very wise man, too. Thanks for the reference to "The Golden World" - have just listened to a sample.

Kelvin, may this Lent and the Hikoi bring you more insights about life, the universe and everything! We pray especially for the sharing of the gospel with those you meet along the way.

Kelvin Wright said...

Certainly the sorts of inner experience that happen in meditation aren't usually worth the effort of commenting about. Sometimes interesting, but meaningless. And yes, building a sense of accomplishment because you can produce "visions" or peaceful states isn't going to get you anywhere.

A true spiritual experience is another matter. They are gifts from God, and are always given for a purpose. Sometimes, as in the case of Isaiah it is very important to talk about them. Take Dame Julian of Norwich, for example; her entire life's work and her gifting to the world of Revelations of Divine Love are an outworking of her talking about her spiritual experience. But as Merton says, even the real McCoy sets traps which are subtle and difficult to avoid.

(All this begs the question: how do you tell a true spiritual experience? Partial Answer: if you have to ask, it's not. More complete answer: look at the long term effect on your life [as judged by others, not by yourself]If it transforms you in a Christward direction that's a pretty good indication that it is)

You are very welcome to borrow my set of the Golden World CDs