I recently posted a poem about a mystical experience of mine some forty years ago in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend. The poem dramatizes and romanticizes the actual event, but it was for me a powerful manifestation of what I call God. And that was it. No other grand spiritual experience in the four succeeding decades. In fact, I am a little irritated with God for only appearing that one time. Then again, maybe I should consider myself fortunate. After all, there are many people—many Friends, in fact—who have never experienced an earth-shattering revelation of The Eternal.
On the other hand, mysticism does not depend on sudden, life-changing revelations. We do not have to experience a flash of light from Heaven as did Paul on the road to Damascus. Rather, we may experience gentler, fleeting moments that are mystical and “from God.” Perhaps we may not even recognize such experiences as transcendent. Perhaps we may even protest that we are logical, skeptical people who have no use for mysticism. Yet the experiences are there.
Many such moments are evoked by some transient experience of nature like the smell of rain in a breeze or the rustling of dry leaves across the ground. But we could be inside the house, transfixed by dust motes in a sun beam or by a beloved pet in our lap.
Music is also a prime source of transcendent moments. For me, that’s the culmination of a crescendo in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. For an acquaintance of mine, that’s the perfect pitch of a note she plays on her violin. For the Sufi branch of Islam, music is, in fact, the primary way to approach the Divine.
Even sports can give us a glimpse of The Eternal. Gary Shaw in his book, Meat on the Hoof, recalls a pass play from a touch football game with friends:
…I began to feel some inexplicable postponement of time…. This
changeless spell brought an acute sense of temporalness and the
feeling of inevitably fading with the dusk. Yet just as acute was the
sense that this present intimately belonged to both past and future.
This time and our movements were one. As I released the ball with
giving length and completeness of my arm, I could see the beginning
of its easy soft arc.
When his friend catches the ball, Shaw remarks, “I knew we had connected.”
Connection is, of course, the whole point of Meeting for Worship. We want to connect with Spirit or God and through that connection to feel a spiritual oneness among ourselves. Sometimes not much feeling or connection is apparent, but sometimes—in a gathered meeting—that feeling engulfs everyone. Less obvious, but no less important, are the mystical moments that come to us as we individually wait in silence. There may be Friends who deny being mystics, but I doubt that there are many Friends who haven’t experienced a “silent word” of Spirit spoken to them personally. God does not have to thunder from a mountaintop when speaking to those in worship.
3/18/2021 05:03:17 pm
This is a thoughtful piece and brought me insight into my own spiritual condition. Thanks for writing it, Richard.
4/3/2021 08:34:27 am
Richard, interesting piece on mysticism, but I would like to comment on one sentence. Sufism isn’t a branch of Islam – it’s an independent path which is often commonly associated with Islam but precedes it. The use of music is actually discouraged in traditional Islamic practice although important in some Sufi orders. If anything, the practice of zikr (remembrance) rather than music is probably considered primary to Sufism.
4/3/2021 07:14:03 pm
Thanks for the correction, Rebecca. At some point I'll have to learn more about Sufism.
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