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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Free-writing with Jen: Thinking about Mystical Experience

Pendle Hill above mist photo by Dr Greg
As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.
George Fox: An AutobiographyChapter 6

Mystic River
Mystic, Connecticut

There is no magic in these words applied so widely.  Was Mystic, CT named after a divine mystical experience?  What of Mystic River?   I can imagine a river being mystical—as in self-aware of existence on more than one plane that is accessible—when its garbage is out of the way.  I would imagine that for a river this would occur closest to its source. 

I have read about famous mystics and have read work by famous mystics—those who were natural or religiously inspired or induced by peyote: Carlos Castaneda, Kahlil Gibran, Omar Khayyam, Rumi, Gurdjieff, Starhawk and Susan Griffin, Hildegard, St. Francis, Meister Eckhart, William Blake, Whitman, Jesus and lots of Quakers and poets and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and also Archery.  I imagine the Bible was written by mystic types whether they knew it or not.  I suppose that priests have access and awareness whether or not they use them. 

But I never noticed that I myself had mystical experience until I had my first few experiences as a Quaker.  After that I could look back over my life and question experiences I had before I knew the concept of mysticism.  And I still wonder if by its very nature the Religious Society of Friends—Quakers—is/are a mystical faith.  Does having mystical experiences make someone a mystic? 

I first met Quakers when part of the planning collective for the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in the early 1980s.  It wasn’t long before I started attending worship with them at Albany Friends Meeting, attracted by two Quakers—a mother and daughter team—who always saw the positive in each situation and smiled while others frowned and struggled.  One day while sitting in Meeting for Worship, I thought I was mind-wandering because my eyes were open and I was looking at each individual in our circle.  Their outlines began to blur until I saw blobs of flesh stuffed into clothes with facial features and long stringy arms and legs.  What the Hell?  But I wasn’t mind-wandering.  As I squeezed my eyes open and shut to shake free my vision, I heard—maybe—what was a voice saying: See?  People are all made of the same stuff, but they are shaped differently with different skills to do different tasks.  So if one of you does it, you all do it—no need for competiveness or jealousy.  That took some unpacking.  It was months before I told anyone.

Another instance from the same time period again appeared in the form of a voice in Meeting for Worship, this time with an added push to it:  Anyone can sit in front of a tank.  You make theatre.  Why aren’t you making theatre?  That should have been clear enough and I did make a piece—a collective piece for the Peace Encampment—letting go of my organizational involvement and other protests.  But it took clearness committees and eldering before I left Albany for graduate school in theatre.  It wasn’t until 4 years later in my third year of Berkeley, California’s PhD Director-Scholar Program that I received the vision that made me realize I had been having mystical experiences.

Again, a voice came in Meeting for Worship, but this time it felt Job-like in give and take.  I remember that I had been absent from meeting for two weeks because I had fallen down 9 concrete steps and had been laid up with a concussion and a cracked thumb bone.  I was saying Thank you for saving my life and for not giving up on me when I am such a bungler, constantly miss-stepping and that in the theatre of all places instead of doing your work.  I was rambling prayer-like, eyes tightly closed when I heard words that made me shut up and stand up: No.  Thank you.  Thank you for Being.  Thank you.   I protested and heard the words again:  Thank you for Being.  Thank you. And I felt overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude enveloping me—not only mine for God but God’s for me.  I was lifted up quite literally into a mystical experience.  I felt my eyes opened as I re-applied myself to my studies, trusting that even if I didn’t see the connections right away, I was doing God’s work.  With my passion for work, that I now saw as God’s passion, I moved forward to become a professor, travelling where that took me until that changed. 

The more I experienced God, the more I yearned for God and the society of others who knew for what they were longing: other Quakers.  Quakerism is a mystical religion, waiting on people to be wanting mystical experience and moved into action by it.  Whether those people are mystics or not is for each participant to judge.  I think I am not a mystic though I now recognize I have had a life full of the kind of experiences that can be called mystical because they included awareness of and interaction with life on another plane than earth.  I think now of my experiences with folk and mythic creatures from tales and stories when I was young and then storytelling in my entire life.  This led to performance years ago and poetry now, wherein I often feel moves and words come from another plane that I interpret boldly.   If this is not God or my Buddy Jesus, it is certainly not of devils or anything evil but an opening of a way to healing for me and/or others.  In contrast, when I am self-aware, I am shy, doubtful and hesitant.  And when I don’t experience God for lengths of time, the depression feels like withdrawal from a fountain of light and drive, a forgetting of what joy and fun are. Fun: a God-given rush and state of being not unlike love, an experience as important as belonging and compassion and contentment.

It is possible that my experience and conclusions have nothing to do with mysticism, that if I had never felt alienated I would know they were merely what humans have available to them daily.  But as a Quaker, I experience other people’s recounting of their experience and therein I hear enough AWE to know these experiences are about our relationship with God. 

Everyone has access to spiritual relationship with God, but few dare to follow.  Isn’t that odd?  To have access to Joy and to refuse it?  But some of the Passion is of the Burning-Bush variety, and—say what you might—few people want to go that far from their comfort zone.  The ones that do are the subject of books, and I am not one of those. Not yet.