Category Archives: Mysticism

Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.

Real Dreaming

I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?

This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.

Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.

Russian Along

Living at Nashotah House—if you haven’t been, trust me—makes one curious about Rasputin. While on the faculty there, his name was used as a common slur. When Brian Moynahan’s Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned came out in 1997 my wife and I bought it and read it together. Two decades on the details had become fuzzy and, having read about Aimee Semple McPherson and her faith healing reminded me of the famous Russian scallawag. For all his personal faults, Rasputin did seem to have genuine healing abilities. He was more shaman than orthodox, to be sure, and Siberia was the home of shamanism as well as Rasputin. For those who don’t know the story, in pre-Revolution Russia Grigory Rasputin rose from a Siberian peasant family to the most trusted advisor to the Empress of Russia, Alexandra Romanov. Her weak-willed husband, Nicholas, also gave credence to the mystic, despite the latter’s well known drunkenness and womanizing.

The fascinating aspect of Moynahan’s treatment is that it brings out the saintly side of this figure who’s grown such a notorious reputation. That’s not to whitewash his extreme lifestyle, but it is to acknowledge that he was far more complex than many critics make him out to be. He seems to have been sincere in his faith, and perhaps a little mentally imbalanced. He was kind to the poor, and charitable. He wasn’t a bigot, a sin quite common in his day. He was a working class mystic who took advantage of being inebriated with power. His influence over Alexandra was so strong that he could appoint Prime Ministers even in the midst of a world war. This is a fascinating personality.

Reading the book at this point in history, however, proved strangely unsettling. Many of us wonder how a rational, fairly educated and prosperous nation could tolerate the buffoons who inhabit Washington, DC. Daily we see insanity—with no exaggeration—on the level of the throes Tsarist Russia, or even of Rome under Caligula. Instead of taking steps to right the course, the Russian, excuse me, I mean Republican, Party does any and everything in its power to keep the illusion of normalcy alive. Even while foreign ministers of his own party tell the European powers to ignore their own president, American Rasputins just can’t survive without their daily power fix. The sad thing about that last sentence is that after writing it I felt as if I were somehow being unfair to Rasputin. And I lived at Nashotah House long enough to know what I’m talking about.

Heal and Farewell

What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.

Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.

Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.

Spirits and Souls

I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.

A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.

Zounds Like

Liberation from the confines of academia allows for the occasional indulgence in taboo subjects. I can’t remember when I first heard of stigmata. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and, like many Protestants, distrusted much of what came from Rome. Still, I was interested in the supernatural. When I learned that people in this modern day and age sometimes developed unexplained wounds corresponding to crucifixion, I was intrigued. Ted Harrison’s book, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, is the first I’ve actually read on the subject. It has some fascinating observations to share. It was some time after seminary that I learned that Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis) was the first stigmatic. I had admired Francis for turning down wealth to assist the poor and commune with nature—what’s not to like?—but I didn’t realize that he had initiated this rare, but real phenomenon.

Harrison considers the question of why it was only in the 13th century that the stigmata began to occur. They have occurred ever since, in very small numbers, primarily in Italy and primarily among women. But why then? He points out that the church, shortly before this time, began to emphasize the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. We’re probably all familiar with some of the gruesome images that emerged from the church and its artists at that time. As such images proliferated, people were given a visual focus that directed their devotions. Every great once in a while, this led to stigmata. Why women? As Harrison points out, men with intense spiritual needs could become priests. Women could not. The church would not forbid personal devotion, and if such devotion led to stigmata, well, a person arguably had a direct line to the divine. That was something normally preserved for priests through the Eucharist.

Stigmata have to be understood in the context of mysticism. The more recent cases studied by Harrison include some non-Catholics and some other unexpected candidates for what is, after all, a very intense spiritual experience. What emerges is a thoughtful, one might dare say contemplative, approach to the issue. Some stigmata have been self-inflicted. Some have not. Medical personnel have witnessed and examined these improbable wounds and have not explained them away. Once, during a faculty meeting at the New College of Edinburgh University (I was post-graduate student representative) one faculty member groused after one of my advisors had presented a challenging idea: “you’ve dropped us in a mythological world. I want to get us out.” There it is in a nutshell. Some people can live in a world where stigmata occur. Others have to explain it away. The difference is all in the matter of perspective.

Night and Day

Jim was aghast. The joke had been entirely inappropriate. I had asked him about the Pentecostal service we’d just left. Jim was my college roommate and had invited me to see what his tradition was all about. I’d witnessed speaking in tongues before, but never on such a scale. That wasn’t what was bothering Jim, though. The minister had told a joke about a demon. It had something to do with a man possessed by a coffee demon. The exorcist declared to the demon “You have no grounds to be in him!” Inappropriate. It might make people think there weren’t real demons. We used to disagree on many points, but remained friends. I lost track of Jim. He dropped out of college to go follow a spirit-filled man in Waco who’d learned Hebrew and Greek without ever having studied them. His concern about that joke, however, raises an interesting question.

I’ve just finished reading Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool’s book, Deliver Us from Evil: A New York Cop Investigates the Supernatural. It’s hard not to like Sarchie. A rough and tumble associate of Ed and Lorraine Warren, he is most sincere law enforcement officer (now, at my age, retired). Openly believing in the supernatural, claiming his traditionalist Catholic faith, he hates demons for the misery they cause both humans and God. I admire such unquestioning faith. At the same time he’s clearly aware of his own foibles and weaknesses—something we might like to see more often in the police force. He doesn’t doubt, however, that demons are real. The concern, however, is that he might sometimes be a bit harsh on non-Christian religions. He admits that he’s not the most studious of demonologists.

No doubt, belief is important. Belief with knowledge is even better, it stands to reason. Problem is, academic or scientific studies on demons are sorely lacking. Sarchie was an associate of the controversial Malachi Martin (whose book Hostage to the Devil I blogged about some time ago). I feel for someone who wants to know more but runs into the limits imposed by academia. Where do you find information if the recognized specialists in a discipline don’t write about it so regular people can read it? It is a real dilemma. A scientific approach would declare the events in Deliver Us from Evil (also published as Beware the Night, before being released as a movie) are anecdotal. This is technically correct. No laboratory procedure exists to confirm something science denies exists in the first place. The only weapon against such a foe is faith. Thinking back to college, I don’t know what happened to Jim, but on this point I’m sure he would have agreed.