A Church Not Made with Hands: Christianity as Spiritual Experience
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Hidden away in the most interior reaches of Christianity is a powerful means of transformation of mind and heart. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he had not given them the full spiritual teaching of Christ because they had not been ready to receive it:
But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. (1 Cor. 3:1-3)
In this passage, Paul notes the existence of two forms of Christianity: one for the surface world, those "of the flesh," and another for those who are open to full spiritual understanding. In the same letter, he says that, although he had previously come to them preaching the simple creed "Jesus Christ and him crucified". (1 Cor. 2:2):
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. . . . [A]s it is written,
"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
Nor the heart of man conceived,
What God has prepared for those who love him,?
God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (1 Cor. 2:6-7, 9-10,)
Paul declares that he and his helpers "impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God" among "the mature," or those who are made aware of the depths of God in the Spirit. As you shall see throughout this book, the mystical (literally, "hidden," in the sense of internal and spiritual) element is prevalent in the earliest sources we have of Christianity, the books of the New Testament. Why it has not been more fully accepted by Christians is a matter for debate.
The human being has a dual aspect. Much of what it means to be human, in fact the entire inner world, is hidden beneath the surface. Behavior provides information, but cannot represent everything about a person. Intention rules behavior, and the mind chooses what will be valued before it decides what will be done. Thoughts are as real as the person who thinks them, so that there is a hidden reality within.
Paul says that the secret and hidden wisdom of Christianity is "revealed to us through the Spirit," that is, through spiritual experience. Experience that transforms not only behavior but also intentions, not only intentions but also will, and not only desires but also deep-rooted values is truly mystical experience. The Christian religion for Saint Paul was no mere guide to behavior; it was in all its aspects a spiritual initiation into "the depths of God," from which point guidance would naturally step in. Jesus, too, indicated that he saw the heart of religion and the soul of humanity as abiding behind and beyond behavior, beyond rules and laws, beyond creeds and beyond religious authorities, as it rose all the way up to God Himself from Whom it came.
Where would such a secret wisdom be hidden? In inner chambers that could be accessed only by the Holy Spirit, in parts of the self known only to God. Where are "the depths of God?" No one can say because words cannot convey these depths, the mind cannot think of them from outside them; but one may experience some at least of the depths of God through His Spirit. Jesus is portrayed as informing his disciples that there was a truth they could not yet bear to hear, but he promised them that "when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:12-13). Early Christians believed in Spirit because they experienced it. They believed in allowing themselves to be led and changed by the Spirit into the all-knowing, all-encompassing truth that they in Spirit shared with God.
There is great experience "hidden" in Christianity, spiritual experience of a kind that can transform lives and heal that which is broken. But it is not hidden well. Though such experience cannot be described fully in words, spiritual experience suffuses the scriptures and earliest teachings of Christianity. In fact, the New Testament's mysticism is so pronounced that it would be difficult not to emphasize it.
The Bible is filled with keys to the spiritual and living kingdom of God. The Gospels show Jesus to be charismatic, compassionate, intelligent, prayerful, and miraculous, yes, but, even more, connected with God through a shared Spirit and reaching out to touch the world through this same Spirit. The evidence we have shows that Jesus was led by experience of Spirit. Paul and John and other New Testament writers show his transformative effect to have been as far-reaching as it was deep. These early Christians shared experience of the Spirit and felt connected with Christ and with God in being so directly associated.
Jesus showed himself to be spiritual from the depths of his very being. It was as if he lived in a different dimension, though he partook of this one, asking others to join him as he walked the countryside, entering tiny villages, speaking out about the experience, healing through it, teaching by it, giving out of his internal abundance of it. The Apostle Paul is so spiritual in his essence that he was seen by first- and second-century Christian Gnostics to be a conduit to the spiritual world. The Evangelist John emphasized in his gospel and letters a transcendent spiritual Knowledge and Love.
The Depths of Mystical Experience
Mysticism is the experiential element of religion. Though it begins in the internal spiritual experience of the individual, the ultimate destination for mysticism is the Sacred Presence of God. Mystical Christianity holds that there is a way to experience the Heart of God, for full moments, in the midst of daily existence. It suggests that human beings were created to experience the spiritual presence of God, to live within it, to share it and so their joy.
Until such inner sense of joining occurs, according to the psychology inherent in mysticism, the human being will feel incessantly empty and deeply dissatisfied. Underneath thousands of everyday feelings and opinions, there may somehow be sensed access to a lost state of beatific original grace. Mind and heart sense that they have fallen from it because they cannot conceive of such grace, though they are told by religion and sometimes by intuition that it is available. But such grace--the illumination from God--can be more truly known through experience of it than from any exposition.
How does one open to spiritual experience? It involves becoming more individual but also more than individual. The individual accedes to his or her heart for guidance, for an inner light to shine upon the way. The interior world takes on more importance than the world outside and, with grace, everything inside and out begins to shine with supreme significance. God must be near enough to know. Prayer and meditation become means of communicating with God and reaching Him directly. Simply being with Him becomes a way of knowing Him, and knowing Him becomes a way of sharing more deeply in Being.
With habituation to the light found in spiritual experience, the individual's mind and will begin to change. Oceanic love may be experienced: the deep, joyous, and tranquil manifestation of a more universal will. Such emotion filling heart and mind changes them as well, fully and by degrees. Visions may be seen and divine revelation may be given, like a message from out of time. There is in mystical experience a sense of joining and at the same time of transcendence of everything except the Being that is God. Only from Him there is no hiding. He infuses all, for He is the eternal originator and sustainer. Inherent in the holy encounter with Him is a strong sense of fullness that matches the heart-deep hunger for it and a sense of having at last surmounted usual lostness for certainty, certainty in the sacredness of everything because of perfect holiness in God.
Simply to learn of the possibility of internal transformation can bring great benefit to the individual. Mystical experience gravitates to the individual who opens to it even slightly. But to give it its practice is to become prone to experience, to enter it more readily. This need not be done through rituals. The process is to let fear and guardedness fall away as the peace and purpose of being spiritually guided settles in.
The process toward achieving experience of this union is not exactly difficult, but it may be long and intricate. Lex Hixon states that sensitivity to the guidance of spirit is indirectly imparted:
Becoming sensitive to the guidance of spirit is learned from the genuinely ecstatic members of the community, not by rational instruction but as a child learns its own native language. The learning process is gradual, often imperceptible.1
Training in spiritual experience makes use of everything, from direct instruction to indirect example, from ritual to reading to prayer, from the repetition of religious precepts to the practice of forgiveness in the larger world. It uses life itself. It can make use of any moment, of any situation, as it shines its light into the mind. As Jesus said:
. . . there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. (Mark 4:22)
To seek the mystical experience is to respond to "the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14). It is to enter the evidence of something more real than surface appearance, as if there were another world hidden behind this one. To seek the mystical experience is to ask in prayer, with Jesus, for the oneness of God. Any open mind can be a vessel for this experience.
We live in a context of experience always. Even in our ordinary existence we live in a context of psychology and inner experience. Our life and our self are internal, a series of psychological, emotional, and spiritual experiences, states, and conditions. We define ourselves and our relation to our world and to others from within a context of inner experience. All our motivation, intentions, hopes, dreams, plans, and goals are determined by what we value. The mind set free would soar to the highest truth, the heart flow from the deepest value. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," says Jesus in Luke 12:34.
Internal spiritual experience is at least as solid and certain a foundation for truth as anything else. Even though "there is no descriptive term comprehensive enough in meaning to express the entire content of experience as such,"(2) for the Christian who is guided by the Holy Spirit of God, which connects and keeps close, not a question would remain that need be answered. That is because the Spirit "searches everything, even the depths of God." It lives in God, and through this Spirit, so do those in whom it once was hidden.
That which remains when an individual encounters God is pure Being, pure Is-ness, pure experience, pure knowledge, perfect togetherness. One's connection to the other realm lies in such an encounter, one's salvation depends on it, one's being is it. The lesser self recedes, and an all--encompassing one replaces it, through an encounter with God through the Spirit.
Laying bare the deep psychological and spiritual elements involved in spiritual experience, Rudolf Otto has commented on "the immediately-felt certainty, the axiomatic quality and universality of religious conviction"(3) that could not be explained in normal human terms. The purpose of religion is not to classify and categorize--and therefore further divide--but rather, to join, to personalize and universalize. The sense of sacred experience is that which makes religion transcendent and therefore gives it its ultimate purpose.
Spiritual and mystical experience lies as much in the domain of psychology as of religion. Sometimes the deep psychological and even spiritual component is missed by theologians and scholars who see religion more along the intellectual lines of philosophy or along the historical lines of human society. Yet internal experience is where religion begins and ends.
As Christianity became institutionalized and organized in hierarchical fashion, its emphasis shifted toward conformity of belief, and away from the open individuality of spiritual experience. Historian Helmut Koester states that the proverbial "keys of the kingdom" were originally intended for an experientially based Christianity of individuals. "The power of the keys was originally designed to bolster offices which became typical of the major heresies: the prophet in Montanism, and the teacher in Gnosticism."(4) The offices of prophet and teacher were replaced with priest and bishop as Christianity began to value secular power and bureaucracy rather than individual experience of the sacred.
Spiritual experience is the great equalizer of persons. It ends the illusion of separation from God and from others. It "changes every assumption about the purpose of human existence."(5) It reveals individuals to be the same on the most fundamental psychological level, a rock-solid foundation on which to build a house in eternal creation.
J. G. Davies notes that there is little evidence of gatherings for worship in earliest Christianity other than baptism and the Eucharist or ritual of shared meal.(6) The New Testament indicates that early Christians met mainly to share experience, and this could be done somewhat informally. Baptism was more than a ritual; it was an initiation into spiritual experience and to converted identity, and the Eucharist or Holy Communion was the remembrance and restoration of spiritual presence through union. Origen believed that because of their grounding in spiritual experience, "in the life to come, the direct vision of God will make the eucharist and the Bible, which mediate the vision of God to us on earth, unnecessary."(7) There were great internal processes at work in earliest Christianity, interior processes passed down through tradition and deepened by the readings, but the best way to uncover internal processes is to experience them.
If mysticism lies at the heart of a religion, how could religion become overwhelmingly legalistic, so as to derive nearly all its direction from external sources" Wilfred Cantwell Smith explains it thus:
If one's own "religion" is attacked, by unbelievers who necessarily conceptualize it schematically, or all religion is, by the indifferent, one tends to leap to the defence of what is attacked, so that presently participants of a faith--especially those most involved in argument--are using the term in the same externalist and theoretical sense as are their opponents.(8)
Not that theology is inherently bad, but Smith contends that a religion becomes external to the individual when one is defending it against those perceived to be outside it. Human defensiveness and rationalization concretize religion into a thing among things, outside the self, though it began as an affiliation of mind and heart with soul. But externalized religion becomes schematized, whereupon it begins to tend to personalized interests such as self-perpetuation, rather than the good of all humankind, thus neglecting the heart.
Smith goes on to describe the process of the externalization of the Christian religion, saying that Christian discussion began to center:
not on transcendent realities, and not on faith, man's relation to them, but on the conceptualization of both, and on man's relation to those conceptualizations: on believing.(9)
Dogma--systematized teaching--comes from the conceptualization and concretization of constant transcendent realities. The mind limited strictly to intellect can avoid the real subject for what seems like forever. And when the mind seeks to defend itself with intellectual propositions and moral proclamations, it is difficult for the Spirit, pervasive as it is, to break through. The individual becomes ensnared in the thicket of his or her own system. Intellectual assent to beliefs and teachings may come to take the place of the presence inherent in spiritual experience. But intellectual assent to the propositions of the intellect does not tend to the integration of the self both within itself and interpersonally with others as spiritual experience does.
Paul offers spiritual experience as the sine qua non, as the essential characteristic of the Christian: "Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (Rom. 8:9).
Experience in the Spirit is the great transformation hidden in the heart of Christianity. Paul tells his spiritual brethren that "you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you" (Rom. 8:9). In other words, one belongs to another order of Being when the otherworldly Spirit overwhelms heart and mind.
Risking externalization then, how is mysticism to be defined? It is the quest for Being. To take refuge in God through Union with God is that which the mystical heart seeks beyond all else. In mysticism, the presence of the Lord abides within the individual, and can therefore be experienced in the surrender of everything else. (It is more precisely true that the experience experiences itself; not even the individual is mediator of this experience.) In mysticism, the Church in all its splendor and the Bible in all its glory are ultimately signposts to the true glory and splendor inherent in union with God.
The highest, deepest mysticism always involves a realization of union with God. Mystics as individuals choose no longer to experience themselves as separate from God; they strive above all else to bridge the sense of distance between themselves and God. Their drive becomes to find the highest state of Being and to remain there. Paul speaks of this universal motivation and its resolution in experience in God:
that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for "In him we live and move and have our being". (Acts 17:27-28)
According to the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, the mystic longs to be nearer to God than he is to himself: "My being depends on God's intimate presence."(10) The mystic wants above all else to be with God. How better to do so than to give oneself to Him in communion and find in Him the holiest of homes?
Andrew Louth speaks of the passionate significance of union with God to the mystic:
The mystic is not content to know about God, he longs for union with God. "Union with God" can mean different things, from literal identity, where the mystic loses all sense of himself and is absorbed into God, to the union that is experienced as the consummation of love in which the lover and the beloved remain intensely aware both of themselves and of the other.(11)
God reveals Himself through the deepest parts of the soul, mind, and heart to the one who can search only for Him. In the completion of true encounter, the self is for a second erased and for days left changed in the experience of union with God.
Mysticism speaks of a relationship with God that goes beyond self yet remains within oneself. Not only is there a subjective world within, but there is an objective world beneath that, a world of truth and certainty, a world of transcendent knowledge and all-encompassing love. There is, at the very base of the subjective mind, something eternally real and true, spoken of in religious terms as Spirit, as union with God, as the kingdom of God, as eternal life.
Some forms of mysticism emphasize the heart of devotion or of helping service, and some emphasize the intellect put to new use as steward of the spirit. The way of action, or service to others, is important and personally fulfilling; through service to others, we help ourselves. Lofty transcendent ideas are not only interesting for the mind to contemplate, but can also lead to a lofty state of transcendence. Yet what matters most is not the particular emphasis, for in truth all forms work together, so that each contains at least a kernel of the others. What matters most is union with God. The mystical heart wants deeply to feel this, the mystical mind, to know it.
Mysticism depends on the evidence of objective internal experience. Systems that may grow from this life-giving clarity cannot replace it, so care must be taken that they do not overgrow it. In mysticism, there is an inner reality that seems more real to the deeper mind and heart than does the external world. Mysticism reveals evidence of the interconnectedness behind the multiplicity of which the world seems made. It is as if multiplicity, for all its ever-sprawling array, is just a surface that hides the core truth of Being. The individual will never be deeply and personally satisfied with even hundreds of thousands of things as long as his or her inner heart, will, and mind crave only one.
Mystical experience is reached through the gradual transcendence of that which hides underlying union. The mystical process generally proceeds from purification (the overcoming of self-interest), through illumination (encounter with God), and finally to union (sharing the Being of God). Mysticism sees no self separate from God. It is concerned wholly with the more ultimate reality within Self at one with others and God. It arrives with a new concept-free, definition-defying identity and purpose in God.
Therefore, with mystical experience comes a sense of liberation, of having escaped from a transitory, limiting reality. Time no longer seems like bondage, ending in death. Time, in fact, begins to take on the quality of eternity. The world opens to a new Earth illumined by the internal sun of Heaven.
Mystical individuals of all traditions share something, not because they believe the same doctrines (though they do end up with doctrines that point in a similar direction), but because they share and experience the same Spirit. The objectivity within their subjectivity transcends all particular subjectivity and even individuality. They share a longing for reunion with God, and the spiritual means to attain it.
Spiritual experience is the great equalizer, allowing young and old alike to experience the perfect serenity of perfect oneness in innocence. The mystic takes to heart what Joel prophesied (and what Peter repeated in Acts 2:14-18):
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)
For the mystic, revelation is not entirely of a bygone era. The prophets spoke of this eternal outpouring. The Spirit flows freely, where it wills. The purpose of all revelation is to illuminate the present, transcending time to resume the Self in the present where God is.
Christianity gains richness with a renewed emphasis on spiritual experience. Its roots are deeper and more universal than often thought. It offers a vital experience along with its doctrines, rituals, and systems. Were there no great experience at the heart of Christianity, God would be only a concept or a system of concepts handed down through the generations. Mysticism reveals the life in God and in the holy Self He created. For the mystic, such life is shared through experience: "O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy is the man who takes refuge in him!" (Ps. 34:8)
Mystical experience offers radical change in the here and now. Heaven is more tangible, Earth more tranquil. What could be more real than moments spent in union with God? Whom God fills, He fills completely, with knowledge of primordial equality. God and world are transposed, so that now God is first, and the world reposed. All that is, rests in God. There is a spontaneous rejoicing. "Happy is the man who takes refuge in him!"
Mysticism places experience of God at the center of the self, and so also at the center of all worship and of every doctrine. Highest mysticism adheres to one fundamental truth, that the experience of God, being possible, should imbue all things with its holy light. Experience should be shined in every corner, like turning on a light. Jesus said:
Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. (Mark 4:21-22)
Spiritual experience casts new light on the world, and renders vision otherworldly. The world is saved by being made holy through spiritual vision. It is the same world, now shined through with the light of God. The world shines with God, when His Spirit enlightens the eye of the heart.
Christianity, like mysticism, begins with the inner individual and ends when that individual is returned to Oneness. No one can really mediate this for a person. No particular group can claim exclusiveness on Oneness. It must be an individual and profoundly personal experience, and yet it rises well beyond any sense of separate self.
There is one spiritual reality, given many names. Nothing else approaches the experience of the Oneness of all being in God. All things are gathered within it. To experience God is to experience a new sense of Being in God. The sense of separation is succeeded by the Self at one with all things through God.
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