Nov 212014
 

The Feast of Christ the King is celebrated on the last Sunday before Advent, and this year it is November 23rd.  It is an official Solemnity instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1952.  According to his encyclical, it should be a time of remembering that a Christian’s allegiance to God should come before all other loyalties, and thus serve to unite us in peace regardless of whatever personal, political, and sectarian issues might divide us.  As I consider the meaning of this Feast, it very easily connects in my mind with the world into which Jesus would be born and the place that he would take in that world.  Beyond that, it speaks to me of a common experience for those pursuing a mystical relationship with God.

The nation of Israel and the Jewish faith have a long history of desire for the coming of the Messiah, and especially in the form of a Divine King who will bring peace and harmony to all humanity.  This theme runs throughout the story of Jesus and his disciples, some of whom were zealots and hoped he would lead them in a divinely sanctioned political solution to the plight of Israel.  We Christians, and Muslims too, are heirs to this doctrine.  In some accounts, Jesus seems to have promised he would fulfill it, even if only after his crucifixion and resurrection.  It also appears that some of his followers continued to expect him to return and play that role after his ascension to heaven.  Even now there are many Christians who consider that to be the prophetic promise of Revelations, just as there are many Jews who continue to wait for the Messiah King, and Muslims with similarly fervent beliefs.  For just a moment, take some time to reflect on the many millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have spent their lives hoping, praying, longing, and even pleading for God’s presence to manifest in this world in such a tangible and dramatic way.  How many of these people, how many generations of them, have staked their lives upon it, have gone to their graves and even sent others to their graves for it, and yet never saw their hopes and prayers fulfilled?!  That history may be a powerful testimony of faith, and even beautiful in some ways, but are there not also profound threads of tragedy and sadness running through this legacy of our religions?

Interestingly, it can be argued that Jesus never meant to be taken literally about any of that, but that he was instead urging his followers to completely reenvision the Kingdom of God.  Many of us regard Jesus as teaching us to seek a transformation in our hearts that then radiates God’s love out into the world through our presence. We consider this to be closer to the life Jesus actually lived, and more worthy of our time and energy than begging for a Holy Dictator to come clean up our mess for us.

For now, I’d like to note that many people who consider themselve mystics, or perhaps aspire to be mystics, have a parallel notion in their minds and desire in their hearts.  When we read the accounts of some of the great Christian mystics, it can be easy to expect that the coming of God’s presence will be a dramatic experience that overthrows all our doubts and sense of separateness from God.  We hope for an event in which Jesus descends from the heavens to fill us with a fantastic flood of light, life, and love.  We dream of a personal Apocalypse in which the Messiah delivers us from the mess of our own personal humanity.  And why shouldn’t we want something like that, especially when some of those who have claimed it happened to them also claim that we can have it too?

But, just as there is a parallel between our desires for a political Messiah and our desires for a personal revelation of mystical union with God, perhaps there is also a parallel with the fact that Jesus didn’t come back as a Messiah King during the lives of his immediate disciples, or during the lives of the following generation, or the one after that, and so on for generation after generation through the present day.  Perhaps, just as we can come to a new and more fruitful understanding of what Jesus meant by the coming of the Kingdom, the parallel is coming to a new and more fruitful understanding of mystical revelation that doesn’t depend upon an extraordinary experience.

What might that new and more fruitful understanding be?  I think there were some well known scriptural answers to that question even before Jesus.  Consider first the story of Elijah:

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

So, unlike the dramatic way in which Moses encountered the immediate presence of God, Elijah’s experience of direct communication was only “a still small voice.”

Likewise, in Psalms 46:10, in the middle of many dramatic verses about God’s power in the world and praising and exalting God, there is this one small statement about actually knowing God:

Be still, and know that I am God

These scriptures that Jesus and many of his twelve would have known, urge us to realize that knowing God’s presence isn’t always a sudden and dramatic event. An experience of God may be very quiet and gentle, and perhaps so much so that we might not even recognize it for what it is.

And then there is the prayer that Jesus spoke for his followers as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17.  In that prayer he expresses his desire that his followers and their followers will come to know their oneness with God just as Jesus does, which is certainly one of the most mystical things in the Bible.  He finishes that prayer with these words:

And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved me may be in them, and I in them.

That statement highlights love as the revelation of our union with God, and it is echoed in 1 John, chapter 4:

If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us.  Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit. … And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.

There are many important things that could be drawn out of these words, but for now it is especially noteworthy that the love that is God is not something highly unusual that only comes to a specially blessed mystic. It is the love we have for one another!

O Holy One Who is Love itself, help us to be aware of Your mystical presence in our ordinary lives. Let us know You are with us through the love that we receive from others and that we give to others. As we encounter every smile on the faces of others and on our own faces, every kind word spoken by others and by us, every gentle touch given by others and by us, as we experience every simple act and expression of human love, let us realize it as an immediate manifestation of Your love, a ray of Your light that stretches directly back to the Source, the very Heart of Divine Love.  May we know Love as the great King of our lives. Amen.

Maranatha

Agape

May 142013
 

Recently, a friend took me to task for making the comment that mysticism doesn’t have much to do with angels and demons. Her surprise and head-scratching are understandable, especially since I have so often stated my agreement with the Apostle Paul that God is the One in which we live and move and have our being, and that every experience is thus an experience of God if we would only realize it as such. So, in this blog post I’d like to clarify my own understanding of the term ‘mysticism’, and also comment on its relevance, or lack thereof, to other things of spiritual mystery.

The Essence of Mysticism

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘mysticism’ means:

1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)

In popular use, the word ‘mysticism’ often loses these more specific meanings, and this is reflected by a broader point in the definition of ‘mystical’:

1 a: having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence

The latter definition actually fits well with the etymology of ‘mysticism,’ which has the same root as our word ‘mystery’, the Greek mys, which means to conceal. Our word, ‘mystic,’ apparently traces back to the Greek mystikos, denoting an initiate of a mystery religion, a sect with secret ceremonies that facilitated powerful spiritual experiences and/or taught esoteric doctrines about life and the Cosmos.

For all of the reasons stated above, people often use ‘mysticism’ or ‘mystical’ as a blanket term that may include all sorts of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of a religious or spiritual nature, and especially anything of a mysterious or seemingly supernatural or paranormal nature. Some of these things – like angels, demons, exorcism, faith-healing, blessings, visions, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and various kinds of miracles – have their places in Christian tradition and even Church doctrine, but, strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary parts of mysticism as it has developed among theologians, monastics, and others who devoted their lives to penetrating the Christian mysteries.

In early Church history, mysticism included three mutually supportive areas of focus: (1) the contemplative practice of being present to, and even consciously one with, God’s presence; (2) meditation upon the concealed or secret meanings of scripture; and (3) the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of the Trinity, which reaches its summit in the Eucharist. While it was understood that each of these three areas supported the others, through the centuries it also became increasingly apparent that the essence of mysticism was most directly engaged through contemplative practice. Without it, the other two areas increasingly descend toward hollow doctrinal conformity and superstitions about scripture and the sacraments.

This insight about the centrality of contemplation to mysticism is reflected in the primary entries for the word ‘mysticism’ in most contemporary dictionaries, like the two given above. Consider the significance of the following words from those definitions:

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective experience

These words are about the oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize directly, which is to say in an unmediated way. This particular understanding of the essence of mysticism is reflected in the earliest writings of Christian theology.

…in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with IT that transcends all being and all knowledge. Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysus (5th-6th Century)

And before that, St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions (4th Century):

If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced; and the phantoms of earth and waters and air were silenced; and the poles were silent as well; indeed, if the very soul grew silent to herself, and went beyond herself by not thinking of herself; if fancies and imaginary revelations were silenced; if every tongue and every sign and every transient thing–for actually if any man could hear them, all these would say, ‘We did not create ourselves, but were created by Him who abides forever’–and if, having uttered this, they too should be silent, having stirred our ears to hear Him who created them; and if then He alone spoke, not through them but by Himself, that we might hear His word, not in fleshly tongue or angelic voice, nor sound of thunder, nor the obscurity of a parable, but might hear Him–Him for whose sake we love these things–if we could hear Him without these, as we two now strained ourselves to do, we then with rapid thought might touch on that Eternal Wisdom which abides over all. And if this could be sustained, and other visions of a far different kind be taken away, and this one should so ravish and absorb and envelop its beholder in these inward joys that his life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after–would not this be the reality of the saying, ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’?

I’d like to offer an analogy that I hope can effectively illustrate part of what St. Augustine is saying about this experience or state, and thereby shed some light on Christian mysticism as distinct from other kinds of spirituality.

Imagine a great puppeteer, one who is legendary for both making and performing with puppets. You decide you’d like to learn more about this great artist, and so you go to one of the puppet shows. The puppeteer is so talented that the puppets seem to be actually alive, with their own movements and voices, their own distinct wills, thoughts, and feelings. The show is so fantastic that you keep coming back to see it and others, spellbound by the mastery shining through them. During the shows you are very taken by what you see and hear, and eventually you even forget that you are watching puppets, let alone remember that they are being animated by a puppeteer.

And then one day, during an intermission in one of the shows, you suddenly recall why you started coming to the shows – to learn more about the puppeteer. You shake your head and laugh, reminding yourself that everything you are seeing is being created by someone you can’t directly see. As entertaining and beautiful as the show itself is, you begin to feel a growing sense of wonder, of admiration and gratitude, of love, for the unseen genius behind the scenes who has made you think and feel so many things. You feel a desire to meet the puppeteer personally, to shake hands, to speak face to face, so you can share your admiration and learn more about the puppeteer. Of course, you know that the puppets and the show are revelations of the puppeteer’s intelligence, skill, love, and spirit, and thus you are indirectly in communication with the puppeteer, but the indirectness of it, the incompleteness of it, the inadequacy of it, becomes increasingly obvious. You know that whatever your appreciation for the show is now, it will be enriched many times over, in both depth and breadth, if you can know the puppeteer intimately. You know you will never again be nearly as satisfied with simply sitting in the audience and watching the show. You are smitten.

Asking around, you learn that most people in the audience have never seen the puppeteer. Some of them say it never occurred to them to try because they’re just here for the show. There are other people who doubt that there is any puppeteer, and instead believe they are watching machines that run on their own. Others say they’ve caught a glimpse of the puppeteer, and you listen patiently as they describe what they think the puppeteer is like based on their fleeting impressions, obviously filling in large blanks with things others have said and from their own imaginations. It occurs to you that they have made their own mental puppet of the puppeteer! Some claim to know the puppeteer personally, but when you ask how you can meet the puppeteer, most only tell you to keep going to the show and watching the puppets. Some say the only way to know the puppeteer is for oneself to try being a puppeteer. One or two quietly admit they have actually seen and spoken with the puppeteer, and they say that the only way to do so is to go sit by the locked backstage door, waiting patiently until the puppeteer emerges after the show. They say there is no way to know how long the wait will be; the puppeteer might come out right away, but sometimes the puppeteer seems to never come out. When you ask them what the puppeteer is like, they simply smile, sigh, shake their heads, and perhaps utter an enigmatic word or two. Something about them earns your trust, and perhaps it is because you see in them the same love for the puppeteer that you feel growing in your own heart. You resolve to do as they have done, giving yourself to this love for as long as it takes.

Mysticism is such a love affair with God. Yes, the mystic loves the works of the Creator, and deeply loves the immanent presence of the Creator’s Spirit and Logos in those works, but also feels that this love of the Creator’s works remains unfulfilled until the Creator is known directly. As the Blessed Jan van Ruysbroeck says in The Sparkling Stone (14th Century):

The spirit forever continues to burn in itself, for its love is eternal; and it feels itself ever more and more to be burnt up in love, for it is drawn and transformed into the Unity of God, where the spirit burns in love. If it observes itself, it finds a distinction and an otherness between itself and God; but where it is burnt up it is undifferentiated and without distinction, and therefore it feels nothing but unity; for the flame of the Love of God consumes and devours all that it can enfold in its Self.

These terms ‘undifferentiated’ and ‘without distinction’ aren’t just the kind of romantic prose about union that we often apply to our strongest feelings for other people. They can and should be taken literally, and if they are then it becomes apparent that there is only one kind of experience that qualifies as totally mystical, no matter how many different ways humans might arrive at it. In utter and complete oneness there is no other to behold or to be beheld by. Anything else, no matter how revelatory, inspiring, or transformative, is not the mystical experience spoken of by the great mystics. So, while mysterious things – like the secret meanings of scripture, the magic of the liturgy, miracles, or demons and angels – might lead someone into mysticism, into the contemplative pursuit of the One behind those veils, he or she should also realize that such concerns are not the essence of mysticism and must, at some point, be released, even if only momentarily.

In stronger words than my own, Ruysbroeck concludes:

…all those are deceived who fancy themselves to be contemplative, and yet inordinately love, practice, or possess, some creaturely thing; or who fancy that they enjoy God before they are empty of images, or that they rest before they enjoy. All such are deceived; for we must make ourselves fit for God with an open heart, with a peaceful conscience, with naked contemplation, without hypocrisy, in sincerity and truth.

While these statements might sound like doctrine, something we should simply accept in submission to religious authority, I don’t read them that way. It isn’t merely an arbitrary decree of theologically or institutionally acceptable concepts to point out that there is a natural and logical order in such things, one that has been repeatedly discovered and taught by the mystics of different eras and also in religions other than Christianity; the cup must be empty before it can be filled.

Beyond Mysticism?

Another friend, who states he doesn’t consider himself either a mystic or a contemplative, asks if there might be something beyond mysticism. In one respect, I can answer yes. The direct realization of oneness with God can come without identifying oneself as a mystic, or holding any philosophy, or practicing any methods that might be called ‘mysticism.’ There are plenty of cases of full-blown mystical experience occurring in the absence of any special desire or effort. In such cases, one’s consciousness suddenly and directly shifts into a state stripped bare of all words, images, feelings, and any trace of a me-God duality. This can happen ‘beyond’ mysticism because mysticism is, after all, a human thing, and God is not constrained to act within the bounds of human things. However, once such a moment has occurred, if a memory of it persists and the person understands its significance, then, technically speaking, that person is a mystic and has, ironically, gone beyond non-mysticism.

Here are two reasons I can answer no, there isn’t anything beyond mysticism: First, it’s clearly circular to say so, but there is no pursuit beyond mysticism because there is nothing to pursue beyond the deepest mystery of God. Mysticism reaches as beyond as anything can! Second, once the aim of mysticism, which is knowing our oneness with God, has been directly realized and is no longer just a matter of concepts, beliefs, or feelings, then everything after that can, potentially, also be realized as direct contact with God in some particular way, rather than being assumed, hoped, or hypothesized as such.

For me, that last observation suggests that the more meaningful questions are about what lies beyond the mystical experience itself, where ‘beyond’ points to what comes afterward. In Christianity, like other religions, our lore is filled with stories of the miraculous works of people who have received the ultimate touch of the Absolute and identification with the Ground of Being. These stories therefore heavily shape our expectations about what it means to be a mystic, and reinforce the common misperception that such mysterious things are essential to mysticism. They can even lead people to question the validity of their own mystical experience or that of someone else. Yet, as Jack Kornfield addresses in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, most of us will continue living with many if not most of the ordinary limitations of human existence, even if we have an extraordinary awareness of the nature of this existence. In other words, the gift of the mystical state does not necessarily bring with it any other spiritual gifts, let alone totally transform us into saintly miracle workers and glorious battlers of demons. We must instead commit ourselves to opening our hearts and minds in a lifelong process of unfolding the depths of wisdom the mystical experience holds for our own unique and very human lives.

Finally, I also believe there is something beyond mysticism in terms of importance, and that is love in general. While it could be argued that mysticism is the ultimate response to the Great Commandment to love, and to Jesus’ admonition to seek first the Kingdom of God, I would counter with another of his admonitions: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Mysticism isn’t for everyone, and its followers are not automatically ‘superior’ Christians or human beings, just as those who do not pursue the mystical path are not therefore necessarily ‘inferior’ Christians or human beings. In this light, mysticism can be understood as one among many ways of loving.

Agape

Oct 102012
 

Following the theme of my previous post on the personal dimension of Christianity, and picking up on the resurgence of interest in spiritual experiences in ChristianMystics.com, this post examines what it can mean to have a ’personal’ experience of and relationship with God.  As a case in point, I’ll be sharing the experience of a young man with whom I have been close friends.

I want to begin by stating that any spiritual experience or relationship would necessarily be ‘personal’ to the extent that one relates it to his or her own presence in this world as a more or less unique and self-aware human being, a person.   Just as your own experience or relationship with nature is said to be your personal experience or relationship with nature, so it is with spiritual experiences.  Very simply put, they are personal if for no other reason than persons are having them.  Still, it’s been my observation that by ‘personal’ we Christians often mean something else.  What I think we typically mean is that we are conceiving of our experience and relationship with God as we would with another person.  In the previous post, I highlighted our tendency to anthropomorphize God, which is perfectly understandable since that is the primary (but not the only) language the Bible and our tradition uses to address the Divine.  But rather than simply rehash that particular issue, I want to draw attention to how we conceptualize our spiritual experiences.  To do that, I will start by sharing the story of a young man’s spiritual, if not mystical, experience. He prefers to remain anonymous, and so I will refer to him as ‘Thomas.’

One Sunday afternoon in his senior year of high school, Thomas lay on his bed aware that the time was drawing near for the youth meeting at church.  As president of the youth group, he felt a duty to be there, but he was seriously considering staying home because he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis.   As a leader of his youth group and a baptized Christian, Thomas was feeling like a phony in his recent realization that he had never had the personal experience of God or Jesus that seemed to be central to the spirituality he had been taught.  For weeks he had lamented that, even though he believed in God and Jesus, and loved the story of Jesus and his legacy in our religion, he only knew Jesus as a historical figure and could only imagine relating to him as the human being described in scripture.   In other words, he had never sensed any living presence of God or Jesus in his heart and mind that seemed to have a spirit and life of its own.  Thomas had felt strong emotions of awe, humility, and gratitude when he thought about God and Jesus, and even powerful feelings of inspiration, hope, and motivation, but he took those as his own emotional reactions to things he believed about God and Jesus.  He had to admit to himself that, while he believed in God, he had never really felt directly touched by God, and also that Jesus wasn’t any more personally real to him than Moses or King David.

So Thomas lay there on his bed, unable to do anything else after weeks of wondering if there was something wrong with him, or if he had misunderstood what this whole experience of God was supposed to be like, or if he just hadn’t previously given this matter the attention it deserved.  He came to the conclusion that there must be something real to a personal experience of God, and in that moment it seemed like life wasn’t worth living without it.  With a silent voice from the depths of his soul, Thomas cried out that he was ready to die if that’s what it took to reveal the truth to him, one way or the other.  Thomas says that he hadn’t become suicidal, but that something inside him snapped.  He says he now believes it was the breaking of attachment to his old spiritual life and ways of thinking about God.  In that letting go, he wept until his eyes went dry and his body simply couldn’t sob any longer, and then found himself completely emptied of any but the faintest fleeting thoughts and feelings.  He was exhausted, and he was in a strange limbo between hope and hopelessness, just accepting the emptiness within him and the silence around him.  And then something happened.

Suddenly Thomas clearly felt another presence, which seemed to be both within and around him.  He felt the presence, its attention, and its care and concern for him, and he felt an infinite depth to it.  There was no voice or other sound, no flash of light, and no vision or image that appeared before him or in his mind. He simply felt it all very clearly, and instantly knew this was something quite different from previous emotional reactions to his beliefs about God and Jesus.  In that moment this presence was an undeniable ‘other’ which was nonetheless inseparable from him.  And, just as quickly, Thomas responded to this presence as The Presence, as God making Godself directly known to him, and he absolutely vibrated with joy and thankfulness.  Eventually he got off the bed and went to the youth meeting, and did so with an incredible new depth of assurance, gratitude, and peace.

Many observations and questions came up for Thomas in the aftermath of his experience. In particular, he noticed that there was nothing about it that immediately spoke to him as Jesus himself.  In fact, there really wasn’t much about the Presence that felt remotely human to him, except that he sensed It was aware and loving.  He recognized that he wanted to think of the Presence as Jesus, but he realized that to do so would have been an assumption about the Presence rather than something that was revealed to him by the Presence Itself.

One effect of this experience might seem a bit odd, because on the one hand Thomas felt a clearer and stronger connection with God and more spiritually alive than ever before, but he still hadn’t had an experience of Jesus as an actual living presence in his life.  In other words, he was feeling more connected to God and therefore his religion, but was also therefore even more acutely aware that he lacked something most others around him spoke about having – an immediate awareness of, and relationship with, Jesus.  Another part of the oddness was that even though he more clearly felt a difference between him and his Christian siblings on this matter, Thomas also felt a greater sense of peace with it. He now realized that his discomfort was solely about being different from other people, since his doubts about knowing and being loved by God were gone.  Thomas knew there was no issue between him and God about Jesus essentially remaining a historical figure to him.

Another effect of that experience was the initiation of his interest in meditation.  Soon after that experience, Thomas somehow got the impression that people who meditated were more likely to have such experiences, and even to have them repeatedly, if not whenever they liked.  Perhaps you can understand why that possibility sounded attractive to him. God had given him a very tasty treat, and he wanted more!  So Thomas began dabbling with meditation, but that’s about all he did.  The idea of meditation, let alone the practice of it, was extremely foreign to his world, which was a predominantly Southern Baptist, blue-collar, Texas town where people still sometimes rode horses on the street.  The library had only a few books that even touched on the subject, and none of them offered detailed instructions.  There certainly weren’t any meditation groups or teachers in town. About all Thomas could discover was that sitting cross-legged and chanting “aum” was supposed to be powerful stuff, so he tried it a number of times and found that he liked it. He found it produced an inner calm, stillness, peace, and centeredness close to what he had known just before and after his experience of the Presence.  In that space it was easy to remember the feelings he’d had in response to the Presence, and even to feel as though he was in some way drawing closer to the Presence.  Even so, the Presence Itself didn’t come to Thomas again like It had that first time.  He didn’t established a routine practice of meditation, and eventually ended up leaving it alone for several years, but he was still impressed with its value.

Over the next few years, as he continued to mature into young adulthood and become more acquainted with comparative religious studies, psychology, anthropology, and other sciences, and as the memory of the Presence faded a little, it became easier for Thomas to doubt the validity of his experience.  He learned there were plenty of scientists who considered such things to be entirely produced by the human brain, and he found their arguments persuasive enough to acknowledge that as a possibility for his own experience. Even so, he also remained quite open to the idea that it was exactly what he had understood it to be in the moment.  There were more tests and trials ahead of Thomas, including a long and sometimes miserable period of spiritual dryness.  But in time other understandings and experiences would come, he would return to the practice of meditation as a discipline rather than a quest, and his faith would be more fully awakened and realized. By the way, even though Jesus has remained a historical figure to him, Thomas says Christ was eventually realized as something even more real to him than his own personality.

I want to begin wrapping up this account of Thomas’s experience by pointing out how very personal it was.  Not only did he have a direct and unmediated personal experience of the Presence, it was also personally authentic.  By ‘authentic,’ I mean that he was honest with himself in not succumbing to both internal and external pressure to conclude that the Presence was one and the same as the historical person of Jesus.  In other words, he didn’t allow his experience to be redefined or distorted by his religion, but instead allowed the experience to transform his religion in a very personal way. Thomas further demonstrated that he wasn’t too afraid or ashamed to admit it to himself and God when he even came to doubt the experience itself.  He trusted that an all-knowing and loving God must want his most honest expression of faith.  Thomas realized that if he had any pretensions at all added to his faith, it wouldn’t be God that he was fooling, but only himself and other human beings. So it was that Thomas bared his whole personhood not only to God but to himself, and in doing so he found a greater sense of acceptance, peace, and communion with God and with himself.

Finally, Thomas wants to make sure two things are clear.  First, just because he didn’t experience Jesus as immediately present to him in person, that doesn’t mean that he believes such a thing isn’t possible; it just wasn’t the gift God gave to him.  Second, he thinks it’s very important to acknowledge that other people have emptied themselves before God the way he did on the bed that day, and yet no new awareness of God has come to them.   He has no explanation for why that would happen to him and not others. He says he feels a lot of compassion and understanding for why some people might feel cheated or even abandoned by God.  He asks that we remember Jesus’ statement that “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”  Thomas says the very fact that we so deeply want to experience God more directly is itself evidence of God’s presence in our hearts.   To that, I would add only that Jesus teaches loving others is the most important way to love God, and that it follows such love is therefore a way to directly know and experience God in our lives.  It might not be the kind of ‘personal’ experience we want, but it is one that is always available to us.

Maranatha!

Agape