Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.--from Luke 9:28-43

As a child I often pondered the mysterious song "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum:

And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale

"It's an acid trip," older teens would say, knowingly, about this and many other haunting songs from the 1960s, thereby ensuring that I would never, ever be even remotely tempted to take acid or any other similar drugs. But acid and other hallucinogenic drugs can lead to an altered state of consciousness. Sometimes users get a "bad trip," in which they experience a nightmarish fantasy as reality, but sometimes they have a spiritual experience, probably not so different from the experience that Jesus' disciples had on that mountaintop. Drug users hope for these good experiences, but most religious people don't expect or hope for these sorts of life-changing peak experiences, thinking that such experiences are not accessible to modern-day believers. And that's too bad.

So much of what makes life great or terrible has to do with expectations. When it started to snow in New England on February 8, 2013, like most people I had laid in several days worth of provisions and planned on taking a break from my regular life. This isn't so different from what Jesus, Peter, John and James did on the mountain top outside of Jerusalem all those years ago. 

I love big winter storms--the way they demonstrate the awesome power of nature, and the way they transform my ordinary and familiar surroundings into something surreal and beautiful. When it snows like this I often get up in the middle of the night just to stare. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be able to witness such beauty from the comfort and warmth of my home.

The Christian church should spend more energy making it clear that spiritual experiences don't require ingesting dangerous drugs. Some churches make an effort to help Christians reach "mountaintop" experiences regularly through their worship. It's not as difficult as you might think, and yet I am under the impression that some Christians intensely dislike and avoid this type of experience.

 I'm not sure why this is, but it may be that these types of spiritual experiences are in some ways similar to intoxication, in that they make people feel a sense of exhilaration, but they also make people feel as they are not entirely in control of their own emotions and being. It's too bad that some churches avoid providing these powerful experiences of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It's part of the reason why a growing number of people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious."  They are aware that spiritual experiences, like the experiences I have watching the whole world turn white during a blizzard, are accessible outside of organized worship services, and they are also aware that, sadly, some churches that provide these kinds of spiritual experiences use such experiences to manipulate their members.

Even though it is possible for churches that provide a sense of God's spiritual presence to mislead and exploit church members, I still feel there is no good reason for churches to avoid helping people access their spirituality in church. Spirituality is the reason that churches exist, and religion without spirituality isn't really religion at all, but merely an empty facade posing as the real thing. Spirituality without religion sounds awesome, but it can be associated with feelings of depression.

If you find that your religious upbringing felt like an "empty ritual," I encourage you to start looking for something more, but it is important that any such search begin as a time of inward reflection. Don't put your spiritual well-being solely in the hands of just anyone. There are trustworthy spiritual guides. They're called "Spiritual Directors," and they undergo training and certification. The organization Spiritual Directors International suggests that you interview a Spiritual Director before undergoing spiritual direction with that person. Spiritual experiences can be powerful and life-transforming, and they are our birthright as beings created in the image and likeness of God.

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