Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Golden Lion

The track ahead led through a swampy area over the submerged ruins on an ancient road toward the opposite bank. Several slimed steps emerged from below the surface of the dark waters up to the top of the bank. Climbing up the steps I stood for a moment pondering the parting of the ways that were before me. To the right lay an old rutted cart path that wove its way into a damp, dark, and murky forest. Another smaller path, single, simple, went up the hill before me.

Thinking that the cart path looked the most likely to lead somewhere I struck off down the road. Only a dim and grey light filtered down through the over-arching branches. I felt an inner caution; several pathways branching off one side or the other would offer themselves. An inner voice old me not to worry, I would know where the danger lay. As I travelled on several avenues beckoned me, but at once a sense of antipathy, almost dread, warned me away. Going on a little further a grotesque birdlike spectre loomed over me bidding me enter a branch leading further off beneath the shadows of the trees. From that offered pathway a faint, subtle, stench of death drifted on the air. The sense of dread deepened and I backed away. The old rutted cart path and all its branches led nowhere that I wanted to go.

I returned to the river bank and looked again at the small path leading up over the hill before me. The path itself was narrow, but on either side was a broad margin dotted with tiny meadow flowers, pink, white, perfectly formed, presenting a cheerful alternative to the old cart path that I had abandoned.

The path led up over the crest of a small rise and emerged from the forest into bright light. Before me a broad slope led gently down to the sea. The sky was blue, the air freshly warm, the scene serene, the horizon infinite. As soon as I set forth down the slope to the sea I saw before me an immense Golden Lion standing on the sandy shore. Love and awe, desire, awoke in my breast and I hastened forward and lost myself in His embrace. It was Love Himself that met me, embraced me, filled me with a deep and reverent joy. With great gladness I lost myself in Him.

Thus I awoke from sleep, but the numinous Presence of the Lion enveloped me with a warm radiance that endured throughout the next hour, despite the distractions of my morning ablutions. He who loved me most of all said to me, “You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4), and I knew the truth that He dwelt in me, and I in him, twined together in the harmony of love.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Unitive Experience: A Personal Reflection

While I do not “feel” God all the time I acknowledge that when I turn my gaze toward Him most often His Presence comes rushing in. I have always attributed that to the experience of the Holy Spirit six weeks after my conversion. It was an experience of complete abandonment in the Presence of God. It came unsought, pure infused grace after a year of wrestling with purgation. Infused grace is that grace which comes as pure gift, poured on one seemingly without conscious preparation. Purgation is a season of self-discovery under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and ends in penitence and confession.

The purgative stage was cyclical and I was through sorrow and the experience of guilt and alienation from God gradually led to such a place of self-awareness that I abandoned all and cast myself in utter trust on the mercy and love of God. The moment of surrender and final confession opened a door into an immediate sense of the Presence of God without guilt, and without recrimination.

I had no words for the deeper experience that came six weeks later. Eventually Charismatic theology and the words of Scripture would identify the experience as the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. Such an identification however falls short in understanding the essence of the encounter. An older theology would have understood it as an experience of being rapt in God that issued in a sense of being at unity with God, of oneness, a lostness in the enrapturing Presence that for those moments removed me from all awareness of my surroundings and held me tossed to and fro in the ocean of God’s boundless love. The circumstances are not as important as the event itself. It happened in the midst of a superficial community that was accepting at least that such things could and should happen. But the experience itself was intensely personal and removed me emotionally, spiritually, and it seemed physically from the community itself.

Basically such an experience is word based and perhaps even the result of acquired grace. For me the experience was preceded by avid and disciplined reading of the New Testament and by exposure to the psalms, particularly expressions like the old Scot’s Psalter tune for Psalm 42, “As pants the heart for cooling streams When heated in the chase, So longs my soul, O God, for Thee, And Thy refreshing grace.”

Some of the mystics would have identified it as an experience of initiatory grace. Initiatory grace is that grace we sometimes experience at the very beginning of our spiritual journey giving us a foretaste of spiritual delights and drawing us on into disciplines that prepare us for acquired grace. Although acquired grace is itself a gift, it is experientially the immersion in the Presence that comes in response to quiet discipline.

Certainly it was initiatory grace, but it marked me forever and left within me a spiritual and emotional receptor, a doorway for the Presence of God. It had nothing to do with worthiness. “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and Your servant shall be healed.” To my sorrow and occasional confusion I grieve that I am so slow in responding obedience, but I hasten to add that whatever obedience I have is responsive by nature. The experience left me with a sense of unity with God that fades and then is renewed in the ebb and flow of my experience of God’s love and grace in rhythm with my ongoing process of self-discovery and penitence. The experience of unity with God has also marked me with a willingness for abandonment with God. I would not want to be tempted to abandon the experience of the Presence which comes as pure gift, even in those times when on the surface it seems to be acquired grace.

I have had dark nights of the soul since then, some of them unsought, some blundered into. What I have learned is that God loves me, in tune, out of tune, at all times and delights to have me know that love. His love precedes and transcends my transformation. The issues of the human soul move very slowly and God will not await our timing but takes us to His bosom, as we are, in transition, in partial and sometimes inadequate, very inadequate states of sanctification. That is what the blood of Christ is for, cleansing and purifying even as it makes this union with God a possibility.

I am at a loss to describe the experience of His Presence. I feel enveloped. I would say I feel loved, but how does one feel loved? To be sure it is subjective, but nonetheless it is so persistent and sometimes so pervasive that it cannot be denied. It is Divine hands upon my shoulders, Divine breath breathed deeply in. It is comfort, peace, and at times physical warmth. It is more than subjective. It is an inner knowing, a receiving of the immanent God, “a golden breathable medium.” I relax into it and am still. I pick up the Scripture or my Psalter, or a book written by another child of God and feel the Presence spilling from the pages into my very soul. I pick up my pen and write, or write even on the computer knowing all the time that He is with me. I experience Him with the same clarity that I experience the others whom I love.
I acknowledge that it is not something that I have done although on another level I have allowed myself to thirst for Him and for His Presence. How should it be otherwise? The words of an old hymn come back, “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seeking Him seeking me.” At times I have hesitated. At other times I have drifted away. But, by grace, in the final analysis I respond to Him with the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fait Accompli

When faced by an uncomfortable or potentially painful task I have often been comforted by one particular sentence in C. S. Lewis’ book Perelandra. To place that sentence in its context, the C. S. Lewis character “Ransom” is faced with horror, dread and potential death as he contemplates physical conflict with the Unman, a demonized and brutal fallen academic. All of a sudden an awareness steals upon him, a certain knowing that, “About this time tomorrow you will have done the impossible.” 1 The background to this event is the knowledge that he has gone through this in different contexts before. Haven’t we all.

Now in facing surgery later this morning, the anesthesiology, the surgery itself and the aftermath (which one comforter characterized as “mega painful”); I am aware that I have gone through these kinds of challenges before and by grace I have come through them. This is I suppose an entwinement of faith and courage, although I hadn’t consciously thought of is before. It is very true that this is a fait accompli, that by this time tomorrow I “will have done the impossible.” All that remains is an awareness, a setting aside of the threat of pain, and a substitution of the knowledge that he who bore a painful death for me will carry me through again as he has so many times before.

But let me insert a little reality here, borrowing an evaluative method from my doctor’s assistant. She asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how painful is it?” At that moment I said quite truthfully “Eleven.” After a change of medications, on the same scale, it was about a three. To apply this to the level of apprehension this morning on a scale of one to ten, this rates about a three, or at moments a four. To say nothing of past emotional and spiritual challenges, I have been through many needles, I.V.s, several colonoscopies (the day before is the worst thing about colonoscopies), and two knee surgeries before. He who carries me through these will carry me through again in His wounded hands. About this time tomorrow I will have come through and will be on the road to recovery.

One challenge that I have been mastering this time around is the surrender of my long and tightly grasped independence and allowing others to help me. As Henry Suso says “No matter how much one abandons oneself, one repeatedly finds more of oneself to abandon.” What snaps into present consciousness is my unsympathetic step-mother screaming at me and barring the door as I stood on the porch bleeding from a head wound. “Don’t bleed on the rug!” was all the empathy I received and the very clear knowledge that the carpet was, on a scale of one to ten, an eleven in her world, and I was less than a zero. Even as a young teen I could figure that out, but I also know that on a scale of one to ten, my heavenly Father’s care and love for me is a thousand to infinity.