Integrating mystical experience with Quaker community

October 27, 2017 § 16 Comments

My formative “mystical” experience was triggered by a sweat lodge ceremony more than thirty years ago, during a time when I was deeply involved in the study of the First Nations of Turtle Island (North America). This was before I became a Quaker.

Because this life-changing experience had come from outside the Quaker tradition, I struggled for a long time about whether I really could be a Quaker. Nor was this the only spiritual experience that I brought in from outside the Quaker tradition. I had also been a serious practitioner of yoga as a spiritual path, not to mention my psychedelic experiences. I was only convinced it was okay to join Friends when a very close f/Friend—a neo-pagan priestess—convinced me it was okay because it had worked for her.

I’m still not sure she was right, sometimes, since I have come to feel quite strongly that the Quaker tradition is a Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition makes little room for neo-pagan or neo-indigenous experience. But here I am. This dissonance between my past experience and my current tradition prompts me now to consider myself a guest in the house that Christ built and to give the master of the house the respect I believe he’s due.

Meanwhile, since having this experience (in 1984), I have immersed myself in the Quaker way at least as passionately as I immersed myself in indigenous spirit ways, and in yoga before that. Since then, I’ve also had “mystical” experiences that have come directly from my Quaker practice and that fit comfortably within our tradition. They have been less profound than that sweat lodge experience, which is still a rock upon which I build my spiritual life, but they are important to me and defining for me nonetheless.

Thus I have always had within me these ties to experience, faith, and practice that are not at all Quaker, standing alongside my Quaker “mystical” experiences. This is a defining condition of many Friends in the liberal Quaker tradition. Most of us are convinced Friends and many of us come to Friends already mature to a degree in some other spiritual path or experience. It is one of the gifts of the liberal Quaker tradition that it allows us as individuals to accommodate or even incorporate these other experiences and spiritual identities in our personal pursuit of the Quaker way.

This leaves open the question, however, of how this eclectic dynamic in liberal Quakerism affects our collective faith and practice of the Quaker way. I suspect it’s both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it gives (some of us) both grounding and faith—we know the life of the spirit is real and important to us. We know that there is a there there. Meetings need Friends who are thusly grounded in their own experience.

But it’s also a weakness because it seems to encourage some Friends to think that anything goes in Quakerism, that we don’t actually have a coherent or clearly defined tradition anymore. About that I profoundly disagree.

Furthermore, a lot of disparate but powerful experiences in a meeting might make cohesive community and collective experience more difficult to achieve. Perhaps; but maybe not.

I’ve been reading Rufus Jones’s Studies in Mysticism, seeking to track how he redefined liberal Quakerism as a mystical religion, which was a significant innovation in the history of our tradition. He’s the one who gave us “that of God in every person” as a divine spark—not George Fox. It’s clear that he was a neo-Platonist of a kind, that he did believe in some version the divine spark as the vehicle by which humans had mystical experiences. He finds versions of this belief in many of the mystical movements he discusses in that book, and he came to believe that this was the universal element in mystical experience, if not in religion itself.

Thus liberal Friends get from Rufus Jones the current form of our universalism, the notion that there is truth in all religions, and that something universally true lies behind the distinctive beliefs and practices of each religion. I’m not so sure he’s right about that, myself. It sounds nice, but I think it might be wishful thinking.

Jones also felt, it seems, that mystical experience lies at the root of the religious impulse itself. Modern liberal Quakers do not necessarily share this view.

A survey of Friends conducted by Britain Yearly Meeting to understand what draws people to Friends identified three types of experience or temperament in their newcomers. The survey called them mystics, activists, and refugees. This latter would be better labeled community-oriented Friends, people who seek religious community; some portion of these folks are indeed refugees from other traditions, but not all.

Of course, most of us have all three of these temperaments to some degree, but in my experience, most of us “specialize” in one or the other. (What is your experience and your primary focus?) My point is that the activists and the community-oriented Friends have not necessarily had transcendental experiences and often aren’t particularly interested. The mystics are often less inclined toward witness. And community-oriented Friends, which seem to me to be the majority, seem less interested in either than in having a settled religious identity, a shared fellowship, and a place to belong.

I suspect that this diversity of religious temperament is at least as responsible for whatever weakness or shallowness we have in our meetings’ collective spiritual life as is the diversity of our past transcendental experiences, since the majority of us may not have had profound transcendental experiences in the first place.

I am profoundly grateful that I can bring my experience with me into the Quaker fold. In return, I try to respect the tradition I’ve joined.

In this, Rufus Jones has become my model. He was raised an Orthodox Friend and he, along with John Wilhelm Rowntree and the rest of the cohort of young adult Friends who were the midwives of the liberal Quaker movement—they were all devout followers of Christ. To our modern liberal ears they even sound rather evangelical, though many of their innovations were actually reactions to the evangelicalism of their time. They were Christians with a vision of a new kind of Quakerism that was active in the world, that embraced science, and that held a mystical and universalist view of religion.

I’m not sure what they would have thought about my sweat lodge experience. But I would like to think they would have asked, what are the fruits? Hast thou known the Light, by whatever means thee has found it? And has it awakened love—of God and of thy neighbor?

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Mystical Experience

October 27, 2017 § 1 Comment

I wonder how open Friends are to mystical experience? How many of us have had a mystical experience? How do we treat those of us who have had mystical experiences? How equipped are our meetings to minister to members or attenders who’ve had such an experience?

Maybe “mystical” isn’t the best word. Mystical in its traditional usage implies union with the divine, a la Jacob Boehme or Theresa of Avila. “Transcendental” might be a better word. By transcendental, I mean experiences that transcend normal consciousness, that transcend our understanding, that transcend the senses. But I also mean experiences that are positively inwardly transforming, that deepen your faith, make you a better person, inspire compassion, empathy and love, give you direction, and awaken greater spiritual awareness.

That’s not to say that mystical experiences aren’t disruptive. When an experience changes your life, it disrupts your life, and sometimes the lives of others, of people who are attached, or at least used to, the old you.

Mystical experiences fall along a spectrum of intensity and affect on a person. I suspect that many Friends have had “milder” versions of “mystical” experience, and may not even think of them as such. But what about those of us for whom the experience has been earth-shaking, truly transforming—and therefore disruptive?

We are fewer in number, I suspect. Maybe one person in a medium-sized meeting? Or maybe not even one. I know of at least one other in my meeting, which has roughly 60 worshippers on a given Sunday. But I bet there are others. My point is that we are not likely to know.

We don’t share these experiences lightly, or with just anyone. It’s too precious, we feel too vulnerable, and we have had some bad responses. I know I have. Some people can’t imagine such an experience and feel somehow threatened by it. Many people just don’t understand it and are mystified and feel awkward. Some will think you’re deranged or somehow delusional. Sometimes our passion and self-consciousness makes us talk about it with a combination of avid intensity and nervous withholding, especially early on when we haven’t finished processing what’s happened to us, so we do come off as a little deranged.

What would happen if someone came to your meeting with such an experience? Would your pastoral care committee or worship and ministry committee be equipped to provide some help and support? Would you know of any other mystics in the meeting to whom you could turn, who might be able to serve as an elder to this person?

I was lucky that, when I had my formative experience in a sweat lodge at the first North American Bioregional Congress, I knew a fellow there who had studied with an Aboriginal medicine man for a while. He was able to elder me, to help me understand what had happened to me in the experience’s own terms. That is, he gave me an indigenous spiritual understanding for an experience that had presented itself through an indigenous spiritual technology, the sweat lodge, and that was rife with the symbolic elements of indigenous spirit-ways. And I already had some background in that worldview and I had had transcendental experiences before, so I wasn’t totally freaked out.

But some of us have to work out the meaning of a mystical experience on our own. In fact, you still have to even if you have an elder, like I did. But at least I had some psychic, spiritual, and intellectual tools to work with and a little help.

My message here is that our meetings should try to create an environment that is open to mystical experience. We should somehow encourage those who have had transcendental experiences of any intensity and import to share those experiences with the rest of us, or more likely, to feel comfortable at least seeking support privately, either through a committee or an individual. We should be ready to listen with open hearts and minds.

And if the experience comes from outside the Quaker tradition, as it is very likely to have done, we should help the Friend integrate the experience with their Quaker faith and practice, if that’s what they want. Or be ready to point them in some other direction for support, if that seems appropriate, or if we’re not equipped to be of service.

I might share more about this last point in a subsequent post.

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