Having Mystical Experiences?

Sermon for Sunday, November 12, 2017 (2 Advent Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT

What did they experience out there in the wilderness, all those from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem? What did Baptism and confession do for them? How did John draw all those people? Some guy clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and who ate locusts and wild honey. Honey seems pretty normal unless you have to get it for yourself, which I suspect John did, but locusts… not sure I would be making a trip to the desert to watch someone eat locusts.

I think that people encountered God out there in the wilderness… they had a mystical experience. And I think it is significant that the people did NOT go to the Temple to have this experience; they went to the wilderness. It’s almost like they were SENT there by some mysterious power that acted on them and they couldn’t help but to respond to it. If you’re paying attention to the Deacon’s dismissal at the end of services, you are being sent out into the wilderness too! And, if you know what you’re looking for, you can encounter God in today’s wilderness just as they did. Better yet, you may discover that you have already been having such experiences, because they happen to people, all the time.

There are four markers of mystical experience[1]. First, they are very difficult to describe in words, and as you can tell in today’s Gospel that Mark doesn’t try, he just sticks to the bare facts. As I have looked back at the times I have had mystical encounters with the God, and particularly as I have tried to write about them in my blog or in sermons, I have to agree that it is hard to find the right words to describe them plainly. I find that I have to use imagery to say what they were like rather than what they were. Here’s what I wrote about one mystical experience: "Where are these tears from?" she asks gently. A thousand thoughts fly up from the marsh of my heart... into the mind’s sky they lift and murmurate… they coalesce into twisting undulating shape-shifting patterns and folds that dissipate and appear. This is my ego trying to regain control… to find the words that will intellectualize the question and keep the heart hidden. For a moment, I watch the spectacle, falling into the enchantment of it.[2] So, I think that’s poetic and all, but I didn’t really have birds murmurating in my head… it describes the sense of it, but not what happened. I just couldn’t find those words, which is a sign that the experience was a mystical one. I’m willing to bet that you have had similar experiences where you were left asking yourself "What just happened?" I think people in that wilderness asked the same question… "What just happened?"

The second characteristic of mystical experiences is that they are insightful. As one person put it "a change in perception occurs. Scales fall from our eyes. We are enlightened…." [3] Suddenly, you get it… there’s this "aha" moment. "Now I understand how she felt" or "Now I see homeless neighbors in a way I never have before" or "Now I know something about myself (or Mom or Dad) that I never understood" or "That’s what it is like to see Jesus in someone else’s face". And notice that this characteristic is NOT about seeing a miracle happen, but about a new understanding… it’s the new understanding that is the miracle. Have you had spiritual "aha" moments before? I think people in that wilderness did.

The third mark of the mystical experience is they happen quickly and then they are over… they don’t linger. That experience with my Chaplain was over in five minutes. Have you ever had a spiritual experience where you were suddenly overcome for a moment by chills or goosebumps or by the gift of tears? I always pay attention to Ron’s Kolanowski tears because they are a sure sacramental sign that something mystical is happening right in front me! And, they are transient. You may have travelled far to have an experience like the Judeans did with John, or you may have prepared your heart for years, but the mystical experience itself happens in a flash.

The last characteristic is that they are something that happens TO you. It is not something you cause, but something that acts on you, and it is very likely that they happen in unexpected moments… during the interruptions to your day, or maybe at the boundaries of things. . The best you can do is to accept them and receive them when they come. One of the reasons that Ron Kolanowski chose the office space that he did here at St. James, was because he knew that it would seriously interrupt his day. That would be irritating to many folks, but Ron understood that mystical experiences happen unexpectedly during those interruptions, and he was just setting himself up so that those interruptions could act on him. And believe me, you folks did not disappoint, and I think that more than a few of you had mystical experiences in that office with him. It wasn’t something that you or him did, but it was something that acted on both of you.

I think that something mystical and remarkable happened to people in that desert. John the Baptist was like a giant interruption in the world, and when people went out there, something happened to them that was hard to describe. There was a sudden "aha" moment that gave them new insight about God and the times they lived in, something that happened in a flash and was fleeting. And, it was something that happened TO them that they just had to receive. I think you have had the same experience, and I want to suggest a place where you can have more.

Sometimes people ask me about the difference between priests and deacons, and usually it’s a question like this; "Now… just what IS it that you do?" A priest’s calling is often about creating and nurturing a Eucharistic community in a place, a place like this one. If you think about Joan Phelps, Ron Kolanowski, Jaclyn Sheldon, David Canon, all the way back, I think you can see that. The priests of this parish, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have helped you form a living love story in this place. A love story that is fed and nurtured at this altar, and in the moments of disruption with one another that occur in an office space, at a coffee hour, while exchanging the peace (which is NOT like coffee hour), or over a fish dinner. Together, you are holy as a part of the Body of Christ, and generations have steeped this space in prayer and filled it with mystical experiences.

My job as a Deacon is to send you out into the neighborhoods of this region to join God’s love story out there, because I have to tell you, the world is desperate… desperate for what you have here. Deacons try to help you realize that God is not just at work in here, but is already ahead of you at work in your neighborhood, in every place that you go or can imagine going, and in every place that you CAN’T imagine going… God is there also. Deacons try to help you to see that it is ALL holy and enchanted with the Spirit. And Deacons try to help you to see that you are already having mystical experiences of God everywhere that you go, and that you are very likely to experience God even more when you are engaged in service to others, service as simple as a cup of cold water or a visit to a sick person. That "aha" moment will come on you when you are standing in front of a homeless hairy man wearing a leather belt and you suddenly realize that God has given him remarkable gifts that he is eager to share, and that rather than you being the one to save him, he is the one saving you. The Priest helps to make you a Eucharistic community of Christians in this place… the Deacon sends you to be Christians in service to the world. And now you know four markers mystical experience to look for. Go then, and may the Spirit be with you, and may you have many a mystical experience in the service of God’s mission out there. Amen.

[1] As described by William James. See Beck, R. (2017, December 6). Experimental Theology. Retrieved December 08, 2017, from http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2017/12/our-need-for-religious-experience-part_6.html
[2] Steed, R. (2017, August 23). Murmuration of the Heart... Retrieved December 08, 2017, from http://waterscoverthesea.postach.io/post/murmuration-of-the-heart
[3] Ibid. 1