Whether in contemplative circles or the culture at large, the terms enlightenment (more antiquated) or awakening (the more contemporary use) carry with them a radical or seemingly unattainable quality, some kind of perpetual “mountaintop experience” of perpetual wisdom and bliss once we’ve broken through. We might think of some distant sage, revered by followers, doling out wisdom untouched by worldly events.
But for most, the experience, at least from the outside, looks far more ordinary. One of the temptations on the spiritual path is always to romanticize or fetishize an entirely other order of life, rather than imagining a transformed version of our existing everyday context.
Late in college, I sat in student housing in Seattle with a fellow English major watching a movie for class. A fall storm moved in and once the movie was over, the rain fell thick on the roof of the second story apartment, the windows vibrating from thunderclap. With a head full of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, I had a sudden impulse. Let’s go for a walk!
It was dark and cold and pouring. We’d be drenched. That, of course, was the point. To situate oneself into the experience of natural intensity, to experience it bodily, with the sense impression of the wet earth and grass, to feel the rain on the coat and the skin, to see it pass through streetlight or passing cars, to hear raindrops ricochet off the concrete. Here was an opportunity for a poetic moment, an intense experience. My companion was more pragmatic: Are you crazy? We’ll get soaked!
On a trip to visit an old friend recently, I stopped by the local bookstore to get some kind of keepsake, something I like to do on longer personal trips to mark the time. I noticed a new translation of a book I hadn’t read yet by one of my favorite authors, 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and picked it up.
This particular book, Notes from a Dead House, is a fictionalized treatment of the author’s own experiences in a hard labor camp in Siberia. This was his commuted sentence after being granted a stay of execution from the Czar for being involved in a revolutionary group influenced by the writings of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier.
I recently spent the weekend with an old friend who was going through a series of losses on several fronts. His grandmother, his mother, and his dog had died within a year, and he separated from his wife and was undergoing divorce proceedings.
Meanwhile, there are two small children to take care of on a tight budget as he wraps up an advanced degree program. On the surface, the challenges seem overwhelming.
As I write this, we’ve experienced maybe the craziest year in our national sports and politics with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Cubs, Leicester City, Donald Trump, and now the New England Patriots coming back from extremely long odds to pull off improbable upsets.
As a nation that came into being by defying a global empire, we love to root for the scrappy underdog (ok, so the Pats weren’t an underdog going in, but down 19, a comeback seemed improbable). We value extreme competitors and achievers, whether in academics, business, politics, or sports. We value those hard-won victories.
A couple weeks ago, I had to run some errands locally and my son was in the middle of a riveting episode of PJ Mask. I didn’t have time to wait until the end of the episode to leave and he was expectedly upset.
In the car ride he was emotional and determined to veto everything. No music! None of the lunch options are good! I’m not going to eat anything! We’re not going to do anything and we’re not going to go anywhere! In being upset he adopted a default resistance energy.
In contemplative circles, whether spiritual formation, spiritual direction, or contemporary spirituality, one often comes across the phrase The Dark Night of the Soul. The phrase calls to mind a certain image and is fairly accessible to a modern mind on the surface.
But all too often it seems interchangeably used with terms like depression or suffering. We hear the phrase and automatically call to mind the worst time in our lives. Maybe we had to face a harsh reality, suffered deep and prolonged depression, or lost a loved one. But is that what this phrase refers to?
The Feast of Epiphany is a celebration of the Journey of the Magi or the three wise men, popularized in Christmas nativity scenes and a bigger part of Catholic and Eastern traditions than, say, most Protestant faith expressions.
It’s a natural time to reflect on the process or journey and the changes we undergo as we move through stages of faith. I’ve written about these stages in a previous post, and these are usually articulated from a fairly macro level. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, writes about four stages: loving self for self, loving God for self, loving God for God, and finally, loving self for God. And Janet Hagberg’s The Critical Journey outlining six stages is common reading in spiritual formation programs. But in this post I wanted to address the stages of faith from a more personal angle.
This was a unique Christmas season in my household, to say the least. As the culmination of multiple medical procedures, I had nasal reconstruction scheduled for a couple days before Christmas. A situation at my wife’s work caused her to take over for three Christmas Eve services and juggle duties looking after our four-year-old son.
Somewhere in there, he caught a nasty cold, with bronchitis, fever and vomiting several times a night throughout the week. With packing in both nostrils and sleep apnea, the first nights following surgery it was virtually impossible to find a sleeping position, with no more than twenty minutes sleep at a stretch.
Hey, in Germany they call it the second Christmas Day, so what the hey. I thought I’d drop a little note. So, there’s a phrase in the Judeo-Christian tradition that often gets translated as “the Fear of the Lord” as in “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” an understandable theological turn-off for many. After all, didn’t the angels show up in Bethlehem telling everyone to not be afraid? And isn’t there enough to be afraid of without making it a divine mandate? I should think so.
Interestingly, the original reads “Yirat Adonai,” much closer to an injunction for reverence, awe, and wonder, say, at the beauty and intricacy of the created order. It might be closer to what we experience in the face of what the Romantics called the sublime.