01 February 2007

Hunger vs addiction: the yearning for evidences of spiritual power

I am a mystic. I have some misgivings about owning that label, since the word "mystic" is over-honored in some quarters and dismissed in others. Also, I've spent most of my adult life upholding denominational structures--what kind of a mystical calling is that?

Another misgiving--I don't have the gift of discernment. But others close to me have that gift, so I don't feel too vulnerable. It just means I can't be under delusions of self-sufficiency.

Yet another misgiving--according to those wiser than me, we're not supposed to desire extraordinary experiences. Fine if they come, but the important thing is the fruits. As Marge Abbott properly summarizes in her Woodbrooke paper, "For Friends, the importance of numinous spiritual experience is in its power to strengthen faith, to transform our lives, or to provide clear leadings for service when properly discerned by the individual, or in conjunction with the larger group."

I totally agree that the fruits are the important emphasis, and that the consolations of spiritual ecstasy and immediate intimations of the Holy Spirit are not to be pursued (or faked!) for their own sake. Furthermore, when I'm in teaching mode, I would want to be extra sensitive to the diversity of temperaments in the room with me. As William James points out, some of us simply are not wired for those kind of experiences, and that's not a defect. That's just a difference.

Yet another caveat: in a world that has not yet learned the practical imperatives of reconciliation, my individual gratification is simply not an adequate focus for life. It's like admiring a fine painting while the politicians cut all arts education funding from the school budget (and the vegetables from the school lunches).

In other words, I'm just as opposed to pious gluttony, at least in theory, as anyone else. In theory. But the truth is that the mystical hunger in me doesn't want to pretend it doesn't exist. I admit I not only want to keep experiencing the joy of inner confirmation of God's power, but I also love to hear about it from others. But this conversation just doesn't happen very often. Is this because we Friends have a healthy understanding of the difference between hunger and addiction, or is it another dimension of our corporate timidity? In the North American and European context, have we given too much weight to caution and moderation? Are we quiet about our experiences of God's power because we don't want to honor an excess, because we don't want to be mistaken for Pentecostals (in whose historical stream we at least partly fit), because we have a rationalistic glaze over our eyes, or because we dismiss things we can't explain? (Forgive me if all my alternatives seem tendentious!)

My own experiences of confirmation are not dramatic--I've never seen Jesus and I have never heard an audible voice, though I'm close to people who've experienced these things. To cross into the risky field of supernatural awareness, I've only once had a completely unexplainable burst of knowledge. My experiences of the well of living water are frequent but almost the opposite of spectacular. I wouldn't think that they were even worth mentioning, but what makes me think that I should is this: I want to know what your experience is, and how can I ask you if I'm not willing to tell you mine?

Most Friends I know and deeply respect are in one of two camps. One group says little or nothing about spiritual experience; rightly or wrongly, I get the sense that for them it's not quite a proper subject. Friends in the other group take spiritual power, even to the point of healing or extraordinary insight, almost for granted. I find relatively few people who are aware of spiritual power but also acutely aware of how incongruous their beliefs or experiences may be to others.

To sharpen the discussion one notch further, I had a long talk with one weighty Friend about a week and a half ago on the subject of evil and spiritual warfare. This Friend convincingly recounted a number of experiences of what I would gingerly label "embodied evil." Later last week, I was speaking to another Friend who completely dismissed these sorts of experiences as, at best, superstitious misinterpretations. These mysterious things really do happen--I know they do--but I also intensely mistrust the political agendas of some of the celebrities in the spiritual warfare industry.

I was already pondering these themes when I read yesterday's posting from Burundi by Peggy Parsons. My mind went back to an incident almost twenty years ago, where another person far away had an equally accurate impression of a dangerous situation I was in, walking in a deep snowfall in the dark through downed power lines.

Inordinate fascination with these sorts of phenomena is not recommended. I know that, and I have my share of caution. But in a climate of pervasive skepticism, I also don't want to pretend indifference to evidence of God's power in our lives. Is it possible that this pervasive skepticism stifles the testimonies of some among us, and tempts others to seek spiritual thrills in cults that really do pander to a more addictive fascination? As in most other controversies, I believe that the best balance is not one arrived at through theoretical moderation and institutional cautions, but through dialogue.

Righteous links:

Here are some blog postings I re-read as I considered this theme of evidences of spiritual power. I cite them not as argumentative support but simply as fertile thinking that I found helpful.
The Quaker Philosopher, "Uninspired" and "Solid Center"
The Good Raised Up, "Spiritual Intimacy," "Dualities and Paradoxes," and "Come to the Banquet"
Friday PS: Also see The Quaking Harlot, "Cranky"

Melody Simmons wrote an article in the New York Times that was movingly understated: "After shooting, Amish school embodies effort to heal."

Reedwood Friends Church is one of the meetings that have responded to Northwest Yearly Meeting's call to tranform Valentine's Day 2007 into a Peace Sabbath. After our usual $5 simple meal at 5:30 p.m., we'll gather for worship at 6:45 p.m. for a special meeting for worship. Come if you can! The regular Wednesday schedule returns the following week; we're extending the Center for Christian Studies program another week so we won't lose a session.

On his blog, Jon Kershner gives some of the background for this initiative and tells what Tacoma's Olympic View Friends Church is planning for February 14.

Quaker Life provides coverage of the Seventh Friends Ministers Conference in San Antonio, Texas, last fall. Trish Edwards-Konic summarizes Leonard Sweet's call to contextualize the Quaker understanding of the Good News for a postmodern culture; the issue also includes her interview with Leonard Sweet.

Goodbye to one of the USA's most distinctive voices for humane politics, Molly Ivins.

So many wonderful blues clips to choose from, but this week I'm presenting something a bit different. People have been posting clips to Youtube from Pete Seeger's old television program, Rainbow Quest. On this clip, Pete plays music and talks about Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) with his guests, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.


Anonymous said...

hi, johan.

i always feel like i'm contaminating sacred ground when i come over here and want to leave a post. i don't feel like i know enough to respond.
ah! who cares about that, anyway?

you ask these questions about quakers:
have we given too much weight to caution and moderation? Are we quiet about our experiences of God's power because we don't want to honor an excess, because we don't want to be mistaken for Pentecostals (in whose historical stream we at least partly fit), because we have a rationalistic glaze over our eyes, or because we dismiss things we can't explain?

i think these are the qualities about the friends i met, that kept me from being embraced by the community. i've got that wild energy...it doesn't play too well with lovers of moderation, i guess. funny, you know, because i never once spoke at meeting even though i went for 9 months. i don't think i ever acted inappropriately. i even put money in the bucket. i don't know why i wasn't embraced by them; i wanted to be.

i've thought about this from time to time. someone once told me that george fox was WAY out there -a very passionate person. maybe that's not true. probably not, since it doesn't follow that a such a deeply passionate leader would give birth to the kind of excessive moderation i see in quakers.

fun idea. moderation as a form of excessiveness. but then, i'm easily amused, even if i'm not always smiling!!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Johan!

It had a remarkable effect on me to read this essay shortly after posting my own thoughts on the FGC Sweat Lodge controversy. You and I made several of the same key points, even though we were addressing different matters.

I'm feeling moved to respond to the same question smith was responding to: "Are we quiet about our experiences of God's power because we don't want to honor an excess, because we don't want to be mistaken for Pentecostals ... because we have a rationalistic glaze over our eyes, or because we dismiss things we can't explain?"

This doesn't seem to me to be a merely rhetorical question. And it deserves some honest wrestling.

In my early twenties, I had a string of powerful spiritual experiences that changed the whole direction of my life. For a few years I talked freely about them. But I noticed that, most of the times when I talked, the person I was talking to would look unhappy. Indeed, often the net result would be a backlash -- the person would be a bit angry at me, or judgmental about me, or would simply leave me out of her/his life for a long time.

I'm a slow learner, Johan, but it finally occurred to me that the reason for that backlash might be that I was describing a sort of experience that the person I was talking to had never experienced her/himself. The backlash came from frustrated desire.

I can't help wondering whether this might not have something to do with the reason why Christ told his disciples not to make an outward show of their religion.

The experiences I'd had, that I talked about, were pretty theatrical. But the spiritual desire we all feel is not, I think, really a desire to experience something equally theatrical for ourselves. We may think we want, say, the power of knowing where other people are and what their circumstances are, in situations where they are in trouble, so that we can help them. Or we may think we want to have visions of Light and Christ comparable to Saul's on the road to Damascus. But that's not really what our hearts crave.

What our hearts crave is to be fed, healed, and fulfilled. Which is a condition we get to, not through spectacular spiritual experiences, but through communion with the true God in our hearts, and obedience to the true God in our consciences.

It may be that only some of us will have gosh-wow mystical experiences. But all of us can have that communion and obedience. As the early Friends pointed out long ago, we get there by patiently nurturing what at first is only an unimpressive tiny Seed -- our awareness of the voice of Christ within us.

It may even be that, as we patiently nurture that Seed, our susceptibility to spectacular spiritual experiences will recede.

Robin M. said...

In a life that is fully present to the Divine, the risks are so great that maybe the consolations have to be too.

My own first mystical experience came without warning, without intentional preparation. But it set me on a path of seeking, "how do I get back there?" One of the things I learned from reading of other people's experiences is that I can't choose when or where, and it never lasts. But God got my attention. Perhaps after 17 years of trying, my attention wanders a little less.

Another thing I learned was that most people didn't want to hear about it. Not even the ones who were pretty religious. Somewhere Thomas Merton wrote that you don't have to waste your stories of Divine intimacy on people who won't understand - it will separate you, and even make you doubt your own experience. So I stopped telling people. It wasn't until I found Quakers a couple of years later that I dared tell the story again, and they just nodded. They understood in a way no one else had. This was a great gift.

When I have found people to talk to about these kind of experiences, it is either very helpful or extremely irritating. In a discussion group at PacYM several years ago, I came to the realization that it had taken me ten years to get over the shock that God was talking to me and actually focus on the content of the message. But two years ago, a similar group simply left me cold and honestly, feeling an unhealthy spiritual pride (compared to others in the group). I think your quote from Marge Abbott may help me discern the difference between these two groups.

Friend Johan, I am also not sure that the internet is a good medium for sharing these tender and passionate experiences. I admit that I have received solace from sharing some of my mystical experiences via my blog and reading others', but my trembling fingers are cautioning me about pushing my luck. My interior Compass is telling me that I would like to continue this conversation in person one day.

Johan Maurer said...

What an honor to get such wonderful comments!!

Hi, Smith, dear friend! You are so welcome to write anything you want. I love to hear from people who dare say things from the very edge of what they know. I fear sometimes that I sound more sure of myself than I really am! I think that this is, at least in part, because this is not an anonymous blog, and I am constantly inhibited by concerns about privacy (my own, but my family's even more). I therefore tend to write in a somewhat removed and theoretical way, leavened too little by storytelling or unrestrained speculation. I see no way around that except by going anonymous. And I'm actually considering doing that.

Evidence is that G Fox was a true handful, and so were some of his contemporaries. I think his best ideas went viral, and mixed in with similar radically simple ideas of other reformers, and are still present in many streams of faith today. But not many of those streams are evident among Friends. We became too concerned to preserve the secondary manifestations of that creative virus. Simplicity, the Lamb's war, prophetic speaking, all the things that Fox was known for congealed into rigid forms that had to be preserved (or, alternately, rejected). Not always, but often, Friends forgot to ask "why?"

Marshall, I confess that I had just enough third-hand exposure to the sweat-lodge controversy over the years to experience eye-glazing and an unfair reinforcement of my prejudices about FGC when I saw your blog topic. Thanks for mentioning your post in your comment above; I read it and appreciated your thoughtful approach. Here are a couple of seeds of responses:

I was intrigued by the awkward simultaneity of the Mashpee protester and the Oneida consumerist approach. It reminded me once again that our self-identifications are all psychological constructs: we are HUMAN ANIMALS before anything else, and any conceits about our identities that allow us to one-up each other are suspect. You can call rituals sacred or portraits of Mohammed blasphemous (or even the tree of the knowledge of good and evil off-limits?) all you want, but we human animals will experiment, taste, probe, imitate, with various degrees of sensitivity or arrogance, modesty or flagrancy. Rarely are these experiments irredeemable, especially when a wider degree of communal wisdom is finally applied!

The older I get, the more I agree with Ursula Le Guin that all truth is local (with the Christian asterisk that the Creator/creature relationship is a universal paradigm, and that God desires reconciliation). So, Alice Lopez of the Mashpee community can assert an unproven claim that "most" Native peoples would be offended by the FGC sweat lodges and go on to threaten her readers with the powerful rhetoric of race, while at the same time the Oneida-owned resort can lure affluent customers using racism's benign face, exoticism.

The whole world is in turmoil because we human beings haven't found ways to communicate openly, tenderly, and MUTUALLY about our deepest desires--whether that might be to feed our own children and keep them alive another day, to have "liminal" experiences, or to peek over the fence at our neighbor's exotic vistas. Too often we use our tribal memberships or other categories to obscure rather than enhance the experience of genuine and mutual communication. We Friends have inherited the rhetoric of "answering that of God in EVERY one"; we have no excuse.

Robin, I think I am where you are. I think I was hoping simply to open up the topic, and to feel out whether there are some who live in that in-between place (between total reductionists and matter-of-fact "of course, what's extraordinary about that?" mystics). I also wanted to raise the question of whether Friends in North America have bought into a culture that quenches the Spirit. Most of all, I don't want those who are new to Friends and who experience "openings" to feel isolated. I'm not eager to get into an exchange of actual experiences, at least not on the World Wide Web.

RichardM said...


I'd put myself in the matter-of-fact camp totally but for the fact that as a philosopher I work in a profession totally dominated by people who are totally convinced that such things MUST be only coincidences. Socrates spoke of having a spirit who would speak to him from time to time warning him to shut up. For me I have a little chill that tells me not to share a particular story on a particular occasion. But, as with Socrates, sometimes that voice doesn't tell me to be quiet or even urges me to speak. In my opinion you simply have to be sensitive to the leading. One of these remarkable coincidences happened with the writing of my post on Mary Littrell and Janie Sams back in November. If you are interested in these things you might want to read that post and the follow-up "We are all connected."

Any extraordinary experience can be problematic if it leads to spiritual pride. Talking about these experiences with other Friends who have similar experiences is valuable. Spiritual pride is less likely to flourish in a "what's so extraordinary about that" atmosphere. The opposite problem of coming to disbelieve in your own experience can also arise when one keeps these experiences entirely to oneself. Experience is best interpreted by a community of equally experienced seekers. The idea of mystical experience as purely private is unQuakerly and unsound in my opinion. William James was the groundbreaker as far as writing about these experiences go but one defect of James' approach is that he places an undue stress of numinal over-the-top experiences. He doesn't seem to have much appreciation for the matter-of-fact approach that is healthier in my opinion. He also fails to recognize the role of the community in evaluating and interpreting religious experience.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, RichardM. I think spiritual pride is a real issue, and the only even remotely reliable safeguard is "a community of equally experienced seekers," perhaps along with SOME way to be also answerable to the wider Friends community of people who get to ask questions precisely because they're NOT experienced--although they don't get veto power. (Thoughts on that?)

But at the other end, spiritual uncertainty, or shame, or self-doubt, is also a problem. I might sound at one moment as if I'm certain I've had an authentic insight or leading, but catch myself at the very next moment wondering if it's self-deception. I think many of us wrestle with this uncertainty. I think it is okay to be uncertain, but it is not much fun to be uncertain alone.

RichardM said...

Johan, One of the hang-ups of modern Friends is the idea that we are all equal. To me this means equality in the eyes of God, we are all equally valuable. It doesn't mean that we are all equally good at everything. Some have more experience than others, some have gifts that others lack, some are rich, others poor, etc. When we got to North Carolina my wife and I immediately recognized that there were weighty Friends here who we should look up to, learn from and try to be like. We could see this from the easy way they talked about spiritual matters and more importantly how the fruits of the Spirit were manifest in their lives. It is humbling to be around people who exude peace, patience and joy in a quiet confident manner. Especially since modern life tends to be frantic and stressed out. One thing that helped was the fact that these seasoned Friends were clearly recognized by the community as seasoned Friends--they were recorded as ministers or elders in many cases and in others just recognized as weighty. Those of us who were added from the outside didn't overwhelm that solid core but gradually came to blend in with it. The problems facing meetings which lack this kind of core are very different and very tough in my opinion. In some of these meetings people with a lot of education and little spiritual experience will sometimes take themselves to be weighty when in reality they are just beginners. In such a climate talk about what someone has read about can take precedence over what someone else has experienced. This confusion of the intellectual and the spiritual really makes a mess of things.

You are also right on target to note that people who don't have anyone to talk to start to second-guess themselves about their experience. Here the community can serve the positive role of confirming the individual.

Chris M. said...

Yes, I think G. Fox would be called a Ranter or a Holy Roller today if he showed up at an unprogrammed meeting. (But then, any 17th Century English Friend showing up today would be an anomaly, to say the least! :)

I agree with Richard: "In such a climate talk about what someone has read about can take precedence over what someone else has experienced." As someone who reads a lot of books, I succumb to self-doubt sometimes about these types of experiences. Yet persistence turning back in prayer to one, even Christ Jesus, is helpful to me, both to be more peaceful, more connected to the numinous, and better able to help others.

-- Chris M.

Johan Maurer said...

I continue to be grateful for the elders [they weren't called that] at Ottawa Meeting back in the mid-1970's; my experience of them was much like Richard describes.

We've talked about elders before, but in connection with this particular concern about spiritual experience and spiritual experiences (plural), I want to advocate for the positive meaning of the verb "to elder." I don't intend to say that the "negative" meaning, to correct or reprove, is actually at all negative. But it is so important to have people among us who give a word of solid encouragement in season, who affirm a newly-experienced spiritual gift, or even dare to suggest that the person they're eldering might have a public calling. From my present middle-aged perspective, I can see that the people who did this for me changed my life dramatically.


Anonymous said...

Hi again, Johan!

You write of elders, "...It is so important to have people among us who give a word of solid encouragement in season, who affirm a newly-experienced spiritual gift, or even dare to suggest that the person they're eldering might have a public calling."

This is absolutely true. But I think it needs to be added that the responsibility you describe is not limited to elders; it's a responsibility shared by the whole Friends community and every individual member thereof:

"It is the privilege of the fellowship to foster the growth of right concerns, and to encourage and provide for the development of the service in question. A real concern is a gift from God."

-- London Yearly Meeting Revision Committee, 1925; §364 in London Yearly Meeting, Christian faith and practice (1959, 1966)

"Have we encouraged growth in the vocal ministry, and in the other spiritual gifts of our members?"

-- Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), Discipline (1974): Query on Ministry and Outreach

One of the saddest things I've seen in meetings and churches is when a person shows some evidence of a leading or gift, and the meeting or church, instead of responding with an affirmation, remains silent. The effect is to leave the person doubting the validity of her leading or gift -- or, if she doesn't doubt its validity, then feeling rejected or alienated from the meeting or church.

When such a silence begins to happen, I think the worst choice we can make is to decide that we don't personally have a duty to speak up because we're not elders. Even the least of us may have a duty to break the silence at such a time!

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Chris and Richard.

Among people who might have been recent echoes of George Fox in our time I'd nominate the late John Wimber, the guy who, along with his wife, Carol, left Friends and ended up founding the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. He certainly generated lots of heated disapproval from other Christians, mixed reviews from theologians, and one of the most fertile and interesting of the new denominations. They even have their own versions of ranters. Individual Vineyard leaders continue to stay in close contact with Friends.

Concerning elders, Richard is right. In an earlier post, I talked about the role of elders and pastors as designated access points, not as monopolizers of the community's mutual obligations.

Anonymous said...

Aren't we meant to have a passionate love relationship with God? Too many Quakers fear emotion in worship. They want worship to be neat and orderly, in a middle class Anglo-Saxon way. Just sit quietly on the bench or chair.

Passionate love definitely involves emotion. And it involves our whole being, including our whole physical being. But if our passionate love for God is visible, in many Quaker meetings we will be regarded with great suspicion, and sometimes asked to leave.

May the fire of passionate love for God light up Friends meetings, and if it doesn't, for God's sake let them die for they are already spiritually dead.