We do not have to discover the world of faith; we only have to recover it. It is not a terra incognita, an unknown land; it is a forgotten land, and our relation to God is a palimpsest rather than a tabula rasa. There is no one who has no faith (141). — Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man
“Be here now. Be some other place some other time. Is that so difficult?”
That is my recollection of a quote I heard several years ago attributed to Ram Dass, an American guru in the Hindu tradition. It’s no wonder we find it difficult to be in the present moment: we can’t see its edges. It’s a Venn diagram rather than a line or a point. Yet thousands of years of spiritual tradition and writings insist that this is where God is, here, in the present moment.
“Just as clairvoyants may see the future,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “the religious man comes to sense the present moment.” Is this an extra-sensory perception? Something that only one in a hundred is born with, those with second sight, the fortunate few who travel always in the assurance of being surrounded by the divine? “It is primarily, it seems, an enhancement of the soul,” says Heschel, ”a sharpening of one’s spiritual sense, an endowment with a new sensibility . . . Things have past and a future, but only God is pure presence.”
There is a Native American perspective that when we talk to one another we are surrounded by everyone and everything that has brought us to that moment. Our ancestors hover over and behind us; our past experiences and actions are melded into our bone marrow; our thoughts and words spring from the rivers of tradition and culture that water our singular desolation at times when we feel most alone. I have mentioned this to my students in ethics courses as a way of suggesting our links to our past and our debts to those who have gone before us.
When we speak, then, it is our entire experience of life to that point that shapes our responses to the person in front of us. Sure, we’re processing the signals we encounter, decoding while we encode, taking in the feedback—both verbal and nonverbal—and trying to see the moment through the eyes of our partner; all of this in the wider context of our social, political, and psychological sensitivities. That we do all of this in seconds, without even breaking a sweat, is testament to the commonplace extraordinariness of communication between humans, surely one of the most complex aspects of our species. But that’s just the baseline, something that most of us take for granted, like gravity or sneezing with our eyes closed. To recognize who we are as a result of our past can give us a wider understanding in order to be fully present in that moment.
When it comes to communicating with or even sensing God, though, we feel knocked back on our heels. Theories abound, well-meaning, but ultimately trite and foolish. We try: we adjust the parameters of our experiments in reaching God, taking notes when something seems to work, discarding methods like junk mail with hardly a glance. At prayer we try not to put our own desires forth, somehow thinking that if we refuse to acknowledge the very thing we so desperately need, that God will be good enough to give it to us. It all becomes ridiculous after a while, akin to superstition or sorcery—prayer as incantation. So, we drop it in disgust or regretfully move on or determine to go it alone.
I was in Winchester Cathedral with friends; we had come for Evensong on a summer’s afternoon, making our way from the Hospital of St. Cross and the 12th-century Almshouse of Noble Poverty, through the quiet back streets, past Winchester College, following the roofline of the cathedral in the near distance. When we arrived and slipped inside I had a deja vu moment reaching back four decades to when I had hitchhiked there as a student. I remembered it as one of the holiest moments of my life, in which I had encountered God in the echoing stillness of an afternoon as I knelt near the altar. There was no prayer, no words, no conjuring up of any images. The soaring windows above the nave and the transept, the light pouring in through the clerestory, were enough to lift me and awe me to my knees.
“Only those who have gone through days on which words were of no avail,” comments Heschel, “on which the most brilliant theories jarred the ear like mere slang; only those who have experienced ultimate not-knowing, the voicelessness of a soul struck by wonder, total muteness, are able to enter the meaning of God, a meaning greater than the mind.”
I knew nothing of that then, just that the sheer immensity of a hovering and sheltering Being was there, a Real Presence that transcended and shattered all sectarian rigidity. The fact that the building was designed to evoke such a response did not detract from the experience nor does the recognition that my recent visit, while spiritually uplifting and inspiring, did not overwhelm me in the same way as my first encounter—none of that diminished my sense of God’s presence therein.
Abraham Maslow’s little book, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences offers insight into these things. Maslow compares and contrasts ‘plateau-experiences’ with ‘peak-experiences,’ and suggests that the former “is serene and calm” rather than the climactic response to “the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized, the Unitive” that we get in peak experiences. Whereas the peak experience is almost purely emotional, the plateau experience always, says Maslow, ”has a noetic and cognitive element . . . It is far more voluntary than peak-experiences are.” As we age and begin to make our peace with death, we are more likely to cherish, with sweet sadness, the contrast between our own mortality and the “eternal quality of what sets off the experience.”
Perhaps most important, says Maslow, is to realize that plateau-experiencing can be learned, achieved, practiced, and continued throughout life. There are no shortcuts to this, however, and, as Maslow notes, there isn’t any way of “bypassing the necessary maturing, experiencing, living, learning. All of this takes time.”
We don’t—and can’t—live on the peaks continuously. Indeed, Maslow cautions that those who put the peak experience before everything else can become the nastiest, meanest, least compassionate, people around. Furthermore, their constant pursuit of ecstasy-triggers, the compulsion for an escalation of stronger spiritual stimuli, easily slides over into magic, the anti-rational, the obsessive.
Some of the greatest spiritual adepts have had their “dark night of the soul,” when God cannot be found or even sensed. Most of us only have our gray days of the spirit, when our spiritual pulse is barely flickering. In those times we call upon our memories of the vistas we have seen from the peaks we have scaled.
“The most precious gifts come to us unawares and remain unnoted,” says Heschel. “God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes do we acquire the ability to grasp the theme.” In those gray days, and especially in the dark ones, we connect the dots looking back in order to be fully here in the Now.
There will be days when God seems not to answer, not to be found. God is not a pearl deep in the ocean, warns Heschel, as if we could, through our skills and intelligence, dive deep to discover Him. We can take the initiative—in fact, we must not be passive—but without God’s response and aid, we cannot come close to Him.
There is an aloneness that is solitary, yet not abandoned. I felt it upon leaving Winchester Cathedral, and have felt it since. But there are times when the peaks are enshrouded in fog, when even the plateaus are beyond our reach, when the valleys are the only possible route forward. In those times, declares Heschel, “There is a loneliness in us that hears. When the soul parts from the company of the ego and its retinue of petty conceits; when we cease to exploit all things but instead pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh, our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power.”
Photo: Winchester Cathedral by Barry Casey