Experiencing God


I am currently reading Barbara Brown Taylor's memoir Leaving Church. It is an interesting and very well written book about her experiences as an Episcopal priest at a small church, and her decision to retire from that position.

In her book, she writes about the experiences that led up to her becoming a priest. As a small child, before ever going to church, she felt the presence of God. She writes:

As hard as I have tried to remember the exact moment when I fell in love with God, I cannot do it. My earliest memories are bathed in a kind of golden light that seemed to embrace me as surely as my mother's arms. The Divine Presence was strongest outdoors, and most palpable when I was alone.
She described the outdoors as her "first cathedral", when she would lay in the fields and experience God through the natural world. She didn't have a name for her raw, unmediated, unnamed experience; it was only later, when she attended church, that an interpretation was given to her.
Because I was not brought up in church, I had no religious language for what happened in that golden-lit field or in any of the other woods or fields that followed it. I had no picture in my mind of a fantastic-looking old man named God who lived in a heaven above my head. I did not know to close my eyes and bow my head to speak to this God, and I certainly did not know that there was anything wrong with that field or what I experience in it. If anyone had tried to tell me that creation was fallen or that I should care more for heaven than earth, I would have gone off to lie in the sweet grass by myself.
Unlike Barbara Brown Taylor, I never had any experiences like that as a child. I believed in God, but I am pretty sure that was because that was what I was taught. My parents took me to church from a young age. I remember once, as a small child, riding in a car at night with my parents, asking my mother who put the moon in the sky. "God," she answered. I wondered at the time who this God person was who had the ability to place an object up so high.

What I had as a child was theology, not mysticism. Barbara Brown Taylor as a child had mysticism, but no theology. She experienced a Divine presence, but she was too young and too free of cultural baggage and a religious upbringing to characterize what she experienced as an "old man named God". I, on the other hand, had no such direct experience of the divine, and I imagined God as just such an old man. When I was maybe three or four years old, I made drawings of God. I still have one of them in my possession. The drawing depicts an old man with a beard stretching far longer than any human beard would; this God-figure floats in space, surrounded by stars and planets, many of them having Saturn-like rings. Where I got this image from, I don't know. I somehow absorbed a background cultural metaphor about God and took it all quite literally.

For much of my adult life, I either was not religious enough to be interested in experiencing God, or else when I was feeling religious, I felt my desire to experience God was somehow wanting. The problem, I later realized, was that I was trying too hard. I wanted to experience something deep and meaningful and I thought that if I furrowed my brow and concentrated hard enough, with sufficient earnestness and devout intention, I'd somehow get that mystical experience. What I didn't realize was that the experience of God was right under my nose. What drew me to rediscovering religion in the first place, when I was in my late 20s after over a decade of atheism, was this strange feeling I had, a deep and compelling sense of being drawn to something greater, whenever I read a religious text or felt compelled to attend a religious service. It was a feeling unlike any other, and it called me, repeatedly.

What was painful was figuring out what to do with that feeling. I couldn't buy any of the established dogmas. I drifted into Unitarian Universalism, and, finding it not spiritual enough for me, I became a Quaker, in part because I felt that liberal Quakerism gave me room to be what I was without forcing a dogma on me.

Eventually I drifted away from Quakerism, and then from religion in general. Maybe, as much as I liked Quakerism and I liked being a Quaker, I was trying too hard to fit into that mold. I became a Quaker as much out of convenience as out of convincement. I would try hard to find the mystical content of a Quaker meeting for worship; I would sit silently, listen to the voice within, connect with the things that were spoken--and yet, it was almost like work for me to do that. So maybe it is not just the fact that I haven't found a Quaker meeting to call home. Maybe, at some level, I knew without consciously understanding, that I needed to move my spirituality in a different direction.

It took a long time--many years, in fact. But lately, the craving to be within God's presence has returned, and that feeling is back as well. And somehow, now, I recognize the feeling for what it is. It is God's presence.

The presence is comforting, deep, and charged with a quality I can't describe--it is unlike any other feeling that I have; and it draws me forward, it supports me, and it uplifts me. The presence, also, quite clearly, is not that of an old man with a long beard. If anything, I perceive this Divine presence as female. This is not, of course, to say that I think that God is literally a woman--any more than those who use a male metaphor for God generally think that God is literally male. It is simply a case of my experience of God being that of a female presence. We interact with God in the ways that we can, in the ways that make sense to us. We try to name what we experience, but because God is infinite and we are not, and all we can do is make metaphors. I don't believe that my metaphor is more right or wrong than those who envision God as male.

But the most important thing is that I don't feel like I'm straining and working hard at living my religion this time. I feel like I am somehow truer to my core this time around than I was before. I've had a long time to let things simmer inside me, percolate, develop, and now I find myself more at peace with my religious stirrings. They will take me wherever they must, but I won't force things this time. I will just be. I will listen to the Divine presence and see where it takes me. I can't force the world to conform to how I want it to be. And maybe that's okay.


CT said...

Personally I've never experienced what you talk about. And I'd say that raises many doubts for me as your experience does not relate to my life. It raises my doubts because of the ex-Christians I know who claim to have experienced God's presence in various forms - only to see them move on from these experiences and ultimately disregard them. How can a true identifiable experience of God ever be forgotten or disregarded ? The answer seems to be that this feeling of 'Gods presence' is really just a state of mind that most others experience as calmness or clarity or peacefulness or appreciation of nature.

The attraction of Christianity for me is the feeling that Jesus' teaching about loving your neighbour is probably the key to a life well-lived. Divorcing ourselves from our natural instinct to look after self first frees us from many human foibles.
A common theme through many religions and one that easily surpasses all of the materialism, hedonism and selfishness offered in the Western secular world.