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On religious experience

30 November, 1999

We should beware of neglecting the great religious value of our ordinary experience of the world, says Donagh O’Shea OP.

A monk asked the abbot, ‘How do I enter upon the Way?’ The abbot said, ‘Do you hear the stream that is running by outside, bubbling?’ The monk said, ‘Yes.’ The abbot said, ‘Enter there!’ Then another monk said, ‘What if there were no stream running outside? Then where would I enter?’ The abbot said, ‘Enter there!’

That story has a Zen ring to it; it is universal experience. ‘Enter there’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Go for a dip in it!’ (though that is a good way to become one with a stream). You can enter the stream by becoming one with the sound of it, or the sight of it, by being completely present and aware….

Genuinely down-to-earth
In the Christian tradition there has not been a strong emphasis on entering your ordinary experience and becoming one with it.  Belief is very good at lifting things above the ground and putting them in holy niches. Then when they touch the ground again, even for a moment, that seems extraordinary! Nobody says, ‘How down-to-earth they are!’ when the women wash up after the old people’s party, but if the parish priest dries a few cups they say, ‘How down-to-earth he is!’  Or if the pope takes two steps that are not in his itinerary, ‘How ordinary he is!’  We have tended to honour a stagy affected ordinariness, making the real ordinary look shabby.  Shabby and pagan: if the religious spirit in action is identified with a few empty gestures, then ordinary experience has no religious meaning.

The importance attached by many today to visions, miraculous healings, messages from Mary, and simply to anything that is out of the ordinary, is a warning sign that our spiritual teaching may be dangerously off-course. It does not return people to their ordinary lives but distracts them instead.

Enriching ordinary experience
Ordinary experience is not the property of the clergy; it belongs to everyone, and that may be the reason there has not been a strong emphasis on it!  It is everywhere: you can no more miss it than you can miss the ground when you put down your foot.  ‘Enter there!’  Enter each momentary experience.  And if what you were expecting to be there is not there, ‘enter there!’  But we make the holy into a special object.  Yes, of course, there are special times and places and things, but these are meant to enrich and not to rob from ordinary experience. Hegel wrote splendidly on this topic. ‘The holy as a thing has the character of externality; thus it is capable of being taken possession of by another, to my exclusion; it falls into an alien hand, since the process of appropriating it is not one that takes place in the Spirit, but is conditioned by its quality as an object. The highest of human blessings is in the hands of others.’

An earlier German, Eckhart, said that you can get as much of God ‘by the fireside or in the stable’ as you can by devotions, ecstasies and the like. To think otherwise, he said, is like ‘taking God, wrapping a cloak around His head and shoving Him under a bench.’ God as the private property of religious people!  The Word of God took on human nature, not just a religious segment of it.  For anyone attempting to live the Christian life, all experience – even what goes on in stables and by the fireside – is religious experience.

How do we split ourselves from our own experience?  What is the mechanism of it? I think there is a tendency in us all to live out of descriptions and stories rather than directly from reality.  Mo scéal féin [Gaelic: My own personal story].  We all have a story to tell and we keep on telling it in hundreds of different editions!  This is the age of story: in therapy, in spirituality, in theology, in everything.  It makes great sense, of course; everyone needs to be listened to. When someone listens to you, you begin to hear yourself, the frightening swirl of emotions – the fears, the insecurities, the shapeless things – begin to take shape and to be lit up with recognition.  You feel, ‘I’m not alone, maybe I deserve to live after all…’ But…we do tell an awful lot of lies about ourselves!  We cherish illusions, dreams, story-lines so often imagined that after a time we don’t know whether they are true or false. It is the ego maintaining its grip. ‘This is me, this is the package!’  My story can be my defiance, my closing of accounts with reality.

‘I don’t have any personal history,’ [Don Juan] said, after a long pause. ‘One day I found out that personal history was no longer necessary to me and like drinking, I dropped it….   If you have no personal history, no explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with your acts. And above all no one pins you down with their thoughts.’ (Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan).

What am I when I am not telling myself what I am?  It is important to know that I am creating a world when I talk; I am either creating or maintaining an image of myself.  Whenever I finish talking to myself, my world is just as I want it to be, and my position in it is vindicated.  That is the danger in telling my story, especially to myself. But what am I when I am not telling myself what I am?

Freedom from ourselves
I don’t suppose that dropping one’s story is a simple matter. But when you sit in meditation that is what you are doing in a fleeting manner, perhaps for only seconds at a time. What freedom you have when you do it! You experience the ultimate freedom: freedom from yourself. The mystics are trying to tell us about it. ‘You must give up yourself, altogether give up self, and then you have really given up,’ said Eckhart. ‘In truth, if someone gave up a kingdom or the whole world and did not give up self, he would have given up nothing.’  What will be our story then? What account can we give of our naked selves?  What will be our story? Our story is like clothing, it is a coat. What will happen to our coat?  In such a moment of freedom Yeats wrote: ‘…let them take it,/ For there’s more enterprise/ In walking naked.’

For experience you have to be naked: free of descriptions and stories, free of ideologies and projects, free of all judgment. ‘I am sending you out like lambs among wolves’, Jesus said; ‘so take nothing with you!’  We would have expected the opposite: take everything with you because you are so vulnerable. But no, take nothing, be naked to your experience. ‘Unless you become like children…’ he said.  If you want to know what love is, you have to be in love. Your theories are of no avail.  Theories may tell how love happens, but that is not what love is. Can you feel anger without going into the story of what caused you to be angry?  Can you feel fear, just as it is, without rehearsing a situation?  Theories and stories and explanations are distractions: they draw you away from the reality of love, anger and fear.

Turning the switch on
When we try to be fully present to our experience we will see the tiny fatal gap (unless we are very unusual people): the microscopic ‘hanging-back’ that has become second nature to us. It is very small but crucial: as small and crucial as the difference between Stop and Go when you are about to dive off the diving-board.  It is very easy and even normal to be all Stop. To change the metaphor: an electrical switch creates only a tiny gap, but that is enough to cut off the current. Meditation means putting the switch to On. If you can do that regularly even when there is nothing to look at and nothing to do (that’s meditation!) it will gradually become second nature to you to live in your experience. There is no name for it; it has no stories to tell, no theories to defend….  It is the wonder of existence, God’s gift moment by moment.

Meditation means being intimate with everything, not dividing the things into categories: important and unimportant, interesting and uninteresting, nice and nasty… What are we doing with such categories?  We are looking sideways at the world, picking out bits that support our ego-plans and rejecting the rest.  We are not being intimate with the world, not waiting for anything to reveal itself. We are consequently uprooted and restless, as if our experience had no value and we needed something else to make us happy. And so we are continually running around trying to find something that will make us feel richer, stronger, safer, more loving, more loved…. We are so distanced from our own experience that we do not know its richness, and so we behave like beggars!


This article first appeared in Spirituality (Sept – Oct 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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