The Figure: A Hesitant Reflection on Spiritual Experience

The Figure

 

Eleven years ago something strange happened to me.  I think of it especially this time of year as both Christmas and my daughter’s birthday draw near.  I have only told a few folks about the encounter, but it has been enormously grounding for me for my daughter’s entire life.  I cannot and do not explain it.  It happened, I remember that it happened, and I give thanks.

Evelyn was due on January 5, 2007, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my sister’s birthday.  The fifth came and went, however, and we continued to wait.  The night of January 9th, we went to sleep, wondering if Lisa would go into labor that night. We knew that she would eventually go into labor!

At some point in the night, I suddenly woke up and saw a Figure at the foot of the bed.  Lisa was sound asleep, and I didn’t wake her.  I pushed myself up to lean back on the headboard, grabbed my glasses, and looked again.  The Figure remained there.  Silent.  Wisps and shades of blue and white flowed, silently.  There were hints of gold around the face and body, and, strangely, there were spinning spirals of light extending from the head down the center of the body.  I remember there not being any noise at all. There was complete silence.  There was no talking, no voice, and the light seemed to remain within the Figure itself.  I looked around the room, and all else was dark as usual.

I don’t know how long I sat there, propped and leaning back on the headboard while my overdue wife slept peacefully next to me.  We simply looked at each other—the Figure and I—for a long time until I had the urge to slide back down into the warm covers and immediately fall asleep.  When I woke up that morning, Lisa was getting ready to go teach school, and I told her what had happened.  I was nervous to tell her, but I wanted to.  How do I talk about this?

Lisa went into labor the next evening, and Evelyn was born a little after 9 a.m. on January 11.

I have tried to draw and paint what I saw for almost eleven years now, but I have repeatedly failed to adequately capture what I experienced that night.  This photo of a pastel that I put through a filter is the closest I have ever come to capturing a glimpse of what I saw.

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The encounter with this Figure has been one of the crucial anchoring points in my life.  It seems we’re so often hesitant in talking about critical experiences in our lives.  Perhaps we feel vulnerable and exposed—I know I did.  Who was this Figure?  What was this Figure?  I have a guess, but all I feel comfortable saying was that it was a very maternal divine presence who came close to my family at a moment when a young man was terrified about becoming a parent.  The Figure was full of peace, light, and love on a cold, anxious night.

There have been many times in my life when the memory of this encounter has re-centered me into a space of hope and peace when I have felt anxious, frustrated, scared, and hopeless.  When my grandparents died, I felt reassurance.  In times of transition and despair, I was reminded of peace.  At so many points over the past decade, I remembered the encounter with the Figure, and I relaxed in the awareness that there is, indeed, something beyond me that meets me and holds me in love and grace.  It was an experience of grace for which I am very grateful.

 

There have been a few other experiences of grace in my life.  As a young seven year-old, I remember making a profession of faith at my family’s little Baptist church one Sunday.  It was February 14, 1987.  And, while I cannot say that I knew or understood enough of what I was doing to responsibly make a decision that affected my salvation, I know that the experience I had of God’s closeness was real.  The sweaty palms.  The sudden tears while we sang a hymn.  The feeling of warmth and pressure.  The urge to move and walk down the aisle.  When some folks question how the church can support infant baptism, I always think of this experience: there is no way that I was aware enough to be responsible for making that decision, yet there is also no way that what I felt of God’s presence was not real.  If God’s presence can be felt by a seven year-old, why not an infant?  Makes sense to me.  Sacraments are, after all, mysterious spaces.  We so often try to explain, grasp, and control grace, but it’s notoriously slippery.

Given the frustration, pain, and pressures of our day and time, perhaps we need to find a way to share our spiritual experiences with one another.  I know we’ve all had them, because I am fortunate to hear about them all the time when folks come to visit with me.  It’s amazing what can happen when you light a candle, pour some tea, open your heart to a fellow human being, and ask, “How has God shown up in your life recently?”  “What have you noticed?”  I am humbled by what we can encounter when we take the time to listen as another takes the time to open their heart and share.

 

More and more I think our world needs the opportunity to anchor more firmly in a felt experience of God’s grace.  We have many experiences all the time of greed, anger, competitiveness, frustration, power, and war.  Encounters of ego abound, don’t they?  I think experiences of grace abound as well, but perhaps we are a bit shy about sharing what we have encountered.  So often I hear folks say that they don’t feel articulate enough or prepared enough to talk about God.  I understand that, and that is one effect of the church neglecting its responsibility to nurture a life of prayer.  We can work on practicing prayer, but at its heart, such a sharing of experiences is not about being articulate.  A practice of sharing these glimpses of grace is grounded in humility and willingness, in community, curiosity, gratitude, and hope.  Vulnerability is key, as is discernment within community, else our experiences of grace fall prey to our impulse to control and grasp.  In my own life, such glimpses are fleeting, and that is for the best, else I begin to think that I can control them.  The most profound thing in life is the one thing we cannot seem to hold onto: God’s loving presence.  In the contemplative tradition, we learn that what matters most is not our grasping at experiences but God’s grasping us—and those moments when we are given a greater awareness of God’s saturating presence.  If and when we have experiences of grace, we give thanks and then go back to washing the dishes, with a deep gratitude and humility for, perhaps, a wider perspective.

 

Recently, I have been reading a great deal about the importance of desire within the Christian contemplative tradition:  God’s desire for us, our desire for God, and the way our desiring God is nurtured by realizing that God finds us desirable (Sebastian Moore is so rich here)[1].  With such a perspective on desire, I understand St. John Cassian’s prayer of “Come to my help, O God; Lord, hurry to my rescue” to be as much about intimacy as intercession.[2]  We yearn for a wholeness that comes from being grounded in God’s presence, and the church is (or should be) a space where a community can yield to that desire and lean into God’s reaching out to us.  There is much movement in the Spirit, it turns out!

While we encounter so many visions of ego, that realm is not where our heart finds peace and fulfillment.  Our spiritual heart resonates with the presence of God within us, that space where Christ dwells and fill us with his Spirit.  Ultimately, as the contemplative practices teach us, our practice is more about yielding to what is most present than it is seeking something that is supposedly absent.  And, we “do this,” we lean into these contemplative practices within the complexity and struggle of our daily lives.  Where else would God be found, as it were?  We must name the sins of our world (and our hearts) as we celebrate the grace that enlightens the darkness of our lives.

In a wonderful little essay on St. Julian of Norwich, Kenneth Leech describes how “Christians accept the Fall, but believe in the power of grace to transform and transcend it” (his emphasis).[3]  This is an important point, I think.  God’s loving grace is where we place our hope and trust—in the midst of naming and resisting the struggle and egoic nature of the world around us.  Fr. Leech focuses intently on the call for an embodied practice of faith:

It is all too easy for what is called “simple faith” or “traditional religion” to become simple irresponsibility which uses a spiritual rhetoric to disguise its refusal to engage with the complexity and pain and turmoil of the world and of human lives.  A spirituality which fears the ambiguities, the paradoxes, the darkness within our personal lives and our socio-political structures is a harmful spirituality.[4]

           Perhaps a more intentional engagement with spiritual experiences of grace and hope can, indeed, ground us in the midst of the struggles of our lives.  I think back to my encounter with the Figure, in the midst of powerlessness and uncertainty.  I was waiting for something to be born within my life, but I didn’t know and couldn’t control when it would come.  It was past due.  My heart kept longing for the fulfillment of a promise.  It was in such a space of complexity, fear, anxiety, anticipation, and confusion that I had an experience that has given me hope and centeredness in many a precarious situation.

So, how has God shown up in your life recently?  What have you noticed?

[1] Sebastian Moore, Let This Mind be in You: The Quest for Identity through Oedipus to Christ (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1985).

[2] John Cassian, Conferences in The Classics of Western Spirituality, translated by Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 132 ff.

[3] Kenneth Leech, “Hazelnut Theology: Its Potential and Perils,” in Julian Reconsidered (Fairacres, Oxford: The Sisters of the Love of God Press, 1988), 3.

[4] Ibid. 6.

2 thoughts on “The Figure: A Hesitant Reflection on Spiritual Experience

Add yours

  1. My brother, thank you for sharing your heart, your words, your art. I receive this as proclamation and a gift of encouragement. Thank you too for connecting your words to the wise ones in the spiritual tradition. And so the conversation continues…

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