If he could see me now, I think my Dad might be somewhat pleased. He’d certainly be surprised, as long as he could actually cope with the cognitive dissonance…
Dad was a long time Methodist local preacher, and as a result I got to go to church every Sunday from a fairly early age, and get packed off to Sunday School for most of the service time. I was, unfortunately, a precocious brat who discovered the devastating impact of question upon question (“why” is a particularly good one) at a very early age, and by the time I was about seven, I’d decided that everything taught in Sunday School was fairy stories (I was also convinced that Santa was my dad by then, though my parents kept up the fiction for a few years after that). By 9, I was frankly an evangelical atheist – not only did I not believe any of “that stuff” but no-one else should believe it either, and I made my views clear to the Sunday School teachers while continuing the endless questions, but by then with more “bite”. So Sunday School and myself parted company “by mutual agreement” and to the dreadful embarrassment of my poor old dad. I only realised that later, as I was a thoroughly self-centered precocious brat…
At 14, I had an out-of the-blue peak mystical experience. It was a major shock to the system, not least because I had no language to describe it (perish the thought that I might find that anywhere in Christianity!). My first, scientific rationalist, thoughts were to seek medical advice – was I suffering from some undiagnosed mental ailment? Apparently not. Were there any contributory factors in my then environment or in my diet, sleep patterns or the like? No. Was I stressed out? No.
Thus reassured, and bearing in mind that it was the best single experience of my life to date (I tend to say that it was better than sex, drugs and rock & roll these days, but at the time hadn’t experienced any of those…) I set out to find, firstly, a way of getting more from where that came from, and secondly some language which made some kind of sense of it. I was hugely assisted by attending a talk on “The Mystical Experience” given by a local schoolteacher (it was in a series – the previous one was “The Aesthetic Experience” and I was so not in tune with that that I nearly didn’t attend), and as that rang a few bells, finding F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism, a Study and Anthology”, which I still have beside me – being a paperback, it is now held together by post-it notes and faith.
Noting that there were mystical traditions in a lot of religions (and also outside formal religion) I spent a lot of time looking into faiths (with a strong preference for the non-Christian ones) and other practices over the next few years. Four years at University helped massively, as there were practitioners there of a lot of faith traditions which weren’t evident in my population 10,000 hometown.
I did, however, note that there were quite a few major Christian mystics, and didn’t neglect them either – but the churches I could find had never heard of, for instance, the Theologia Germanica or John Ruysbroek. What materialised, therefore, was a solitary contemplative practice which combined elements from all over the place; the more solitary as when I returned home, there wasn’t the diversity of voices around any more.
That actually served me reasonably well as I got a job, married and settled down to being a pillar of local society; as one element of the experience was that it had landed me with a boat load of compassion and empathy, I spent a fair bit of my time in helping others, even when I wasn’t doing that as part of my job as a local solicitor or as a local councillor. There was added incentive to keep my practice to myself, as my wife isn’t happy with discussion of religion in any form, and was particularly unhappy about some of the more colourful areas of my interest and practice (she’s a cultural Anglican).
Fast forward 25 years or so, and I’m feeling some strain of not having any outward expression; as a result of a bizarre chain of circumstances, I find myself invited to moderate the Christianity section of the then Compuserve Religion Forum, which in those days was significantly more active than either TWS or AfL. After a while trying to cope with a mixed bag of fundamentalists, liberals and several members of the Judaism and Free Thought sections, trying to get them to discuss nicely without World War III breaking out (and therefore doing a lot of restating positions in a less abrupt way and suggesting small movements which might bring people together) or my pet conservatives being teased into overstepping the bounds of polite discourse (for example by spiritual judgment), a couple of the members suggested, quite independently, that I saw my moderating as a pastoral mission.
After strenuously denying that to start with, I did some self-examination and sheepishly admitted that it was true. I also realised that in the course of arguing for several years and researching my positions and those of others, I’d come to know quite a lot about theology and biblical history…
Then I got to examine the “dark night of the soul” from the inside for a few years. In brief, on top of a high-stress occupation and a lot of outside interests came a PTSD-inducing trauma; it may have been a factor that I’d been taking the “mystical connection” rather for granted for some years then and not putting much effort into contemplation.
I finally broke out of the depths of the attendant depression in 2013, for no reason anyone could pinpoint with confidence (just as my initial peak experience was for no obvious reason), and, as I prefer not to accept that the intervening 16 years were “ruined time”, I’ve found that it offered both an unique opportunity to examine what makes me tick (as I fell apart psychologically) and also gave a lot of insight into mental health issues, which I am now using to help others and in particular to care for my wife, who has her own difficulties.
Back in the early days of exploring the writings of mystics, I’d discovered that many of them wrote about the “dark night”, and came to the conclusion that it was probably a necessary part of the path of the mystic. So I prayed for it, I was ready for it… and it didn’t turn up until I’d forgotten all about having prayed for it many years earlier. And I wasn’t ready for it. In honesty, I don’t think anyone can be ready for it.
Be careful what you pray for, it may happen!