few days ago, I received an email from Nuala Carpenter, an American Unitarian who has visited our church a few times, and who had recommended that a friend attend on her visit to Dublin. Her friend did come, and she wrote about her visit. Nuala sent me a copy of what she wrote, and I’d like to read you a part of it:
Jamie and I got to the beautiful welcoming Unitarian church in Dublin for a Sunday service. It sits on St Stephen's Green and we walked over in the mist on a lovely Irish day and were met by a man hosing off the sidewalk for all to enter a clean place. The regular minister whom Nuala had told us about must be a wonder but wasn't there in person that Sunday. It was the day of their congregational meeting. We entered a bright open-feeling space with beautiful stained glass and high domed wooden ceiling and wonderful people wherever we turned. One was an architect, called George McCaw who showed us around and introduced us to his sister in law who had brought in gorgeous flowers … The lay leader (Jennifer Flegg) was spectacular - a tall older woman with such grace who gave the best talk to children I've ever heard, and the kids were wonderfully interactive and we all loved it. Her sermon was even more meaningful to me – she was trying to find a way to describe to a friend why she had become Unitarian and her Catholic friend was talking about peak religious experiences and wondering whether heady Unitarians had them and if not what sustained them. The woman struggled with an answer - she felt that she had loved times when nature seemed especially beautiful and music was beautiful, but it was at a play that she got her ‘experience’ when an AHA moment occurred, and she also realized that it was a spiritual experience to be a devoted listener, a keenly involved observer of this wonderful universe and that those of us who are making the world go around just as those who rush around and are a potent part of it.
I wanted to read this, not to praise Jennifer, although she certainly deserves praise for her sermon, but because the sermon was concerned, in part, with the topic of my address today, what our American correspondent calls ‘peak religious experience’ – those sublime but fleeting moments of insight or vision in which one seems to be conscious of a higher reality – but to which we ‘heady’ Unitarians (as the American lady calls us) don’t seem to pay much attention. Jennifer herself tells us in the sermon that such experiences have passed her by.
Jennifer is not alone. Historically, Unitarians have tended to be a little suspicious of the ‘emotional’ aspects of religion because we are aware that when we leave our reason behind, self-deception, wishful thinking, and fantasy are waiting to fill the void. Unitarian religion is pragmatic, thoughtful, and objective; we won’t accept what we can’t prove, and while we will try never to ridicule or disparage those whose religion comes from a less rational place, ‘experience’ with us takes second place to ‘thought’.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have such ‘experiences’, and I want to talk about them briefly this morning and to leave you with a few questions to ask yourself about them.
When I was about twenty-eight years old, I had one such experience, and it has stayed with me down the years. It was an evening in early October, and I was about to return to Rome after a long summer break to continue my theological studies. My father had gone ahead to the pub, where I was to meet him for a final drink before going on to the airport, and I was left alone in the house with my mother. We weren’t a particularly demonstrative family – I was brought up at a time before it was fashionable to say, ‘I love you’ indiscriminately – and moments of parting like this were very uncomfortable for us both. I was feeling very sad. My mother wasn’t old, but I knew that I would be away for a year, and we both knew that anything might happen in that time, and, as I said goodbye, she, who was normally quite stoical, began to cry. We embraced briefly and awkwardly, and off I went to join my father in the pub.
As I left the house and crossed the road, I was suddenly overwhelmed by an unaccountable feeling of happiness. My sadness cleared completely, and I had this wonderful sense that my forebodings were misplaced and that everything would turn out well. Not just my anxieties concerning my mother, but everything in my whole life and, what’s more, in everybody else’s life; that one day all tears would be dried and, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well’.
When I reached the pub, which was a mere quarter of a mile away, the immediate and profound sense of elation had evaporated – it lasted only seconds, a minute at most – but my mood remained exuberant and I was able to face my journey, and my life, without a qualm. In fact, this experience has been a source of consolation to me through half a dozen personal bereavements and through a few other occasions when I have fallen and bled on the thorns of life.
I don’t remember ever speaking about this to anyone – not because I was unnerved or embarrassed by it, but because it never seemed opportune – until about a decade later. I had left the seminary and married Morag, and very late one night, after a few drinks, I was engaged in deep conversation with our next-door neighbour, a man called Mick. Unprompted by me, this man, as down-to-earth as they come, a man who had rarely entered a church, and who considered himself non-religious, told me of an experience that he had had which awakened memories of my own.
It had happened a few years before. He was out of work, heavily in debt, and his first marriage was failing. He was feeling suicidal and went upstairs to lie in misery upon his bed. Suddenly, he felt himself engulfed by what he described as a golden light and a feeling of protection and love came over him, and a strong sense – a certainty even – that his troubles would soon be over. For him, as for me, it lasted only seconds, but he could re-gather himself because of it and go ahead with new confidence. It was, he said, interestingly, like being born again.
Some years after this I came across several books that helped me to put these two experiences in perspective. They were all based on work pioneered in the late sixties by Sir Alister Hardy, a zoologist and – ironically, in view of general Unitarian suspicion of such things - a prominent English Unitarian. Hardy, after retiring as Professor of Zoology, had set up the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford. His contention, which he set out in his Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen University in 1965 and published a year later as The Divine Flame, was that religious experiences, far from being aberrations, or the product of an overactive imagination as some scientists might suppose, were evidence of a divine reality which our culture has tended to ignore or even to ridicule.
Sir Alister Hardy
Hardy’s colleague, David Hay, began a nationwide survey in Britain, in which thousands of people were asked to respond to the following question:
Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?
What was amazing to Hay and his researchers was that 35% of the people polled answered ‘yes’ to the question. They were further surprised to find that similar polls conducted in America yielded similar results, and Hay was to conclude that, extrapolating from the results of his own survey, about 15 million people in Britain would claim to have had some kind of religious or spiritual experience. More women than men responded affirmatively, which Hay thinks might be ascribed to Western culture, in which the passive and receptive qualities, which openness to the experience inevitably involves, are associated with femininity; and the better educated the respondent, the more likely they were to claim such an experience, but people who lacked tertiary or even secondary education were by no means unrepresented. And, as you might expect, figures were higher for churchgoers, but atheists and agnostics claimed these experiences too, although they didn’t necessarily call them religious. In fact, 25% of the atheists interviewed answered positively.
Edward Robinson, who studied the results of Hay’s survey, was struck by the number of respondents, some 15%, who claimed to have had such an experience in childhood, and this prompted him to compile a book contained dozens of examples of these early intimations of transcendence. Our reading today was about one such experience which occurred when the woman was ‘four or five years old’.
That such a thing would occur to one so young was surprising enough for researchers and writers in the 70s and 80s, but it would have been even more surprising for an earlier worker in the field, a British doctor called Richard Maurice Bucke, whose classic work Cosmic Consciousness was first published at the beginning of the twentieth century. Bucke, who lived before the advent of street surveys and opinion polls, did most of his research in his own armchair, reading the works of the world’s great religious and literary figures. He concluded that such people as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, St. Paul, Dante, Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Balzac, and Walt Whitman – over fifty in total – underwent life-transforming experiences because they had entered, however briefly, a state of consciousness as different from their everyday self-consciousness as normal human consciousness is from, say, the undifferentiated consciousness of babies or animals. He contended that these things occurred mainly to white males and that the optimum age at which they occurred was about thirty-five.
But, in the light of contemporary research, it seems that Bucke was wrong, and if he had gone outside his library and spoken to ordinary people, he would have discovered that these experiences, which he detects in the lives of a few white males, are far more widespread than he supposed, and cross over all boundaries of race, age, and gender.
As to their origin, we can only speculate. Bucke believed they were signs of an evolving consciousness, which few could reach now, but which would become increasingly widespread. Some contemporary researchers like Edward Robinson for example, follow Wordsworth’s idea that this is our natural state, our ‘original vision’, which we gradually lose as we grow older and ‘shades of the prison-house’ form around us. Some would say that God inspires these things, others that the process, though remarkable, is more natural than supernatural and is about gaining fleeting access to a higher or deeper self, which is much wiser than our everyday self and which is always present, but of which we are generally unaware.
There is also the possibility that they are nothing more than delusions or illusions, and the fact that they don’t happen so often in any lifetime is something to be grateful for. Real sceptics will put them down to emotional reactions, triggered by stress, or see them as nothing more than another ploy by our selfish genes to keep us from despair and keep us reproducing.
I find them very exciting since they seem to suggest that we have a religious or spiritual sense which needs to be acknowledged and nurtured if we are to remain sane. They also suggest that a purely biological explanation of the origin of human life, and its destination and purpose, is inadequate. This was certainly the view of Alister Hardy.
Those who have such experiences are often completely transformed in their thinking and their attitudes. Walt Whitman describes how ‘one transparent summer morning’ he was lying on the grass when
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the Spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that the kelson of creation is love ...
Notice the verb tenses in this passage: his actions are set in the past, but his knowledge is current. He lay on the grass, but he knows that love lies at the heart of creation. In another place, Walt Whitman asks his readers the same question as the interviewer:
Hast never come to thee an hour
A sudden gleam divine, precipitating, bursting all these bubbles, fashions, wealth?
These eager business aims – books, politics, art, amours,
To utter nothingness? (Leaves of Grass, Section 5)
Has ‘a sudden gleam divine’ ever come to you? What age were you? What triggered it? Has it inspired you, deepened your religious sense, sustained, or consoled you in times of trouble? Have you had more than one experience? Have you ever spoken about your experience, or have you been reluctant to do so, in case people think you are a bit strange? Do such things point to a higher reality, or do you favour more prosaic explanations?