Religious Experience

It is often thought that a religious experience must be something strikingly unique. There are those anecdotal accounts in the literature of mystics throughout the ages talking about altered states or special experiences. This can lead to an idea that its takes some special situation,experience, or regiment to have a religious experience. This is unfortunate because “ordinary” individuals may feel lacking in this respect. I remember just such an claim with a woman in a discussion group I was involved with who lamented that she had never had a religious experience.

This notion probably started to emerge during the religious evolutionary periods that Robert Bellah called the archaic and historic periods. During these periods there was a rise in world rejection and with it a strong dualism between God and the world. These were also periods when the priestly class rose to prominence. Supposedly only special individuals could have access to the divine. They performed very specific rituals or followed rigorous regiments to tap into the divine. Also, as I mentioned, the mystics and contemplatives shared their unique experiences with the community or later in the literature.

But these ideas only hold if it is thought that there is a significant separation or divide between the divine and mundane realms. It assumes there is some barrier to be breached to experience or gain knowledge of the divine. However, in a monism like that of the Divine Life Communion, there is no such divide. God is a living God. God has a life and that life is this life. There is no barrier to be crossed or special situation to be had to commune with God. It is only a matter of being aware and probing the divine depth that is in all things.

Now that is not to say that religious experiences can’t be special. It depends on how we perceive them. They are always special in there own way, but they need not be strikingly unique or even rare. Paul Tillich said that there are certain places, things, people, and events that are transparent to the divine. I remember in my youth growing up in a conservative Lutheran church. There may have been a lot of talk and socializing in the foray of the church but as one entered the sanctuary everyone became silent and attentive to the sacredness of the place. It was as if one was entering a holy place into the presence of God in a special way. These places, things, people and events where there is a heighten sense of the divine can be anywhere. Although I disagree with him that divine revelation comes to few people, here’s an example of one of those special events where Paul Tillich experienced of the divine in viewing a work of art.

Divine revelation comes to few men, but understanding of it came to me one moment 36 years ago. I looked, for the first time, at beauty revealed by a man who had been dead more than 400 years. As the son of a Protestant minister in eastern Germany in the days before World War I, I had grown up in the belief that visual beauty is unimportant…

Strangely, I first found the existence of beauty in the trenches of World War I. At 28, I became a chaplain in the German army and served for five ugly years until the war ended. To take my mind off the mud, blood and death of the Western Front, I thumbed through the picture magazines at the field bookstores. In some of them I found reproductions of the great and moving paintings of the ages. At rest camps and in the lulls in the bitter battles, especially at Verdun, I huddled in dugouts studying this “new world” by candle and lantern light. But at the end of the war, I still had never seen the original paintings in all their glory.

Going to Berlin, I hurried to the Kaiser Friederich Museum. There on the wall was a picture that had comforted me in battle: Madonna with Singing Angels, painted by Sandro Botticelli in the fifteenth century. Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. In the beauty of the painting there was Beauty itself. It shone through the colors of the paint, as the light of day shines through the stained-glass windows of a medieval church. As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken.

That moment has affected my whole life, giving me the keys for the interpretation of human existence, brought vital joy and spiritual truth. I compare it with what is usually called revelation in the language of religion. I know that no artistic experience can match the moments in which prophets were grasped in the power of the Divine Presence, but I believe there is an analogy between revelation and what I felt. In both cases, the experience goes beyond the way we encounter reality in our daily lives. It opens up depths experienced in no other way. I know now that the picture is not the greatest. I have seen greater since then. But that moment of ecstasy has never been repeated.

Moments like these can indeed be rare and they should be cherished. As Tillich says they are transparent to the divine. However, that does not mean that only these types of experiences can be considered a religious or mystical experiences. It all depends on the ontology one adopts and the attitude one takes toward them.

In the Divine Life Communion, God lives in all things, places, people, and events. As such any experience could be considered a religious experience because they all reveal something about God and they are all part of the communion with God and God’s depth. It’s only a matter of looking deeply at ourselves and everything that we experience.

There is no divide to cross to experience God through some special ritual or regiment. Certainly mediation practices may cut out the clutter that impinges on us and facilitate our sense of the divine. But the depth of God in all of us is accessible in every moment and each moment can both tells something about God, ourselves and have a powerful impact in the life of God we live.

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