The past two Sundays, we have been in conversation with two contemporary authors – Anne Lamott in her book Help, Thanks, Wow: the 3 Essential Prayers and Brian McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality, A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. We have explored our relationship with God by crying out for HELP and expressing our thankfulness and gratitude to God. Today, we explore a prayer that cannot be adequately captured with language – it is the prayer of WOW.
Anne Lamott writes: Wow is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty, a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. Wow means we are not dulled to wonder. We finally click into being fully present to the mesmerizing and miraculous. When we are stunned to a place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere.
Can you remember the last time you were stunned to a place beyond words? Perhaps it was this weekend as we were blanketed in a foot of snow – a rare occurrence in the lowlands of the PNW. It is good to pay attention to those moments of wonder that take your breath away and you utter WOW.
Today is the liturgical Sunday of the Transfiguration of Jesus. I love how the turning of the liturgical season reminds us of significant themes of a life of faith. We need to be reminded because we forget. Today the theme is the Practice of Worship & Awe: Awakening to the Beauty & Joy of God.
Can you remember the last time you experienced a moment when time seemed to stand still – when you felt like the ground had slipped out from under your feet, throwing you slightly off balance, leaving a catch in the back of your throat, a hard to swallow lump, when nothing existed except that moment suspended; when you had a sense of the presence of God, something luminous, holy, sacred in your life beyond description? A time when a poignant, beautiful, triumphant piece of music took you to another dimension; a still moment beside an ancient tree in the woods; a hike in the mountains opening to a glorious vista; or a deep soulful gaze into the eyes of an animal? That is when you begin to realize that you are in the presence of the holy, of something more.
Do you ever talk about those moments? Do you have language to even express WHAT that was? (if you can try to express in words, I invite you to put in the chat) Sometimes when we experience these moments, our rational brain struggles with it. We want to explain it away. It’s just a view Or It’s only music. But these are mystical moments – moments of awe when you can only utter WOW! O My God! A hallmark of a true mystical experience is that you don’t know what to say because words fail, they are inadequate. We get tongue-tied at transfigurations.
Phil Cosineau in his book “The Art of Pilgrimage” explains it this way:
“It was what the wandering pilgrim-poet Basho called “a glimpse of the under-glimmer,” an experience of the deeply real that lurks everywhere beneath centuries of stereotypes and false images that prevent us from truly seeing other people, other places, other times”.Ancient Celts would call it a “thin place.”
John Muir expressed it this way:
Oh, these vast, measureless mountain days in whose light every thing seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty that the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow that is not explainable. A moment ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. To the outer ear these trees may seem silent, yet their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off & dimmer God seems. (Imagine your life is like a Harp string – reverberating in praise to God…)
These are mystical moments, “Holy Ground” experiences. We don’t often talk about them. Perhaps we should. But how do we even begin to describe a mystical experience? We become shy or embarrassed attempting to express the WOW moments in our lives, when words fail to capture our experience.
In his book, “Convictions,” contemporary theologian and writer Marcus Borg described a series of mystical experiences that convinced him of the reality and the mystery of God.
“My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early 30’s. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”- of what that word points to – and gave me an unshakable conviction that God or “the sacred” is real and can be experienced. While I saw the same visual “landscape” that I normally see, for a moment, what I was seeing looked very different. Light became different – as if there were a radiance shining through everything. The biblical phrase as the book of Isaiah puts it, “the earth is filled with the glory – the radiance – of God”. The world was transfigured, even as it remained “the same.” They were experiences of wonder, what the 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel called “radical amazement.” I felt I was seeing more clearly than I ever had before. They were also experiences of complete peacefulness, marked by a sense that I would love to stay in this mental state forever. Anxiety and distraction utterly disappeared. Everything looked beautiful. Whenever I tried to read mystical writings, they seemed like gobbledy-gook. But after these experiences, mystical texts became luminous. It is what I had experienced. The effect was to transform my understanding of the word “God.” I began to understand that the word “God” does not refer to a person-like being “out there,” beyond the universe. God refers to “what is” experienced as wondrous and compelling, as, to use William James’ phrase, “the more” which is all around us. Or as in scripture, the word “God” refers to “the one in whom we live and move and have our being”.
St. Bonaventure, an early disciple of St. Francis used these words:
You are within all things, but not enclosed. You are outside all things, but not excluded.
You are above all things, but not aloof. You are below all things, but not debased.
Your center is everywhere. You have no circumference. Your fullness is everywhere.
In the transfiguration story – the disciples, Peter, James, and John – do not react with either clarity or wisdom.They don’t know what to do. They were confused, terrified & panic! They didn’t want to look confused so they followed the saying, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Like build a tent, resembling the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, the feast of booths. They also want to capture this magnificent moment. Often we are so uncomfortable with the mysterious, the unexplainable, we too want to do something. As faithful disciples, there are times when we shouldn’t just stand there, we should do something; and yet, there are other moments when we need to be still, we should just stand there, or maybe more appropriately take off our shoes to kneel upon holy ground.
Mountaintop experiences, mystical experiences are part of the life of faith, if we are open to them. They come unbidden, but can also be invited. Can we become more we aware of the transformative power of God at work in our lives? The journey to enlightenment & discovering the mystic within includes both discipline & serendipity. Spiritual practices of breathing deeply, becoming more deeply aware of God’s presence and voice in our lives when we are reduced to an utterance of WOW! Or singing hymn – How Great Thou Art –
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder Thy power throughout the universe displayed
Incorporating the spiritual practice of WOW into your life can offer the Holy Spirit more to work with in our lives of faith – when ordinary moments become extraordinary, luminous mystical moments.
Anne Lamott: Feeling a sense of WOW can soften us, The movement of grace from hard to soft, from distracted to awake, from mean to gentle again, is mysterious but essential. While I want to organize it, I realize I can only feel it, and acknowledge that it is here once again. Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention. It happens more often when we have as little expectation possible. If you say, that’s pretty much what I though I’d see, you are in trouble. Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Unto us much is given. Sometimes I resist God’s generosity. God just gives. Giving, forgiving, and inviting us back.
Most of the time we live with a veil shrouding the holy. There is no map that can contain all of God’s majesty and splendor. Sometimes when we do pay attention, and sometimes even when we don’t, the veil is lifted, and we see past the surface to the depth of life. If only for a moment, we receive a glimpse of the truth. That’s why we gather as a people of faith, again and again and again.
Within each of us, at our deepest core, is this holy longing for God to become real to us, for God to touch us, for us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is and that God calls out to us as God called out to Jesus – “This is my Child, the one whom I love.”. Sometimes what we need more than anything is simply to be awake instead of asleep; open to mystery, rather than certainty for our lives.