It was the strangest and most beautiful sky I’d ever seen. After witnessing three dramatic changes in weather within an hour, I stood transfixed looking back on the sycamore I had sat under. Its white bark gleamed in the bright, setting sun, with an intensely blue-black sky as a backdrop to the east.
The wind blew hard, and it was tough going on the bike. Upon reaching the stream on the outskirts of town, rain threatened. Dark, lowering clouds swirled around one, banking against the hills and gathering into huge masses over the fields, heightening one’s senses. Do I stay, and risk rain, or worse, lightening? The risk of lightening seemed minimal, and if it started to rain hard, I’d just ride back.
It began to drizzle, but sitting under the spreading, budding branches of the sycamore, I saw more drops on the placid current in front of me than felt on my back from the wind coming out of the north. A few miles away, to the south and west over the canyon and foothills, rain was falling harder. There weren’t many clear spaces left to the east and north either.
Suddenly hail began to fall, small pellets of precipitation that made little splashes in the stream. A seagull tacked against the wind, and a large flock of small birds scattered in the distance. Feeling protected somehow amidst all the fury and tumult, I didn’t move.
The hail, which never reached sufficient intensity or size to sting, stopped as quickly as it started. The sky to the west began to open; within a quarter hour the sun was shining again, with small, fleecy clouds above the horizon evoking a pleasant spring afternoon. To the east however, the clouds had piled into each other and taken on an ominous hue, a blue-black sheen that could not have provided a greater contrast.
I walked back and forth along the stream for some time, taking in the incredible variation of light, color, movement and shape of clouds and sky. I was agape, completely open and in a state of wonder. Religious experiencing is a combination of awe, humility, and love in the presence of overwhelming beauty, which envelops and overflows within one.
Religious experiencing occurs during complete silence within the individual. When it is strong it’s like death; there is nothing more to be said.
Inward growth requires a non-accumulative kind of learning. And that’s where the contradiction at the heart of organized religion comes in.
The experiencing of sacredness is beyond all words, beliefs, ideas, images, knowledge, scriptures, texts, and traditions. Even one’s own prior experience of the sacred can be an impediment to experiencing it in the present. Yet religions would not exist without the intermediation of text and tradition, as well as some form of priestly class. Therefore religions impede, if not deny, the very experiencing of sacredness that they purport to be devoted!
Awareness and contact with the sacred (the quality of the infinite, completely beyond thought and knowledge) can only occur within the individual. A teacher can point the way, but the moment his or her teachings become more important than one’s own solitary observation and inquiry, one’s capacity for direct perception of the truth and the sacred is diminished.
Religious feeling is not a personal thing however. Rather, it’s an inherently private and individual matter.
The personal is oriented to self, revolves around ego, and is driven by will. Whereas the individual’s experiencing of God (or whatever one wants to call the essence of beauty, mystery, intelligence, and love that permeates the universe), is interior and private, but not personal.
If this almost inexpressible experiencing in the individual is what spirituality really is, then what place does the diversity of religious and cultural traditions have in the scheme of things?
For people in communities of faith, what matters is what one puts first: scriptures, or seeing for oneself; belief, or actual experiencing; insight, or the accretions of theology?
If one opts to remain in a religious tradition, hold it lightly and question it continually. Mine it for insight while being mindful that texts and traditions are never the truth, but at best an echo of the truth.