ESSAY

Week 1

Face to Face with Mystery

by Christine Robinson, minister, First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico

So you’ve got a bunch of really pressing, life-changing, love-soaked problems, and you’ve tied yourself up into knots of anxiety. Desperate for relief, perspective and a change, you take yourself to the foothills to walk. You stump along for an hour, rehearsing your options, your anxieties, your angers and fears, and finally you drop into an exhausted inner silence.

You mount the crest of a hill and notice, down the path a ways, a family of deer close enough that you can see their beautiful eyes. You come to a startled halt, and for one moment every fiber of your being is simply present. The deer look at you; you look at them. A smile plays on your lips—perhaps the first smile in days. A weight drops from your shoulders and you watch in wonder, feeling somehow deeply related to these companions and their peaceful ways.

The deer amble off. You resume your walk, but it’s all different now. The weight is gone, the anger and anxiety lessened. You find yourself thinking, “It’s going to be all right. Whatever happens, it will be all right.” There’s no logical reason for you to think this; your problems are just as dire as they were an hour ago. But you have no doubt of this larger wisdom.

And so the most important part of your problems—your reaction to them—has changed, and you are content to simply do what seems best and await the
outcome.

Your spouse died yesterday, in a sudden accident away from home. The police came to the door. It was all over. You did all the things one must do in such cases, with calm demeanor and dry eyes, and fell into bed that night, physically and emotionally numb and exhausted. Later, you awaken to see a bunch of magnetic alphabet letters on the floor beside your bed. You know you are awake, and you know that there are no such things by your bed, or in your house, for that matter, and as you watch, the letters shift around and arrange themselves to form the word,  L O V E. You know that this is the doing of your spouse. You know this in spite of the fact that you don’t believe in an afterlife, or spirits or souls or anything beyond what we can see and touch in this material world. “I love you, too,” you say, through your tears. And then the letters are gone.

You get up, make tea, weep, and the next day you go to see your minister. You want her to tell you that it was just a dream, or a grief reaction, or incipient schizophrenia, because, frankly, even that would seem preferable to having a lifetime’s philosophical underpinnings knocked out from under you. But when you get there and you tell your story and she asks you what you think was going on, you say, absolutely sure of yourself, “It was him. It just felt like him. I can’t explain it, but I know it.” And instead of telling you that it’s just your grief, she tells you how glad she is that you had that experience. She has heard stories like that before, she says, enough to have come to believe that our world is wider and more mysterious than anything we can explain. You tell her that explaining things is very important to you, but she just encourages you to enjoy the fact that you had that last goodbye with your beloved, that understanding it is not necessary and may not be possible, and you both weep together.

A mystic is a person who, first and foremost, relies on their own inner experience to decide what is true and meaningful in their lives. For that reason, mystics are looked at with some suspicion in traditions that value priests, scripture, and tradition. Mystics often find themselves accused of heresy. That is to say, they are guilty of choosing their beliefs based on their own inner authority rather than relying on external authorities. That’s what “heresy” means—choosing—especially, choosing what people (who think they have authority over you) tell you is wrong. Think Joan of Arc.

But you know, it seems to me that mystical experience is right down the UU alley. We give religious and spiritual authority to individuals and ask each person to look at their own mind and heart, at their own experience of life, to choose how to express their own beliefs. We believe that the divine speaks uniquely into the hearts of individuals, and that those encounters with mystery and wonder form one of the bases of our faith. Very heretical!

Of course, mysticism, like any kind of rabid individualism, can lead you astray. There are other kinds of inner experiences that arise out of our wounded or damaged or ill selves, and it can be important and helpful to confide in others to get their perspective when we have questions. But very often it seems that mystical experiences feel and indeed are true to the one who has them. Often they change lives for the better.

So all that I’d ask of you rationalistic, heretical, feet-planted-firmly-on-the-ground folks is to base your faith on the whole of your experience, even the parts that you can’t explain. They are encounters with mystery and wonder, after all, not equations on a math test. The point is not to explain and solve. The point is to ask yourself what you’ve learned, and what kind of meaning that gives to your life.

And to do that, you have to start by expecting these experiences to happen, and then to remember, cherish, and ponder them when they do come along. Let your experiences connect you to the rest of the world’s religious people. Let them guide your life, comfort you in difficulty, help you make decisions, mold the philosophy of your life. Let them lead you in the path of mystery and wonder.