My first spiritual experience was most likely my conception, or “benception” as my mom calls it (I am kidding, my mother is not too hot on puns) — but as that moment of happenstance-laden and conjugal-sanctioned becoming is about as far removed from my conscious recollection as the goings-on in our Sun, I will move past that, and also past the childhood experiences which are neither completely accidental nor intentional in their selectivity — moving forward to my tenth year, where at a week-long Bible Camp hosted at the college where my parents met I was taken up — all 95(approx.) pounds of me — in a charismatic flowering of my heart.
The chapel in which I found myself on that warm Monterey evening was dark and filled with praise music. I’m not sure what triggered the sudden flood of emotion that came over me. It was something about God’s love for us. How amazing and awesome it is. But as the tears came, followed by strange movements of my tongue, I knew with certainty that God is real. This had nothing to do with belief or anything I had been told. It was a pure and powerful experience of a vibration that was beneficent and all-encompassing. When my parents swung by to pick me up the next day, I told dad that I spoke in tongues. He (jokingly) asked for a demonstration. That was one of those rare instances where I failed to find something funny. I shook my head. You can’t tell the Spirit when to come or where to go…
There was a couple more incidences that year or the next where I was able to know things that were marginally unknowable. Our church had lost its pastor, and after waiting several months for the right fit, a man with the correct qualifications came through, and the congregation voted on him, and I started bawling and bawling because he wasn’t right. Over the next couple of years that man dismantled the fellowship. Things like that—that can only be verified by retrospect—that have no true ‘gain’ to them, in the material sense… what is call Insight, is what I think I had a line on for a year or two, back then.
But then came the coarse hair and the itching drives of puberty. The hormonal crush of anxiety, self-consciousness and icky, icky change. That swallowed up my insight, obscured it with a dorky sense of humor and the need to cuss when out of earshot of my parents and pastors. Over my high school years I was very involved in my church’s youth group. I loved being in church—not the services necessarily, but the building itself felt like home to me. It’s odd that I keep finding myself working in them, though I haven’t been a congregant for a teenager’s lifespan, now.
In youth group my mouth and hands would do things that were untoward. But I loved God, you know? Not the bible or the words (both of which I could quote and use to prove points or defend statements). But neither orthodoxy or scripture stirred me, so much as this sort of indefinable presence that existed just beneath the social and theological and musical phenomena. Something I longed for, to augment, to find exploding out of me and us, but that never did.
I spent a year at Bible College, after high school. It was up in Canada, and over that winter a darkness introduced itself to me. The mood wasn’t constant, but it was tenacious. However, one evening I was at a prayer meeting with a local congregation. There was just four or five of us, in a room. And as we prayed I felt myself becoming larger. My awareness filled the room, and it was like I was looking at each of us from many angles at once. It was trippy, and probably a purely mental trick, but it reinvigorated my lust for the divine experience. And this thirst made my anger that more quick to rise against church authorities, when they claimed said authority, and failed to exercise it with cleverness or humility.
A few months later, our small college body was about to embark on a two week tour of Canada, going from church to church, putting on an Easter production. The Wednesday before we were to leave, the usual Wednesday Worship was canceled by the college faculty, to allow everyone to get ready for the trip. I thought: Hey, why don’t we do our own service? And so I told everyone it was on still.
When everyone showed up, I said: “We’re going to do this differently. There isn’t going to be a leader. We’re gonna go around in a circle and each of us is going to say what we need to get off our chest, so we can enter into this mission unencumbered and unified.”
As people spoke, I felt the ever-subcutaneous Presence begin to rise among us, until something like a fire broke out, and it seemed like every one of us was gripped by a spirit of honesty, and at the end of the first round I said: “Now that we’ve spoken to the group, let’s speak to each other. If you have anything you need to apologize for or be honest about toward someone else, do it respectfully and honestly.” And we proceeded to do that. And I still feel the warmth and love that abounded between us that night, going on 17 years later.
I have always buckled against authority. That night I felt like a facilitator, and that’s how I wished others would approach the role of leadership in the spiritual venue: holders of the space, maintainers of the atmosphere, rather than givers of the spirit or bearers of the Divine Law.
The next year I moved to Chicago, to live with my parents while my dad attended Seminary for his oddly named Masters of Divinity. I turned 19 and I still went to church, but I stopped taking communion because it felt like church was a social institution, and that if I couldn’t feel the spirit moving me, then the gestures of ritual were more sacrilegious than sacred.
I remember one day, after my dad had graduated and before I was to move out on my own again, I was in the unfinished basement where I spent that year, with my head against the cement floor, asking God not for a sign or an indication, but for his Presence. I recall achieving a headache in my strain. I felt nothing. I felt numb boredom. This upset me.
Then I found experiences that were full of feeling. Alcohol, pot, hallucinogens. My hunger for God became a hunger for Any Experience, for knowledge carnal and supposedly forbidden. I embarked upon my prodigality. I found cocaine, cooked down to the most blessedly summarizing of sensations. I would have succeeded in destroying myself, I’m pretty sure, were it not for two experiences, one more ethereal and the other more mundane.
The first happened a couple seasons before the coke. I was visiting my parents and had gone out with friends and had had a horrible, horrible time. I smoked some weed and experienced a breakdown, where I bawled continuously for about 2 hours, in a crowded theater, watching a stupid Sylvester Stallone flick. When I got home I called my then girlfriend (who happens to be my now-girlfriend), and she said something undisclosed that, hearing, sent me out of my body.
For an instant I saw a light, bright and faintly blue, and there were people all around me, and we were all headed in the direction of that light.
I took that as a sign, and even as my hungers lead me deeper from normality and love, I would touch at that as though it were an amulet.
The second experience—the one that embarked my turning-around—was almost stupid in its simplicity. I woke up one morning after a night of binging, and I felt loved. The sun came into my room, smeared its butter-yellow light across me and my bed, and I felt that I was loved. Period.
What followed that was a whirlwind of drug addled and sex-crazed searching for a Divine Source that I could interact with on a personal level. That was not filtered by the convolutions of doctrine or the shoulds woulds and musts of other people.
Were that the Divine adapted its Message to suit the different ages of man. Would that a modern man, who has access to highly direct and synthetic experiences of all sorts, from entertainment to chemical to mechanistic—would that the Divine provided something just as direct, just as sophisticated and ‘personalized’!
Wouldn’t that be amazing? If there was something like that—something built for each individual, regardless of their cultural influences or religious beliefs. Something that arises from within, that fosters the Real Self inside us, so that that Real Self might commandeer all these confusing influences of the ‘modern world,’ and set them in their right place.