Six-winged Angels of Fire

Sorry for the delay; I’ve been traveling and far too busy lately. We return to mystical experiences of the Old Testament. After Jesus, probably the most important and poetic of all the Biblical prophets is Isaiah. But, apparently, he was not always so willing or gifted. This is the famous story of his calling to a new life. It’s a prime example of several elements: 1) the fear that acknowledges God’s holiness, 2) God’s quick forgiveness that follows this recognition, and 3) the resulting eagerness to do God’s will.  And if that process reminds you of the New Testament gospel’s effect, it is no accident. 

Isaiah, chapter 6

The year King Uzziah died I saw the Lord! He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the Temple was filled with his glory. Hovering about him were mighty, six-winged angels of fire. With two of their wings they covered their faces, with two others they covered their feet, and with two they flew. In a great antiphonal chorus they sang, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is filled with his glory.” Such singing it was! It shook the Temple to its foundations, and suddenly the entire sanctuary was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “My doom is sealed, for I am a foul-mouthed sinner, a member of a sinful, foul-mouthed race; and I have looked upon the King, the Lord of heaven’s armies.”

Then one of the mighty angels flew over to the altar and with a pair of tongs picked out a burning coal. He touched my lips with it and said, “Now you are pronounced ‘not guilty’ because this coal has touched your lips. Your sins are all forgiven.”

Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send as a messenger to my people? Who will go?”

And I said, “Lord, I’ll go! Send me.”

–Translated from Hebrew to English in The Message, Eugene Peterson.

Undiscovered continents of spiritual living

Frank Laubach

Frank Laubach suffered intense loneliness and deprivation as a missionary among the Moslems of the southern Philippines.  He wrote letters home to his father and described his “experiment” of living every moment in the presence of God. “I determine not to get out of bed until that mind set up on the Lord is settled.”  Things began to change. By the end of his long life he was among the best known and loved men of the world. For one thing, he had been instrumental in teaching millions of people to read. 

Frank Laubach, Letters from a Modern Mystic

January 29, 1930

I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in little things is what so astonishes me, for I never have felt it this way before. I need something, and turn round to find it waIting for me. I must work, to be sure, but there is God working along with me. God takes care of all the rest. My part is to live this hour in continuous inner conversation with God and in perfect responsiveness to his will, to make this hour gloriously rich. This seems to be all I need think about. 

March 1, 1930

…Perhaps a man who has been an ordained minister since 1914 ought to be be ashamed to confess that he never before felt the joy of complete hourly, minute by minute—now what shall I call it?—more than surrender. I had that before. More than listening to God. I tried that before. I cannot find the word that will mean to you or to me what I am now experiencing. It is a will act. I compel my mind to open straight out toward God. I wait and listen with determined sensitiveness….

rainier-ridao-600681-unsplashBut why do I constantly harp upon this inner experience? Because I feel convinced that for me, and for you who read, there lie ahead undiscovered continents of spiritual living compared with which we are infants in arms. 

–Photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash

And I must witness that people outside are treating me differently. Obstacles which I once would have regarded as insurmountable are melting away like a mirage. People are becoming friendly who suspected or neglected me. I feel, I feel like one who has had his violin out of tune with the orchestra and at last is in harmony with the universe. ivan-torres-376149-unsplash

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

As for me, I never lived, I was half, dead, I was a rotting tree, until I reached the place where I wholly, with utter honesty, F Laubachresolved and re-resolved that I would find God’s will and I would do that will though every fibre in me said no, and I would win the battle in my thoughts. I do not claim success even for a day yet, not complete success all day, but some days are close to success, and every day is tingling with the joy of a glorious discovery. That thing is eternal. That thing is undefeatable. You and I shall soon blow away from our bodies. Money, praise, poverty, opposition, these make no difference, for they will all alike be forgotten in a thousand years. But this spirit which comes to a mind set upon continuous surrender, this spirit is timeless life.

From Frank Laubach, Letters from a Modern Mystic.

 

Someone to Meet in the Next World

One of the most astonishing accounts in modern times is Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven.  It made a splash when published in 2012, because this was a near-death experience (NDE) unlike any other.  Beforehand, Alexander was a skeptic about the after-life and about NDEs.  He was an unsentimental and successful neurosurgeon who believed, like many in the medical community, that NDEs were hallucinations created by neuro-transmitters continuing to fire in the brain when consciousness ceased.  But his own illness seemed specifically designed to undermine that theory.  He was suddenly overcome by a rare meningitis that not only placed him in a coma but shut down his brain.  All the specialists involved told his family that if he ever recovered from his coma he would be a vegetable.  After a week they were just about to “pull the plug” when he opened his eyes and began talking.  He was completely cured and no one could understand how.  But we might understand the why.  I have not finished the book yet much less rendered a decision on how kosher its theology is.  But Alexander’s life since then reminds me of Mark Helprin’s epigram to Winter’s Tale:

I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me. 

Near the beginning of his experience, Alexander finds himself flying without an aircraft over a paradisical land. Assuming it is true and not a hallucination it reminds us that mystic wonder has more to do with people than place.  And it gives a rock solid glimpse of what “higher and holier” means. 

Proof of Heaven

Someone was next to me: a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes.  She was wearing the same kind of peasant-like clothes that the people in the village down below wore. Golden-brown tresses framed her lovely face….

The girl’s outfit was simple, but its colors–powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach–had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else in the surroundings had.  She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for a few moments, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it is so far.  It was not a romantic look.  It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these…beyond all the different types of love we have down here on earth.  It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being more genuine and pure than all of them.

In the end of the book, Dr. Alexander, who was adopted as a baby, is given an old photo and discovers this girl is his birth-sister whom he never knew.

See it on Amazon

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey to the Afterlife, by Dr Eben Alexander.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.  Copyright 2012 by Dr. Eben Alexander.  All rights reserved.

God Arrives without Angel Disguise

We continue with mystical experiences of the Bible.  After the Fall in Genesis 3 and the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12 this may be the most important hinge in the Old Testament.  God tells Moses that he is the man to defy Pharaoh and lead hundreds of thousands of Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt.  Moses’ response of course is “Not me! I am not the person for such a job!”

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What we see in the Exodus passages are people meeting the awesome strangeness and other-ness of God—an experience of the Numinous, as Rudolf Otto described it.  In Genesis after the Fall, God shows up only in disguise, so to speak: as a voice, as angels, as a vision while asleep. In Exodus the mission is apparently so critical that he shows up without disguise. There is so much at stake: His people must know who He is; hundreds of thousands of them must walk out of Egypt not only unscathed but rich; Pharaoh’s gods and magicians must be publicly defeated; the people must never forget this God is their rescuer and redeemer who can do absolutely anything; a new nation with unprecedented laws of justice, mercy, and reverence must begin, a way of life that God intends to spread over the earth and end evil forever. 

But God coming without disguise creates a confrontation with absolute holiness.  God is love, but God is also absolute goodness, and in His presence we do not need to be told that we are very much not.  Moses hides his face.  For the same reason, centuries later, Peter will tell Jesus, “Go away from me, for I am sinful man.”  

This is also the momentous time when God reveals his true, personal name, not a title. Often transliterated from the Hebrew as YHWH, it is mysterious and so is its pronunciation.  But it seems to mean “I Am Who I Am,” that is, the self-subsistent one; the only one that cannot be compared to or depend upon anything else. 

Exodus 3: God, The Fire that Never Goes Out, Speaks to Moses

Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the west end of the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, Horeb. The angel of God appeared to him in flames of fire blazing out of the middle of a bush. He looked. The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up.

Moses said, “What’s going on here? I can’t believe this! Amazing! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

God saw that he had stopped to look. God called to him from out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

He said, “Yes? I’m right here!”

God said, “Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You’re standing on holy ground.”

Then he said, “I am the God of your father: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

Moses hid his face, afraid to look at God.

God said, “I’ve taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I’ve heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. And now I have come down to help them, pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey….


Burning bush

Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”

God continued with Moses: “This is what you’re to say to the Israelites: ‘God, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent me to you.’ This has always been my name, and this is how I always will be known.

–Exodus 3:1 – 8a; 13-15, The Message

 

Jacob’s Stairway to Heaven

A whole week goes by. This is terrible!  I promise you this blog is not dying on the vine. I had a lot of travel and extra duties this past week.  Today we have, as promised at the start of this blog, mystical experience straight from the Bible itself.  You cannot buy this stairway to heaven.  This intermittent series will be published in chronological order and today’s is from Genesis.

My selections will naturally beg the question, “What is a mystical experience?”  Why, for example, am I starting with Jacob and not Abraham to whom God spoke?  Adam walked with God in the garden of Eden–what more amazing experience of God could there be?  My criteria are open to suggestions and adjustment at any time, but one of them is to choose those that include a deep emotional experience by the recipient. For like it or not, our emotions create motion; they move us and create change. 

Experiences like these are not merely ancient legends. God still sends life-changing visions to people when they are awake and when they are asleep. They have happened to me and many others. Have they ever happened to you? Write it to me and I may publish it here. You may be anonymous if you wish. 

The Bible: Genesis 28:10-22

Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

XIR162153Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”

Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “God is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”

Jacob was up first thing in the morning. He took the stone he had used for his pillow and stood it up as a memorial pillar and poured oil over it. He christened the place Bethel (God’s House).  Jacob vowed a vow: “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will mark this as a place where God lives.”

The Message, translation and paraphrase by Eugene Peterson.  Painting: Circa 1490 (oil on panel) by the French School (15th century), Musee du Petit Palais, Avignon, France.

A Prison, A Paradise: Time Travel

Fountains_Abbey_view_crop1_2005-08-27

Finishing up our selection from Gay Taylor’s pseudonymous memoir. Not long after the previous events, she and a friend visit the ruins of an Abbey and have one of the most astonishing experiences anyone has ever had. 

January 5th, 1948. The highlight of my visit, and one of the occasions of our lives, came on New year’s Eve. Alison and I went by a variety of buses to Ripon, and set off on a cloudy winter afternoon, in a taxi to the gates of Fountains Abbey.  I had clamoured for years to revisit it, for I had loved it as a child and had never seen it since. Fountains2-49We dismissed the taxi at the gates, walked by frost-whitened paths between silvery evergreens, then down towards the roar of the Skell [river] and the dim lovely ruins.

Repair-work was going on and scaffolding towered above the Chapel of the Nine Altars. As dusk fell, we stood together on the south side of the cloister-garth, looking north, towards the cedar and the great grass-grown walls and the tower. As as we stood silently watching, they began to change. 

fountains-abbey

A soft, silvery-amber and quite unearthly light like warm moonlight lay over them.  But there was no moon; it was not due to rise for hours yet. In utter silence—where was the roar of the Skell?—the whole ruin changed, rebuilt itself: the walls were intact, the church and the Chapel of the Nine Altars became roofed and perfect. The pinnacled tower stood out newly finished, a deeper amber than the rest. The entire structure was silver-gilt in colour, and this colour seemed to be struck out of it by the silvery light in which it was bathed. We both stood awestruck, wordless, not moving, for what seemed a long time. “There’s no scaffolding,” breathed Alison at last in a soft amazed tone. I didn’t answer, for I thought, “Why should there by scaffolding? We’re seeing it as it was about 1520, when Huby’s tower was finished, and they’ve only just removed the scaffolding.” But then I realized that we were both seeing the same thing. She said later that she had meant the scaffolding that showed above the Chapel of the Nine Altars, where (certainly from the time and place in which we now were) there was no scaffolding.

We saw no Cistercian monks, brought back no useful information whatever, we merely stood for a timeless moment, for eternities or for ten minutes, seeing Fountains as it was a few years before the Reformation.

Fountains Abbey N950001

Last night, as usual, I sat and composed myself. It was about a quarter to eleven by my very wrong clock. And almost at once, something akin to the “sun flower” came back—that indescribably sense of the inflooding, enfolding, brimful-filling of God’s burning love, and the knowledge that the material universe, the atmosphere, world, body are screens of mercy, which in our fallen state are there as a protection. That God’s love meeting only foulness would destroy and disintegrate it; that the screen is our shelter and our opportunity. But it is no more than a screen; there is no least corner of the universe where God’s love is not.

And for the first time I began to understand this strange idea: the spatial location of the Heavenly Heart. It was like “the fifth month, when the child moves.” 

A Prison, a Paradise: part 2

Continuing yesterday’s installment from A Prison, A Paradise. After her near-suicide, Gay Taylor writes:

…when I came back from Tripoly, the peace of God seemed to enter my heart. I feel that it all had to happen, and happen in just that way. Nothing else would have removed the suicide-obsession I’ve cherished secretly, ever since I was a child. Those hours by the northern river had to be, when I was beyond all human help, and knew at last that God was there.  


yolanda-leyva-635145-unsplash

October 4th. Mist and cold, after yesterday’s Indian summer. It was one of the perfect days—the high tide of this present time. I went out for a walk, then picked blackberries on Periton Hill, in that far clump at the edge of the downs. For a long time I sat on the crumbling turf, sheltered from the wind, with the blue distances below, and warm sun lying over this lovely autumn land. And suddenly I was swept out of myself—knowing, knowing, knowing. Feeling the love of God burning through creation, and an ecstasy of bliss pouring through my spirit and down into every nerve. I’m ashamed to put it down in these halting words. For it was ecstasy—that indissoluble mingling of fire and light that the mystics know. There was a scalding sun in my breast—the “kingdom of God within”—that rushed out to that All-Beauty.

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Blackberries photo by Yolanda Leyva on Unsplash

Periton Hill photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash