The other day I got an email from my friend Peter.
Reading your blog has rekindled an obsession with a childhood memory, one that I have only told two other people in my life about: my sister and my mother.
I should also preface my story with the admission that I am probably an agnostic. I don’t believe in a God as depicted in our religions; however, I do feel strongly that the human spirit exists and that we are all connected in some way. I’ve had some amazing spiritual moments in my life, they just happened to be at U2 concerts as opposed to a church!
When I was 5 my parents separated. We were living in North Carolina at the time and my mother brought my sister and I back to Maine, where we were from originally. We lived with my grandmother for a few months. It was a small place and my uncle and aunt lived there, too.
One afternoon I was walking up the stairs. All the shades in the house were pulled because it was hot and my grandmother was trying to keep the sun out. As I got to about halfway up the stairs I saw a very bright light coming from my aunt’s room, which was at the top of the stairs and to my right. I stopped and peeked in between the newels and saw a woman standing in my aunt’s room. She was glowing a soft blue color and wearing a blue dress lined with white, with a hood over the top of her head. Her head was bowed down and her hands were clasped in front of her, like she was praying. She was looking down and didn’t see me. I froze and was terrified. I slowly backed down the stairs trying not to make a sound. I went back to the kitchen and sat at the table. My grandmother, aunt, and mother were there. My sister had spent the night at a friend’s and my uncle was at work. I told no one what I had just seen.
A few days later I went to church with my mom. I had never been before. I saw a statue of a woman in the church that looked like the woman I had seen in my aunt’s room. The statue had the same kind of dress and her hands were held in the same way. I kind of freaked out and became very scared. My mom told me it was just a statue of the Virgin Mary. I remember thinking that I already new that and I knew who I saw.
Fast forward about 12 years later. My grandmother had heart surgery and developed some complications. My mom, my sister, and I went to the hospital in the wee hours of the night to sit in the waiting room while my grandmother had a second surgery.
My mom was very upset and scared. My sister and I tried telling her stories of funny things she and I had done without my mom knowing. To our surprise, my mom knew every single thing we had done and was able to finish most of the stories herself.
I spoke up and said, “I have a story you’ve never heard before…” and I told them my story of the woman in my aunt’s room. When I finished the jaws of both my mom and sister hung open and they slowly turned to face each other. I remember thinking, “Great, they think I’m nuts.”
After several seconds of silence I said, like a spoiled child, “You don’t believe me.” My sister then said that no, she believed me–and not only did she believe me, she had seen the exact same thing that summer. She told my mom about it at the time, though I hadn’t. My sister was also confident she had seen the Virgin Mary.
I’ve had phases in my life where I’ve struggled to understand the meaning of it all. I’ve struggled to reconcile the sighting with my beliefs (or lack thereof). Was I given a message and did I miss it?
I don’t think I’ve done anything in my life worthy of having that sort of encounter; I‘ve made no great impact on the planet. I’ve always felt that people who received those sorts of visits tended to do special things. I have not.
I guess my obsession with it all is wondering if I’ve made a huge mistake somewhere and not done what I was supposed to do, but I have no idea what the other something I was meant to do was! I’ve discussed it with my sister a number of times. Her thought is that it was a tough time and someone was just telling us everything was okay. Seems to me like you could have sent someone else to send that kind of message…
Anyway, there’s a crazy story for you! What do you make of all that?
A number of purely rational explanations for Peter’s childhood experience present themselves. One would be that Peter simply didn’t remember having been to church before, or had seen a representation of the Virgin on a Christmas special or Easter card–and thus constructed his experience out of whole cloth from lost memories of an impressionable toddler. Another would be that he heard his sister talk about her own experience and co-opted the memory for himself, something siblings are often known to do.
Generally speaking, though, I avoid patronizing condescension with people and their memories, particularly where corroborating witnesses and a good deal of contemplation and serious reflection are involved. In the first place, I’ve had my own experiences with accurate recall of things I supposedly couldn’t possibly have remembered, according to my parents; and second, Peter is a neuropathologist, so he’s no dummy prone to flights of fancy.
Instead, I chose to take Peter’s report at face value and responded along the lines of the following.
Organized religion is an attempt to normalize spiritual experience. That is, a person (or group of people) has a profound spiritual experience (that can often seem like, or even really be, revelation) and then makes the leap from there to “…and, therefore, ‘real’ spiritual experience for others must be like mine, too. If it isn’t, it’s heretical, or at the very least dangerous or fake.”
The “Acts of the Apostles” in the Bible, however, is a pretty clear historical record which demonstrates that during the early years of the church such normalization was really not attempted with any regularity or success. In fact, the church celebrated (if sometimes painfully so) the reality that one person’s encounter with the Divine very often differed wildly from another’s. There were common threads, of course–usually characterized by some undeniable manifestation of spiritual power–but a “live and let live” rule was very much in effect, as long as the basic professions of faith held sway.
I suspect that the closing paragraphs of my blog post entitled, “Do I Have Your Attention Yet?” opened some doors for Peter in that respect. As many of us have been indoctrinated by religionists (and even religious secularists), Peter obviously learned from a very young age that certain types of supernatural experience are simply “beyond the pale,” and one had best keep one’s lips zipped when it comes to those.
As I wrote in that blog post, however, I believe quite firmly that God deals with each of us quite specifically, for his purposes, as each of us has unique need, and quite outside the neatly (and cheaply) drawn lines of religious sectarianism.
I take Peter’s experience at face value: a divine encounter fashioned in a specific way for the purpose of bolstering his faith: not in a specific church, or in a specific saint, but in the Almighty and divine encounters in general.
Even there, however, Peter’s impression that such divine appointments are only provided to those who are “worthy of having that sort of encounter” is the result of yet another cultural/religious appropriation. God does not in fact worry at all about whether someone is worthy–or rather, deems that every soul is worthy, if you prefer. The goal is not to produce giants of faith who make “great impacts on the planet,” or who “do special things.” The purpose, in this case, may have simply been to prepare a boy for that moment, during his grandmother’s surgery, when it was important to bolster his mother’s faith.
Or, conversely, to prepare him for his own time of transition from teen to adult with an affirmation of his own spiritual experience as a child.
Or, possibly, so that, at forty-five or so, he could interact with the writing of a fifty-something pastor in a way that encouraged that pastor’s own ministry.
The ways of God are mysterious–but as I noted about my reaction to Christopher Hitchens, the human experience is richer
if we “rehearse and prepare” for “great apparent coincidences.” After all, the opposite is also perfectly likely: that one is likely to miss great miracles, if they do in fact occur, if one has rehearsed and prepared to dismiss them on the basis of a priori commitments.
Christians are famous for quoting Jesus when He says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to father except through me”… and then cutting off the dialog by declaring that they know the precise formula for how that happens, exactly. But the witness of the early church is reliable: we all come to the father via the agency of Jesus’ Spirit, and that Spirit is not a “safe” beast in the least.
The Spirit of God does not answer to the whims and doctrines of men, and moves as mysteriously as the wind, as Jesus said to Nicodemus.
Peter has a crazy story. I have a collection of my own. I have long viewed them as spiritual meals designed to sustain me for long periods between meals–and if our spiritual lifetimes were to be considered a day, we might only get two or three meals before bedtime, so to speak. We might love the waffles we got for breakfast; but we would be wrong to demand that everyone else eat waffles, and particularly for breakfast, even moreso breakfast at a specific hour. We got waffles simply to get us to lunch, and shouldn’t be the least upset that someone else got bangers, eggs, and tomato. At brunch.
And as with our more mundane appetites, we must careful about spiritual gluttony and avoid expecting waffles to be served up every five minutes or so. The cook is not beholden to our petty culinary demands.
So, yes. Peter has his crazy story. And it’s his, designed to sustain him until his next spiritual meal. When will that be? I can’t say.
Peter has his crazy story, and I have mine.