Three Nights of Affirmation
I normally start these installments with a recounting of the evening’s walk on the Ault Park trails, but this post has seen a longer-than-usual gestation. Suffice it to say that the spring of 2010, when I started this entry, was wonderful: the fresh, tender greens, the resurgence of life, the glorious smell of the many blooms wafting through the woods, and the return of my favorite bird for its beautiful, varied song; the Wood Thrush. (http://www.birdjam.com/birdsong.php?id=32 Scroll down a bit & click the play button.)
It was also a time to reflect on the Easter Season and the miraculous opportunity that we have, as members of the natural body of humanity, to participate in the Risen Body of Christ. It is in our nature and it is our true potential as persons. And it is in our nature, from the beginning of time, to be gift for and to God, who created this temporal universe, from which life arises, allowing us to share in the Wonder, Beauty and Glory of Being. I use the term Risen Body of Christ from within my Catholic point of view.
But I have to wonder, in order to be more inclusive, not only of other global religions, but also of even other possible life elsewhere in the universe, if the Risen Body of Humanity might not be more appropriate? When you look into the heavens at night, or read about the expansive vision of astrophysics today, reaching out to the very edges of the observable universe, it is hard to conceive that there isn’t other life “out there.”
All of this is certainly a question of Holy Mystery whose answer resides now in the infinite purview that awaits us all.
While considering this new installment of Woods Walking, something had been nagging at me, specifically the abrupt end of Woods Walking #7, “The Contemplative Path.” I devoted quite a bit to the section on Active Contemplation, but relatively little to that on Passive Contemplation. There’s good reason for it. First, it requires that I personally share what I can only call my own deeply personal experience of a true Beatific Encounter, which I will share in this installment. And second, I’ve been unsure of how to adequately convey something so–how do I say it, so totally consuming and wondrous; an experience that seemed to reach an absolute state and is exceedingly difficult to put into words.
This is not the first time that I’ve shared my experience. To place it chronologically, my wondrous spiritual encounter took place during the fall of 1977. It was the fall semester of my senior year at Xavier University. But the first time I publicly discussed my experience was later that year during my Senior Comprehensive Review oral exam in Philosophy.
There were three professors on the questioning panel, one of whom was the chairman of the department, Dr. Bernard Gendreau. He was to be the first questioner and in the week leading up to the exams I requested that I use his allotted ten minutes to “make a statement.” Dr. Gendreau agreed and obtained the consent of the other panelists, Dr. Richard Dumont, whom I had for the courses Philosophy of God and Ethics, and Fr. Robert Schmidt, whom I had for Epistemology (Theory of Knowledge) and our year-long Senior Comprehensive Review.
In my “statement” I didn’t attempt to delve into the details of my experience, rather I equated it to the well-documented experience of the 17th Century Philosopher/Scientist René Descartes, and, more importantly, that my encounter served as testament to the truth of the philosophical systematic then presented by the Xavier Philosophy Department. The “official” department systematic was contained within a series of Propositions, from Philosophy of Man through Philosophy of God and metaphysics, based primarily on the evolved philosophical and metaphysical work of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The ongoing influence of Thomistic Metaphysics on me is clear in this series of blogs, “Woods Walking.” The synthesis of Aquinas, bringing together the ancient empirical philosophical foundations through Aristotle with the then-current 13th Century theocentric systematic of the Catholic Church set on the 4th and 5th Century cornerstones laid by St. Augustine, provides a foundation of critical thought that has evolved over the millennia.
The logic presented was that, since my earliest days of reflective, analytical awareness, I had dedicated myself, sometimes rigorously, and other times to a lesser degree, to the Catholic faith in which I was raised. And being contemplative in disposition, and to some degree having surrendered myself to the spirit, I felt that the theocentric, objective realism at the foundation of the Jesuit philosophical systematic perfectly matched the spiritual current–and experiences–that had guided me to this place. In that way, the then-current Xavier systematic matched my own inclination to synthesize the empirical thinking of the day with traditions of faith and religion, reconciling cutting edge science to the disciplines of philosophy and theology, seeking out the common threads to both. It was, and is, a continuation of the famous synthesis of St. Thomas, reconciling empirical thought with a rigorous theocentric philosophy.
In short, I proclaimed the Xavier departmental systematic as a path to that which is “true,” based on the continuity of that which is personally, directly experienced to that which is taught in the relevant academic texts. All of this is consistent with my extrapolated theorem stated in Woods Walking #2, that the cosmologist and the mystic are likely encountering the same unified “reality,” yet from different disciplines. At the core, these scholastic foundations mirrored and complemented my intuitive, contemplative experience of faith and spiritual encounter as a natural extension of my personal, sentient intentionality and accumulated body of knowledge.
What a grand–if not bold–moment! Fortunately, the subsequent questioning of the panel only rose to my modest bacheloreate level of study.
But, what of the “Three Nights of Affirmation”?
Leading up to the Fall of 1976, I had been fully immersed in the study of Philosophy for a little over a year. I switched from my initial pre-med/pre-dent major, following in the footsteps to dentistry and the practice of endodontia of my grandfather, father and older brother, to instead follow the footsteps of my personal muse and passion, with whom I became fully smitten while taking the introductory philosophy classes Philosophy of Man and Theory of Knowledge. Philosophy allowed me to pursue the currents of raw perception and sample the historic thinking regarding questions about what it is to be human, what “is” and how we know and participate in something that we each experience intimately every day. Yet every one of us, at some point, puzzles over what it all “means.”
I recall a raw, early sense of wonder in my pre-teen years; a seed planted by my parents during walks on pleasant spring evenings through the garden, or sampling the sweet nectar from the honey suckle blooms picked by my dad as we took walks along our street. One day, while putting my hand on the trunk of a tree, I recall wondering about the nature of that immediate experience: is the tree a separate, unique entity, or some sensory “trick” of phenomenalism, or purely some representation of an “idea.” Did the tree exist in and of itself, or was it some projection from my own being?
In the year leading up to my encounter, I experienced the enjoyment of philosophical pursuit and the wondrous, revealing process of new metaphysical analysis, breaking my own trail through natural law and its logical lattice. All of this led to many sleepless nights with mind racing, pulling back the many curtains of deeper levels of understanding. Later reading of mystic and writer Emile Mersch I came to appreciate the meaning of his term, “mind aflame.”
Meanwhile, I was living and interacting daily in the accepting, nurturing “Catholic” environment of the Xavier campus. At the core was my own disposition toward unconditional love, both spiritually and in my personal interactions. This even extended to simple daily activities, such as offering a courteous, understanding demeanor while driving. That seems like a trivial example, but that’s how pervasive the demeanor of love and acceptance became.
“If you are driving and you arrive at a red light you have an opportunity to practice meditation. Sit there. Smile to that light. Breathe in and smile. Breathe out and allow your body to relax. The red light is no longer an enemy preventing you to go but a friend helping you to stop and go back to your breath and allow your body to relax.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
This peaceful, loving disposition led to a surprising, but very pleasant emergence of an empathic capacity as I felt a more tangible spiritual presence, even in awakened, daily interactions. There was a palpable aura of joy that surrounded my interactions with friends, teachers and acquaintances. There was a true sense of spiritual alignment that manifested itself physically as a pleasant warmth from “my mind’s eye,” a sensation emanating from my forehead with a feeling of looking upward. Within the influence of the Spirit, everything seemed natural and accessible.
As this spiritual awareness increased, my dreams reflected the peace that I was experiencing during the day. There was distinct sense of change in the nature of my dreams; a coming to me rather than from me. There was a sense of spiritual infusion and in some cases personal encounter with individuals whom I did not know, but equally shared my disposition toward “the good.”
Then, there was yet another distinct change in the nature of my dreams to a sense of what I can only call affirmation. There were three distinct levels of affirmation over three nights. The first two levels regarded the affirmation of love, first the mutual love of my siblings, as though Someone Else breathed this truth upon me and I completely assented to its reality. The second affirmation was concerning the love of my own parents for me. This was exactly the same external sensation, but directed toward the truth of their unconditional love for me and our family, but distinguished by their unique roles as both caregivers and my own literal source of being. In both cases, there was an external infusion or communication met by my own complete “yes.” The discernment was clear and my assent to this presented “truth” was complete, touching me to the core of my being.
The third level was this same previous external Spiritual Presence inviting me to accept Its own Absolute love for me. My previous evenings’ assents disposed me to this new, Total Yes. There were no words, but there was a Beatific Encounter that is True and Timeless. The physical sensation was similar to an adrenal rush of exhilaration, but it was uniquely all-consuming—a totality which words do not adequately convey.
Upon retelling, I now understand the natural progression through the three levels of my encounter as a necessary preparation of my own “temple” for the acceptance of this total and complete surrender to trust, peace and the total infusion of the Holy Spirit—a path from the immediate, accessible, personal truths to a more Eternal Expression. It was a Beatific Infusion of Perfect Love whose manifestation in me was a feeling of sublime and total Peace; an affirmation without reservation.
Various mystical traditions refer to the outcome of such an encounter as “The Wound of Love.”
To date, this is the only time that I’ve experienced such a complete, enveloping encounter. However, its all-encompassing nature left a permanent mark on my awareness and disposition, such that it likely would not require repetition.
I have known since what mystical traditions refer to as infused contemplation, some of which I’ve described in other installments of Woods Walking. I am left with a sense of participation in a greater whole, as described in Woods Walking #2. Just as importantly, there obtains in me a hunger, a disposition toward an integrated world view in which a sense of continuum is vital. That sense of continuum extends to both logical integrity—in a vertical sense–as well as an observation of the literal continuum of time and space. My sense of legacy and eternal “substantial lineage” comes from that continuum of time.
From within or from behind, a light
shines through us upon things,
and makes us aware that we
are nothing, but the light is all. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
In summary, it is an integration of my temporal, sentient self and my transcendent, spiritual capacity.
In discussing faith and religion with a good friend, and who proclaims himself an agnostic, I arrived at a mantra* of sorts intended to instill a sense of wonder, a hunger even, in such a genuine heart.
It starts at the subatomic level and moves to the transcendent. He was amused — at least. One boson; One quark; One proton; One atom; One molecule; One cell; One organ; One Person; One family; One community; One city; One country; One world; One solar system; One galaxy; One universe; One Multiverse; One!
“I could not say I believe. I know! I have had the experience of being gripped by something that is stronger than myself, something that people call God.” ~ C.G. Jung
Lastly, here’s a short contemplative video with pictures set to Imogen Heap’s song, “The Fire.” http://www.vimeo.com/16497333
Copyright © 2010 Rudolph Siegel * An affirming discussion of this science-based mantra is taken up by Fr. Thomas Keating at 7:30 into this video. Wonderful! http://youtu.be/eh8yW7GG66w A brief biography of St. Augustine: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02084a.htm A brief biography of St. Thomas Aquinas: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14663b.htm