“God In Us: The Mystical Experience-Part 2”
Text: Psalm 139: 1-12 –The Inescapable God
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
It was my birthday-I’m thinking this was about 25 years ago, maybe a little more, but I know it was my birthday, which means it happened in August. It was a year when my birthday fell on a Saturday and I didn’t have to go to work, which also meant that I could plan the day and do what I wanted to do, since, after all, it was my birthday. So that is what I decided to do.
We were living in Colorado at the time and had been to 11-mile canyon on several occasions for picnics and wiener roasts and that sort of thing. The boys loved to go a climb around on the rocks and hike up through the forest and look back down at the canyon. It is kind of a special place. I had noticed each time that we entered the area that this canyon wall along the river faced east. Normally, when we arrived at the canyon, we were there for an evening meal in the summer and this face of the canyon wall was always in the shadows and I always sort of wondered what it might look like with the sun on it.
Even in the shadows the canyon wall was spectacular. It has an overall rose color with various hues of rust and orange and even green present from the different types of lichen growing on the rocks, so I could only imagine what it might look like illuminated in the early morning yellow light of a sunrise. So I decided that was something I wanted to do that Saturday morning for my birthday-I was going to go to 11-mile canyon before sunrise and set up my camera and wait for the light to hit the canyon wall. For me, this is entertainment at its finest-funny, no one wanted to come with me.
So I rose around 4AM and gathered my gear and headed for 11-mile canyon. The minute I stepped outside I was a little surprised at the coolness of the morning; we had been having very warm days and comfortable nights, but this morning seemed almost cold. I’m thinking to myself that might be OK, because sometimes when water is warmer than the air around it you can see some steam or mist rise from the water and that can be fun as well. With my 4×5 field camera and all the assorted peripheral equipment required loaded into the car, I headed out.
On the way to 11-mile canyon I had to pass through a small town called Divide. You might wonder about the name of this little settlement and if you are thinking it might be named Divide because it is located on a continental divide, you would be correct. In other words, from where I began, I had to climb a few thousand feet to get to Divide, and then on the other side of the divide, the weather was different. It was cloudy and foggy and then it began to snow. Remember, this is August-fairly early August, because my birthday is on the 11th, and it is snowing. Thankfully the snow wasn’t sticking on the road, but some of the trees were already beginning to get loaded up with the big thick wet flakes that I could see when the car lights would shine on them. I thought about turning around; it was just another couple of miles to the turn-off for the canyon and this weather didn’t seem very cooperative for taking pictures. But I had come this far and knew Colorado weather changed frequently, so I pressed on. It was still snowing when I turned into the canyon entrance, but not heavily and I headed up the gravel road to find my spot and wait for the sunrise.
It takes a while to get set up when you are shooting with the kind of camera I was using at the time. I wasn’t taking snapshots, I was using a 4×5 field camera, which uses sheet film and the image is focused upside down and backwards on ground glass at the back of the camera-in other words it is a bit of a project to get ready to take a photograph. I remember setting up in the dark with the help of a flashlight and then getting back in the car to warm up and have a little coffee from the thermos I had brought with me. So now I waited for what I hoped would be a sunrise.
It started to get light after a time and I could see the clouds and the fog were still lingering around and I began to think this was a wasted effort. The sun is going to be obscured and will not light up the canyon wall as I had hoped. Oh, well, it wouldn’t be the first time things didn’t exactly work out for me, but I still had coffee and it was warming up a bit, so I hung around anyway. At least it was peaceful.
In another 30 minutes it began to clear off. The fog lifted and the clouds all moved on and I could actually see the hint of blue sky just beyond the canyon wall. Maybe things will be OK I thought to myself. I got out of the car and began to take light readings with my light meter and began my calculations as to exposure for the scene that was beginning to unfold. By now it was quite light and I could work without the flashlight. It was still a little foggy, but then I realized all the fog present was coming off the water and the sky above was clear.
As the sun rose just enough the canyon wall started to glow. The fog coming off the river turned white and the sky was blue. I began to take pictures. Usually, the exposure times were 30 or 40 seconds for each shot and I think I probably took 12 or 15 different exposures. I know I used all the film I had with me. With my film supply exhausted there wasn’t anything left to do but watch, so that is what I did.
I was a little anxious taking all the pictures, because it got better. The entire canyon glowed and light bounced around within the canyon walls like a pin ball. I was overwhelmed with the sheer awe and amazement of the breaking dawn and morning miracle I was witnessing. As I began to become more aware of what was happening, I remember thinking to myself that all this would happen whether I was here to witness it or not. How many times and in how many places does God’s creation put on a show that happens in complete obscurity, which no one sees? But there I was, in the middle of nowhere, all alone in 11-mile canyon and God was with me. The presence of the Divine was thicker than the fog; the connection I felt to the rocks and the river and the canyon wall was personal; the gratitude that welled up within me for having had the opportunity to experience what was happening almost made me weak. I’m not sure how long I lingered; time suddenly had no meaning; my mind was empty of any thought or anxiety, totally absorbed with the unfolding of the show at hand.
Eventually a random thought passed through my head; something like I wonder how long I have been out here. I wonder if the donut shop in Divide has anything left because I was out of coffee and a little hungry. I packed up the photo gear and headed home.
As I had mentioned that was over 25 years ago. As I tell you about the experience today, it seems like last week. I still experience the raw edge of emotion when I think about it. There are times when my eyes tear up a little and I find it hard to speak. I was changed in the canyon that morning, I can’t say exactly how, but I was changed. Whatever it was, it is still with me and still real to me.
Last week I mentioned some of the things which Marcus Borg identified in his book, “Convictions” that were elements of his mystical experiences. Many of those things were present in this one as well. For example, the luminance and special lighting, the knowing and assurance that God is real, the ineffable nature of the entire experience are all consistent with my experience as well.
Yet there is a difference and I think it is an important distinction. I went out that morning intent on seeking something wonderful. I thought it might just be a wonderful photograph, but it turned into something much more-but I still went seeking the experience. I believe there are elements in the discipline of photography which helps put me in the path of Divine mystical experiences. I can identify them, and replicate them and I will be sharing them with you over time. I believe each of us can experience the same level of connection that I experienced if we can find a way to practice the elements which I think prepare the way for a mystical encounter with the Divine.
Next week we will look at another experience, perhaps even more profound than this one and then over the weeks to come, I will be stitching together a road map for you to follow which may assist you in the quest of mystical experiences for yourself.
God is as close as our breath and yet as far reaching as the most distant horizon. The inescapable God is present with us, surrounds us and follows us where ever we go. With enough practice and by paying attention to the right things, I believe we can lift God from obscurity and bring the Divine into our present consciousness, even if just for a moment. But when that moment takes place, it is magical and mystical and will change you forever.
Go in peace, Amen.