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Mystical Experience or Awe and Wonder – How Can You Tell?

Rome, October 23, 2014. It was the early morning of a brisk but sunny day, and I was riding a crowded bus to our destination. I was on a pilgrimage in Rome to visit the Pope and then Constantinople to visit the Patriarch.

On this day, we were visiting ancient churches in Rome. The day before we had toured the Vatican and it was magnificent. We had gone through St. Peter’s Basilica and saw the shrine of Pope John Paul II and other Popes who achieved sainthood. I saw St. Peter’s tomb and the tombs of past Popes, the Pietà, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museum, and more. However, as I sat on the bus this October morning, I was thinking as magnificent as all of this was, it did not cause in me a reflective moment. That’s not to take away from its grandeur, or try to diminish it. John 3:8 came to mind where Jesus said pertaining to the Spirit, the wind blows where it wishes. For whatever reason, the Spirit did not move me during those tours. But it was about too.

This particular October morning, we were scheduled to visit three Churches – the Churches of St. Paul, St. John, and Mary. We were to start at St. Paul’s, and were going by bus since this Church was a little outside of the main part of the city. I was cranky that morning. The hotel room in Rome did not have coffee makers in the room. My spoiled American self couldn’t believe it. No coffee makers! I wondered if this was the sin St. John the Evangelist was referring to when He wrote in 1 John 5:16 “There is sin leading to death.” This great sin on the hotel’s part was compounded by the fact that the coffee one could get in the hotel café was warm instead of hot, and there was no hazelnut cream to be found.

The second part of 1 John 5:16 says after the sin leading to death part “I do not say we should pray about that.” I felt like John must have felt in his younger years, before he knew and understood Christ’s love in full, when he and his brother James asked Jesus if they should command fire to come down from Heaven and burn up Samaritans who were unreceptive to Christ’s message (Luke 9:54). I pondered. Should I defy John and pray that they mend their ways, or follow his example and ask the Lord to reign fire down on them as a lesson to other hotels so they could be moved to repentance and include coffee makers in rooms? I did neither but simply accepted my lukewarm flavorless coffee from the nice waiter, gave him a false smile, and boarded the bus in a very grouchy state.

I do not recall how the long the bus ride was, and I kept my eyes shut though I was not sleeping. Everyone was talking, and I did not want to invite conversation, so I played possum. I listened to my friend Susan, who because of her experience was essentially an additional Rome tour guide, talk about St. Paul Outside the Walls as the Church was known. We finally arrived and stepped off the bus into the crisp morning air.

Wow, I thought to myself. This Church, at least on the outside, certainly lived up to Susan’s hype. It was magnificent. The sun was shining brightly that morning and the sky was clear and blue, accentuating the splendor of this beautiful structure. The colored fresco sitting atop the main structure, whose front was a series of white marble pillars was stunning. I lingered for a while taking it in and then I stepped inside.

It was a somber gray and dimly lighted atmosphere and I felt something immediately. I don’t know what it was, but I felt as if I left one world and stepped into another. Was I imagining it? That is the first thought that usually comes to my mind whenever I think I am experiencing something spiritual, my instinct for rationality rising in rebellion and wielding self-doubt, but this was too real. I couldn’t put in into words right away, but as I walked around, it struck me that what I was feeling was holiness.

“Do you feel it, Elaina?” I whispered to my friend who was part of the group. I had seen her nearby and wondered what she thought. She was like me, prone to seeing and experiencing life with a bit of mystical dimension, but also like me with a reluctant to “come out of the closet” about it for fear of ridicule.

“Yeah, I definitely do,” she whispered back.

We were out of earshot of others but still didn’t want to be overheard. Also, it felt like whispering was appropriate regardless. I felt like I should take off my shoes or something like Moses did at the Burning Bush. We parted, and I meandered through the Church, being ever drawn to the center. When I got there, I knew why - Paul’s tomb.

To get to it you had to descend a few stairs into a small shrine where you could kneel and pray facing the chamber that held his bones. It was protected by a metal mesh looking gate that allowed you to see through it and see the part of his tomb that was exposed and not embedded in the wall. Above and lighted was a box that held the chains that had one time bound him. In front of all of this, and just beyond the place where you could kneel, was a glass floor allowing you to see into his tomb area. People were there, and I waited until it cleared out a bit and then knelt to pray. Strange as it may sound, I wanted a moment alone with Paul.

I had never identified with him. John the Evangelist was the Apostle and Saint I felt the most affinity with. Paul, though certainly instructive, came across to me in his Epistles as an “in your face” guy. He reminded me of the college professor you love because of their brilliance and what he or she may have taught you, but not someone you would like or bond with personally.

As I knelt, I didn’t pray in words but prayed in silence striving to let my mind empty and center on what I was feeling and experiencing. I was suddenly awed that the bones of this towering figure of Christianity, the Apostle of Christ most responsible for spreading His truth, a man whose letters and teaching literally have touched billions, were just a few feet away. There is something about being at the grave of someone who has been a larger than life figure. It makes the person more real. It’s like arriving at the intersection where legend and greatness meet the tangible and ordinary. I didn’t have long because more people were coming down into this little shrine. But for the little time alone I did have in the presence of what was left physically of him on this earth, suddenly, changed my relationship in my mind and heart with him. I suddenly understood Paul better. I think this atmosphere opened my heart to see into his heart more and I understood much clearer the great depth and love he had for Christ and others.

As others knelt, interrupting this private moment of mine, I stood up and left with purpose. I needed an icon of Paul and the gift shop was just outside one of the side doors of the Church. It was almost time to get back on the bus too and I had to move fast. As I stepped over the threshold of the inside of the Church and back outside I felt the feeling I described earlier immediately subside. Testing it, I stepped back inside. Holiness. It was real. At least for me on that day.

I went into the gift shop and my eye went immediately to a certain icon. It was inexpensive and undoubtedly mass produced. Regardless, I knew this was the one I wanted. It captured something about the man that spoke to my heart. It hangs on my wall to this day. It was now time to get back on the bus, but I knew I had come back before I left Rome. I felt like something was left unfinished. I didn’t know what, but I knew just had to come back.

Reflection. Have you ever shared an experience you expected to cause a reaction in someone and it didn’t? For example, have you ever shared an experience you had about something you thought was funny and the people you are telling don’t laugh? It feels awkward and most people, trying to maintain a bit of dignity end by saying, “you had to be there.” As I reread my experience at St. Paul Outside the Walls, I am tempted to believe that you did indeed have to be there to understand what I was feeling unless you believe have experienced holiness and then you can probably relate.

I want to conclude this article by addressing three questions. 1) how do you tell if your experience is true and reliable? 2) How do you tell if you are indeed experiencing what is a mystical experience versus just a moment of awe and wonder and does it even matter if it is one of the other? 3) What is the value of such experiences.

Before I attempt to address these questions, I do want to add a caution. There is nothing wrong with having experiences. But if they happen, it will be because God wanted it to happen to us at a given place in a given time. Actively seeking an experience can lead us into wrong thinking and spiritual delusion, something Orthodox call plani (Greek term) or prelest (a Russian term) which is when someone mistakenly thinks they are near to God and to the realm of the divine and supernatural. Author David Beck summarizes the warnings of St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Symeon the New Theologian saying that: “It is wrong to seek spiritual experiences. To seek such experiences or “ecstasy” is to open ourselves to what is known as prelest or spiritual deception in which we start believing almost every event in our lives has some spiritual significance and direct intention from God.”

Question 1: how do you know if your experience is true and reliable? To answer this question, the first question you need to answer is, are you living prayerfully and sacramentally? If you are going to Church regularly, fasting, reading the daily scriptures, praying daily and having a rule of prayer in your life, and doing all of this with a heart that simply wants to draw closer to God; and going about and meeting your daily responsibilities, then you are likely okay. Meaning that these are the very things we do to put on the full amour of God as Ephesians 6 says, so we can have a reasonable trust in what we experience because we are living sacramentally the way God wants us too. We should look to the lives of the saints and to others we know who are sincerely living the sacramental life and share our experiences with. I have found this both to be validating when they have similar experience and corrective when I am mistaken or read too much into something I experienced.

Question 2: How do you tell if you are indeed experiencing what is a mystical experience versus just a moment of awe and wonder and does it even matter if it one of the other? In the early 1970s when I was very young, my mother bought me the classic The Children’s Bible published by Golden Press and I remember flipping through it while alone in my bedroom. Something struck me when I came to an illustration of Jesus standing atop a mountain with His arms upraised and looking toward heaven. Flying around Him with horns, wings and cloven hooves was the devil who was pointing downwards towards a kingdom on earth. The scene was from Matthew 4, “the temptation in the wilderness.” Something struck me at the moment about Jesus when I saw that picture. Retrospectively, I believe it was the Holy Spirit convicting my young heart about the truth of Christ. What I remember from that moment was not so much what I thought but what I felt. I felt Jesus was real and a sense of His presence. Was it a mystical experience? No. I think it was awe and wonder? Was it less meaningful to my heart because it was awe and wonder versus a mystical experience? No, it was not, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are living sacramentally as I said earlier so that our heart is receptive to the ways God want to get our attention and so that we remain sober minded and when the experience is over, we continue to attend to the sacramental life and the mundane parts of our life where most of the spiritual life is anyway.

Question 3: what is the value of these experiences? To me, they’re reminders and confirmation, that whenever we are weighed down by the day to day grind, the mundane I just spoke of, it’s nice when God sends us a wake up a call just to say, “Yes, I’m here” and also to remind us of the larger and greater reality we are a part of. I think God permits us to have them, to the number and measure we may need them at certain moments, just as reminders

But you do not need mystical experiences or awe and wonder moments to get this. Remember the story of Elijah in 3 Kingdoms 19:9-12, which is 1 Kings in other Bibles. He didn’t experience God in the sensational – that is the powerful wind, the earth quake, or the fire – he experienced God in the sound of the gentle breeze. Often, these reminders or confirmations of God’s presence come in the words of a loving spouse, friend, a joyful moment with your child and stuff like that. So, while special experiences are cool when they happen, we really need to cultivate hearts that begin to see the specialness and presence of God in the everyday.

To conclude, I did go back to St. Paul’s Church one more time before we left Rome and headed to Constantinople and I had the same experience of Holiness. It was different, less keen, but there. As I was kneeling at St. Paul’s tomb, a procession of pilgrims, 30 or so, all dressed in white, their leader, a priest I assume, processed to the tomb, holding a staff with a golden cross in their front, and signing in a language I didn’t understand. They performed a service at the tomb. Was it mystical experience or awe and wonder? I don’t know but it was captivating and stirs my heart to this day.

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