A dear friend and I have recently been having some discussions about prayer. I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth in prayer in my life over the last 2 years, especially through my time at the Rutba House in Durham and the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. Yet, as we sat to eat a meal together, this friend made a simple, yet profound, observation that prayer is intimate. What struck me was just how precisely accurate that word is for our experiences of God. At least for me, some of the difficulty of sharing (at least aloud, or even completely transparently in writing) about the mystical experiences of God I’ve had is exactly because they are so intimate.
One of the most radical revelations in my spiritual life came to me when I began to understand Jesus as a lover, to understand the “eros” side of God (though see my post about love to understand my difficulty with that word). Is it so odd, then, to think that trying to describe what an encounter with the Divine felt like might leave us feeling a bit exposed? If God is our first and primary love, and we really do take that to mean in all aspects of the word love, then it ought to be difficult to put words to what has happened to us. To use an analogy, imagine a newly-wed couple being asked to describe in detail what their wedding night was like. Not only slightly (to painfully) awkward for everyone involved, but there would be a sense of injustice (I feel) at trying to put words to something that is beyond words. That is the beauty of poetry–to paraphrase a quotation from my father’s new book on Revelation (due out in late fall), poetry is the language of imagination, trying to put into words the indescribable, but always with the humble recognition that words cannot capture human (and Divine) experience. That’s why Jesus as the logos in John is brilliant poetry; there is only one word that can express the essence of God, and that one word is the person Jesus. The poetic tension in that prelude to the Gospel of St. John is exactly the tension we ought to feel when describing our experience of God.
Further complicating this notion of intimacy (which, for me hearing that word was a major “aha!” moment, because it gave me a frame of reference for understanding all the years of challenge in Christian circles to try and convey what my relationship with God meant to me), is the need to participate in a communal spirituality. As much as God is my lover, my friend, etc, God is revealed simultaneously, and equally as significantly, in more communal relationships. How to practice (and experience) communal intimacy with God, as say, a married/dating couple, household, live-in community, church, Church-at-large? Scripture is intended, I think, to be a part of that revelation of God to communities. As Richard Hays puts it in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Scripture is always to be interpreted in community, or better yet, performed in community. A life together that performs scripture fosters communal intimacy. Yet, nevertheless, it is real work to create a contemplative life with others that nurtures the both/and of communal and personal spirituality. It mirrors the real work required for any intimate relationship to become welcoming to others–it is a spiritual discipline to practice hospitality to others in a way that invites them into the authentic life that you experience.
Yet this is also exciting. Like two people who are infatuated with one another, our infatuation with the lover Jesus ought to (and often does) excite us to gush from time to time. And for that, we do need patient practice in learning a language that communicates, and doesn’t cheapen, the nature of our experience of God. For me, that is the ongoing work of writing. “Clarification of thought” is the phrase Peter Maurin (Catholic Worker co-founder) used for this need to essay towards truth. Words and language are fascinating, and unfortunately have lost a great deal of their potency in a world over-saturated with meaningless words, cheapened poetry, and an utter disregard for any attempt at incisive word choice. I don’t think it should be assumed that this is a skill that comes without learning and patience. A diet of the poetry of Milton, Donne, Chesterton, and so many others might be worth listing as required reading for any Christian seriously interested in traversing the depths of their own interactions with God and then attempting to communicate them in any way (Christian poetic imagination ought to be a required course at any seminary).
Lest we forget the poetic nature of so much of our own canon, I leave you with this poetry from St. Paul, who attempts to put in images his own mystical experience of Christ:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.