Mystical experiences… we all have them (or so I believe). I think many people have the habit of brushing them
off as “nothing” or “just coincidence.” And that is really too bad, as they provide essential spiritual nourishment for this crazy journey we call life.
Psychologist Dr. William James identified five characteristics of mystical experiences:
- Ineffable – the experience cannot be described by ordinary language.
- Transient – the experience is brief, not permanent.
- Passive – it happens to us, we don’t make it happen.
- Noetic – it involves a deep inner “knowing” or “assurance” of the sacred.
- Transformative – very simply, it changes us.
On the Sunday before Lent we always hear the story of the mystical experience of the transfiguration. If we put this in the greater context of the Book of Luke, we find that things have been getting a bit tougher for Jesus and he has begun to talk about his suffering and death. Now, Jesus often went away from the crowds to pray, to rejuvenate, to gain sustenance for the journey… this time he took Peter, James and John with him. Perhaps he thought they needed sustenance, too. As he prays, the disciples fall asleep and upon awakening see Jesus’ “glory”, his face changed, his clothes turned white, and Elijah and Moses talking with him. The vision fades and the disciples hear a voice saying “This is my Chosen One, listen to him.”(Luke 9:28-36, also found in Mark and Matthew).
For the disciples this is a direct mystical experience of the divine – ineffable, transient (no building tents to stay here), they received it, they felt a “knowing” about Jesus and God, and it would change them.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
However, I think the real power in this story is who was with Jesus…it wasn’t royalty… it wasn’t King David who appeared. It was Moses, the one who dared to confront the powers of his time, challenged the Pharaoh, and saved the people from oppression in Egypt. And Elijah, one of the greatest Jewish prophets who constantly challenged the kings of his day to reform religion and turn to God. King Ahab declared Elijah to be the “trouble of Israel.”
Jesus was consorting with the great prophets, reformers, and freedom-seekers because he walked the same path. He and his disciples received strength for the journey from this mystical mountaintop experience.Then they went back down the mountain to the people who were hurting, to the unbelieving officials, to the ineffective institutions.
I believe we’re all given mountaintop experiences meant to carry us through our own individual journeys. Geez, we really want them to last, but they are fleeting, a momentary glimpse and deep assurance meant to hold us up in the days to come – whether we’re facing grief, struggling for social justice, seeking freedom from something or someone who is holding us back, overwhelmed with life, facing illness, or a myriad of other challenges life throws at us.
These glimpses are powerful!! Can you think of a time when you had a mystical moment? Maybe it wasn’t visions and voices in the clouds. Perhaps it was simply a still small voice, or a sign that only you would recognize, or a deep feeling of peace. Whatever happened, it was a moment where you knew, beyond reason, that there was something more. Hold onto those precious moments, conjure them when you need strength, courage, comfort and hope. Let it remind you that you are never alone, but that the Divine is with you, within you and all around you.
Love & Light!