So we could spend our lives seeking out these experiences of awe, these moments when we touch the transcendent. We might try meditation or sky diving, or psychotropic drugs or hiking to Machu Picchu. And we find the fleeting instant as the curtains of reality pull back to glimpse the immensity of the universe beyond. That transcendent moment of awe can transform us as we gain an insight into a wider reality (although, depending on how we do it, the way we get there might not do us much good in the long run).
I can think of a few times in my life when this has happened in a very profound way. Sitting in front of a Rothko painting at Tate Modern I can remember reality being to unfurl itself before me. His paintings at first glance seem like simple blocks of colour – but look more carefully and the subtle layers and nuances of shade and hue begin to resonate and open as a window into a deeper way of seeing. Like meditating to touch the transcendent – the paintings take time to reveal themselves. I walked from the gallery wide eyed, feeling pretty spaced out.
This is wonderful (literally wonder-full) stuff and I would encourage anyone to seek out these fragments of awe. However, as I wrote last week, I don’t think it can end there.
The problem is that there is a risk of reducing spiritual life to a series of profound experiences or, even worse, to a series of cool experiences. The wilderness may well inspire awe but, as David Vann writes in the Guardian about Sarah Palin’s reality TV show (insert your own comment about the death of Western Culture here): “The problem with wilderness is that it has no inherent meaning”.
Moments of awe have no inherent meaning they, like nuclear physics, are neither good nor bad but can be used for either end. In addition, these moments of awe, like nuclear physics, contain a lot of potential power so we need to take care to use them wisely.
I think that sacred narratives can help us to do this. For me this is found in the story of Jesus; because of the accidents of my life it’s the particular narrative I find myself in. (I can’t speak for other faiths and am making no exclusive claims – from my small experience of Buddhism I am confident that the same moral dimension is found there and doubtless with other faiths too – but these aren’t my stories to tell).
I don’t have to look to the life of Jesus but I choose to (for all sorts of reasons – but emphatically not because I think I would go to hell if I didn’t). If I bring the story of Jesus alongside an experience of transcendence and awe then I am compelled not to disengage and get lost in some cool, mind expanding experience but to re-engage with the world at a deeper level. To get down on my knees and get my hands dirty, to go to uncomfortable places in order to serve and love those who have been dismissed by so many as unlovable. For me this story is both inspiring and deeply disturbing – it is hard to engage with and it would be much easier to stay lost in awe and wonder, but Jesus grounds that experience in the real, material world.
Anyway, all this is a caveat, a prelude to my plan for advent which should involve finding 24 days of wonder in the most unlikely places…