Close Encounters

This week I went for that iFLY experience. The one where you simulate sky diving but are really only held in the air by a turbo of wind in a wind chamber. I opted for this, cheaper (in cost and thrill) since I’d already done the real sky diving at my 55th birthday. At that time, I encountered interesting responses from friends, especially those in my age range. These were overwhelmingly negative. Each reflected some kind of fear, whether latently or explicitly expressed. Fear was not an aspect of it for me, except I admit, at the very last second when I was facing out of the plane, 40,000 feet above the ground. But then I had no time to think, the jump was on. It was fabulous!

I used to tell people that in my next life I want to be a bird. In this life I do everything I can to practice. So I’ve been sky diving, parasailing, and now faux flying in a wind tunnel. It’s true I love the air; I love rides in the amusement park that let me soar through the air. I’ll ride those bumpy exhilarating roller coasters, but my heart belongs to that elevated rotating swing that lets me whirl and whirl in the air, arms outstretched.

Why this made me think about encounters with the Sacred, I imagine you can only guess.

Some people do speak of moments that shake their very foundations: good and bad — especially when the result of these moments is a transformation spiritually and practically. Those who believe will say something about God in this encounter. Octavia Butler, the first female African-American Science Fiction author, wrote “God is Change,” change being the only constant.

Therefore, equating a moment of grand transformation with God makes sense to me— but then, I too am a believer.

I used to teach Religious Studies 101 (a thankless task if you ask me). Once I learned that students at this level mostly do not read, I revised the course to be more lecture intensive so that I could share wisdom distilled from great thinkers across time and religions. One lecture was dedicated to the very word “sacred,” based on a book with the same title by Rudolph Otto.

I loved this book, because he goes on for at least 200 pages to talk about something he says in his introduction is ineffable, cannot be put into words. He also says — and this is what makes me as a writer and reader really curious — if you don’t have this kind of experience then you cannot understand this book and might as well NOT read it. Who does that? Who writes then asks people not to read?

Well some things really are based upon experience. No matter how much we might impart information surrounding this experience, unless one has had the experience, these words sound awfully empty or awfully phony. So unless you have had an encounter with God, then it is pretty hard to verify what I will attempt here to explain.

But not everybody has to have that jump-out-of-the-plane kind of encounter. This is where Otto’s work really helped, at least in trying to have a conversation about it. He describes three responses to the sacred encounter: fascinum, tremendum and awe.

Fascinum is about the thing that fascinates us. Because of our fantastic encounter with it we are transformed from just our location in space and time to a non-space, non-time state of awareness. Even if only for a brief moment, indeed probably only for a brief moment, we witness the interface between the everyday ordinary and the non-Ordinary. The non-Ordinary becomes real. Not just words, not just emotions, but an actual reality and we know this by our encounter with it.

My middle son used to play that game Zelda. I never got much into computer games, so this was all pretty much just an outsider looking in. He played and played and picked up things and used them to gain access to other places and defeat obstacles. Then one day he discovered this spot, where if a certain number of things come into play at the right time, or you push the buttons in some series of pushes, the little guy just morphs into another parallel dimension.

Now, without this dimension you never complete the game, defeat the dragon, save the princess, or whatever it was. I was fascinated by the way this happened on the screen. Like the fractal, it was a visual display of a symbolic idea I had been trying to describe to my students: transformation is like morphing. One moment you are here the next moment, you are there. What happens to take you over that threshold of experience is what the “fantastic encounter” is all about.

Tremendum is something tremendous. Something like sky diving (but let me be clear: this was not at all sacred, it was just tremendous). It has to be something tremendous that also connects you and your everyday ordinary with that which is beyond ordinary. Here the sacred is defined as “something other,” some thing (place, time or person) not ordinary, everyday or mundane. Tremendum are the shaking-of-the-foundations kind of spiritual encounters.

Sometimes when we just keep ignoring all those subtle and sweet signs that are given, when we fail to respond, it is as if the Sacred yanks us into consciousness. Like a spiritual slap in the face, so you say, “Wow! I get it now.” Consider yourself lucky if this happens. It’s not as if there are not only signs everywhere, but also the sacred is manifest everywhere in every thing and at every moment. All one has to do is, like Zelda, stand still at the right place or at the right time and let it “be.” But we are too busy collecting gems, and swordfighting with demons, I guess, to notice, so wham! How nice to get that kind of slap in the face, really.

Awe is the response we make to some things, some places, some persons or some times, that set those things, places, persons or times apart. We are the viewer and what we witness confirms that there is more to life than just what meets the eye or affects the sense, and we are awe-struck in this confirmation. Spiritual literature is mostly full of descriptions of this awesome encounter, which, again, can be anywhere and at any time. What matters is us: our open-ness to the ever presence of God.

This could be in nature, God’s handiwork; at the birth of a child: God’s creation, at the death of a loved one, God’s call back to Him; at the time of orgasm, God’s gift to our mature bodies, at the crossroads between here and there. God’s presence, really, really is everywhere, and at every occasion. But some times we are more open to that presence, and then we are transformed.

People respond in different ways, to different circumstances. I’m particularly called to remembrance by things of beauty: patterns, especially in Nature; and by the acts of nature: sunsets and sunrises, standing mountains, oceans, rivers and trees. These are a few of my signs of God’s enduring presence, and in the face of them I feel awe. I also feel this awe with certain types of music. Just because I like to fly doesn’t mean I have to be jolted in order to feel the presence of something greater than myself. I have tended however to have more sacred encounters alone, and so the hajj is a challenge for me.

It was like finding a wonderful and constant place at home alone through meditations or muraqabah, and then spending time with my spiritual teacher with thirty or forty people in meditation. Every twitch was a distraction at first. But then, so was every sound of birds or crickets outside my window at first. Then I incorporated them into the experience. So something happened. I made an assessment: it is not either/or: either I meditate alone, or I don’t experience the presence of God. But rather, it is in community that presence is emanated through the actual experience of collective meditation. Then, the presence of God did not hide from me by my preoccupation with the presence of others also in awe of the divine.

I have to confess that I am not so much in favor of those who consider the sacred encounter always and only about feeling good. So they mistake the sensation of awe from things like flying with the sacred Itself. In fact, much of the New Aage religious response is about feeling good, manifesting only a kind of self elevation. I’m not saying you have to feel bad, but I do think about Rabia al-Adawiyyah […who lived in solitude. –Eds.], and maybe these become a distraction from the actual one-on-one encounter.

I also think about the decade in which I was mostly preoccupied with the presence of God in what I perceived as absence. Since God is always present, then what happens when I do not experience God? I began to see that this manifestation as also a sign and that I needed to understand and embrace that experience too as part of the sacred. It was amazing because it really shifted the focus away from me for a while.

This week a friend from the Netherlands sent notes from the conference I missed in Berlin, ending this weekend. In his note he gave me a quote from our mutual friend Nasr Abu Zayd that described hajj as macro-communication. Communication of what? Of the divine shared by more than three million people, at the same time, in the same place. May it be so.