The last section (#5) in this series on “Seeking God in Solitude and Friendship” referred to the German-Austrian-American scholar and philosopher, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). I will share again several spiritual experiences I had while speaking with this man on 21 January 1976. With his permission, I visited him at his home off the campus of Stanford University where he lived in retirement from his years as a distinguished professor; he remained actively involved in philosophical research until his death on 19 January, 1985, at the age of eighty-four, respectable given his life as a scholar and as a man who enjoyed cigars. (On his deathbed, he dictated to his loyal secretary his last writing on God.) When I met Dr. Voegelin, he had just turned seventy-five, and appeared in good health. He was nicely over six-feet tall, not fat, and after years of being in America, still spoke with an unmistakable German accent. I was twenty-four at the time of our meeting, and working on my doctoral dissertation on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy: The Case of the Apostle Paul.” Of all the materials on the Apostle that I had read, I found Voegelin’s chapter in his Ecumenic Age (1974), “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected,” to be the most thought-provoking. I considered myself highly fortunate to have been granted so much time with this formidable thinker. Throughout the three-hour conversation, he gave me brief answers; the burden was entirely on me to ask the right questions. I have often thought about and mentioned his response to my question, “What is the Holy Spirit?” He immediately responded with a question, “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” That remains the best single insight into the working of the Holy Spirit in a person’s mind that I have ever received. And by asking his question—itself evidence of the Spirit by Voegelin’s own account—the philosopher validated my preferred approach to the things of God: not primarily religious practice, nor doctrine, nor rituals, but a genuine intellectual search for the God who moves one to seek. I owe to Professor Voegelin an enormous spiritual and intellectual debt which I can best repay by studying his voluminous writings, gaining from them, and sharing anything I learn with others.
Voegelin’s question-response to me validated the search for God using the intellect, open to the Holy Spirit. During the same conversation, I had what may be one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. Unlike other experiences with which I was familiar, this one did not directly occur in my consciousness, although my consciousness was involved more than I realized for some time. What I saw with my eyes is difficult to put into words. While he was speaking, I perceived a powerfully bright light that seemed to be in and through Voegelin’s head. He was radiant, and it appeared as though light came from his head. He was not “transfigured,” or at least not as far as I know. The way I understood the experience, and still do, is that his intellect was penetrated by the divine Intellect, which appeared to me as illumination. He was reflecting, or better, embodying the divine Presence. What I have only gradually realized is that my own mind was involved; I was not a passive observer. Rather, I recall those words of Jesus to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, and the hears that hear what you hear.” I would say that by divine assistance, my mind was receptive to the experience of divine Presence illuminating Professor Voegelin. When I have read through various accounts of Voegelin by his students, I have not come across anyone who had this experience. My experience was genuine, and either others chose not to mention a similar experience (for whatever reasons), or did not have it. Although it may in some ways be risky to recount such experiences, I think that they bear retelling and sharing. In fact, as Voegelin told me, that is what the Apostle Paul would have done with his companions at night around a campfire: shared their experiences in Christ. In our culture, how many cheer loudly at a football or basketball game, and yet have never experienced a human being radiating the divine Mind, or would even care to hear about such an experience? Consider our choices. Even those who proclaim themselves to be “Christians” and can recount the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain probably would have no interest in such an experience as I had with Professor Voegelin. Why? I think that most people like their “religion” safely tucked away in a book they can carry, or in a church where they feel “comfortable.” Canned religiosity is all-too-common in our age; indeed, that has probably been true for centuries, given the state of Christianity today. Finally, I do not assume that Voegelin was an exceptionally “holy man” in the religious or even spiritual sense. But he may have been; he was surely charitable, cordial, and patient with me (I add that, although at first his powerful and direct responses seemed off-putting and made me squirm as if under a very bright light, I quickly realized that the problem was in me, not in him.) Whether Dr. Voegelin was supremely good or not, I do not know, nor do I need to know; what I do know is that he had a very powerful intellect that was profoundly open to divine Presence. That is what showed up in the man, as it shows up in page after page of his voluminous writings—at least “for those with eyes to see.”
I do not doubt the reality of my experience. I know what I saw, and I am aware of how it affected me. That was the first time I saw a human being penetrated by God, illuminating divine Presence, but it turned out not to be the only time. It is a surprising experience—peaceful, uplifting, and at the same time guiding. It shows the participant “the path of life.” I am far more likely to listen to, believe, and respect a human being in whom I have experienced divine Presence than in the kind of soul that is embittered, close-minded, self-enclosed, self-absorbed, or religiously doctrinal. No doubt many persons who encountered the Buddha or Jesus or Francis of Assisi, to name three well-known cases, had life-changing experiences in and through these spiritually intensely alive human beings. If I may say so, that is how God works in us and through us for each other.
Question: Is the divine selectively present, or always present in human beings? Is it possible that the divine is ever seeking to fill or flood human consciousness, but all-too-few cooperate? Voegelin often claimed in his writing that his experiences were not exceptional. It may be that some men and women are far more responsive to the divine Presence than others; and that the more one responds, the more powerfully present God becomes in that person. In this way, man’s will, human cooperation, is a necessary partner in the divine-human action, and human freedom is taken into account. If this is true, and I think it is, then we can maintain that God does not just haphazardly select a few “blessed souls” in whom to dwell. Rather, to anyone who listens, opens up, obeys, such extraordinary experiences show us what is possible by “faith working through love,” to use the Apostle Paul’s phrase. I will add, however, that there are indeed extraordinary modes of divine Presence, and of divine gifts. Moses is an exceptional human being in history, and to that I would add some of the great prophets, such as Jeremiah; the Hellenic philosophers; the Buddha; Confucius; the Apostle Paul; and most especially, Jesus of Nazareth. What they experienced can, to some extent, be replicated or perhaps more dimly experienced in other human beings. The divine opportunity—grace—is freely available; our task is to accept that grace, and to live it faithfully unto death.
The Apostle Paul, who knew much about extraordinary spiritual experiences, writes: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace [Presence] of God that was with me (I Cor 15:10). God’s favor and free Presence comes to many; a few work extraordinarily hard, employing the gifts given at every opportunity. Perhaps these are the ones in whom God’s Presence, his “glory” shines out most especially. When I consider such men as Plato, the Apostle Paul, Thomas Aquinas, William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Eric Voegelin, their extraordinary efforts—their nearly super-human efforts in their respective fields of endeavor—stand out. It is not enough by any means to be “highly gifted” with divine gifts or human talents; one must spend his or her life tirelessly in using these gifts. And then God’s glory shines out: “Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to you be the glory,” in the words of Psalm 115. We would all do well to reflect on the parable of the man who buried his one talent in the earth, believing that the Master (God) is harsh, and feared his punishment (Matthew ch 15). He squandered his life.
That I have sufficiently used divine gifts, I truly doubt. I have squandered opportunities to study, to learn, to write, to teach, to pray, to do charitable deeds. But I also trust God’s mercy, and know that he has compassion on those of us who labor under emotional, mental, or physical burdens, as so many do. Then again, it is astounding to see how some men and women have risen far above their various handicaps, and achieved much. So rather than offer excuses for my lack of dedicated work, I should now seek to apply myself better to using whatever gifts I may have. I am ever conscious that my time on earth is quickly running out. “Out, out, brief candle…”
University studies and teaching occupied my life from 1969 until I entered St. Anselm’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Washington, DC, in 1982. (I had been teaching at the Catholic University in DC before becoming Catholic.) After undergraduate studies at the University of Washington (1969-1972), I pursued a doctorate at Indiana University (1972-1974), but decided to leave after earning a Master’s Degree with my thesis, “The Gnostic Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Professor Voegelin—to whom I sent a copy of the thesis when completed—called my “methodology of recourse to experience” “impeccable,” which to this day remains the highest honor I have received, for it came from the man I consider the greatest philosopher of my lifetime.
During the period of my life that I spent pursing doctoral studies and writing my dissertation in political philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1974-1979), I had the conversation with Professor Voegelin, noted above, as well as some other special spiritual experiences that in retrospect were preparing me to give my life to “seeking God” in the peace of a Benedictine monastery. At the time, I barely knew that Benedictines existed, or what or who they were, if I knew the name; indeed, I was not Catholic, but a Lutheran Christian.
One Sunday morning during our Lutheran church service, an extraordinary experience was granted. As usual after the sermon, the congregation rose and sang words from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy spirit from me” (Ps 51:10-11). As I was singing the familiar response on this occasion, suddenly it occurred to my mind that when the psalmist (“David”) prayed these words, he had a sense of already being “in God’s presence” (or why would he have asked, “Cast me not away from thy presence”?) At the moment I realized this, I became intensely aware of God’s presence. I could barely remain standing, and sat promptly with the congregation when the singing ended. The experience took several forms. First, I felt that I was no longer singing “on my own,” but was being “sung through,” as if my voice was being used by the divine presence. It sounded like me, was my voice, but I was not the one “doing it,” or powering it; it came from the Presence, which I interpreted to be God. At the same time, I felt overwhelmed by the Presence, which felt as though it was both inside me, within my mind or conscious awareness, and at the same time, radiating out of me. It felt as though a powerful force field was in me and through me. (Later I surmised that such experiences lay behind painting “halos” around saints—artists were symbolizing the experience of divine Presence.) While caught up in the experience, suddenly I thought, “This is neat. I wonder if others know what is happening to me?” As that thought arose, the experience of direct presence faded; as I let go of the thought about what others may have thought and attended to the direct presence, it again intensified. (Later I interpreted this movement as the tension between my pride and simple divine grace.) I do not know how long the experience lasted in external time, but perhaps one or two minutes. Within the experience, it was “forever,” so intense was it. It was an intensely joyful, awake experience, I must add. I interpreted it to be an experience of eternity within bodily time; it was not a “temporal event” with a cause in space-time. After the intensely personal experience ended, “the word of the Lord” welled up from my depths, and into consciousness. It came right out of my “center,” or “spirit,” if I may put it that way. I did not hear any external sound, but my thought was being used by the divine speaker, just as my voice had previously been used. I never forgot the words I heard: “Your life work is to have such experiences and to seek to understand them.” The language was English, the “voice” was my own, the words chosen reflected my own intellectual formation and consciousness, but the source and authority within them was unmistakably from what we call “God,” or “the LORD.” This would not be the only time in my life that “the word of the LORD came to me,” using the prophet Jeremiah’s favorite phrase. When you hear such a word or utterance, you will know it. The authority and source are self-validating. It would take a serpent to ask, “Did God really say…” (Genesis 2).
In prayer, meditation, study, preaching, and in such writings as I am now doing, I have sought to understand the experiences granted. My ignorance and perhaps pride leave me unworthy of adequate understanding; but God knows the truth of what happened (as the Apostle Paul wrote concerning his “ékstasis” or being taken out of the body, recounted in II Corinthians chapter 12). I should add that in preaching Christ during my years of active priestly ministry, I drew on such experiences to help me understand Christ and his teaching, although I usually avoided referring directly to such experiences in homilies (although I made a few references in adult faith classes, and in writings over the years). The New Testament Gospels and letters are replete with similar and more astonishing spiritual experiences (and most notably, perhaps, Paul’s vision of the Resurrected Christ), which make no sense and are usually overlooked or treated in a literalistic way by those who have not in some genuine ways “tasted.” Such experiences have gradually purged me from being a “doctrinal Christian,” or from being overly attached to liturgy, ritual, Sacraments, “the Bible,” or “church authorities” (as if they are God on earth). What matters most is that human beings encounter the living God, and share their loving responses with others through charity. Again quoting the Apostle Paul, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love [agape]” (Gal 5:6). Loving trust in God working through love—charity for “one’s neighbor” is what matters. The rest is relatively insignificant, and yet so many make so much of these things. Frankly, it has been disturbing to see what has happened within organized Christianity, and how often the priests and supposed “ministers of the word” seem not to understand what they are supposed to be doing. Again, they should heed the Apostle: “My little children, with whom I am in travail, until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
As previously noted, in my search to respond to God I entered a Benedictine monastery in 1982, and was clothed as a monk, and given the name “Paul” by my Abbot. Out of a desire to serve others in need, and frankly a willingness to die in battle (there was much talk about “body bags” as we first faced Saddam Hussein), I entered the U.S. Navy to serve as a chaplain during the First Gulf War (1991). The war ended quickly, I was sent to Okinawa, Japan, with our Marines, and then continued to serve in active priestly ministry until retirement in 2018. I remain a monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, but am, fortunately for them and for me, permitted to live and work “outside the walls.” And so I live and write in my beloved home state of Montana.
As previously noted, I have little doubt that I have not adequately lived up to the divine assignment—have not avidly sought to understand the experiences granted. When a man or woman fully surrenders to the grace granted, s/he produces the kinds of writings we see in Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, the Gospel writers, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Voegelin, not to mention the active saintly lives (and contemplative writings) of St. Francis and St. Claire, of Meister Eckhardt, of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so on. Their divinely-granted experiences (“graces”) were not squandered, although I suspect that each of them would humbly say that they had not done all that they could have done in response to God’s action in them and for them. The worthy response to divine action is nothing less than total self-giving back in love. It is endless.
By way of conclusion to this six-part essay or blog, I raise a question: Where do I go from here? I still feel inclined to write, to seek to understand divine workings in human beings. For reasons I may not altogether grasp at this time, my preference is to write poems or short imaginary works of literature, rather than continue writing in essay mode (as offered here). Only by writing will I see what emerges.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
18 January 2020
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