Glimpses of Reality

I am coming to love silence and I find noise excruciating – and there is so much noise now wherever you go (I don’t count natural sounds, like the wind, as noise). That’s not too strong a word. It tears into the mind, shreds thought and mangles feelings. But silence is like looking into a deep, still pool, cool and mysterious. There are depths and depths and the silence draws you in, immersing you. Silence is the baptismal font of the Spirit and if only we could immerse ourselves in it fully, eventually, when we emerged, we would be transformed. That too is beyond me. I dip into the silence like a tentative swimmer hesitant to leave the shore of the familiar – which I long to leave, but I don’t know how.

An interesting sentence from Meins Coetsier’s book on Etty Hillesum.[1]  He comments on the fact that her writing and silent meditation helped her to “tap into an area within herself that in society had mainly vanished.” Voegelin believed that the disappearance of meditation as a ‘cultural factor’ resulted in the practical ignorance of those aspects of reality touched on by myth, philosophy and mysticism. In other words the secularisation of society has deprived people, or most people perhaps, of an awareness of the depth of reality, of the spiritual dimension. He goes on to talk about a ‘perverse closure of consciousness against reality’ (p. 129).

I wonder about the ‘perverse’. For some, perhaps, yes. They make a conscious decision to ignore any spiritual promptings. But for many, I think, socialisation into a secular and materialist culture has simply obscured any such awareness. The occasions when they might perhaps suspect that there is more to reality than the material surface of things are when they encounter a limit situation. Though it is also the case, as David Hay found in his Nottingham survey,[2] that many people feel that there is ‘something there’, that there is more to reality than surface appearances. But ‘a feeling’ is about as far as it goes. This is not something people generally feel they can talk about with others. Spirituality, religion, mysticism are all taboo subjects. We all have capax dei and in some exceptional people, like Etty Hillesum, awareness of it develops in spite, or maybe because of external circumstances. But in most of us it needs to be nurtured and guided.

There are similarities between the the life of the foetus in the womb prior to birth and our lives prior to death. The foetus does not have the reflexive consciousness of self which develops in the child towards the end of the first year of life, but if it had there are many indications that there is more to existence than the inner confines of the womb. Not least of these is the sound of its mother’s voice and other sounds. If the foetus was able to reflect it could deduce that there was another world beyond the walls of the womb. But it could never be brought to understand, if per impossibile it possessed language, the nature of this world. It could have no idea of colour, or Spring with blossom on the trees, a sunset, or falling in love. Without experience there can be no understanding.

Similarly with us. There is more to our existence than positivism or materialism would give us to understand. All religions postulate a spiritual dimension to reality. There is also a wealth of evidence gathered by bodies such as The Religious Experience Research Centre at Lampeter, and the various organisations which research the Near Death Experience, that there is more to life than the physical existence of the body. Unlike the foetus, we are in a position to reflect on our experience. When Sir Alister Hardy set up the Religious Experience Research Unit (as it then was) at Oxford in 1969 he initiated a national survey based on a fundamental question:

‘Have you ever had an awareness of a power or presence different from every day life?’

The answer from many, many people was, yes, and subsequent research suggests that more than 50 per cent of us, at some time or other in our lives, have some experience of the transcendent. Hardy, and those after him who took up his research, tapped into a rich seam dating back into pre-history. He concluded that it is as natural for us to be religious as it is to be self-conscious. We have an innate awareness which transcends the concrete and empirical here and now. This awareness is not within our control. These experiences occur suddenly and are unanticipated. They cannot be produced at will.  As William James pointed out,[3]  they are ineffable, transient, they have a noetic quality and they are passive. Most importantly, they are not trivial. More often than not they convey so much meaning and are of such significance that they are never forgotten. They can be so real that everyday reality pales in comparison. They can be life-changing. They can be as simple as a sense of loving presence; as profound as union with Reality transcending time and space.

Death involves an even more radical transition than that of birth. Some would argue that it is not a transition but an extinction and in a sense this is true. The body dies, decomposes and eventually ceases to exist. But these experiences suggest that the mind, the person, can and does transcend the purely physical and that death is not the end. Just as the unborn foetus could never grasp what it is like to be born, to see, to run and play, sing and love, so too with us. In these profound experiences we get only the briefest, crudest glimpses of what lies beyond the grave.

[1]   Coetsier, Meins, Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis, U. of Missouri Press, 2008 p. 127

[2]   Hay, David. Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit. Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2006.

[3] The varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture XVI

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