Extraordinary Experiences


A number of the questions in the Prayer Questionnaire that accompanied the initial announcement of the Forum had to do with extraordinary experiences, i.e., do you experience inner lights, energy movements, sounds, visions, and so forth? Several Forum members expressed their concern that this kind of questioning could lead to an overfocusing on these kinds of events. This is a valid concern, but in actual fact it did not turn out to be a problem. Others rightly insisted that the peace and serenity found in prayer were more extraordinary experiences than any visions or revelations.

Various extraordinary experiences were reported: the hearing of music, voices or footsteps, the smell of flowers, the appearance of images either of unknown people or spiritual figures, and especially experiences of light in which light seems to be the divine presence drawing close, or a greenish-white light moving about a statue, etc. There are also experiences of touch in the sense of impressions of being brushed up against.

But these experiences were recounted with a sense of balance and proportion. The advice of John of the Cross on visions and revelations is widely known - that is, faith is the only proximate union with God, and extraordinary phenomena cannot be clung to lest they distract us from the goal of divine union. The Zen Buddhists give similar advice on the phenomena that appear during zazen. The overall impression from Forum members is that while these kinds of things are experienced, and even valued as precious moments, they don't seem to lead to an obsessive concern with having more and more of them.

But this still leaves two important issues that deserve further attention. First, some of the experiences reported are movements of energy that could be called kundalini-type symptoms after the well developed descriptions of energy movements in kundalini yoga. They include experiences of tingling or electric-like currents, heat, spontaneous movements, and so forth. When these things are infrequent visitors, they can be treated like extraordinary phenomena in general, i.e., not clung to or obsessed about. But when they become more frequent and persistent, they might point to an awakening of kundalini-like energies that needs to be understood and dealt with. There is a small but significant number of these kinds of awakenings being reported today.

The second point is similar. We can afford to leave unexamined the experience of seeing a vivid image, or hearing a voice if they happen only once in a while. But if they begin to multiply and disturb our equilibrium they might indicate a certain activation of the psychological unconscious that needs our attention. In that case the material surfacing would have to be treated like dreams or fantasies in order to discover what it is saying about the psyche. In both these cases, then, there is an important distinction to be made between transitory events and more persistent ones that demand our attention and call for some sort of explanation and response.

But the problems of bringing them together harmoniously are daunting. There is not one of the currents illustrated here that does not bring with it a serious challenge to its integration in a genuine Christian spirituality, yet as the renewal of Christian spirituality grows more mature, it is important that we face these challenges.


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This diagram represents just some of the factors that are converging to create the Christian spirituality of the future. The four main arrows represent: the Christian mystical, theological and metaphysical traditions; Eastern religions; Jungian psychology; and a new sense of the earth. The smaller arrows represent various currents within these major influences. For example, under the Christian mystical tradition we could list centering prayer and the Christian meditation of John Main, while under a new sense of the earth we could put creation spirituality, the spiritualities of various native peoples, etc. This does not mean that each of us will be interested in all of these areas, or even more than a few, but they are the fiery volcanic magma out of which the future of Christian spirituality could crystallize.


Let me give a concrete example of what I mean. Centering prayer is playing an important, even central, role in the current renewal of Christian contemplative spirituality in the U.S. Indeed, many Forum members practice centering prayer with profit. What, then, could possibly be the serious challenges it brings with it? The practice of centering prayer by concentrating on the prayer word results in a certain lessening of conscious discursive activity. But is there a connection between this lessening of conscious activity and the appearance of kundalini-like symptoms or the "unloading of the unconscious"? In psychological terms what I mean is this. Any effort to lessen conscious activity causes the psychic energy that flows through those activities to fall into the unconscious. There it can activate various unresolved emotional issues, or even bring about kundalini-like symptoms like movements of energy, heat, or sexual motions, etc.

If there is, indeed, a direct connection between the conscious attitude fostered by centering prayer and these activations of the unconscious, we are faced with important questions. Should we be encouraging the unloading of the unconscious or the emergence of these kundalini-like symptoms? Can centering prayer as a method of prayer deal with the unloading of the unconscious which appears to be a psychological process, and therefore demands psychological knowledge and means? Can centering prayer as centering prayer cope with the awakening of kundalini, or does that demand a whole different understanding and knowledge of special techniques? Can centering prayer treat these awakenings as somehow accidental to its basic practice? This seems hard to defend if there is a direct psychological connection between the diminishment of conscious activities and these activations.

Should any criticism of centering prayer be taken as a criticism of the Christian contemplative tradition as if they are one and the same thing? Centering prayer is a preparatory method which, it is hoped, will lead to contemplative union, but it is not the experience of that union itself. Therefore, the experience of centering prayer cannot be identified with, for example, the experience of the infused contemplation that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila talk about; nor can we automatically identify centering prayer with another kind of contemplation found in these Carmelite saints called active or acquired contemplation because it is not at all clear either historically or theologically that they knew of such a contemplation.

The whole point in raising these questions is not to pick on centering prayer which is, as I said, playing an important role in the renewal of the life of prayer and contemplation. But if something that appears so innocent can raise serious questions, all the other currents in our diagram can raise them as well, and it is important that we look these challenges in the face because such a process will actually help give birth to the Christian spirituality of the future.


Let's take a more esoteric example. If we read the popular press, even the popular religious press, we can be left with the impression that Christians have been left in the dust, cosmologically speaking, by the rapid advance of science. It is taken as a given, for example, that the world of the very small, the quantum world, obeys laws that are different from that of the larger world. Or perhaps it would be better to say it obeys no laws at all, for we are told that the law of causality does not hold sway there. Things just up and happen without a cause, and we are admonished to update our philosophy and theology in order to bring them in line with these scientific findings. In a similar fashion, in the world of scientific cosmology, we are treated with visions of matter springing from nothing, and even the universe itself popping into existence, and no longer needing any explanation for that fact, the need for an explanation having been eliminated by some clever equations.

The picture of the universe that emerges out of modern science with its vast spaces and mysterious beauty, can be a real source of inspiration for Christian spirituality. We live in a universe that is much bigger and much stranger than we realized, and this new image can lead us to a new sense of the majestic power of the being who created it. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the emergence of this new view of the universe is a radical challenge to Christianity itself, as if Christian revelation was inextricably bound up with an outdated view of the universe and is about to crumble if it can't run about and update itself. But what about the assertion that the world, at least the microworld, does not obey the laws of causality that are so much a part of our philosophical and theological perspective? If that assertion were true, it would, indeed, bring about revolutionary changes for Christian thought. However, if we examine the matter more closely, we will discover that quantum theory, that is, the current scientific explanation of the microworld, while showing itself remarkably fruitful as a scientific theory, still has no universally accepted interpretation. There is no direct connection between quantum theory as a scientific hypothesis and the conclusion that causality in the philosophical sense does not hold sway. Indeed, it is possible to give an interpretation of quantum theory that is a causal one, and so does not have revolutionary implications for our traditional philosophy and theology in that regard.

I think that the same kind of scrutiny applied to cosmological theories that purports to do away with the need for a beginning for the universe, or which multiply universes at the drop of a hat, will come to the same conclusion. Scientific theories are one thing, and their philosophical and theological interpretations quite another. The main point is simply this. Christian spirituality has much to gain from a richer and deeper view of the universe. There is a cosmic dimension to Christianity which has been too often overlooked, and thus there must be a cosmic dimension to Christian spirituality. But we must critically look at the constant flood of scientific theories that we are bombarded with, and not imagine that at every moment the foundations of Christian spirituality are in peril of eroding away.