It was one balmy summer evening more than a decade after I’d given up on believing in God that ‘God’ turned up right outside my back door, uninvited, unexpected, but unquestionably there. This fleeting accidental liaison with the ‘presence’ of a non-existent being who somehow managed to brush up against my soul before vanishing again into the twilight like a cat over the garden fence, left me deeply touched by the ‘peace that passes understanding’, and, if I may indulge in a little paradox, somewhat disturbed.
I remember smiling to myself, one of those frowning smiles, and whispering into the void, something defiant, something about not believing. It was unsettling that I, at the time an avowed though gentle atheist, had succumbed so easily, so automatically, to making the cognitive link between my first adult encounter with the power of the present moment and the presence of ‘God’. It just came bubbling up from the unconscious vestigial remains of the mythical world I’d inhabited as a child and I was powerless to resist it.
That accidental liaison happened during my first attempt to meditate, although at the time I didn’t think of it in those terms. It was nothing as grand and esoteric as what I imagined meditation to be; I had simply stepped outside to escape yet another re-run on television and sit quietly for a few moments in the day’s dying light. I had been sitting there ‘alone with my thoughts’ for a good long while, when I suddenly woke up to the irony of the situation. Here I was stepping onto the back porch to avoid the television re-runs only to spoil a perfectly beautiful evening with yet another repeat screening of my own little soap opera.
I don’t recall what happened next, exactly how I found the off-button. All I know is that the moment I noticed the non-stop, multi-channel television in my head playing nothing but re-runs of my own self-written, self-produced, self-directed dramas the screen went to black. I found myself staring at a metaphorical blank screen, momentarily void of any content, spontaneously aware of … nothing!
Of course I was aware of something or I wouldn’t be recalling it here. I realized later that I had become aware of being aware of simply being there and being aware. And it was in that moment of simple un-thought awareness that it happened, the divine visitation, ‘God’ brushing up against me and sending a quietly blissful glow through my entire being. I loved it. I wanted to hold onto it but in the instant I thought I had it it had already slipped off into the night. Not that it mattered. The merest instant was all it took. Those few seconds of pure grace had woken me from a deep sleep to which I could never return.
It was that sense of grace, of the gift-like nature of the moment, I think, that opened up again the long-forgotten channel between my head and my heart, between adult and child, and enabled me, hesitantly at first perhaps, to name my experience ‘God’. Not the God I could no longer literally believe in, but the transcendent reality to which that God, that idea of God, is merely a signpost; the sacred mystery I had now experienced.
I went back into the house that night knowing that I’d stumbled across a threshold of some kind and a new journey was beginning. I had a new sense of what life could be. I wondered if it was possible for that content-less awareness, that sweet sense of presence to return. I wondered if it was possible, after my decade of arid atheistic intellectualism, to return in some new and adult way to what the psalmist called ‘the secret place of the Most High’ and learn to ‘abide’ there. It had been my deepest yearning once. I even wrote a song about it for my 1986 Gospel record, In the Secret Place. The song was El Elyon and it began like this:
In your presence is fullness of joy,
At your right hand are pleasures forever more,
And I will abide in the secret place of El Elyon,
El Elyon, Most High.
These words of scripture echoed my youthful desire for some sense of God’s presence but sadly were never my experience. Now, although no longer even capable of believing in the ‘Most High’, I had unexpectedly tasted the ‘presence’ and enjoyed a momentary ‘fullness of joy’.
As I reflected a little further on the implications of it all and pondered how I might move forward I realized two things. First, if a repeat screening of that divine presence were to be a possibility I would need to reconnect with whatever it was that I had unwittingly done to invite my moment of grace. And second, if I was going to allow myself the luxury of using biblical and theological language to construct some meaningful narrative around my experience it could not be at the expense of critical thinking. There could be no denial of the liberating gains I had made intellectually, no knee-jerk return to the naïve biblical literalism from which it had taken many painful years to extract myself.
And so I committed myself to a dual path of practicing what it was that I accidentally did that night to welcome the gift of ‘presence’ and to re-imagining the sacred mystery as a grown up. It was, rather ironically, an act of faith, my commitment to this path: faith, not in the sense of belief or cognitive assent, but in the sense of trust, or more properly, of trusting faithfulness. Thus, knowing God, for me, is not a matter of belief at all, but of faithful practice.