One fine sunny morning, about a month after I began my pilgrimage trek along the Camino de Santiago, I walked out of the town of Sarria, following the pilgrim path as it entered the realm of corredorias, the narrow green pathways that lace Spain’s Galician countryside like a maze. Eight hundred years ago, in the Codex Calixtinas, the French pilgrim Aimery Picaud described Galicia as the pilgrims’ promised land. It’s easy to understand why. After the mountains of the Pyrenees and the barren regions of Castile and Leon, it must have seemed a veritable paradise with its green valleys and lush vegetation. The route has not changed substantially in hundreds of years. The corredorias wind through woodlands of chestnut and oak, birch and pine, and, here and there, copses of tall, smooth-trunked eucalyptus trees. Sometimes the Camino is little more than a narrow twisting path, bordered by vine-covered stonewalls or dense bramble hedges.
It had rained the night before and the air was fresh and clean as I set out in the early morning hours. I splashed through rivulets of water flowing down the middle of paths. Shafts of sunlight cut through gaps in the trees, dappling the path with shifting patterns of shade and light. An occasional breeze showered me with raindrops from the overhanging trees. I walked with the slightly disoriented sensations you sometimes get after waking from an afternoon nap and feeling out of kilter with the world. No doubt, my sense of disorientation probably had something to do with having spent two days in a hotel in Sarria recovering from a bout of food poisoning. But it also had something to do with having finally settled into my role as a pilgrim. For nearly a month —— from the last week of March to the third week of April — I had been hiking the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometre pilgrimage route that crosses northern Spain from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. The route is more than 1,000 years old, traversing the green valleys of Navarre and Rioja, the plains of Castile and Leon and the lush alpine mountains of Galicia until, finally, it reaches Santiago, where, according to tradition, the bones of St. James the Apostle are encased in a silver reliquary. Even today, in our avowedly secular age, the Camino de Santiago remains one of the most sacred pilgrimage routes in the Christian world.
By the time I reached Sarria, which is about 100 kilometres from Santiago, I had endured some rather nasty blisters that made walking excruciatingly painful, swollen tendons that left me limping, long hours that had me drooping with fatigue by the end of the day and, as I mentioned, a couple of days in a hotel bed flushing out the consequences of a bad meal. (I think it was a plate of huevos con carne — ham and eggs — that didn’t smell right to begin with but which I ate nonetheless, not knowing enough Spanish to inform the waitress of my suspicions.) But I also talked to ghosts from my past, sang old songs from childhood, dreamed dreams of long-ago lovers that left me aching for what might have been, and remembered people and places that I had not even known to be in my memory. I also saw some splendid country, enjoyed great seafood, drank a lot of good wine and encountered an intriguing crew of modern-day pilgrims that even Geoffrey Chaucer would have appreciated. But most importantly I experienced moments of epiphany, moments of wonder, that even now, years later, continue to reverberate in my mind, telling me that my pilgrimage is ongoing and, perhaps, endless.
My morning walk out of Sarria offered one such moment. I would sometimes walk for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch, aware of little more than the changing surface of the path beneath my feet — stony, muddy, leaf-thick — and the stretch and tension in my legs as I climbed or waded through a stream or stepped across a jumble of loose rock. I felt detached from my body. It was as though my mind floated above and behind my body like a balloon on a string. Light-headed, you might say.
This was as it should be. The pilgrim, like any serious traveller, undertakes an interior journey that parallels passage through the external world. Each sustains the other. There is a psychological benefit to the feel of the mud and stones and trees and rain and sun. The senses confront the natural world directly, no longer cocooned and cosseted by the machinery of a car or a train or a plane. The result is, or can be, a surprised awakening to the sheer presence of the world. Walking allows you to be in the world again in a way that is impossible in a car or on a plane. After a month on the road, after the blisters and the pain, the encounters with land and sky, the kindnesses of strangers, and especially after the sickness of the last couple of days, I felt calm and quiet and, well, clean. For the first time in I don’t know how a long I was content to be doing what I was doing and being where I was without nagging myself with the thought that I should be doing something more worthwhile or be somewhere more exciting. I was happy to bet where I was in the here and now. I enjoyed that rarest of satisfactions — contentment. I wanted to walk forever.
Early in the afternoon, I followed the path downhill through the village of Morgade, stopping to rest by a small fountain in a clearing at the western edge of town. The spigot on the fountain wasn’t operating but the basin still held a couple of feet of water. I dropped my pack against the fountain wall and undid the bandana around my neck and dipped it in the water to wash my face and neck. I sat against the fountain wall to let the sun dry my face. I was content to look at the swaying branches of the chestnut trees overhead and listen to the chatter of linnets and swallowtails and let the warmth of the sun leach the saturate my body.
I might have enjoyed an afternoon nap but a loud splash in the fountain at my back startled me. I stood and looked at the surface of the water, seeing circles of ripples. I was about to sit down again when the shiny green head of a lizard rose to the surface. I watched it paddle to the fountain wall and try to climb the slippery surface. It tried and failed four times. Each attempt to escape left it weaker. It was going to die, I thought. Death is not uncommon on the Camino. Just as in the Middle Age, pilgrims still die on the road to Santiago. You occasionally see flowers or small crosses beside the pilgrimage trail. One morning I sheltered from the rain beneath portico of a graveyard outside Navarrete. A plaque on the wall commemorates a young Belgian woman, Alice de Graemer. She died when a car hit her as she cycled to Santiago in 1986. A sculpture of an iron bicycle commemorates a German cyclist who died of a heart attack in the mountains of El Bierzo. I’d read of a Dutchman who died of a heart attack a few miles outside Santiago, only hours before completing his pilgrimage. But death on the Camino takes other forms, too. You sometimes come across the skeletons or desiccated carcasses of animals. Hares mostly, but I once saw the body of a dog beside the trail, its eyes obscured by a covering of flies. Another time I found a sheep carcass. It looked like dogs had ripped it apart. The pilgrim museum in Roncesvalles, a small town at the foot of the Pyrenees where the Spanish portion of the Camino begins, possesses a medieval wooden bas-relief of dogs devouring a pilgrim.
Watching the struggling lizard, I remembered a couple of weeks earlier stopping at a roadside well in the town of Najera. Looking into the well, I saw the pale bellies of half-a-dozen dead frogs floating on the surface. But there were still two others struggling to escape, trying repeatedly to gain a grip on the slick stonewall. I thought of leaning over the lip of the well to scoop them out with my ball cap, but it was all too easy to imagine myself falling into the well. I left them to their fate.
I don’t really understand why I did what I did, but on this afternoon, at the fountain in Morgade, I thought it important to save the lizard. I’d let the frogs die but I wasn’t going to let this lizard die, not if I could help it. I took off my boots and socks and climbed into the fountain. The water came up to my knees. Judging by the lizard’s reaction, it must have assumed I was some big bird looking for a midday snack. It thrashed madly away when I tried to scoop it up with my baseball hat. I lunged after it, water splashing up my legs. I tried again, only to have my feet go out from under me on the slippery stone basin. I sat down with a splash. My pants were completely soaked now, along with most of the rest of me. I glanced around the clearing, glad nobody from the village was there to watch a stupid pilgrim taking a bath in his clothes. I looked for the lizard, afraid maybe I’d sat on it. But no, there it was on the far side of the fountain. I got to my feet and splashed across the fountain after the creature. Clearly, the lizard didn’t know I wasn’t going to eat it. It kept trying to paddle away. But its movements were increasingly feeble and sluggish. I finally scooped its six-inch length into the bowl of my cap and stepped out of the fountain.
I set my hat on the grass, tilting it so the lizard could escape. Instead of darting away, though, it lay on its side in my cap exhausted, pale white belly heaving and tail unmoving. Its turquoise-green head was motionless. I watched the creature while I stripped off my shirt and draped it across a bush to dry. I wondered if I’d exhausted it to the point of death. But then suddenly the tail twitched. It jerked upright on its feet and scuttled out of my cap and across the open ground into a gap in the bramble hedge. Just before it disappeared, the creature stopped, its head turned back in my direction, eyes blinking. "You’re welcome," I said.
I stared into the green gap after the lizard. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t eaten anything besides fruit juice for two days had left me light-headed; my thoughts spun off into silly anthropomorphic sentiments. The lizard would reappear with his doting family to hail me as a hero. Or maybe if I kissed the lizard it would turn into a beautiful princesses and she would join my pilgrimage. After all, if not for my fortuitous presence, it would have died. I was the saviour of lizards. I laughed at the thought but I did feel that I’d assuaged my guilt at having abandoned the frogs in Najera. Perhaps I’d even shaved a few points off my karmic debts.
Lost in madcap fantasy, I gazed into the hedge, hypnotized by the green wall, my imagination following the lizard deeper into bower where he’d fled. The world seemed to be closing in around me. I saw everything close up, tightly focused, as though through a telephoto lens. Everything — leaves and grass, trees and stone — acquired a sharp-edged vividness. The air seemed to hum. I heard birdsong and the rustle of wind-stirred leaves in the trees overhead. The rich odour of rain-damp earth enveloped me. The warmth of the sun washed over me. I imagined the photons of light sinking into my like weights, pulling me into the earth. I tried to resist for a moment, feeling a sudden panic, a reluctance to submit. And then, of a sudden, like cork popping to surface of water, I seemed to pop free of the world. For a moment I floated a few inches off the ground, away my own body. The sensation didn’t last long, a few seconds at most, and then I fell back into my body.
I don’t know how long I sat there against the fountain, but by the time I put my boots back on my nylon pants and shirt were mostly dry. I might have continued to sit there, happy in my little bower, feeling alright with the world, if my stomach hadn’t started gurgling and complaining about it emptiness. For the first time in days, I was hungry. I had a couple of hours walking ahead of me to reach the town of Portomorin, where I planned to stay for the night. I stood and hauled my pack onto my back. I took a last look around my green oasis — the fountain, the trees, the green wall where my lizard had disappeared. I would remember this place as special. The lines of a favorite poem by the Japanese pilgrim-poet Bashõ flitted across my mind: "In this bush profound,/ Into the very rocks it seeps/ The cicada sound./ Here, now, the glimpse of the underglimmer." It seemed an appropriate sentiment for the occasion.
Clare Cooper Marcus, whom I cited earlier, picks up on this point, noting that a home fulfils many needs. It can be a place of self-expression, a vessel of memories, and a refuge from the outside world, a cocoon where we can feel nurtured and drop our guard. But it is also a container and reflection of our psyches, and if we read it properly and honestly we can gain valuable knowledge of ourselves. "We are all — throughout our lives — striving toward a state of wholeness, of being wholly ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every relationship, event, mishap, or good fortune in our lives can be perceived as a ‘teaching,’ guiding us toward being more and more fully who we are ... (T)he places we live in are reflections of that process, and indeed the places themselves have a powerful effect on our journey toward wholeness."
If we are concerned about spiritual growth, we need to pay attention to the "messages" implicit in our homes — their form and location, as well as it their furnishings, decoration and condition. In saying this it is well to remember that some of our homes are homes only in memory or dream. I figure I’ve had "homes" in numerous places in the world — from a fondly remembered bed sitting room on Burdett Avenue in Victoria and a small room in a house on Ravensbourne Road in Bromley to a cave on Crete and a rickety clapboard shed on an Israeli kibbutz near the Golan — and what they have in common is that they were places where I felt, well, at home. All of which goes to suggest that our homes, with their basements, attics, bedrooms, kitchens, backyards, gardens, etc., reveal messages from the unconscious that, if we pay attention, we can learn to decipher in our quest for wholeness.ii As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard puts it, our homes can serve as "a tool for analysis of the human soul."iii All this might seem overly philosophical and obscurely abstract, but we need theories and concepts to help us make sense of lived reality. The trick is to translate theoretical understanding into everyday experience. I can think of no better way to illustrate an "analysis of the soul" than through the experience of home during Christmas. Scholars have long recognized the social and cultural significance of Christmas; how, whether as a religious or a secular festival, it is widely regarded as special time set apart from the rest of the calendar. “The festival of Christmas is intimately linked to the attachment to places and the notion of home,” says geographer Patrick McGreevy. "Almost any celebrant of this festival, if asked where it should take place, would respond that ideally Christmas should be celebrated at home. At no other time of year is absence from home considered more poignantly tragic than at Christmas."iv
One of the more striking features of the Christmas season is the way we decorate our streets, stores and public buildings with lights, ornaments and religiously themed displays such as the nativity scene (unless, of course, the politicians and shopping malls cave in to the anti-Christian objections of politically correct ideologues and propagandists). That might seem an obvious observation, until you consider what those decorations imply. In effect, the familiar symbols of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and nativity scenes pull us into shared rituals and symbolic practices that reinforce our sense of and longing for community — or, put differently, our communal sense of home.
This ideal of being-at-home in the community finds various expressions. Charities appeal for donations to help the needy. Schools stage Christmas pageants. Local orchestras tune up for performances of Handel’s Messiah. John Lennon’s So This is Christmas saturates the airwaves, so much so that even the curmudgeonly among us feel a touch of fondness for the human race. In this way, says McGreevy, "community identity is heightened ... (and) for a few weeks at least the community is defined inclusively."vHowever, our closest Christmas attachment, our most deeply desired "place" for Christmas, remains the family home, whatever configuration — apartment, condo or suburban bungalow — it may take. Home, as I argued in the previous chapter, fulfils many needs: a refuge from the external world, a repository of memories, a shelter for self-expression, a realm of intimacy, the symbolic vessel of our values. These values are only intensified at Christmas. Students abandon dormitories and bed sitting rooms for a few days of home cooking and family indulgence. Adults risk winter roads to spend time with aging parents. Grandparents endure cattle-pen airplanes to see grandchildren. Every year we transform our homes with strings of lights. Inside, we drape trees with beads and baubles and faux angels. And, somehow, the appearance of the house acquires a friendlier façade. The familiar space of a living room or dining room becomes a place of enchantment, a cozy realm of intimacy that fulfills, at least to some degree, our longing for a place where we truly belong. All of these external accoutrements of Christmas work a psychic alchemy on us; the transformation of the home transforms us spiritually, however modestly.
Christmas has not always been a popular festival. The festival’s roots reside in pre-Christian pagan celebrations — ancient Romans and Germanic tribes staged mid-winter festivals to mark the winter solstice — but Christmas assumed official status only in the fourth century A.D., when the Bishop of Rome, Julius I, set December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity. The Christian celebration adapted many of the pagan practices, including charity to the poor and the display of lights and decorated evergreens. The festival continued through the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on feasting and drinking, and, no doubt, not a little lechery. Charity took the form of food and clothing for the poor. In the seventeenth century, however, the Protestant Reformation put a damper on Christmas. In fact, the English Puritans, acting much like the multicultural fundamentalists of today, banned Christmas. The Puritans extended their parsimonious purity to the New World when they settled New England. The suppression of Christmas largely held sway throughout the eighteenth century, and by the early 1800s the festival seemed set to fade away.vi
Then along came Charles Dickens. His 1843 story, A Christmas Carol, is widely credited with renewing enthusiasm for Christmas, particularly among the rising middle-class in Victorian-era Britain and North America. With his focus on children, Dickens reflected a growing social sentiment that Christmas was a time for family, as distinct from the pre-modern notion of Christmas as an adult celebration. But Dickens’ story also had another theme: Christmas provided a retreat from the hurly-burly, get-and-spend public world. In this manner, Christmas began to reflect the values that emerged among the middle class in response to the rapid industrialization, commercialization and urbanization of the West in the nineteenth century, values that idealized the private world of the family as a sanctuary from the clash and competition of the public arena. As Patrick McGreevy puts it: "The Christmas that emerged in the nineteenth century was an affirmation of the private home as a place of great worth: indeed, for the duration of the festival, the home became a sort of private paradise," an "ideal place."vii Admittedly, our Christmas place often falls short of the ideal — who hasn’t witnessed a family blow out over Christmas dinner, endured a holiday in hell with visiting relatives, or had a love affair die over the holidays.
Nevertheless, the ideal of a few days in a private paradise remains. Beneath the tawdry and the tacky commercialism, behind the excesses of eating and drinking, outside the familial fights, there lingers the longing for "the sense of sublime equilibrium, a sublime stillness," to borrow John Lukacs’ phrase, inherent to the ideal of Christmas. As Lukacs says, the cult of Christmas responds to some of our "deepest aspirations."viii G.K Chesterton, the English essayist, novelist and Catholic apologist, underlines those aspirations in describing the family home as a vessel of genuine humanity. The Christmas retreat into the private realm offers a brief release from the strain and burden of the public world with its constant demands for conformity and structured behavior. While he acknowledges that Christmas has its public dimension, its real spirit — "the spirit of the Child," as he puts it — is more readily available in the domestic realm. Indeed, Chesterton would like us to close the doors to the outside world at Christmas because it is, or should be, a time for inwardness, for partaking of the rich interior life of home and family. "Let there be one night when things grow luminous from within: and one day when men seek for all that is buried in themselves; and discover, where she is indeed hidden, behind locked gates and shuttered windows, and doors thrice barred and bolted, the spirit of liberty."x
Chesterton’s notion of home as a place of luminousity, whether in dream, remembrance, imagination or reality, highlights the idea of home as a possible place of liminal experience. The word comes from the Latin limin, meaning a doorway or threshold. Liminality involves moments of spiritual awareness, however modest or profound, when you temporarily cross the threshold of the everyday world and experience a heightened sense of reality. Liminality marks a transformative period in which spiritual and psychological change can occur. In liminal experience we cross the threshold from old ways of perception, calling old mental concepts and categories in question, into new ways of perception. In effect, liminal moments are a kind of pilgrimage of the psyche from one mindset to another. To experience the Christmas home as a liminal event is to step out of the strictures of the external world and into a more enchanted inner realm, however temporarily. Experienced this way, the festival of Christmas, with its rituals of decoration, the presence of family and friends, the exchange of gifts and the sharing of food and drink, can, for a short time, make the world a slightly different, and, perhaps, slightly better, place.
It’s all very well to consider everyday mysticism from the high ground of philosophy and theology, but the task at hand is learning "how extraordinary the ordinary is when we rediscover it by way of the mystical"i How do you foster this attitude in the quotidian realities of our lives, particularly in our aggressively secular society? How, in other words, do experience all those “concrete approaches” to the mystery in the humdrum here-and-now? I have already offered the examples of experiences of Munro’s fictional character, and elsewhere I have pointed to the epiphanic evidence of poets and novelists, philosophers and theologians. Perhaps, though, a few examples of people experiencing "moments of being" would be worthwhile.
I’m rather fond of the example of Rev. Mark Roberts, a Lutheran minister in Texas. Roberts recounts how he was waiting in a long line at Costco, and as he stood there he could feel his blood pressure rising. “The more I waited, the more frustrated I became. Words I never say (well, almost never say) filled my mind,” he writes. "Then, all of a sudden, it dawned on me. I had one of those moments of grace, in which God managed to slip a word into my consciousness. As I stood in line at Costco, I was waiting. Waiting! I was doing exactly what Advent is all about. Of course, I wasn’t waiting for God to save me or anything momentous ... But, nevertheless, I was waiting. I was forced to experience something that’s at the very heart of Advent."ii
Roberts’ epiphany is not particularly profound. I’m sure he would agree that as epiphanies go, it was a modest one. Nonetheless, it qualifies as an epiphanic moment in the sense that Roberts gained a modicum of self-knowledge and, for a brief moment, transcended the ethos of instant gratification that prevails in our society. You might call this a moral epiphany. In any case, his experience also demonstrates another aspect to the practice of everyday mysticism: You become attentive by deliberate acts of attention. That is to say, our capacity for everyday mystical experience is, to some degree at least, a matter of education. I don’t mean education in terms of degrees, but education in the Aristotelian sense of habituation. In the same way that we become "educated" golfers or learn to swim by attending to the skills necessary to being good at those practices, so, too, do you become skilled at the practice of everyday mysticism by paying attention, by looking instead of thinking, as Wittgenstein might say.
Theologian Mary Reuter offers a couple of examples on this score in recounting how she once asked friends and acquaintances if they had ever had any mystical experiences. Most immediately denied any such thing, as though it would have been embarrassing to step outside the corral of secularism. But on second thought a few shyly came forward to admit to moments that might qualify as mystical. I recall one event that I might describe as ‘mystical’ I was walking in the woods in late all. I was shuffling through the dead leaves, not thinking anything in particular. Suddenly my foot felt held back from making the next step. Ahead of me was a single violet — regal … rich in color — standing elegantly in a two-inch square of clear space in the midst of brittle maple and oak leaves. In an instance I knew something of the experience of death and resurrection. Both were a reality at my feet. This event occurred about ten years ago, but it still remains new to me. It is an event I recall often and each time that I dwell with it for a few moments, I know again. Here’s another experience Reauter received: Maybe mysticism is like the time I was thinking about a close friend and our relationship when suddenly I knew what love is. I cannot logically explain it, but I know it in a way that I’ll never not know again. Sometimes I tray to recall and reconstruct and experience by original event, but I cannot do so. But I still know deep in my heart what I learned.iii
Both these examples meet Rahner’s idea of everyday mysticism, and Reuter’s point in offering them is similar to his: Mystical experience is not something rare or exotic. Mystical experiences can be feature of everyday life, if we are attentive to their possibility in our daily activities. As Reuter says: "We are stopped, often within the usual sequence of incidents of the day, often suddenly as if by an outside force or person. Any reality of life can cause the interruption." But however it comes "insight comes quickly and deftly, leaving us in the freedom of truth that cannot be denied."iv
That was certainly Albert Einstein’s experience. The Nobel-winning physicist attributed his awakening to science in part to a childhood experience. One day when he was four or five years old, his father showed him a compass. The movement of the needle fascinated him. "I can still remember — or at least I believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things."v Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk I discussed I a previous chapter, came to a similar realization a few days before his death. In 1968, during a trip to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, as it is now known, Merton visited the garden of Buddhas at Polonnaruwa. At the entrance to a cave there was a big, seated Buddha on the left, and a reclining Buddha on the right. As he approached barefoot and alone, he noticed the wet grass and sand and the silence. He stopped before those "extraordinary faces" and their great smiles. And suddenly he knew the beauty of the world. "Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious ... I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination."vi Merton, of course, was an adept at spiritual exercises and highly sensitive to those things that might foster epiphanic moments. But what I find fascinating is the similarity between how Einstein felt as a child and what Merton felt as a man, and what Reuter’s uncertain acquaintances felt. While the form and intensity of the experience was different in each case, the emotional substance — the sense of wonder or awe or insight — was similar. And that goes to my point: Mysticism is not particularly esoteric, otherworldly or irrational. Nor is it irrelevant to our everyday lives. No doubt, there are cloistered monks sitting on mountaintops meditating away, and, no doubt, they have profound visions. But all the examples I’ve offered here and elsewhere, whether literary or personal, underscore the notion that we should stop thinking of mysticism as something otherworldly.
Mysticism is essentially a way of seeing the world. I realize that sounds simplistic, but it is perhaps one of the most difficult things to learn about mysticism, at least the kind I’m talking about. The difficulty is not intellectual in the sense of applying logic and reason. Nor is it a matter of empirical investigation. Because mysticism is a matter of seeing, the problem is one of acquiring another way of looking at the world, of occasionally removing the blinkers of functional reasoning. The seeing is the knowing in everyday mysticism.. This might sound rather convenient, a nifty duck-and-run obfuscation to avoid having to justify my claim. It might even seem conveniently elitist. Those who see as the mystic sees know what he’s talking about; those who don’t see as he sees, don’t. But the fact of the matter is that not everything we experience is amenable to logical reasoning and available for sharing with others through our normal means of communication. Just because you can’t prove an experience by scientific-rational-objective-empirical means does not mean it wasn’t real, or that you can dismiss it as touchy-feeling romantic irrationalism. Try proving empirically that you love your spouse and that all those gifts you give aren’t a form of self-aggrandizement and control. As philosophers Charles and Jean Cox put it, "One cannot change the way one sees the world by logical argument, nor can one perform some ritual for bringing about such a change ... This change of vision is like falling in love: such things happen to one, they are not subject to will or reason." They compare the experience of changed vision to what happens when you suddenly understand a problem that you had previously been unable to solve despite your best rational efforts: "Suddenly, usually with surprise and pleasure or even amazement, one comes to see in a new way. The difference between the mystic’s way of seeing and our ordinary way of seeing is like the difference between one who sees unity and harmony in a work of art and one who sees only a jumble of lines or words."vii
The mystical moment is that moment when, as it were, something clicks and what had been a jumble of incomprehension suddenly and surprisingly becomes harmonious and comprehensible. How can you explain that experience, or prove it, to someone who continues to see only a jumble of lines and words? You see or you don’t see. Something clicks or it doesn’t. The fact is, everyone experiences being in the world every day, but it is the mystic that sees everyday being as a wonder. Such experience, while eluding adequate description or even logical, rational explanation, can be transformative. For a few moments you let go of the functionalist and calculative approach to life and see it as a mystery, and, perhaps, as a gift.
Here, for example, is how Richard Bucke, a late nineteenth century Canadian psychiatrist living Montreal, described one his mystical epiphanies. Coming home in a carriage after delivering a lecture, he suddenly felt overwhelmed by "immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an illumination quite impossible to describe." The experience lasted no more than a few moments, but it was enough for Bucke that he “saw and knew” that "the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all."viii Then there is the example of Sir Francis Younghusband, an eminent British geographer who, while walking in the hills outside Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, experienced a mystical moment that stayed with him for many years. It was, he said, a moment of "deep inner-soul satisfaction” that left him, like Bucke, with "a curious sense of being literally in love with the world."ix
No doubt, most anyone would be inspired in Tibet. But the point I’ve been trying to make in these essays is that such experiences is open to most anyone in any place, so long as they are willing and able to make the effort. With imagination and empathy it is possible to approach the mystical experience at an intellectual level and, perhaps, lay the groundwork for your own moments of being. And you don’t need to trek off to a Tibet or Spain or Japan to do it. You can do it in your own backyard. As Virginia Woolf says, “"Let us not take if for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what its commonly thought small."
These essays are an attempt to address certain "small" everyday experiences — home, place, solitude, etc. — that, as it seems to me, provide the conditions or circumstances for epiphanic moments. Through reflection, sensory awareness, periods of silence, and focused attention on our immediate world we make it possible to better realize the mystical potential of ordinary, everyday life. Zen tradition tells how the fifteenth-century master Ikkyu was once asked by a visitor to write a maxim of the “highest wisdom.” Ikkyu wrote only one word: "Attention." The visitor was displeased. "Is that all?" Ikkyu obliged. He wrote two words: "Attention. Attention." I hope this doesn’t sound smugly ambiguous, but that’s all there is to it: We need only pay attention. But attention is not easy to achieve. A Merton’s experience in the garden of Buddhas suggests it can take a lifetime of discipline to achieve a moment of proper attention, and even then there is no guarantee you’ll get the results you seek. You can’t buy mystical experience in the supermarket. There is a poem by the ancient Zen master Ch’ing-yuan that sums up the conundrum: "Before I studied Zen I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I learned something of Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains, waters no longer waters. But mow that I understand Zen, I am at peace with myself, seeing mountains as mountains, waters as waters."
I figure I’m somewhere low down on the second level. A child still sees the wonder because worldly diversions yet to completely take over its mind — at least that was the case before the invention of television and the Internet — but like most adults, I long ago lost my childhood sense of wonder. It has taken years to discover what I need to recover. Indeed, it has taken me the better part of a lifetime to learn that I should see mountains and mountains, both intellectually and experientially, and even now I still struggle against the diversions of the modern world that would have me see otherwise. At times I think I would be content to spend the rest of my life seeing landscapes and paintings and poetry. But that is unlikely. There are bills coming due, duties to perform and a job perform. Even mystics still have to eat and find shelter. Besides, release from the get-and-spend world is no guarantee of inner stillness. The conscious mind, with its constant chatter, categorizing concepts and fretful regard for past and future, does not readily relinquish the mind to stillness and inactivity. Still, I try. I take whatever moments I can and whatever methods are available to me to slip — or try to slip — into a mystical mind. My preferred method for achieving such a state of mind is, obviously, walking; to wander in solitude until the mental chatter quiets down sufficiently to make wonder possible.
Where might all that wandering and wondering lead? That is the ultimate question, of course. Theologian Adrian Van Kaam teaches that our lives are journeys in search of the "epiphany at the root of our privacy." We are, he says, "enfleshed spirits,” embodied in this world with all its vital, sensate and imperious requirements for ambition and self-assertion. Such worldly requirements are, of necessity, distractions. But they also conceal the "unique epiphany" in the depths of our being, luring us into illusions as we "search for the sacred source that calls us forth."xii It is dangerous, he says, to journey without competent guides. I like to think these essays have offered some guidance. I have drawn on artists, poets, philosophers and theologians to suggest that certain experiences, including that of aesthetic appreciation, particularly in relation to nature, constitute a spiritual experience that can lead to religious experience. Those experiences, those moments of everyday mysticism, arise from ordinary things like sunlight on a wall or immobility at the edge of a mud puddle. Such moments are, in Van Kaam’s phrase, "epiphanic intimations" of the all-forming mystery, "feeble pointers to the ineffable they symbolize."xiii Religious belief may not result from attending to the mystery of being, but rumours of God are more likely heard in enchanted moments.****
I’m sometimes tempted to think that was the case when I had lunch with a lizard on my last day on the Shikoku Henro. I walked alone most of my last day, leaving the Ryokan Ishiya in Shido where I’d spent the night just after 7 a.m. It was cool and overcast, perfect walking weather. I started with my pilgrimage companions, Syuji, Jun and Tanaka-san, but we separated as we settled into our particular rhythm of walking. I had two temples — Nagaoji, Temple 87 and Okuboji, Temple 88 — to go to finish my pilgrimage. The hike to Nagaoji was boring. The path paralleled a highway for the first five kilometres and there wasn’t much to see except passing cars and trucks. The longer hike — 18 kilometres — to Okuboji turned out much better.
Five kilometres beyond the town of Nagao, just before the Maeyama Dam, the pilgrim route turned off the road and ran along the edge of a reservoir below the dam until it entered the forests of Mount Nyõtai. I strolled happily along a narrow earthen path through the cedar forest. Sunlight splashed through gaps in the trees, falling like paint splotches on the leaf-padded path. The damp earth was pungent. A rush of water from a narrow creek gurgled beside the trail. Here and there the path twisted through copses of bamboo. I was careful to duck under the rain-jeweled cobwebs that spanned the narrower portions of the trail between the bamboo trees. Butterflies looped around my head. I stopped for lunch at a trailside shrine surrounded by sakura, or cherry trees. I set my bento box on a wobbly picnic table patchy with moss and speckled with the petals of pink cherry blossoms. I ate with my eyes before savouring the sashimi. As I ate I spotted a line of line of ants trooping across the tabletop. I was in a generous mood so I shredded pieces of the rice ball and laid out kernels for them. Then I had another luncheon guest. A lizard, black with silver stripes, poked its head over the edge of the tabletop. I remained still as he crept forward on the table. He must have seen me, but he didn’t seem to be afraid as he waggled his way up the length of the table, his silvery head swaying back and forth, tail flicking.
I watched as he ate a larger piece of the rice ball. I reached out slowly with one of the chopsticks and pushed another piece across the table. He took that one, too. Staring at him, I remembered my other lizard encounter from years ago, the green lizard I had plucked from a fountain on the Camino de Santiago. I felt the hair rise on the back of neck, although there is no rational reason why I should see any connection between this lizard in front of me on a mountainside picnic table in Japan and one at a fountain in Spain. One lizard reminds me of another. No big deal. Yet, there was a moment when my encounters with lizards seemed to be more than mere coincidence. I shook away the thought, of course. Still, the crazy notion crossed my mind that maybe I was lunching with a kami, one of the spirit-gods that tradition says occupy the mountains and forests of Japan. After two months walking through Shikoku’s haunting landscape, I appreciated why the ancient Japanese believed the world enchanted by spirits. And so, I continued to watch my latest lizard companion, happy to share my rice ball with him.
I don’t know how long I sat there before I noticed how quiet it was. I couldn’t even hear any birds. I looked up at the sky through the trees. There was no breeze, nothing to rustle the leaves or sway the tree tops. I looked back down. The lizard was still there. And I thought: "Let time stop here, now. Let this moment last. This is the real world; this table, this food, this creature, this silent forest — everything else is unreal." I felt a strange sense of weightedness. It wasn’t heavy or oppressive. I knew I was supposed to remain at that moss-flecked table forever, immobile, while plants grew up around me, entwining me in their roots and branches until I became part of the forest. I had a vision myself turning into a moss-covered trail marker, planted in this place forever like Jizõ, greeting passing pilgrimages across the ages. Then the wind blew through the trees and petals from the cherry blossoms rained down and my moment of yoin wafted away on a breeze. I looked up at as the petals fell on my head and when I looked down I saw my lizard companion streaking across the table and jumping to the forest floor to disappear into the foliage. Plucking blossoms from my hair, I started to laugh. I felt immensely happy, like a child that has been given a marvelous gift. Maybe I had been. On impulse, I pulled a notebook from my waist pouch and wrote my first poem in more than 30 years, trying to follow the five-seven-five syllable pattern of traditional haiku:
Haiku, I remembered from my long ago literature classes, attempts to capture moments of intense awareness of the world. My poem certainly wasn’t up there with Bashõ’s verse, but the juxtaposition of "spring" and "snow" was a reasonable metaphor for the paradox of that moment. I put away the notebook and cleared the table. I was reluctant to leave, but I had three hours of walking ahead of me to reach Okuboji, the Temple of Completion. I left remains of my onigiri at the foot of the shrine’s Jizõ statue, thanking him for the poem. If the god didn’t want the rice ball, it was there for my lizard friend.
by Robert C. Sibley Novalis, $19.95
By David Warren
Robert Sibley is the sort of writer to whom I ought to be sympathetic. After all, he's a lot like me: a philosophical spirit with religious tendencies who landed in journalism — arguably through no fault of his own — and has thus been occupied for decades "filling the spaces between the advertisements." Moreover, he's been to some of the same places I've been, looked over the same intellectual fields, and thus chewed on some of the same cud. He is more skeptical than most of fashionable thinking, or more precisely, of not thinking. He is most at home when writing about ideas, and has for some time now (like me) been supplying the Citizen with vistas a little broader than daily newspaper readers are accustomed to expect.
He is from the Yukon: perhaps the only part of the cosmos more earnest than Ottawa. This has made him special as a writer — few since Pierre Berton seem to have come from there — and he has kept himself special by refusing to be fully assimilated into urban life down here in the banana belt. The Yukon has more square kilometres than people — about 15 of them for each — and most people live in Whitehorse.
One could easily be reminded of Thoreau and Walden; or of the pioneering era when all Canada was a bit like the Yukon remains today: vast, empty, fearful. (Indeed, Thoreau was a suburbanite by comparison, his Walden Pond only a brief jog from Concord.)
The men and women Canada then produced were of the sort Sibley echoes still: haunted, in a sense, by Nature herself, and unable to take anything for granted.
The most vivid scene in Sibley's new book A Rumour of God is set on a remote Yukon plateau, where, in his youth, Sibley was left by an employer to mind an unoccupied surveying camp for a couple of weeks and keep the bears off the food cache with his Winchester. No bears visited, but under the circumstances, imaginary bears became a dreadful nuisance.
The anecdote is in a chapter on "Solitude" that is at the gravitational centre of the book, with the other chapters revolving around it. In each of the anecdotes he tells throughout, Sibley reports on being essentially alone, and in a relation with the universe directly.
This is true even when he is visiting scenes of earliest childhood, and family graves with his aging mother, while contemplating the notion of "Home." He finds himself, here as elsewhere, looking at himself through himself, as the American philosopher and author Loren Eiseley once did -- like Hamlet, strangely finding himself in the eye sockets of an ancient skull. Many have had such out-of-body experiences, which easily lead to pantheistic visions.
Sibley's book is a kind of autobiography on two tracks. Each of the seven lengthy chapters begins with an "epiphany" from his personal life: an arresting moment, when a person feels he is lifted out of the normal sequence of time. And each then continues on the other track, with an essay on what could be learned from the experience, full of references to poets, philosophers, shrinks and mystics. It thus takes the form of a spiritual diary.
The purpose of the exercise is, in the author's own words, to help readers seek the re-enchantment of life -- to help "rekindle belief" in an age of disenchantment, when the rumours of God are only the Nietzschean ones of His demise.
The book, at its best as memoir, supplies the scent of places far outside the city, and beyond "the cottage country," too, where the presence of the divine becomes nearly palpable. For atheists are aplenty in our urban trenches, but not where a man stands in the presence of his own soul.
Sibley is trying to persuade us to find said "Place" and to take it home; to invest some spiritual or mystical meaning even in the objects and situations of everyday life and for no better reason than to become more real. He recommends that we make deliberate acts of attention to humble things, by becoming "habituated to attention" just as the professional golfer becomes habituated to golf -- and thus, necessarily, dishabituated to the "divertissements" of modern life; the blinking arcade of technological distractions.
Beyond this, Sibley does not proselytize, and the procession of authorities he quotes throughout the essays are from the range of very modern names that were on our lips back in the '70s: Thomas Merton, Basho, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Virginia Woolf make multiple appearances, with the odd awkward moment when Martin Heidegger walks in. But here the author is being faithful to his own intellectual roots.
His pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spanish Galicia is neatly balanced by recollections from a pilgrimage to Zen temples in Japan. This is mysticism without denominational affiliation, that anyone can buy into, and in the end the "rumour of God" remains a very distant rumble.
That, I think, is not only the weakness but the strength of the book. It suggests an immediate discipline for people who feel otherwise lost, having formed no brand loyalty among the various religions in the marketplace.
It offers to "compare notes" on where to begin, and how, as it were, to get out of the valleys where the blackflies are congregated, and up those Yukon hills.
Reviewed by: Graeme Voyer
What does this mean on the day after Christmas when the masses are ready for another Boxing Day shopping frenzy? What are its consequences? Can this condition be overcome?
These are some of the questions addressed by Ottawa journalist Robert Sibley in this erudite yet accessible collection of essays that deals with profound themes -- nothing less than the spiritual predicament of modernity -- but never loses the quality of what the author describes as a "journalistic inquiry."
Sibley contrasts pre-modern and modern conceptions of nature, showing how the modern project has, along with its many benefits, drained the world of meaning and purpose.
He then argues that the world can be re-enchanted through attunement to the mystical that inheres in everyday experience: cultivation of home as an expression of personal identity; a sense of rootedness in a particular place; the experience of solitude, particularly solitary walking; contemplation of nature and art and literature as an incitement to wonderment.
Sibley's elaboration of these means of enchantment constitutes the bulk of his narrative. While not a convinced theist, Sibley suggests that an awareness of the mystical potential of everyday life makes one more receptive to "rumours of God." Sibley's essays are replete with insights, pertinent literary references and lively anecdotes. Particularly cogent is his account of the importance of place. "Deep ties to places," he writes, "possessing a sense of belonging, are necessary for a truly meaningful and purposeful life." He quotes the French philosopher Simone Weil: "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul." However, the homogenizing culture of globalization militates against distinct places.
As Sibley observes, "Drive across Canada or the United States and you see the same big-box stores, motel franchises and fast-food restaurants... It's all very convenient and comfortable, but when every town looks like every other town, well, you are not really seeing these towns as distinct communities, because they no longer possess a unique sense of place."
Sibley urges a recovery of the sense of place through, among other means, diligent attention to historically meaningful buildings, institutions and monuments -- everything that makes a place unique and reflects its organic social life.Sibley frequently invokes literary figures to reinforce his points. Two of his favourites are 20th-century English novelist Virginia Woolf and 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth. Both of these writers saw and depicted moments of wonder in ordinary experience. While Sibley is a fine writer with a colloquial style, there are a few flaws in his narrative. For example, he uses the verb "foster" an astonishing 28 times. His anecdotes occasionally border on the self-indulgent; in particular, an account of a meal in a Japanese restaurant contains far too much trivial detail.
Finally, it should be said that Sibley's intended audience is not people who already have a spiritual dimension in their lives. Rather, his book is aimed at those who, caught up in the rat race, have an inkling that there must be more to life than career, consumption and entertainment. It is for such people that he has written this "exercise in re-enchantment."
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2010 D9
August 3, 2011 by Arlene Somerton Smith". . . it is easy to let moments of possible wonder pass by you if you aren’t prepared to recognize them or learn from them."
So says Robert C. Sibley in A Rumour of God. Sibley would like us to open the doors of our minds just a crack. He would like us to allow that maybe, just maybe, extraordinary coexists with the ordinary. He would like us to once again (because we used to do it quite readily) recognize moments of possible wonder — "glimpses of the underglimmer" — and learn from them.
In A Rumour of God, Sibley balances stories about his personal experiences of spiritual awareness in the everyday with essays on scholarly historical, theological and philosophical insights into the topics. The alternating story/research pattern of his book makes the experience of reading it feel like taking a bike ride in hilly country. The reader begins with an easy coast down a gentle story slope, lured in by the effortless ride. Then the terrain changes to literary references and theological considerations, and the reader needs to work a little harder. These sections are well researched, thoughtful and necessary to the book, but some of the hills are long and steep, and the reader must coax himself to keep climbing. But just when he thinks he can’t pedal anymore, the crest of the hill appears, the promise of more enchantment beckons, and the reader keeps climbing knowing that soon he will glide down, head thrown back, into the reward of another compelling personal story.
Sibley is at his best when painting word picture stories. The reader can see, feel and smell the sacred places, the homes, and the pilgrim pathways. We hear waves smash on the coastline of Vancouver Island, taste the dust of a prairie graveyard, and ache for the solitude of a Yukon peak. Sibley writes dialogue naturally and captures the characters of the people he meets.
A Rumour of God is both a soul drink for those thirsty for affirmation of their own "glimpses of the underglimmer," and a mind drink for those who need the facts along with the fun. It is a manual for seeking and accepting the presence of deeper meaning in a modern world.
Published Saturday March 5th, 2011
A Rumour of God, by Ottawa Citizen journalist and political scientist Robert Sibley, is a gallimaufry of sources, citations, impressions, ruminations and allusions. It is, in part, political commentary, philosophical essay, theological reflection and personal memoir. But mostly, it is a sustained meditation, the outpourings of a peripatetic savant (and Sibley does love his walks).
The book is framed by his pilgrimages - and there are many, including most prominently the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the Shikoku no Michi in Japan. It is also peppered with numerous recollections of wilderness trips into the Canadian north and along the coasts of Vancouver Island.
But Sibley's perambulations are not just in the rugged regions of the Canadian landscape; he walks reflectively and with acute antennae feels the pulse and "thisness" of the parks and streets of Ottawa and London, England.
Sibley walks his thoughts and thinks his walks. A creative conjunction.
The essays on topics that would thrill a social anthropologist such as Margaret Visser or a novelist like Jane Urquhart - topics like home, place, solitude, wonder, pilgrimage and "everyday mysticism" - are replete with learned references and personal experiences. It's all nicely packaged in a narrative that eschews professional jargon in favour of an enlightened colloquy with the reader.
Sibley is appalled by the narrow definition of reason that reigns supreme and unquestioned in our society. Disconcerted by our collective poverty of imagination that forecloses spiritual experience, Sibley advances a cogent argument for the recovery of the numinous in the quotidian - "We do not have to surrender to the debilitating boredom of consumerism and the ersatz spectacles of entertainment."
In other words, Sibley is resolved to help us heed the urgings of awe, to attend to the "glimpses of the underglimmer" that open us to the divine embedded in the mundane, and to rebuild a culture that delights in enchantment, the mystical, the ineffable: "Television series such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Touched by an Angel, Six Feet Under, Angels in America and True Blood; movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings series (based on J.R.R. Tolkien's books) and, more recently, Avatar; books such as the Harry Potter novels and C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia - these all speak to a longing for re-enchantment, a desire to counterbalance the rationalization of the world and escape the iron cage of reason."
A Rumour of God is, in goodly measure, a distillation of the research and seminal ideas of a legion of thinkers - some eminent, some obscure, some central and some marginal - and, as a consequence, the "meditation" is frequently encumbered by a displaced gravitas.
But it is never more exuberant nor more compelling than when it is autobiographical. When Sibley draws on his own direct experience his artistic side allows for an expansiveness of vision and richness of prose that combined make for a deeply pleasurable read.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.