My Catholic friend tilted her teacup like a fortune-teller. "You know," she said, "I think people who don't have God in their lives are like people who have sex but have never had an orgasm and say: 'Oh, but I don't miss it!'"
Spewing is not a traditional tea-party event, yet I managed to baptize the scones with a mighty spritz of superior-grade tippy golden flowery Darjeeling. I shouldn't have been so shocked. After all, we'd been talking about God, and when you go there these days, anything can happen.
God talk is one of the fun side effects of having been flung out of the cozy nest of Victorian adventure writing and onto the rough terrain of the spiritual path. And it was all God's fault! Without warning, He/She/It grabbed me by the ear, marched me into the divine principal's office, and told me to stop goofing off and start paying attention. The wild ride that ensued is celebrated in my new book, Roll Around Heaven. It's an all-true, unbidden spiritual adventure that opens with the sudden appearance of my father's face in the sky three days after he died, followed by the arrival of a completely un-asked-for spiritual teacher, a true American master I call the Holy Pig Farmer. The next thing I knew, I was riding with Jesus on a freeway (I'm not kidding), reading the auras of big league pitchers at a Seattle Mariners game, accidentally having lunch with Deepak Chopra in downtown Portland, dancing with Stephen Hawking in Mumbai, India (while on a golf assignment), and seeing all kinds of "light beings" on a regular basis — both angelic and otherwise — not to mention having my mind turned into a slideshow of images designed to bless — or heal — perfect strangers.
This was not adventure I had bargained for. I was an earth-bound outdoors writer. My other books are about travel and flyfishing and golf, for chrissake. A glimpse of a Himalayan partridge really would have been enough for me! But there I was living with the kind of mystical experiences any spiritual seeker would sell her soul for. Once I finally found the courage to even mention my secret spiritual life, to my astonishment, people I thought I knew readily confessed to having had all manner of otherworldly experiences themselves. One long-time friend told me that once while walking on the beach, she picked up a perfect sand-dollar and said out loud: "Oh, what a treasure!" only to instantly hear a voice as clear as a normal person's say: "No, you are my treasure." It all felt like some kind of cosmic conspiracy: did everyone have a secret spiritual life?
Well, yes. And that's the point.
It's also why I decided to write Roll Around Heaven. Which begs the question: What the heck are we talking about?
The main problem intelligent, thinking people have with the mystical realm is... over-thinking. We're often not quite intelligent enough to realize that it's the "logical" parts our brains that insist on "logical" explanations for everything. This is like banks insisting on their own bailouts. To which I say: duh. It also brings to mind a rerun I recently saw of the old TV show What's My Line? wherein New York brainiac Henry Morgan upon, being introduced to a contestant who happened to be a psychologist, replied with annoyance: "Yes, and now she'll try to understand me to death." Thus are many bright modern spiritual-minded folk calling for something even smarter.
In her recent Portland Arts and Lectures appearance, progressive religious scholar Karen Armstrong suggested that we follow the didactic brilliance of India's old Brahman priests who would purposefully debate the nature of the divine until there was nothing left to say, knowing that in the ensuing silence lay the only true answer. Armstrong also knows that we can't experience the divine in what she calls "everyday reality." This is why all religions include transportive practices. Chanting, singing, burning incense, repetitive prayer, meditation, labyrinth walking, spinning in endless circles. All of it is designed to get us out of our thinking minds and into the realm of heaven-on-earth awareness... and the parts of our brains that let us experience it.
When neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a "stroke of insight" (also the title of her book on the subject), she was catapulted fully into the right hemisphere of her brain. She couldn't speak (without sounding like a barking dog) or think sequentially. But. She saw with crystalline clarity the seamless Oneness of all things. She saw "reality" as a whole and how every spiritual teacher in recorded history has told us it is, not a hodge-podge of separate parts. Later, when her brain mercifully healed, she went back to being a neuroanatomist, but with a twist: this academically brilliant thinker understood that the answer to our earthly problems lay in the Other Side of the human brain. "I believe," she concluded, "that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will become."
And that little insight is worth its weight in nuclear armaments.
As for God and religion, I think the old Trappist monk Thomas Merton said it best: a church is supposed to be a finger pointing the way to God. The problem is that we start worshipping the finger... then we poke our eyes out with it!
Perhaps more to the point, we begin worshipping our church's finger, as is the eternal danger of living in the quantifying left sides of our brains. This is mine and that is yours and this is the line drawn in the sand between us. The same goes for what are being called the "new atheists," who, as Karen Armstrong nimbly points out, are as dogmatic in their devotion to anti-divinity as any fundamentalist is to his or her own Grumpy-Guy-in-the-Sky version of God. And you can't have one without the other. It takes two to tangle.
But the divine isn't a football game, not that we haven't all witnessed transcendent end-runs and sublime long-bomb passes. But those just prove the point. The divine is something Beyond. Something on the other side of okey-doke-normal. The divine is Serena returning a serve that we all could see was destined for infinity. It's Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Charlie Parker playing the inside of the tune. Mozart dogpaddling to keep up with the notes flying through his hands with the greatest of ease. Descartes receiving his inspiration for Cartesian logic from a dream. And it is an everyday housewife walking on an everyday beach and hearing, without even having asked the question, that something beyond anything she knows considers her a priceless treasure. The divine is quite simply something we cannot, and should not want to, understand, for it dwells in the holy silence between our thoughts.
And that's the fun of it!
But you have to cultivate this kind of awareness and that takes practice, at which most of us moderns are just plum terrible. "A deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred," writes Karen Armstrong, "was a constant theme...in Christianity [and] in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts, and could only be known by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight and, I believe, this is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so difficult today."
That passage is quoted in Roll Around Heaven. And it was, by the way, brought to my attention by divine choreography only five days before the last-ditch deadline for the manuscript's final edits were due. My husband and I had just spent a week on the holy isle of Iona, Scotland, and were in a British Airways lounge at Heathrow International Airport awaiting our flight home, which we managed to miss for no good reason. This forced an expensive overnight at the airport and a frantic crack-of-dawn dash back to the British Airways counter to be wait-listed for the day's earliest flight which we'd been told was our only chance as all other flights were progressively more over-booked. We didn't make that first flight. Or the next one. Or the next. Settling our weary selves back into the lounge for the fourth time, my husband rose to make his umpteenth cup of tea, leaving the London Times open to a page he thought might interest me. On it was an excerpt from Ms. Armstrong's book, The Case for God, and it read like a scholar's outline of Roll Around Heaven. I knew I had to quote Armstrong's book in my own. The point of our entire airport debacle hit me full force. "This is why we missed our flight," I declared when my husband returned. "Our work is done. We'll be on the next flight... and I bet they upgrade us to business, too."
And that, against all odds, is exactly what happened.
It is as fruitless to try to figure out little mysteries like this one as it is to try to understand Mystery itself, which, really is what the divine is. It also ruins the joy of it. What is useful is tuning our minds to both, with expectancy and humility and awe. And I fully agree with Ms. Armstrong that the key here is practice. You can't have a relationship with anyone or anything without showing up. And what we're talking about here is nothing less than your own relationship with this ephemeral, confounding, unpredictable, unlimited, stunningly original, non-person-place-or-thing we call God.
Karen Armstrong sums up the divine with matching elegance as the "luminous silence of unknowing." Hinduism expresses it beautifully as the dance of Shiva, symbol of the eternal making, unmaking, and remaking of Life as We Know It, much like the ongoing creativity of subatomic particles. The Jewish tradition remains so in awe of the divine it's not Kosher to even speak God's name. And the Holy Pig Farmer is particularly fond of an African tribe that doesn't even have a word for God, only a sound: "Whew!"
Even if you balk at the weirdness of "believing in God," you're still stuck with a rather glaring fundamental mystery: right now, at this very moment, you are sitting on a rock in outer space staring at a computer screen. And it doesn't get any weirder than that. The fact that I have been treated to an ongoing cascade of mystical events is not the point. I'm just the messenger, and Roll Around Heaven is not about me; it's about you. It is the Obama of spiritual books whose clear and present message is: Yes You Can. You don't have to, of course. Tuning to the divine is up to you. I'm simply suggesting that this is one tea party you might not want to miss.