“I was in the drop of water.”

Abigail asked if I had ever had any spiritual experiences in the past. At first I said “no.” I had forgotten two events early in life. Well, not actually forgotten, but set them aside. That’s what people do in our secular age.

A woman I know recently took a boat trip up the Amazon. One night, she awakened when everyone else was fast asleep, and went up to the deck. The entire galaxy was splayed across the sky. She was enveloped by the dark sights and murmuring sounds of the jungle, teeming with life in the midst of tranquility. It was an immersion in the universe itself. She did not call the experience mystical or even religious, but it was certainly an epiphany, a moment of intimate connection with the Whole, full of awe, wonder, and reverence.

My friend’s experience was in a more impressive setting than my my two moments. The first occurred when I was just a kid. One of my chores was watering the lawn. I had run water in the shrubs and bent down to turn off the faucet. I don’t know why I lingered for a moment, crouching down, looking at the tap but, as I did, a last drop of water slowly formed on the bottom edge and hung there. I looked at that drop of water in a way I had never looked at anything before. I saw it—how to describe it?—in its full presence, its suchness, its integrity as an independent existent in the community of being. When I later read in Buber about encountering Nature as Thou, this experience came to mind. It was not as if the drop of water had a mind or soul or was looking back at me or anything like that. Yet I no longer saw it as merely an it, merely an item in the inventory of the universe. I saw the drop of water as, in a sense, a member of what Immanuel Kant called the Kingdom of Ends—the community of all beings who should be respected as ends-in-themselves, not just as means for the use of others. This is, of course, language I now use. I don’t know how I would have described it at the time. I was just a kid, after all, and it didn’t seem worth telling.

The other experience was more arresting and consequential. It was a balmy evening during my senior year at Riverside Poly high school. We used to go downtown to one of those old-style, elegant movie theatres. My friends and I were outside, standing around and joking, waiting for others to arrive. Suddenly, I was in a world of my own, enveloped by concentric circles swirling around a center, like a small spiral galaxy. Just as suddenly, the experience was over. It would have been hard to describe even then, but its meaning was crystal clear. Time had disclosed its essence to me. I did not mention it to my friends, who had not noticed my “absence.” I did not tell anyone—whatever understanding I retained I could not have articulated even to myself—but the moment left an imprint. Though not much for poetry, I found myself responding to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a deep meditation on the nature of time, and particularly to the lines:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I developed an interest in philosophical questions regarding time and years later published a phenomenological analysis of the experienced “now” that provided a way of understanding Plato’s insight that “time is the moving image of eternity.”

These two moments—and that of my friend in the Amazon—were divine shafts of light breaking through the clouds, as are many experiences people gloss over and relegate to their mental attics.

Later, I was told,

Think about epiphanic experiences. When did you feel close to Me or most spiritually open?

“I can only remember the two experiences. The first was the I-Thou with a drop of water.”

Yes, that is very significant. What did you understand from that experience?

“I understood the subjectivity of all things … but I’m not sure that is quite right. I did not imagine the drop of water looking out at me or having feelings or the like. I just encountered the ‘suchness’ of it, its full independent integrity, my respect for it, that we were in some kind of relationship …”

That was an encounter with Me. I was in the drop of water. Why not? Where else would I be? I am in everything. You suddenly became open to My presence in that drop of water. You did not think of it that way, and you were right. It is not that I as a great mystical being somehow inhabited this tiny object, but you rightly experienced the drop for what it was, and that is precisely how I am “in” things. As you can tell, I am in each thing “fully.”

“These moments were not empty suffering”

Any person who believes in God has to confront the problem of human suffering. Why does God permit it?

“Lord, does suffering have any purpose or meaning?”

Of course, suffering is what makes life serious. Imagine a world in which actions never resulted in suffering. Imagine a world without the pain of regret, without feeling bad about doing something wrong (or) shameful.

“But disease serves no moral purpose.”

Now you are fencing with Me on “the problem of pain.” Just listen. You will never learn from fencing.

Disease, disaster, aging, death are essential aspects of suffering. “We” live in a physically vulnerable world. That is the essential condition that makes life serious.

“All that’s rather abstract, Lord. What exactly does disease do for us?” I thought of Job’s boils.

Suffering is the test of your humanity. There is no greater test than pain—how one copes with it. It is easy to be nice, faithful, and such, when things are great, but very hard under adversity.

“But, Lord, that just seems perverse—or cruel.”

No, that’s not so. Think about your own times of physical suffering—in the hospital, for example—the shots, the clumsy aide, the itch, the nurse about urinating, those were full of growth.

Those examples brought back memories. A couple of years before these prayers began, I suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to the intensive care unit. They took blood tests, day and night. There are a limited number of places from which blood can be drawn, and the same spot cannot be used again right away. The wrists are ideal, but mine are sensitive and a needle there smarts. One does not have much power as a patient, but safeguarding my wrists became my prime imperative. One after another blood drawer would come, and I would plead, argue, wheedle, and insist they find some other place to puncture me. Each resisted, then managed to find a spot.

I was transferred to another hospital for the surgical procedure. I was met by a technician who said his name and stuck out his hand—while looking the other way and standing on my oxygen tube. When it was time to go into the operating room, he snatched away my blanket with so violent a jerk it would have ripped out the intravenous insertion if I had not by now been on high alert.

Once in the operating room, I was placed on a slab with my arms flat at my side. Medical equipment loomed above, posing an impressive threat. “Don’t move!” I was told. My nose chose that moment to itch. The itch grew intense, then more intense, dreadfully intense, until nothing existed but me and that itch. Then I understood. I can’t fight it. I just have to live with it, until the procedure is over. I don’t know if the itch went away or what—I forgot all about it.

The procedure went smoothly. I watched the monitor as the surgeon snaked a catheter through an incision in my groin up to a major coronary artery where a stent had to be placed.

Opening an artery is a very serious matter. Bleeding can be life-threatening. The patient has to lie flat and immobile for twenty-four hours. Nurses at my first hospital had been angels in white, but here I was attended by Nurse Ratched’s less charming twin. She seemed to resent patients needing her help. Finding it difficult to manage the bedpan flat on my back, I asked for assistance. She acted as if it were a dirty-minded request and responded by threatening me, “If you can’t manage the bedpan, we will catheterize you!” Finally, I did manage, and it was time to close up the artery. Another patient had told me the closing could be dangerous as well as painful.

“Who is to perform this delicate operation?”

Nurse Ratched gave me the grim news: young Mr. Sizzorhands, the technician whose previous efforts to hurt me had been foiled, would now have another shot. I asked for someone else. “He is the only technician available.”

“I am not going to let that guy lay another hand on me.”

She made it a battle of wills. We went back and forth. Finally I said, “Let me speak to the doctor.”

She said she would see what she could do and, after a time, she returned with a young Asian-American attendant. He had magical hands. I didn’t feel a thing.

My body was recovering nicely, but the whole experience—starting with “indigestion” in the night (I didn’t know that was a heart symptom), calling the office the next morning to find out what nearby doctor was covered by my health plan, driving myself (fool that I was) to the doctor’s office, filling out forms and waiting for some time before going up and telling the receptionist, “I may be having a heart attack,” the quick examination and discovery that I was at that very moment in the throes of an incipient attack, an emergency medical team rushing to my side trying to head it off, being shoveled into an ambulance, the sirens, intensive care, the surgery, the whole ordeal—left me feeling fragile, as if I were made of spun glass. A sharp tap and I would shatter.

They (these moments) were not empty suffering; they even had to do with leading you to Me.

“How so, Lord?”

They focused your attention on your mortality, which (led) you to open your heart fully to Abigail because you realized how precious this love was. And it led to your prayer to serve God.

“I want you to enter My heart”

It all seemed intolerably bizarre. I thought I should talk it over with the wisest people I knew. One, a distinguished medical ethicist, responded, “First of all, this is not weird.” Nothing he could have said would have been a greater relief to me! Another, a well-known author, said, first, “That’s great—now you know there is a God,” and then added, “You have had a Kierkegaard moment,” recalling that philosopher’s question, “If you encountered Jesus on the streets of Copenhagen, would you follow him?” A prominent lay theologian said he was “touched” by my story and suggested some reading while I waited for my “big” assignment.

While there were also cautionary responses, no one seemed to think I was crazy or a fool to take the voice seriously.

Still, I was not prepared for the next experience.

I want you to enter My heart.

Enter God’s heart? This is weird, Lord, and scary, like out-of-body travel.”

I will protect you.

For moral support I asked, “Lord, first give me Your love.”

Let Abigail love you. You will feel My love through her.

“Then strengthen me, be with me, for this.”

I will.

He took my hand, as it were, and led me into the “heart of God.” I had expected it to be an overpowering, perhaps terrifying experience. But it was more like the eye of a hurricane. I was at the center of something vast and powerful, but here it was quiet, calm, and peaceful. I surveyed the things I feared—the end of my career, loss of reputation, financial insecurity, and a book that went nowhere. In that calm that is God, each concern disappeared.

Illuminations

 

 

 

 

Ask yourself what I am looking for.

One day I learned more about God’s story when I asked simply, “Where should I begin today, Lord?”

Ask yourself what I am looking for.

“Love?”

Well, yes, but what is that love?

“Interaction, communication, understanding?”

YesI long to be recognized, to be understood, and then to be taken in.

I wondered why a great being like God would need to be loved by mere mortals.  “Why does that matter to You, Lord?  You’ve got it all, just being God.”

That is silly.  This is what I am.  I am like a function looking for a variable.  I am only half the equation.

I looked for a humbler analogy.  “Like cement looking for bricks to hold together?”

Okay.

“Is that connection only what You need or is it also what the world needs?”

Both, obviously.  In your analogy, the world is like the bricks that need to be held together.

“But, Lord, I sense that Your yearning is not just a factual incompleteness, like needing a pair of gloves.”

Yes, it is a deep internal dynamic that drives Me forward to do the things I do.  I unfurl the world and call forth life and send signals to people.  Listen, and feel.

“The feeling that comes to me is Your desire to call into being a corresponding being.  It seems a lot like the dialectic of self and other in Hegel.  Subjectivity desires to objectify itself, as it does in artifacts, and to subjectivize the surrounding world, as it does in interpretation, and, even higher, to encounter another subjectivity.”

I am a Person, searching for …

“That’s what I wonder, Lord.  I can’t quite imagine what You are searching for.  Just interaction?  That seems too limited and, in a sense, too easy.”

It is not just looking for company.  Perhaps speaking of loneliness is misleading.  Why does a human being look for love?  It is not just for company.  That is companionship, not love.  You want to pour yourself, your concern, your destiny into another person.  And you want them to respond in kind, to understand and recognize and sympathize with and care about you, (and) to share your life story, so that I becomes we.  And the result is not just good feelings or good times; it is ontological, it is virtually molecular.  You know that, because you have experienced it.  Imagine how puny your love is (not to belittle it, but just for comparison) compared to Mine.  What is barely ontological or molecular in your case is fully so in Mine.  The constitution of the universe is altered by My love and My being loved.  You can’t just say “God so loved the world …”  Love is a two-way street.  Anything unilateral is merely an effort at love, not its fulfillment, not its achievement.

You could tell My story, one version of it at least, through the history of love.  What has love meant and been over time?  From Abraham’s love for his wife and his son and his God, through the Ramayana and the compassionate Buddha and Jesus and Plato’s philosophy as eros toward wisdom, to Christian chivalry and Buber’s I-Thou—these are stages that reflect My development and My interaction with human beings. 

“It will be My voice.”

 

So that is what the new Elijah, the new messenger, is about.  But telling the world that I am the new Elijah?  “Lord, I am back to the laughing stock problem.”

As I tell it to you, it will become clearer what you should write publicly.  There is no point in writing something that will be dismissed.  You will need to continue reading and studying—otherwise, you will not have adequate words and concepts.  There is a reason I chose an educated man for this task.

My message is evolving over time.  You will carry it forward.  Do not credit this to your ego—it will be My voice.  (Just) focus on the task.  The world’s religions have spent themselves.  They need renewal.  There will be many voices for renewal.  Yours will be one of the most important.

“I would feel more comfortable being one of the less important.”

I have given you some clues . . .

I had received visions of the explosive expansions of time and space, and of divine energy rushing up through all levels of reality. Were these intimations of Creation? I was told,

The work I want you to begin involves reading and writing about My nature. Start with the Creation. I have given you some clues already. Follow up on them.

One day, in quiet reflection, I was taken deep into the Self, taken back, it seemed, to the Beginning. Here is how I described it right afterwards:

“There was a sense of things shattering, like crockery breaking, or like the shell of an egg breaking. (I think of Kabbalah and its image of Creation as divine vessels breaking.) Then there is a river, or milk, flowing out from amidst the shards. The river is clouded in mist and flows a long way down canyons of shards or rocks. Until it settles in a pool below. Tranquil waters. This is when Life begins. Cool, calm but rippling waters.”

 

All this was taking place on a flight to California to visit my ninety-year-old father. Sitting beside me was a nine-year-old girl, traveling alone. She kept looking at me, wondering what I was up to. Ignoring her was unkind, so I stopped praying and chatted with her.

After that, I returned to my own meditations and received a stream of visual images, a vision: the sun cracking up, solar flares that zoomed out into the reaches of space. I then saw, through the mist, an ethereal caravan of camels and their riders, coming up a valley, their long line stretching behind, down a winding road into the distance. I followed the road back to the source. I came upon vast winds, like a monsoon, then a world exploding—and then the vision abruptly stopped. The caravan seemed to represent the long course of human history, traced backward, all the way to the beginning, and then nothing.

I had received hints about the moment of Creation. Then, one day, He told me more. This is where God’s story really begins.