“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.”

Thinking about Infinity

The radical thinking God asked for has really been beyond my intellectual reach.  I tried to think about infinity, for example.  It is certainly a daunting concept.  Every philosopher is aware of such puzzles as Zeno’s paradoxes and Immanuel Kant’s antinomies.

The Greek philosopher Zeno argued that, if the tortoise has a head start, Achilles can never overtake him.  Once he catches up with the tortoise’s previous position, the tortoise will have moved forward.  Achilles will now have to reach the tortoise’s new position but, by the time he does so, the tortoise will have moved forward again, even if only a little way, and Achilles will have to catch up to that position, by which time the tortoise will have inched forward yet again, and so on.  Since there are an infinite number of points between the tortoise and the goal post, and an infinite number of points can never be transversed in finite time, Achilles can never catch the tortoise.  Of course, in real life, he could.  That’s why it is a paradox.

Kant’s antinomies are more metaphysical than mathematical but also have to do with infinity.  For example, either the world had a beginning or it did not (these alternatives are the antinomies or contradictories).  If it did, one wonders what happened before that?  And if it did not, there would have to be an infinite number of moments in the past, and is that really conceivable?

There were world-class physicists at a conference I attended.  One reported that mathematicians had now proved you can have an infinite space within a sphere—within a ball, in effect.  He said it made no sense to him but, since mathematicians had proved it, he had to accept it.  A great deal of contemporary science doesn’t “make sense.”  While I was balking at giving up my categories for understanding the nature of God, I saw what scientists have to believe when they do quantum mechanics.  They have to believe that some subatomic particles do not actually have a location prior to being observed.  They have to believe that a certain change in one particle is always followed by the opposite change in another particle even though there is no contact between them and no way for the second particle to “know” which way the first particle changed.  If tough-minded physicists could be that flexible, surely I could too.

I did try to think about infinity.  One of the basic paradoxes in the philosophical tradition concerns whether it makes sense to have an actual or completed infinity.  No matter how large the number, you can always add “plus one.”  So it seems that the number series simply goes on forever and can never be completed.  If so, infinity is more a process term than the description of an actuality.  It expresses the possibility of a larger number, not the actuality of an infinite quantity.  But that seems to mean that no thing or being could actually be infinite.  The number series can always go on, but each number is the end point of a finite series of numbers.  That means that God could not actually be infinite.

I wondered if that was adequate.  I tried to think of a completed infinite.  In our home, we have two mirrors that face each other.  Each one mirrors the other, and mirrors the other mirroring the other, and so on, with the result that one sees an infinite series of mirrorings in each mirror.  And they all exist fully and in the present, not just as a series running into the future.  Maybe, I thought, this was an actual or complete infinite.  But, no, the mirror images get smaller and smaller but at some point they are presumably too small to be mirrored, so there are a finite number of reflected images after all.  Moreover, although the images seem to us to all exist at the present moment, in fact light takes time to go back and forth, and that means there is really a series of images.  Even if the series could go on forever, it would never be completed.

Perhaps I was on the wrong track.  What is meant when people say that God is infinite?  Do they mean some kind of actual or completed infinite?  Or is it another way to say that nothing is missing.  That is a less puzzling idea.  In a perfect painting, nothing is missing.  There is nothing to be added.  Perhaps that is a thought in the right direction.

Then I remembered:  I had already asked God, Are You infinite?  The answer was “I am boundless.”  It is not clear what “boundless” means.  Literally, it would mean “without bounds or limits.”  But the next two answers may be relevant here.  I had asked about omniscience, in effect, infinite knowledge, and was told, “I know everything that is important.”  And I had asked about omnipotence—infinite power—and was told, “I can do everything I want (care) to do.”  That sounds more like the perfect painting.