Friday, September 22, 2006

Margaret Visser, "Epiphanies"

from The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
by Margaret Visser

The word "remember" comes from the same Indo-European root as "mind." And the English word "mind" is both a noun ("what is in the brain") and a verb ("pay attention to," "care"). When one has forgotten, to remember is to call back into the "attention span," to recall. Attention is thought of here as having a span - an extension in space. Forgetting, on the other hand, is like dropping something off a plate, falling off an edge, not "getting" it, but having to do, instead, without it. Remembering is recapturing something that happened in the past; it is an encounter of now with then - a matter of time. Buildings - constructions in space - may last through time as this church has lasted. Such structures can cause us to remember. Their endurance, as well as their taking up space, may counter time and keep memory alive.

This particular church reminds us of Agnes, who was killed by having her throat cut almost 1700 years ago. But like any church, it recalls a great deal more. One of a church's main purposes is to call to mind, to make people remember. To begin with, a church sets out to cause self-recollection. Every church does its best (some of them are good at this, others less so, but every church is trying) to help each person recall the mystical experience that he or she has known.

Everyone has had some such experience. There are moments in life when - to use the language of a building - the door swings open. The door shuts again, sooner rather than later. But we have seen, even if only through a crack, the light behind it. There has been a moment, for example, when every person realizes that one is oneself, and no one else. This is probably a very early memory, this taking a grip on one's own absolutely unique identity, this irrevocable beginning.

I remember myself, walking along a narrow path in the Zambian bush. The grass was brown and stiff, more than waist-high. I was wearing a green-and-white checked dress with buttons down the front. I was alone. I said aloud, stunned, "Tomorrow I'm going to be five! Tomorrow I'm going to be five!" I stopped still with amazement: fiveness was about to be mine! I had already had four. The whole world seemed to point to me in that instant. The world and I looked at each other. It was huge and I was me. I was filled with indescribable delight. I took another step, and the vision was gone. But it's still there, even now, even when I am not recalling it.

This was a mystical experience. As such, one of its characteristics was that in it my mind embraced a vast contradiction: both terms of it at once? I was me and the world contained me, but I was not the world. I was a person, but I wasn't "a person" - I was me. A mystical experience is before all else an experience, and beyond logic. It is concrete, and therefore unique. It is bigger than the person who experiences it; it is something one "enters."

People have always, apparently in all cultures, conceptualized the world as participating in, or expressing, or actually being a tension between a series of opposites: big and small, high and low, same and different, hot and cold, one and many, male and female, and so on. Societies of people can have very idiosyncratic ideas about what is opposite to what: a culture can find squirrels "opposite" to water rats, oblongs "opposite" to squares, bronze vessels "the opposite" of clay ones. Anthropologists dedicate themselves to finding 'out what such classifications could mean; the answers they give us usually show how social arrangements are reflected outward upon the world, and determine human perceptions of how nature is ordered. One result of a mystical experience, therefore, can be a profound demystification.

For no sooner has a culture organized its system of contradictions, than the mystics arise. They steadfastly, and often in the face of great danger, assure their fellow human beings that they are wrong: what appears to be a contradiction in terms is merely a convention, a point of view, a fa├žon de parler, no matter how self-evident it may appear. These are people who believe and convince others that they have been lifted out of this world and have seen a greater truth: the opposites are, in fact, one. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus can say, "The way up and the way down are the same." Or: "Step into the same river twice, and its waters will be different."

Such mystic realizations (up and down are one, sameness and difference coincide) have to keep occurring, both for the sake of truth, and for the necessity of realizing that neither our senses nor our thinking faculties have access to, or are capable of encompassing, everything. ("The last proceeding of reason," wrote Pascal, "is to recognize that there is an infinity of things beyond it.") For all the outrage-and bafflement with which the pronouncements of the mystics are greeted, we remember their words; in time we learn to appreciate and value them. In our own day, physicists have been talking like mystics for some time: expressing physical reality, for example, as conflating space and time, or declaring that waves and particles (lines and dots) can be perceived to be "the same." The rest of us are only beginning to take in what they are saying.

From the point of view of the person experiencing them, privileged moments - those that allow us to see something not normally offered to our understanding - do not last. Regretfully, necessarily, we cannot remain in such an experience. We move on, into the practical, the sensible, the logical and provable, the mundane. But after one such glimpse of possibility, we henceforth know better. We know what it is to experience two or more incompatible, mutually exclusive categories as constituting in fact one whole. We have seen both sides of the coin, at one and the same time. An impossibility - but it has happened. We may bury this experience, deny it, explain it away-but at any moment something could trigger it, raise it up, recall it. Because it has happened, and cannot unhappen.

One of the consequences of having had a mystical experience is a sense of loss. If only it could have gone on and on, and never had to stop; if only the door would open again! One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in life is that we cannot bring about such an experience, any more than we can make it last. Sex can remind us of it because, like a mystical experience, sex is ecstatic, overwhelming, and delightful; it feels bigger than we are. Drugs can also make us feel as if we're "there" again. So people pursue sex and drugs - experiences they can get, they can have. This other thing, this greater and unforgettable thing, this insight, is not anyone's for the asking. It comes (it always comes, to everyone, at different times and in different ways), and there is no telling what it will be or when or where, let alone how. You can't buy it or demand it or keep it. It is not a chemical reaction, and there is nothing automatic about it.

A mystical experience is something perceived, and it calls forth a response. But you are free to turn away from the vision, to behave as though it never happened; you are free not to respond. (This is something I have had to learn: when I was almost five there was no question of not responding.) The invitation cannot be made to anyone else but you - and not even to you at any moment in your life other than the one in which it is made. I shall never be five again, so no other mystical experience I have will ever again be that one. I shall never again wear that green-and-white checked dress; it is very likely that the path through the brown grass has disappeared. What I have left is the enormous memory, and the fact that it has enlarged all of my experience ever since.

Now a church (or a temple or a synagogue or a mosque - any religious building) knows perfectly well that it cannot induce in anyone a mystical experience. What it does is acknowledge such experience as any of its visitors has had, as explicitly as it can. A church is a recognition, in stone and wood and brick, of spiritual awakenings. It nods, to each individual person. If the building has been created within a cultural and religious tradition, it constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thousands of mystical moments. A church reminds us of what we have known: And it tells us that the possibility of the door swinging open again remains.