Today is Independence Day (as if I needed to tell you): The 4th of July, the day that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776, declaring that the thirteen colonies would no longer be subject to the monarch of Britain; that they would be united, independent, and free.
One of the ways this freedom is celebrated is, of course, with fireworks. They are perhaps the quintessential American spectacle. In the words of the poet May Swenson:
“Fire flowers open, shedding their petals. Black waves, turned more than moon white, pink ice, lightning blue, echo our gasps of admiration as they crash and hush… a twirling sun… leisurely bursts”
In the reading from 2 Corinthians that our lector just read for us, St. Paul speaks of a different sort of pyrotechnics: spiritual fireworks.
And, given that:
- July 4th falls on a Sunday, on average every 7.8 years (last time: 2010; next time: 2027)
- And, by my count, this reading last fell on a July 4 Sunday in 1982
- Before Nick White was Rector (1983)
And, given my abiding interest in mysticism, I couldn’t resist making the connection between the light show of holiday pyrotechnics and the inner light of Paul’s mysticism.
So: what are these spiritual pyrotechnics that Paul speaks of?
“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
Paul is describing what we could call a visionary, mystical state.
He writes of it in the third person, but commentators from the Church Fathers onward agree that Paul is speaking about himself.
He writes about being caught up (or away) to the third heaven, and to paradise. Ancient cosmologies, or maps of the structure of the universe, depicted a multitiered cosmic order. The Greek picture of the universe was of a spherical earth suspended in space at the center of concentric heavens. Some Jewish literature written between the Old and New Testaments featured speculation regarding the precise number of heavens. Seven is commonly mentioned. Other sources speak of three; God is supposed to dwell in the third heaven.
As for “Paradise”: it only appears in two other places in the whole Bible: the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Revelation. In Luke, Jesus tells the penitent thief crucified alongside him, “truly today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Paul doesn’t get far into these details; he doesn’t give a clear picture of the cosmos. He doesn’t claim to understand the mechanics of what happened (for example, he says doesn’t know whether it was in or out of the body).
What is important is Paul’s direct encounter with God, or, in his words elsewhere in 2 Corinthians, seeing the glory of the Lord and being transformed from one degree of glory to another.
These sort of experiences – with resonances with near death, out of body, and other visionary and mystical states – still happen to people today from all over the world and all walks of life. It is not unlikely that one of you has had such an experience.
These phenomena are good to remember and ponder. They challenge our culture’s materialistic assumptions, often unconscious and yet pervasive.
The philosopher and psychologist William James wrote that: “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
And yet: Such states of consciousness — or spiritual fireworks — may often seem distant, remote, out of reach, unattainable; even impossible. While we can see the pyrotechnics of Independence Day for ourselves, when it comes to the inward light of mystical experience, we might feel we have to accept them second hand — if we can accept them at all.
And that might be OK. The spiritual life is always a movement between consolation and desolation. Spiritual dryness is normal and inevitable and can sometimes last a long time.
Besides, experiences such as Paul in the third heaven are exceptional, even for St. Paul: its non-ordinary quality is indicated by its distance from the time Paul writes about it – “14 years ago” – and his third person account of it; it’s almost as if he didn’t dare speak of it with too much familiarity.
The pyrotechnics are never the point and focusing on them or seeking them out is discouraged by spiritual experts such as John of the Cross.
But: what is good for all of us to desire and to seek is a direct knowledge and love of God; a sense of the divine presence within us and all around us; a faith that is more than second-hand, abstract, or merely propositional. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote that the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.
We cannot generate or will our way into mystical states, but we can cultivate the conditions that can prepare the way for authentic God experience to be given to us, or what Thomas Merton called an atmosphere that “favors the secret and spontaneous development of the inner self.” Merton also saw that, “unfortunately, such a cultural setting no longer exists in the West or is no longer common property. It is something that has to be laboriously recovered.” We can do this through practices such as daily prayer, spiritual direction, the study of sacred and spiritual texts, fully engaged and conscious participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, and other ways by which we can become the good soil for the Word of God to be born, to grow, and to bear fruit.
So, perhaps you are ready for this. Perhaps there is a holy desire stirring in you for a deeper communion with our Lord. Follow that desire. You never know what God will give you; maybe now, maybe later, you might get fireworks, and a whole other level of freedom might open up to you.