Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/29/2010

What the (blank) Is a Mystical Experience, Anyway? And Why?

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Exactly what a “mystical experience” is, I do not know. It depends on whom you ask, of course. My neurologist can tell you which little part of your brain controls what I would call the ineffable. Ask William James (he had no knowledge of the recent advances in neurology, and it’s an interesting mental self-gratification to wonder how his great book would be different if he had), and he has a very much different explanation.

To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of its possessor’s body at the time. (1)

I’m not even particularly interested in the debate, or should I say, the advances in understanding the scientific/physiological aspects of “mystical experience.” With Butterfly McQueen, I would say, “I don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no religious experience.” Of course, with Butterfly McQueen, I might say in real life as opposed to the celluloid life, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion” (2).

I’ve been thinking about what makes me “religious.” Notice I did not say “christian,” or “theological,” or “Muslim,” or “Hindu,” or “Baha’i.” I said simply “religious.”

The thought came to mind when a friend e-mailed me earlier this week, “. . . your account of the service this morning [Holy Communion at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas] brought to mind similarities between church services and sexual encounters.”  Well, now. There’s a put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it challenge.

What happened that caused her response was my announcing to a few friends that I have decided to join St. Michael’s Church. Join a church? Me? I’ve been happy that my little church died, and I have no responsibility on Sundays. Besides, I do not believe 90% of what I hear in church. The only way I can read through the Nicene (or even the Apostles’) Creed is to think of it as a theologian friend of mine used to call it, “A Historical Symbol of the Faith.” History and “the” faith, not my faith. “We believe. . . .”

Back to St. Michael’s. I had inadvertently stumbled into services there on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (when I was organist at Episcopal churches, I kept diligent track of such things). Well, you can guess they pulled out all the stops for their saint name-day! Brass, choir (that’s nothing special—they have the best choir in America outside New York) that monstrous organ playing some of my favorite hymns, processions all over the place with banners and flags and streamers, about a hundred acolytes, bunches of clergy, the anthem, “I Was Glad” by Hubert Parry, and—you get the picture. I was smitten.

I have to admit that sounds very much like romantic (or even sexual) language.

So here’s the deal. I always have to wonder how the weirdness in my brain is divided between Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and normal religious experience and mystical experience and simple delusion. This is not a trivial intellectual task. In fact, I don’t think I have the brainpower to figure it out. Most of my life I know I have been deeply (sentimentally? emotionally?) moved by experiences that other people may find interesting or meaningful or complex or (many words will fit here). Tears in church are not, I think, exactly normal responses to what’s going on. I always cried at Baptisms in the Baptist Church, and I have often been brought to tears kneeling at an altar rail to receive communion. Choking up singing some great hymntune to the accompaniment of, say, a magnificent organ with brass choir, is my normal response. Of course I cry at nearly every movie I see, too. So what’s the big deal?

Here are some moments in my experience when I knew for sure there was something out there somewhere that was bigger than me and bigger than what was actually going on in the physical present moment. (AA’s would call it “a power greater than myself.” I wouldn’t.) The list is more or less chronological.

Sitting on Mom’s lap in church in the 1889 incredible Victorian First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska, (probably 5 or 6 years old). Seeing the box-work formations in Wind Cave, South Dakota (9 or 10 years old). Seeing a tornado in the distance (not touching down) in the Wildcat Hills near Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Lying on a hill in the Pine Ridge of Chadron State Park in Nebraska looking at the night sky and knowing it is impossible to think about infinity. Playing the organ accompaniment for the first time for the “Feast of Lights” at the University of Redlands (sophomore year). Hearing the Kansas City Symphony play the Beethoven Seventh at some auditorium in Pasadena, California—also my sophomore year (that one caused me to run through the streets of Pasadena so the people I was with had to call the police to help them find me). My first Good Friday Service at Christ Church in Ontario, California. Seeing the light in St. Paul’s, London, as Christopher Wren meant for it to be seen. Hearing the Julliard String Quartet play the last two Beethoven Quartets. Hearing/seeing Wotan’s farewell to Brunhilde for the third time (at the Seattle Opera). Accidentally being asked to administer the communion chalice to a couple hundred people at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Chicago.

So, you say, everyone has those experiences. I’m certain everyone does. I’m not so certain everyone has an out-of-body (for want of a better description) experience every time something like that happens to them. Do you?

I have a life that is not my life, but something that happens to me that I cannot control and that happens only at times of intensity. I suppose you do, too. It’s pretty much happening right now as I think about these experiences. I can’t tell if it’s God, or great art, or the beauty of nature, or a Temporal Lobe seizure. It can’t be God because I don’t believe in God. It might be great art—even in memory Wotan’s farewell brings me to tears. It might be simply the sum of the parts of my family’s and communities’ effects on my thinking. It may be the dissociation of TLE.

It may, however, be a deep mystery, the mysterious reality of my life. The reality that I cannot share with anyone and that—even in the moments of my greatest skepticism and fear and certainty of the terror of death—gives me a clear enough sense that I exist to make it possible to continue. I had that experience again Sunday morning at St. Michael’s amid the tympani, the brass, the organ, the choir, the clergy, and sitting next to one of my dearest friends. Mystical? Probably not. Necessary to my survival? Absolutely. For you, too, for all I know.

The sentiment of reality can indeed attach itself so strongly to our object of belief that our whole life is polarized through and through, so to speak, by its sense of the existence of the thing believed in, and yet that thing, for purpose of definite description, can hardly be said to be present to our mind at all. It is as if a bar of iron, without touch or sight, with no representative faculty whatever, might nevertheless be strongly endowed with an inner capacity for magnetic feeling. (3)
(1) James, William . The Varieties of Religious Experience (16-17). Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Scholar’s Lab. 1996. Web. 28 Sept. 2010.
(2) “FFRF Debuts New Freethought Bus Sign Campaign.” Freedom From Religion Foundation. Feb. 13, 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2010.
(3) James, op.cit. 55.


  1. I think the ‘mystical experience’ is a fleeting connection with the part of ourselves that is part of the All That Is.

    I have cried at most all the the things you listed, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone running through the streets. Maybe I should. Maybe we all should.


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