My Mystical Adolescent Experience
I believe that the existence of God is revealed to us in special ways when we are children and that such revelations continue throughout our lifetime. While some recognize a Divine presence when such a revelation occurs, others may have to search years later to recall the experience. Such an effort is well worth the work it requires. Many times during my own life my faith has been reinforced and God’s existence has been very real to me. But the experience that set the tone for the rest of my life occurred during my adolescence and was my first real encounter with the living God.
At the age of twelve, I was a spiritual lightweight with heavy questions:
Is God real? If He is, does He exist now or only in the past? Does God know who I am? Is He really watching over my every move? Will He answer my prayers? When people say God has spoken to them, are they lying or delusional? Does God really speak audibly, and if so, why can’t I hear Him? And the list went on.
What little I had learned about God came from extended family, friends, and limited reading of the Bible. The fragments of the God story I’d gathered from these sources, as well as from differing Christian faith traditions and Jewish friends, did not present an intelligible or cohesive description of God; instead they elicited further questions.
It was a quiet, peaceful afternoon during my summer vacation from school in 1960. As an adolescent without a job, the summers provided ample time for baseball and thoughtful contemplation with little stress. My parents were working; my brother was down the street playing with friends; I was alone in a perfectly silent home. Lying on my bed with nothing to distract or interrupt me, my thoughts inevitably turned to the well-worn paths of my religious questioning.
What exactly would a world without beginning or end be? If God was eternal—existing before any physical matter or substance existed—who would be in this forever-world, even after the universe was no longer extant? I wasn’t concerned about how all living things were created or how this created universe would ultimately end, but rather why humans were the superior intelligence and yet so inferior to God.
My mind was totally occupied with the possibility of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God. I was not attempting to induce a mystical state, nor did I have any expectation of meeting God. I was simply engaged in deep contemplation over the questions and curiosities that consumed my young mind. While in this meditative state, however, I felt totally at peace—removed from the confines and constraints of my body. I could almost describe it as an “out-of-body” experience, although that description seems inadequate. I felt weightless, as if I were suspended above the floor of my room. I felt nothing but physical warmth, peace, quietude, painlessness, and great joy.
But these surreal sensations were dwarfed by something else: a very vivid connection with the Divine. No physical vision of God, no verbal communication, but an awareness of His presence that was unlike any I had ever felt before or have felt since. Enveloped and embraced by a bright warm light, I was filled with comfort and indescribable love. It was not unlike the comfort I often felt as a child just being in the presence of my parents, even when there was no physical embrace or verbal communication. Similarly, the pure, unconditional love I felt that day on my bed—of Divine parent for child—was reassuring and undeniable.
Oh, to remain in that state forever, but too quickly—in minutes—I felt myself drifting away from God’s loving embrace. As the reality of my body and my physical surroundings crept back into my consciousness, I longed to go back, but sustaining the experience seemed out of my control.
A few days later, I had a brief reprise of this experience, but all future attempts to re-create it failed.
As I grew older, I repeatedly and futilely sought this transcendent experience. For years I feared I was drifting away from God because I couldn’t return to the same feeling of closeness I had when I was twelve. Perhaps my mind had become cluttered with too many other interfering thoughts to be able to attain the same ecstatic, transcendent state.
The questions continued: Why had I been given this experience when I had no personal relationship with Jesus or any knowledge of saving grace? Had I experienced the love of the almighty God and was this God the same Jesus I had heard about? Were they really one and the same? What was this concept of the Trinity? Why would a young boy be given such a glimpse of God with no prior knowledge or context for the experience?
Despite my unanswered questions, I always recognized my experience as a gift from God, but I kept it to myself. As an adult, I worried that if I shared this event, others would consider me crazy or on the extreme religious fringe. But several years ago, I decided to risk it. It was at a retreat of the lay leadership of my church that I finally recounted my story. To my amazement, two other influential church leaders shared that they had enjoyed the exact same life-changing experience during their adolescence: During moments of meditation over similar questions, they had become aware of and felt close to God. And just like me, neither of them had been able to repeat this mystical state later in life.
Why had I been given this ecstatic glimpse of the Divine and why had it happened only twice? What was the point of what grew into a lifelong, seemingly futile, yearning to return? Could my yearning for such glory be part of God’s plan for my life?
Once again, I was amazed to find that some answers would come from unexpected sharing—with a saint who lived almost two millennia ago. In my divinity school studies I wrote a research paper on Saint Augustine and read about two ascensions he had experienced more than 1,700 years ago that are documented in his famous Confessions. Like me, Augustine felt weighed down and rapidly pulled away from his mystical experiences, and, like me, he desperately wanted to return.
Augustine interpreted his ascensions as gifts from God and glimpses of the Divine; he determined that because of his own sinful nature, he was not able to repeat what had happened. As an adult, he had succumbed to temptation through carnal transgressions that he felt were the cause of this “weighed-down” feeling.
As an adolescent of only twelve years, I didn’t have the same guilt over transgression, so I could not relate to this interpretation. However, in retrospect, I can accept that my human capacity to sin could separate me from the Divine.
As I read Augustine’s accounts in this ancient text, I marveled at the similarities of our experiences . . . and a palpable sense that now finally—in my post-retirement studies—God was speaking directly to me through the recorded history of one of the great early Christian theologians.
Today I believe this kind of direct experience is a gift from God bestowed upon those who will yearn to return and who might later become clergy or lay leaders in their faith communities—that part of God’s plan is to grant this gift to inquisitive young minds who are receptive to a future divine calling. And perhaps our inability to reproduce the mystical state is also part of God’s plan to create a burning desire among future church leaders to return to that ascension and to encourage others to seek a similar relationship with God.
Like Augustine, my church friends and I all came to realize in our evolving belief traditions that the way to achieve permanent salvation and assure ourselves of an ultimate ascension to God was through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It could not be reproduced through future meditation or through replication of our adolescent events, but rather through accepting the sacrifice of Christ as our own redeeming grace.
My adolescent ascension convinced me that such mystical experiences are real and the accounts of theologians and others over the centuries are credible. I believe that my brief ascension to God was a gift that revealed aspects of the Divine I hadn’t previously contemplated.
I am convinced that I did not trigger this ascension, but rather God willed it as a providential gift. God was not visible to me in an earthly sense but I came to “see” and “know” Him in a personal way and to believe unwaveringly in His existence. I can also now call it a gift of faith that ultimately led to my salvation through Christ and my permanent relationship with the Divine. To my delight, I learned that Augustine came to similar conclusions in his later writings.
I’m certain that many others over the centuries have enjoyed mystical experiences similar to my own. Fifty years after my own ascension and more than 1,700 years after Augustine’s, the accounts in his Confessions spoke to me across the centuries to give me a better understanding of what happened to me and how it prepared me for, and indeed called me into, service in God’s kingdom.
I believe God provides experiences that reveal His existence, strengthen our faith, and give guidance. These revelations can occur not only when we are children, but at any time during our lives. At a crucial time of spiritual questioning, my experience undeniably confirmed to me that God was both real and aware of me. And even though I could not repeat the experience more than once, the faith-stirring impact has remained throughout my lifetime. I can joyfully echo the words of the Psalmist in proclaiming to God, “You hold my right hand” and with that knowledge, “there is nothing on earth I desire other than you.”
Some of us are fortunate enough to recognize a divine presence at the time such a revelation occurs. Whether or not we immediately perceive His hand, however, these experiences allow us to develop greater faith and spirituality—even if we only learn from them in retrospect. If you’re among those who never perceived divine presence at the time of its occurrence, it may be very difficult now to identify such an experience, but I would still encourage you to try.
Think back on times when you were particularly distressed or challenged; perhaps when you brushed with danger, or when you felt moments of strong unconditional love from a parent, relative, or friend. Although at the time you may not have recognized the impact of a moment, you may find, looking back, that it was through God’s presence in a single, fleeting moment that you came to believe that a higher power was possible, and even at work, in your life.
Almost every story in this book is a retrospective reaffirmation of God’s active role in guiding and shaping my spiritual awareness and development. I find it ironic—and yet hopeful—that I’m learning from some of these experiences only now. Perhaps this delayed learning—lessons to be unwrapped at future moments in our lives—is also part of His spiritual tutoring and plan for us. The passage of time often has a way of “sharpening” the lens through which we view these moments as they really were—revelations of His existence.