Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Where is the Soul 28?

Peak Experiences


Easter Sunday ceremony at Isca Superiore!
 It was September 1976 and I was eighteen years young. I was now at college studying Theology, Philosophy, Education and English Literature. While I was not an especially religious young man, I was open to all experiences both in the learning environment and on a personal level. I found the subjects of Philosophy and English Literature especially mind blowing, though theology also gave us some interesting ideas to wrestle with. One of those ideas was termed at the time “Peak Experiences.” As far as I can remember it was in a little book Rumour of Angels by the great sociologist Peter Berger that we first encountered this term. Another term our theological lecturers gave us was that of “moments of transcendence.” One lecturer spoke excitedly about the “turn to experience” in theology. No more did we need to accept doctrines as mere “intellectual givens” or as dry, stale and rigid unchanging dogmas set in stone as it were. No we could test all these doctrines, dogmas and indeed all our beliefs “on our pulses” to use a beautiful phrase from S.T. Coleridge, the great and brilliant Romantic philosopher, critic and poet. Suddenly, after the ferment caused by Vatican II and in the wake of the student revolutions both in the colleges of the USA (against the Vietnam war) and in the universities across Europe (especially in France) we could now do our own religious experiencing rather than just intellectually assenting to dry dogma.

The procession to the the two churches, Easter Sunday, 2011
That’s what the terms “peak experiences” and “moments of transcendence” refer to, that is, we are all capable of having such extraordinary experiences which link us into a transcendent world or with a transcendent God. Then, I remember some years later how theologians debated whether a human being could actually experience God. Some argued very learnedly, embracing complex philosophical and theological abstractions in doing so, that we could not experience God per se, but rather experience the influence of his grace in our souls. However, such hair-splitting debate is no longer of interest to me at all. What is of interest to me is the fact that monolithic structures like the Roman Catholic Church, which is a very centrist in its working, is a power-broker interested in controlling its believers. Hence, it is always suspicious of “religious experiences” per se because anyone saying they have such experiences are by-passing the controls which they have put on beliefs and the expression thereof. Hence, the split of the Christian churches at the time of the Reformation: Protestants proclaiming they could go their own way, through their personal encounter with God in and through His Son Jesus Christ without the help of tradition in all its encrusted beliefs, doctrines, practices and tenets – it was as if the barque of Christ had literally become encrusted with the barnacles of layers and layers of popular and superstitious devotions and practices. It was this suspicion of personal access to the truth that also led to the Roman Catholic Church’s deep suspicion of the mystics who claimed they had personally encountered the divine in one way or another. No, the Roman Catholic Church preferred control of the faithful, control of its doctrines and dogma and proclaimed that there was only the one route to the Divine Godhead, and that was through the official sacraments – seven and seven only of them.

The Isca Brass Band adds beautiful music to the procession
Thankfully, the whole population here in Ireland at long last has moved out of this medieval mindset of control and people feel free to accept or reject the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church into which most of us are born here in Ireland. However, things have changed. I recently attended the funeral of a son of a friend of mine and his father was literally the celebrant or secular priest at a humanist funeral ceremony. It was a touching and moving experience. One might even say it was a “peak experience,” “a moment of transcendence” or a “religious experience” in the broadest sense of the meaning of those terms.

In other words what I am getting at is that we humans are capable of deep and profound experiences which at this stage in my little life (all 53 years of them) I believe to be psychological or psychic both intra-psychic and inter-psychic – experiences common to all human beings no matter what their religious or non-religious persuasion.

Back to Ventura

This was a rather long introduction to today’s post, but it was necessary for me to set the scene as it were. Ventura begins his letter to Hillman by recounting one such “peak experience” or “moment of transcendence” he had while making love. I’ll let the man speak for himself here:


“I am making love, and I look down, and I don’t see a face; I see an orb of light. This is not a metaphor. I don’t see a face; I see, in the dark, an orb of fuzzy, barely glowing light, and through that light, just barely, a kind of face. The light glows stronger. I lift myself higher and I see not a body beneath me, but a vague bodylike outline of shimmering gray-white light. It looks like I could reach my hand through it. This dazes me, frightens me a little, because I know for a moment or two we have slipped into the Other World.” (Op.cit., p. 147)

Ventura goes on to state in this moving and testimony-like letter that people are communicating non-physically a lot of the time without even being aware of it. It is, as it were, that people are communicating telepathically or inter-psychically (if this is a word) most of the time, but they are doing so unconsciously. I’m at one with Ventura in this contention.

He further goes on to contend – a point with which I also agree – that there is a great deal of pressure on us to see only what our culture permits us to see and literally to refuse to see or not to see at all what is not permitted. Even if we do admit to ourselves that we have experienced such a moment of “depth of being” (my coining here) we will not publicly, or even privately, admit to it lest we be deemed mad or cracked or crazy. No wonder Mary or Joe are in the loony bin!!

Once again, Ventura is right when he contends that more primitive cultures like those of the Aboriginal Australians, or the Native American Indians and so on and so forth are more in touch with “things of the spirit” (or with “dreamtime” as the Aborigines call it) than modern Western People.

Ventura finishes his letter by stating that the Western Mind is literally blinded by its own refusal to accept other more primitive experiences as outlined above. It has, he tells us, shunted aside onto a side-track these primitive, though for all that very authentic, experiences because it simply hasn’t the conceptual framework to deal with them.

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