Per Jonathan Ott:
“Shamanic ecstasy is the real “Old Time Religion,” of which modern churches are but pallid evocations. Shamanic, visionary ecstasy, the mysterium tremendum, the unio mystica, the eternally delightful experience of the universe as energy, is a sine qua non of religion, it is what religion is for! There is no need for faith, it is the ecstatic experience itself that gives one faith in the intrinsic unity and integrity of the universe, in ourselves as integral parts of the whole; that reveals to us the sublime majesty of our universe, and the fluctuant, scintillant, alchemical miracle that is quotidian consciousness. Any religion that requires faith and gives none, that defends against religious experiences, that promulgates the bizarre superstition that humankind is in some way separate, divorced from the rest of creation, that heals not the gaping wound between Body and Soul, but would tear them asunder… is no religion at all!”
I’ve been going back to my own spiritual roots these past several months, from which I escaped some 26 years ago and have dutifully avoided ever since. When I haven’t been avoiding it, I’ve been criticizing it, as though it has nothing to do with who I’ve become at age 45.
I’m talking about Christianity, of course… and specifically, the form of Protestant Christianity associated with evangelicalism, fundamentalism, fire and brimstone.
My father is a Presbyterian minister (who, thankfully, has migrated away from his Pentecostal roots into the far left wing of his denomination’s contribution to “Liberation Theology“). His father was a Pentecostal tent preacher who went on to found a large Full Gospel Tabernacle in Fresno, CA. My father’s father and uncle were also preachers. So, you can immediately understand why I had to rebel in a big way in order to put distance between myself and my family heritage.
[UPDATE: My father just emailed with a clarification on the above paragraph. I’ll just paste what he wrote here:
Full Gospel Tabernacle had been in existence for some years before my dad got there as pastor in about 1941. It was an old barn of a building with open rafters and hard seats, individually attached to the floor, kind of like a theater, but with no cushions. We tore it down and built a new building on the same spot in the early 50’s. Then, in 52 or 53, dad left with about 50 others to found Peoples Church, meeting in rented halls until we could buy land at Cedar and Dakota Streets where the first buildings were erected, mostly with volunteer labor.
What I’m finding, some nine months after my mother’s death, is that you cannot ever get away from your family heritage.
For all my Buddhist meditation, my Hindu cosmology and my Sufi-inspired devotional ecstasy… I cannot help but be drawn back to my true spiritual roots, the fertile ground from which my experience of the Sacred sprouted.
Using some of the modest amount of money my momma left me, I’ve been buying up all sorts of Bibles, as well as evangelical “Bible helps” like concordances, word study dictionaries, interlinear Bibles, commentaries, sermons, systematic theologies, topical Bibles, Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias, Bible software, hermeneutic texts, Biblical criticism texts. I’ve read through the Bible from Genesis to Revelations twice in the last year, having never so much as read a single chapter beforehand.
Truth is, I am embarrassed to be seen with any of this material. I do all my studying at home, usually in conjunction with my still-rigorous daily meditation practice (three hours a day, as well as into the night when I manage to remain lucid in the sleep state). When a new book shows up in the p.o. box, I quickly slip it into my backpack and wait until the bus takes me home before I bust it out for a look. After spending the first 19 years of my life being forced to attend church, usually three times a week (Sunday morning and evening, Tuesday choir practice, Wednesday Bible study… which was more like a bull session amongst serious stoners), I’ve prided myself on being anything but a Christian. As I frequently say, the only times I’ve set foot in a church since 1982 have been for weddings and funerals — and I’m not the only one, because most of the weddings have been held outside the church, and funerals are usually done at the funeral home. When I got into Eastern studies, as well as astrology, Tarot and other oracular symbol systems, I proudly rode the bus with a Baghavad Gita or Dhammapadha held high in front of my face. I’ve felt no compunction against gently opening an English translation of the Qur’an at my favorite coffee shops.
But the Bible? No way.
Winding our way back to the point of our post — Shamanism — let me say that it is the issue of ecstasy that drives my current investigation into evangelical Christianity.
Like Jonathan Ott above, I’m finding that, outside self-described “charismatic” churches from within and without the Pentecostal fold, there is not a lot of institutional support for the cultivation of religious ecstasy. The church within which I was raised, Calvary Presbyterian Church in Fresno (which, I believe, no longer exists), was known for its silent congregation — no clapping or shouting, just polite recitals of well-worn hymns, combined with certain Scripture readings weaved into the liturgy — and even as a young child I would ask my father why there was no “experiential component” to our religious routine. He would just laugh and ruffle my hair.
Later, I would find that monastics from the Orthodox and Catholic traditions have left us a body of ecstatic writings, and from these I have been able to find a measure of validation for the “charismatic gifts” that have arisen from my meditation practice. The Christian Mystics would often equate the Holy Spirit with Sophia, or the Divine Feminine, and they would have to hide Her presence between the lines of their writings in order not to end up burning at the stake — but She is there, undaunted, performing her work of spiritual awakening within her lovers.
What about the Bible, which purports to be the inspired Word of God for Christians down through the centuries? Did Paul and the other early Christians have to hide the Spirit between the lines?
Have you ever seriously read the Bible? I’m talking about just plopping it open and beginning to read, day after day, until you reach the last page and immediately start over again at the beginning. I’m not talking about reading the Bible out of a fear of everlasting damnation in Hell, but rather as an act of spiritual thirst. Have you had this experience?
My reason for asking is, I am curious as to whether or not I am the only one to discover in the Word an actual living, energized, intelligent, transformative Presence that has a gradual building-up effect within the earnest reader. One may even say that diligent exposure to the Word is availing of true healing, from the inside out.
Am I the only one?
Maybe so — but I think not.
Let me just say that, when you read the four Gospels, Acts, Romans and the other early-church letters, you cannot help but be impressed by the Presence of Spirit. You cannot help but marvel at the life those early Christians led, totally surrendered and dependent on Spirit, to the point of giving up all worldly connections in order to answer a higher Calling. You cannot help but pine after that sort of fervency, tied as it was to intimate connection with Spirit that moved the early Christians well past faith into the realm of undeniable Truth.
The Shaman pictured above understands this connection with Spirit, this higher Calling.
I do believe that this Calling is available to us today, should we ever manage to distance ourselves from worldly concerns long enough for Spirit to integrate into us.
We may, unfortunately, also need to distance ourselves from the mainstream expressions of our chosen religious institutions, as the ecstatic has been all but banished from their current expressions.
In the absence of institutional support, we may need to make do with our individual contemplative practice, combined with immersion in the Word (i.e., Divinity written down, made available for those who are ready to receive), until Spirit deems us ready to assume our Calling.
God willing, new institutions will arise that recognize the religious centrality of the ecstatic.
Perhaps one has already begun to spring up… who knows?