Last week my wife and I hiked into Santa Elena Canyon (pictured above) in Big Bend National Park. We were both struck speechless by the beauty. My wife, having the gift of enthusiasm, said “I’d love to sing.” So together we stood in the depth of the canyon and sang loud enough for it to echo down the canyon. We sang “Amazing Grace”. As we finished, my wife pointed to the sky. Two eagles circled high above, giving us an Amen.
William James, writing in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, described mystical experience to consist of 4 elements: ineffability, the inadequacy of words to capture the experience; noetic quality, that is, a sense of insight into a deep truth; transitory; and passive, which means one can’t generate a mystical experience. They simply find us. James also noted “Certain aspects of nature have a peculiar power of awakening … mystical moods.” (p. 310)
Madness, too, involves a “stepping out”, a letting go of concern about what will others think. In that regard, madness involves a certain risk, certainly a risk of judgment and rejection. When you look at various YouTube portrayals of individuals giving free hugs, you note that a lot of folks look the other way and walk on by. In a more serious vain, acts of mystical madness can get you locked up. Consider what would happen, say, to St. Francis of Assisi. As an expression of liberation from the world of possessions, Francis supposedly went into the town square and removed his clothes. Today such action would most likely result in hospitalization. Yet for Francis it was a profound moment of spiritual madness and liberation.
The only real step we can take into the world of mystical madness is to be open to it. To pay attention. To not dismiss an opportunity.
There is another challenge to mystical madness. Big Bend National Park is 200 miles from El Paso. Must I travel 200 miles to experience mystical madness? Rabbi David Wolpe notes an invitation to become a normal mystic which Wolpe describes as someone who “…looks at life as you and I know it, but with an acute eye, one that tracks…the suggestion of God in every corner, at every turn.” (The Healer of Shattered Hearts, (p. 81). There is the key. Sensing God’s presence in ways I cannot articulate with words. Sensing connection with someone in a profound way that eludes description. Such experiences are available amidst the skyscrapers as well as in nature. I just need to be open to them and to pay attention. As the great naturalist John Muir wrote “The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere.”
As my wife and I stood and sang, I felt connection. To the God of my understanding. To my wife. To the canyons walls. To the hawks circling overhead. Others might see this as sentimental and perhaps a little nutty. I will remember this gift of beautiful mystical madness for the rest of my life.
Reflection: What have been your experiences of mystical madness?