Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Way Up and the Way Down

Last week I watched a documentary hosted by James May of Top Gear fame that explored the human journey into space and the Apollo moon missions in particular.  As part of the documentary May prepared to have a space like experience including a crash course as an astronaut and taking a trip in a U2 high flying aircraft up to 70,000 feet above the earth -approximately double that of the altitude reached by a passenger jet.  At that altitude the air is so thin that astronaut equipment is necessary to sustain life.  Understandably he was very taken with the experience of looking down on the earth from that height and being able to see the beauty and curvature of our world.  The words 'gobsmacked', 'amazing', 'privilege', 'I never get tired of this' were spoken between May and the pilot and eventually 'there are no adequate words'...an impulse to silence.  Once on the ground May says 'If everyone could experience that the world would be a different place'...an impulse of compassion.  These descriptions reflect what might be called 'peak experiences' or, in other words, a sense of being captured by a felt perspective that expands one's view of life and of one's place in that life.  Sometimes such experiences are described as an 'encounter with God' which is another way of talking about the same thing.   

And so in the silence of Friend's Meeting for Worship last weekend I felt moved to talk of this documentary and mused that perhaps in our spiritual rituals and practices we try to connect with this greater perspective.  Further that the mystics of all persuasions have always known that the perspective of our place in the whole world/universe is possible from the ground as well as at 70,000 feet altitude.  In response to my ministry two Friends wisely drew attention to the Transfiguration and the Temptation of Jesus, two wonderful but short narratives in the Gospels, easily overlooked for their teaching on staying grounded while retaining awareness of the greater perspective within and beyond our lives.  In the Transfiguration narratives the three disciples Peter, James and John are drawn into an enlightenment by that which profoundly sources Jesus' life...the Divine Source...this obviously has implications for how they see Jesus but also their own identities.  It is mindblowing!  Orthodox iconography of the Transfiguration captures the energy of this moment which literally throws the three down the side of the mountain as they come to terms with the experience.  In the story Peter quickly snaps back into an ego point of view and tries to preserve the experience by offering a dwelling place for Jesus, Moses and Elijah rather than being content with the awareness that he has been offered.  The divine cloud disrupts this and the transfigured Jesus eventually accompanies the disciples 'back to earth'.  It seems his work was not ultimately to stay on the mountain communing but to bring his expanded vision into the ordinariness of the world.  Similarly in the Temptation Jesus is offered a vision of the the whole world for him to rule over and wisely sees the illusion of the offer as well as its destructive consequences.  Peak experiences can become traps if they are misused or institutionalised or used to prop up our frail selves.  Such experiences are gifts that draw our attention to what is really our natural inbuilt potential as humans to move towards Truest Reality through all the ascents and descents of our lives.