This story is excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey. As it is long, I’ve broken it into serial posts.
Since childhood I’d often seen a tantalizing light that radiated from every ordinary thing: tree branches, trash on sidewalks, weathered fence posts, people’s faces. It wasn’t exactly visible, but was like a sheath of radiance that I “saw” with “the backs of my eyes.”
Once at the end of a long day of hiking in the Alaskan Chugach Mountains, I watched the sun set over Cook Inlet. I’d been hiking alone for several days. My ties to time, and the normal round of social meaning, had come undone - blown away by the rushing wind. I sat against a rock in a little hollow filled with heather, where there was some cover. The only sounds were the wind and the soft scrape of my down vest on the rock. I leaned back thinking of nothing at all.
Near the horizon, the sun passed behind a bank of clouds. Then it was free, setting the undersides of the clouds ablaze in streaks of pink, orange and liquid gold. Finally it dropped over the horizon, and soon a few stars were visible.
The wind’s sharp fingers sliced behind my eyes as my body shrank to a speck of blood warmth in a vast, rock cathedral - this earth - spinning into stars spinning into galaxies spinning through expanding depth. Magma rose to earth’s surface, crystallized, was crinkled into mountains, and then subducted to melt again. Mist gathered into rain that flowed from a stream through spruce and heather back into clouds.
Then I saw a glittering net of brilliant sparks hung against the dusk-darkening sky. Each spark was a living being. Energy flowed down the threads of the net as the tiny lights cycled and recycled one into another. The net reached through all space to all beings on all planets. It reached to the slope on which I lay as but one more, infinitesimal spark in a multitude of sparks, all part of a single, dazzling whole. Although more small than small, as one with all the others I became huge. Became the entire scintillating net of interconnected lights, breathing in. Breathing out.
Not long ago, I discovered that other people see this light. When I mentioned that glittering net to a Hindu friend he exclaimed, “That’s Indra’s necklace.”
* * * * * *
After I started hanging out with Christians, I began to say “God” when speaking of this illumination, but my God was an energy field, not a person.
Then during the year I prepared to become an oblate of the monastery, my spiritual experience shifted. By the time I was ‘called,’ what had been an undifferentiated, luminous energy - radiating equally from everything - began to feel like it contained a loving “other.” Although still a continuous energy field, it was no longer uniform. That “other” was separate from myself, and we could have a relationship. Around Christians, I began to call that loving other “Christ.”
But that didn’t make me Christian. For one thing, my sense of Christ was as a location or concentration in the energy - like a thick cloud. There was an identity, a Being, different from myself, but it was way more diffuse, and larger, than a human. And there was absolutely nothing male about it. If this was Christ, where was Jesus?
Maybe in Jesus’ day, people sensed an energy like that in him, but I couldn’t see it. Even the word ‘Jesus’ stuck in my throat: a sticky mix of simpering, Sunday school pictures, hate-filled, Evangelical harangues, and the long, Christian history of burning people like me.
* * * * * *
I joined a Unitarian church because I like interfaith worship, but I was born a Universalist. If each material being is an expression of an underlying, uniform energy, then separation is an illusion. Maybe I couldn’t stop acting and feeling as if I were separate: ridden by my anger, jealousy, fear or longing to be loved. But I knew this made no sense. After all, “I” am already “you” and “he” and “she,” so what is there to be angry, jealous or frightened about?
There could also be no such thing as “hell.” Every living being shone with radiant light, and every human was part of a single, divine whole. So “eternal punishment” was ridiculous. It would be like your head deciding to burn your toe forever in order to punish it for once having stubbed itself.
When I left DePaul I hoped it was a step to seeing things more clearly. Then belief in my little, separated self might dissolve. That hope was also at the back of my motivation when I first started going to the monastery. I hadn’t bargained on being stuck with a thick light-cord pulling me irresistibly into monastic community.
My call never wavered, so I kept asking the sisters to consider me, although they were hardly encouraging.
It was what divine indifference required, and it seemed the Benedictine thing to do. Benedict says a monastery should only consider an applicant who “keeps knocking at the door and at the end of four or five days has shown patience in bearing harsh treatment and difficulty of entry.” I imagined a fortress with the poor applicant huddled outside the wall in slushy snow while monks threw rocks and frozen manure down from above. That was pretty much how I felt.
Finally, the sister in charge of vetting new members agreed to meet with me, although she made it plain she doubted if I was really called.
Given the intensity of the pull, I was overjoyed at this breakthrough. Except for one problem. Now I would have to get baptized.
I made a cursory investigation of several traditional Christian denominations, but they just weren’t mine. It would have been lying to join one just to have the baptism the sisters required. Either the monastery would take me as the UU I really was, or my call was as misguided as the sister said.
But was there a way to be Christian while rejecting the traditional doctrines of sin, judgment, hell and salvation? And could I be baptized as a UU?
© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick