Experiences like the following are getting to be a habit with me. I really do not know what to make of the following, other than to say that there have been a couple of precedents. You may recall that, back in April of 2014, I published a “Skeptic’s Collection” account of my experience of … I dunno … satori … kensho … enlightenment … call it what you will … at my father-in-law’s memorial service in September of 2008. In January of this year, I published the sequel, which occurred less than a week after the memorial service itself. I had a third such experience – different yet the same – a couple of months ago. Anyway, make of the following what you will …
Every year in the summer, usually just before the weather turns cool and damp and wet, my wife Diane and I host a kind of “omnibus” gathering of friends at our house for a kind of “pot-luck picnic”. Basically, everyone we are friends with in Seattle is invited, plus spouses / partners and kids. We have games and videos for the kids, badminton for the athletically inclined, and food for all tastes and ethnicities, including halal items for our Muslim friends and their kids. I keep using the term “friends”, but it is important that you understand that what all these folks really are is adopted family … with the emphasis on “family”, not on “adopted”. The kids are running around, the TV is going in the rec room downstairs, people are standing and sitting around eating, laughing, talking, telling jokes, telling stories, drinking beer, wine, soft drinks, Pellegrino water. There are Christians, atheists / agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, gay / lesbian, heterosexual, etc., etc. from North America, Japan, the People’s Republic of China, Cambodia … black, white, brown, etc. … speakers of English, Mandarin, Japanese, Cambodian … The differences of culture, ethnicity, language, and taste only matter in the same sense that the ingredients of, say, a good mulligan stew matter: the various “flavors” only make the mixture that much more delicious. Otherwise, it’s family. Always has been for the twenty or so years Diane and I have been hosting the gathering.
Anyway, in probably three-plus hours, people started to say their good-byes and drift away. I took up my customary station at the hall closet to hand out jackets and to help find shoes. (So many of our friends come from Asia, where going barefoot or in socks inside someone’s house is such a common practice that even non-Asians just follow their lead.) But in the middle of getting ready to help everyone into their wraps, I paused … and just looked … and listened. I had been hearing the low murmur of people’s voices, often punctuated by the not-so-low squeals and laughter of the kids, all the time. But for the first time, I paused. And really listened. Ordinarily, I would say that I had the following thought. But that is not what happened this time. It was a curious sensation, difficult to express in words without trivializing it and divesting it of the accompanying sense of wonder. Not eerie. Not scary. Not at all frightening. Quite the contrary. But nevertheless … well … numinous. But … here goes, anyway … this time, the following thoughts had me. Improbable as it may sound, I flashed back – the whole experience took perhaps a second or two – to my time as a devout, practicing, believing Roman Catholic and how fascinated I was with the phenomenon of sanctity, or sainthood, I was single and living in Wichita, KS, at the time, and perhaps once a week, I would visit the lovely little Chapel of the Sorrowful Mother at the center of the great St. Francis Medical Center. The Chapel is the “parish church” of the founders of St. Francis Hospital, the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, and I would always try to time my visits to coincide with the nuns’ daily late-afternoon recitation of the Rosary and singing of hymns. I became something of a fixture to the Sisters there. We seldom spoke, but I would often be there, reciting the Rosary with them and, if I knew the words, singing with them. As I sat in the Chapel, in silence or in song, even after the Sisters had finished their service and filed out (always with a pat on my shoulder as they walked past me), I would ask myself, over and over again – I recalled my exact words as I stood by the closet – “Is this what it’s like to be in company with saints?”
All that is preamble to the thought that had me. Here is that thought that sprang to my mind, apparently unbidden: Actually, I know quite well what it is like to keep company with saints … because there they were. In Diane’s and my house. That evening. Eating pasta. Drinking wine. Whacking badminton birds back and forth in the back yard. Groaning at my dumb puns. And here they were, now, putting on their jackets as I handed them out. Looking for their shoes just outside the front door. Hugging Diane and me good-night as, a few at a time, they collected their kids and, thanking us, bade us good night and meandered out to their cars to go home. In the “Skeptic’s Collection” post about Dad Iwashita’s memorial service in 2008, I quoted from Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. I do so again, and for the same reason as before:
Emily: So all that was going on and we never noticed. … Goodbye to clocks ticking … and mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any humans ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?
Stage Manager:No. The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.
This is not the kind of thing about which I will, or anyone should, dogmatize or pontificate. If you back me into a corner and demand that I explicate what happened, why it happened, why it happened to me, and what it all meant, the best I could do would be to shrug, hold my hands out palms up, and say “Damn’f I know!” But I would, with due humility and with fear and trembling, but without anything that could reasonably be described as certitude, tentatively venture the following … I suppose you could call it … theory, which I hold like a feather on the back of my hand …
… back in the Pre-Cambrian era, when I was a fundamentalist Baptist, one of the minister’s favorite altar-call texts was the King James version of II Corinthians 6:2 Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. At the time, the orthodox evangelical interpretation was to say that this was the author’s exhortation to come forward, pray the “sinner’s prayer”, and accept Jesus as your personal savior. For all I know, that may be the first layer of meaning. Remember: I am being tentative here. But might I suggest that another meaning, a deeper meaning, is that it may also mean awareness of the Present Moment: to be aware of the Now. Insofar as it can be expressed in words, I believe that is what I experienced at Dad Iwashita’s funeral, what I experienced at the memorial service a few days later – what I experienced at Diane’s and my pot-luck a couple of months ago. For a moment, I was under the bo tree with Gautama Siddhartha. For a moment, I was in the Cave with Muhammad (pbuh). For a moment, I was in Blaise Pascal’s study when he had his experience of FIRE! For a moment, I was rising from the water with Jesus and seeing the Dove flutter over me. For a moment. For a moment I was in the Moment. But why? How? Why me? Why then? I think those are the wrong questions. Quite understandable. By no means “bad”. Just wrong. “The wind blows where it will, and you cannot tell where it is coming from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit”. One corollary to my tentative theory, a second feather on the back of my hand: we are in the Moment all the time, we are never not in the Moment … for the simple reason that there is no other place we can be. We just don’t pay attention to the Now.
So – once in a while – the Now pays attention to us.
James R. Cowles