“Can Spiritual Experiences Transform Spiritual Traditions?” by Will Ramsey

July 11, 2021

With the backdrop of facts vs fiction hovering over us daily, the reading from Mark triggered a sense of hope in me.  Today I want to talk about the enlightenment this passage has brought to my heart.  The Bible talks of “being filled with the Holy Spirit,” The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous describes this as a spiritual awakening.  I suggest that our spiritual experiences can and do transform both us and our traditions.  A tradition according to Merriam-Webster is “the handing down of information, beliefs, or customs from one generation to another.”  From the Oxford Languages dictionary Theology tradition “is a doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures.”

Where do our spiritual journeys begin?

Is your spiritual journey defined by your traditions?  Which traditions have had the most influence:  Career, family, religious, cathartic, unexplained experiences of enlightenment and wonder, therapy?

Please pray with me.  Holy One, help us know your call on our lives.  May we find ways to transform our traditions into practices that spread love to all those you bring into our path.  Please remove our fear.   Let our heart, mind and soul be ready to receive your Holy Spirit.

My journey begins in childhood as little Billy.  I grew up in a small religious bubble called The Church of Christ outside of Detroit, Michigan.  The people who lived around us were all Catholic.  My parents lived in a survival mode. My own thinking did not really absorb the realities of politics, history, and current events.  I never really connected the stories from the Bible with real life.  It never occurred to me that the people of Jesus’ time were real.  They all seemed like fictional characters in imaginary stories who were created to illustrate how we are ‘supposed’ to live.  The message from my spiritual tradition was “Don’t worry, you are saved because you attend the one and only church which is following God’s commandments.”  Eventually, I became spiritually alive, notably at the age of eighteen, but I confess I am still trying to resolve my understanding of what is fact and fiction in the Bible as well as other writings from the past.

As pilgrimages have become more of a way of life for us, Teresa and I walked the 520 mile El Camino de Santiago two years ago. The Camino has been shaped over the years by politics, grabs for power, religious motivations, personal motivations as well as those truly seeking the divine.  The path in each town led to one or more cathedrals.  As we walked we observed the walls of decades old were crumbling or they had been restored as museums.  We saw monasteries and convents but the numbers of active people were declining.  The efforts to hold onto the past could be felt not only in the cathedrals but also on the trail. Why were people driven to walk to Santiago simply to be in the cathedral where it was said that the spirit of St James lived?  How did power, money and influence shape the path to Santiago?  Although the stories of the journey were romanticized, I began to accept the reality of the history of the places.

I felt a longing to travel further.  From Santiago we continued to Avila, Spain, a two-hour train ride away. The excitement I felt while we made our pilgrimage around Avila even exceeded the eye opening wonder I experienced walking for forty four days on the Camino.  We walked the streets of Avila where Teresa of Avila lived while she restored the Carmelite order in Spain.  In her frustration and desire help nuns connect with the Holy, she wrote what is now called the “Interior Castle”; a guide for spiritual development through service and prayer.  Back home I have been working with this guide for at least the last five years. I learned that Teresa actually did not want to write the guide but was told to do so by her male Spiritual Confessor, as he was called. 

My blinders about history lifted within.  First of all, the evidence of history was everywhere.  Saint Teresa did live from 1515 to 1582.  Second, the Catholic church of the time believed and taught that women should not be talking about God, that God does not speak directly to them.  Yet, more than 400 years later, the voice of Saint Teresa is still being heard in many languages.  Her spirit, filled with the Holy Spirit, did transform the traditions of the time.

How do I make sense of the world I live in today; with the divisions that are pulling society apart? Where and how do I find hope for peace of mind, fulfillment and even salvation?

In contrast to my childhood skepticism, I am now drawn to a greater connection with the people who I now believe actually lived and struggled to live, a life of love and service.  I have found and treasure countless stories which have inspired my sense of hope.  For today, however, I would like to share the three most significant stories which have been on my mind for a long time.  So I invite you to travel back with me in time.  You also will have to use your own imagination.

The first story takes us to the gospel reading today. Politics led to the murder of John the Baptist.   How did Jesus respond?  In the next two verses from today’s reading in Mark, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while….” A corresponding description of the event in Mathew says “When Jesus heard it, He departed from there to a deserted place by Himself.”  {Mathew 14:13  Mark 6:29-32.]  Even when he returned to his own pilgrimage I could find no examples of Jesus criticizing the Roman government for the murder.  All he said was: “Pay your taxes.”  Something to ponder.

My second story is about Mary Magdalen.  Walking the Camino again made me realize that there are many, many documents describing the lives of the early believers.  The Gospel of Mary Magdalen first came to light in 1896 and became known in a scholarly way around 1955. Without going into the historical details, I understand that the Gospel of Mary Magdalene could be a parallel version of the other gospels.  The gospel is constructed entirely in dialogue.  I would like to share a small sample from Dialogue Two and Four.  There are five characters—Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Andrew, and Levi.  It was if we have walked into a conversation whose beginning we know little or nothing about   …and yet here is what we have.

At one point Peter turned to Mary and said, “Sister, we know that the Savior greatly loved you above all other women, so tell us what you remember of his words that we ourselves do not know or perhaps have never heard.”

Mary replied, “I will tell you, then, as much as I know for what may be hidden or unknown to you.”

“I saw the Master in a vision and I said to hm, ‘Lord, I see you now as vision,’ and he answered me, ‘You are blessed, Mary, since the sight of me does not disturb you.  For where the heart is, there is the treasure.”

“So I said to him, ‘Master, in this moment of vision what sees you?  Is it the soul or the spirit?’

“And he answered me, ‘It is neither soul nor spirit that sees, but the eye of the heart which is between the two that perceives the vision, and it is this…”

The next three pages are missing.  What a loss.

Going on to Dialogue Four, Andrew’s response was to say to the rest of the brothers:

“Say what you will about all that she has said to us, I for one do not believe that the Savior said such things to her, for they are strange and appear to differ from the rest of his teachings.”

After consideration, Peter’s response was similar: “Would the Savior speak these things to a woman in private without openly sharing them so that we too might hear?  Should we listen to her at all, and did he choose her over us because she is more worthy than we are?”

Then Mary began to weep, saying to Peter: “My brother, what are you thinking?  Do you imagine that I have made these things up myself within my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?’

Speaking to Peter, Levi also answered him: “You have always been quick to anger, Peter, and now you are questioning her in exactly that same manner, treating this woman as if she were an enemy.  If the Savior considered her worthy, who are you to reject her?  He knew her completely and loved her faithfully. We should be ashamed of ourselves!  As he taught us, we should be clothed instead with the cloak of True Humanity, and following his command announce Good News without burdening it further with rules or laws he himself did not give us.”

“After Levi had said this, they too departed and began to teach, proclaiming the Good News.”

Taken from The Luminous Gospels by Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman and Cynthia Bourgeault, 2008.  pp 67-69.

Indeed, that is what they did.  Not only proclaiming the Good News they put their faith into action.  The book of Acts begins to show the profiles of the disciples as individuals and the communities they loved.Jesus was gone but his spirit is still alive.  There is so much to notice in how this plays out with the early believers. 

In my quest to make history real, continue with me for one more story.  Using your own imagination, consider how Stephen, a wise, responsible good man, caused a mob to kill him.  Sometime after Pentecost Stephen, who was described as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was chosen along with six other men to serve the community. As time went on, it was noted that Stephen was “full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.”  Eventually, conflict arose and a certain group became jealous.  Well, we don’t actually know their motivation.  As a result, they convinced the council to arrest Stephen.  Stephen’s charge was for saying “Jesus had come to change the customs which had been handed down from Moses.”  Stephen was given a chance to explain himself.  The next thing we know this group, who supported Jewish religious traditions became a mob.  They took him outside of the city and stoned him to death because they were offended.  As he was being killed, Stephen said the following: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he knelt down with a loud voice cried out, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”  When he had said this, the Bible nicely says, “he fell asleep.” [Acts 6:5 and end with Acts 7:60].

Following Stephen’s death, the disciples laid his clothes at the feet of Saul who was, himself, eventually filled with the Holy Spirit.  We know the great work Paul, who was Saul, did in promoting community through his letters and journeys which are described throughout the Bible.  Would all of his work have happened without the death of Stephen?  Did Stephen’s death eventually lead to Saul’s conversion?

Was there a point in time when the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on individual lives came to a stop?

The message of hope from today’s gospel reading is:  There are “No Boundaries to Love.”

Stephen did not fear death.  He followed his call which overcame death.  In fact, almost all of the first apostles died for their faith.

Spirit transforms tradition and fear, especially if death is no longer an obstacle.

Am I even asking the best question when I think, “How can I safely stay on God’s journey, on my journey?”

I realize I want the safety of a monastery and the inspiration of stained glass windows in Cathedrals.  Probably, if I am to be honest, “little Billy” would like to still believe my tradition which says, “only the Church of Christ people will go to heaven and will be saved.” But then I see walls crumble, dogmas are evaporating, people are afraid and don’t know where to turn.  Where is the truth?  Where is salvation?

Perhaps in these virtual times a traveling monastery is a new way, a virtual way to journey without walls. Monasteries and convents are typically places of peaceful prayer and quiet devotion far from the world.  I know at Seekers we believe that God continues to speak directly to people which is probably why I feel safe in sharing today.  We have structures in place to accommodate such activities.  Mission groups, in particular, are the primary way this happens here.  Perhaps we can add traveling monasteries to our range of options for nurturing our connections with the Holy.  If our monasteries can travel with us there are no obstacles to participation.

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