Channeling And Disciplining Ecstasy
You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped. – St. Augustine, Confessions
I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing about transcendence, its limits, and the place of mystery and ecstasy in Christian worship and our common life. In fact, looking back I was amazed at how much I’d written, including a narrative of my own ecstatic experience. I’m left with the odd sense that much of this contradicts itself, that I’m offering both the insistence on personal and communal transcendence as well as the impossibility and limitations both on the event itself as well as how far we can interpret and understand it. I think that’s due in part to my own sense that, unless we as a church understand transcendence not so much as “a thing” or even “an event”, but a part of our corporate life that is available through the Holy Spirit, we are stuck in an individualistic mode of thought, unable to communicate these realities to others. We need not be Pentecostal to live and experience this going beyond, to feel together the overwhelming power of God in our corporate worship. Indeed, it can be that still small voice during the sharing of the elements in the Sacrament; perhaps it will be that collective, “Yes!” the congregation offers when the Word is proclaimed both in power and in Truth. Ecstasy comes in many forms, mystery is the hope with which we live as Christians that, gathered to offer God the praise due the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we shall encounter in the here and now a glimpse of what is to come.
The chancel at Christ UMC has the altar, with a cross on top, surrounded by an oval of kneelers (I think it’s oval rather than circular due to size constraints). Each week when I celebrate the Lord’s Supper and partake in the feast offered by God for all Creation, I go to those kneelers and am reminded of the vision of St. John on Patmos of the Heavenly throne room, in which the Thrones of the Father and the Lamb are surrounded by a circle of flame. Inside the circle are the cherubim who sing eternal praises; outside the witnesses are called to lie down, offering obeisance and praise. Not every time, certainly, but every once in a while, I get this feeling, this frisson, go through me that I am not just in the chancel at Christ UMC on Alpine in Rockford, IL, but that I am also in that heavenly throne room. This opportunity is offered not just to me, but to all of us, through the gift of the Sacrament shared and the power of the Holy Spirit.
One of the things that stands out in Roy Hattersley’s biography of John Wesley is the constant need to find new class leaders and lay preachers because those appointed by John had fallen away, some rather quickly, from the faith they proclaimed that moved them to become a part of the Methodist movement. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. I think we’re all familiar with what are called “mountaintop experiences”, and what happens when we come back down from the mountain. While I believe that Wesley was always a fan of the disciplined approach to the Christian life, I think his experience of high turnover, constantly searching out new leaders from among those who claimed the faith pushed him to become even more insistent on the necessity for believers to follow particular practices. Not as an authoritarian, at least as we contemporaries might understand the term. Rather, it became necessary to inculcate the practice of a disciplined life in order to maintain that faith that first grasped them on that mountain top. Only by meeting with fellow believers, celebrating and mourning together in prayer and praise, and following the lead of John Wesley, who understood many of his own faults and failings and his own need for disciplining the faith and channeling that initial “WOW” moment in to the productive life of spreading the Gospel to all who wished to flee to wrath to come.
We are inheritors of a tradition that understood both the promise and perils of mystery and ecstasy. We are the inheritors of a tradition that tried, through a disciplined communal life, to channel not only the emotions but far more importantly that faith to the making of disciples of Jesus Christ. Wesley understood both the beauty and power of ecstasy, that moment when we transcend our normal run of experiences and catch a glimpse of The Eternal, as well as the need to harness that through inculcating a habitus of common sharing of our life of faith. Ecstasy, transcendence, mystery – it’s all there in Wesley’s experiences. How to deal with them constructively in order that the Holy Spirit might use them for the uplifting of the people, the making of disciples, and the transformation of the world – that’s all there, too, in Wesley. There’s no reason not to harness those traditions in new ways, offering our congregations once again the reality of those Spirit-filled moments when we come face to face with the Creator of the Universe, the Savior of Fallen Creation, and the Love that flows from both to all that is. It isn’t just transcendence and ecstasy and mystery that pose a problem for the churches; it is our inability to offer people the opportunity not only to share them, but to use them for uplifting the Body of Christ. We have the tools, as Wesleyan Christians. No reason in the world not to use them.