Finley on Language, Wind, & Mystical Union

Ten years ago I would have worried that the following testimony from James Finley (from his book _Christian Meditation_) is an endorsement of pantheism. I am grateful, however, to have since realized that Christian / sacramental reality transcends the ability of language univocally to talk about God or even about being. Hence, I offer this wonderful account of a mystical experience of union with God:

One hot summer day I climbed up the ladder into a loft, as up into a cathedral of light and heat. The air was heavy with the primordial, sweet smell of hay, which was neatly stacked in the bails up to the ceiling along the back wall. I was sitting where I usually sat, on some bails of hay, which I had arranged near the open loft door that looked out over a meadow and the surrounding woods. I was reading the psalms. I stood up and began walking slowly back and forth as I continued reading. Everything within me was dry and empty in the hot, solitary silence. There was no sense whatsoever that anything extraordinary was about to happen.

Suddenly, I realized that what I had, up to that moment, thought of as the air was actually God! I was walking back and forth in God. I was vividly aware that the oceanic presence in which I was walking back and forth was sustaining my life, breath by breath. And this presence of God that I was breathing, and in which I was standing and walking about, knew me, breath by breath. And this presence of God that I was breathing, and in which I was standing and walking about, knew me, through and through, with oceanic compassion. There was nowhere to hide, nor did I need such a place. There was nowhere I could run from God. For even if I were to try to flee, God would be sustaining me, breath by breath, in my flight from him, and would be waiting for me, sustaining my life, breath by breath, when I arrived at my planned place of escape. I realized in some baffling, matter-of-fact way, that since God is the infinity of the mystery of air, I was living my life in God and was being held by God always.

There were no feelings. No images. There was nothing imaginary about it. The realization that the air is God was as concretely real and immediate as the smell of the hay, the silence, the small book of psalms that I continued to hold in my hands. I was simply amazed. After a while I sat back down on the bails of hay near the door and looked out through God at the meadow and woods.

An occasional red wasp came buzzing in through the open loft door, to hover in the heat for a moment before ascending to the beams overhead to work on its mud nest. The pair of barn swallows that had built a nest alongside the inside wall beams darted and glided over the meadow. The tin roof made its slight pinging, crinkling noises as it expanded in the hot sun. A cicada whined, unseen, somewhere off in the trees. And I kept sitting there, breathing God, until I heard the bell ring for vespers. I walked back to the monastery breathing God. I fell asleep that night breathing God. It seemed to me that this is what heaven must be like.

I woke up the next morning breathing God, and, in fact, I walked around in this state for several days. On Sundays we were allowed to take walks in the woods outside the monastic enclosure. I was walking along the dirt road that led up to a small lake in the woods where I would sit and read Saint John of the Cross. I was walking along, on this particular Sunday, breathing God, with my volume of Saint John under my arm. Just at the point at which the road curved and led from the open field up into the woods, I paused at a small tree that was hanging out over the road.

Standing there, breathing God, I reached up and touched one of the leaves hanging from one of the branches. As I did so I  looked up. There was one cloud in the sky. I said, out load, “It’s One!” The ground I was standing on, the leaf I was touching, the clouds in the sky, God that I was breathing, my own very self — were utterly, completely, ungraspably one! I walked a short distance up onto the edges of a large field. I sat in the tall grass. A strong wind was blowing. I sat there all afternoon, no moving until I heard the bell ring in the distance from the monastery bell tower, letting me know that it was time to go back to vespers.

I do not know when I lost the direct awareness of breathing God. At some point, perhaps later that day, it dissipated. The air seemed to me, once again, just the air. Except that I knew my experience of the air as being just the air was but my unawareness of what I now knew the air to be. Then even this inner clarity faded. I realized that I had a long road a head of me in learning to live in a habitual state of awareness of the fullness I had fleetingly realized.

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