Close encounters of a Spirit-filled kind

by
07 June 2019

Inspired by John V. Taylor, John Inge argues for a broader understanding of the workings of the Third Person of the Trinity

Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy  

Moses before the Burning Bush: 12th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Moses before the Burning Bush: 12th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

WHEN did you last have an experience of the Holy Spirit? Are you one of those who imagine that the only people who do so are “happy-clappy” Pentecostals and Charismatics? Or, conversely, might you be tempted to respond acerbically that the most recent time you had such an experience was when you last took a breath, since the Holy Spirit sustains us all in life — or to discuss the missio Dei, the mission of God, discernible through the work of the Spirit in the world and not just in the Church?

It is getting on for 50 years since John V. Taylor published his seminal The Go-Between God (SCM Press, 1972). That book had a profound effect on me as a young man. At its beginning, the author talks about what he characterises as “moments of annunciation”, in which God is made known through the Spirit. That insight helped me to understand that God communicates with us on all sorts of occasions that I would not previously have characterised as having anything much to do with God.

Taylor quotes many such moments. He returns to the theme in his wonderful sequel, The Christlike God (SCM Press, 1992), in which he recounts the experience of a 12-year-old boy, walking alone in the Peak District at the end of the summer holidays: “It was getting towards evening, and I had climbed over a wall and was standing on a piece of rough ground covered with heather and bracken and brambles, looking for blackberries, when suddenly I stood quite still and began to think deeply, as an indescribable peace — which I have since tried to describe as ‘a diamond moment of reality’ — came flowing into (or indeed waking up within) me; and I realised that all around me everything was lit with a kind of inner shining beauty; the rocks, the bracken, the bramble bushes, the view, the sky, even the blackberries — and also myself.

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“And, in that moment, sweeping in on that tide of light, there came also knowledge . . . that though disaster was moving slowly and seemingly unavoidably towards me (and this I had known subconsciously for some time) yet in the end ‘all would be well’.”

 

TAYLOR makes reference to the work of Alister Hardy, who was convinced that experiences of the divine were much more common than is generally supposed. Having retired from a lifetime as a scientist (latterly as Professor of Zoology at Oxford University), he was determined to test this hypothesis, and, in 1969, at the age of 73, he set up a Religious Experience Unit. Throughout his life, Hardy had harboured an interest in religious experiences, and as far back as 1925 had started collecting press cuttings that referred to them.

It is likely that this interest stemmed from boyhood encounters of his own while out walking. At the age of 88, he wrote of something that he had never spoken of before (quoted in David Hay’s Religious Experience Today: Studying the facts, Mowbray, 1990): “Just occasionally when I was sure no one could see me, I became so overcome with the glory of the natural scene that for a moment or two I fell on my knees in prayer — not praying for anything but thanking God, who felt very real to me, for the glories of his kingdom and allowing me to feel them. It was always by the running waterside that I did this, perhaps in front of a great foam of Meadow Sweet or a mass of Purple Loosestrife.”

The most famous such experience is perhaps that of Thomas Merton, on the corner of Walnut Street in St Louis, which he describes in Confessions of a Guilty Bystander (Sheldon Press, 1977): “I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs . . . it was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . to take your place as a member of the human race. I had the immense joy of being man, a member of the race in which God himself had become incarnate. If only everybody could realise this. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

 

HARDY’s unit collected many thousands of responses in answer to the question: “Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?” The number of people who answered the question in the affirmative was surprisingly high.

In a national survey, David Hay and Ann Morisy (who furthered Hardy’s work) found that more than one third of all adults in Britain said that they had had an experience of this kind.

In a subsequent survey, this proportion increased to more than half, and, if one includes those claiming some sort of premonition, to an astonishing two-thirds.

Most of these encounters with God through the Holy Spirit take place outside church. Church ought to be the place where they can be discussed, and people enabled to make sense of them. In The Christlike God, Taylor articulates forcefully his sadness that this is not generally the case: “How regrettable it is, how unnatural in fact, that through the centuries the confessional stalls around the walls of many churches have received the secrets of so many sins, and have not been equally available for the confidences of men and women and children who have been overtaken by the ecstasies or insights or consolations that declare the reality of God!

“Had this other side of personal experience been invited . . . at least it might have redressed the balance and made the churches everywhere as mindful of divine initiative as of human failure.

“If it could become normal for people to know that a church was the place where confidences of that sort could be shared and understood; [that] here they would be helped to reflect upon the experience and grow and grow by responding to it; where they could learn that — just as they have known the approach of God in the strength of a tree, or the swelling of a tide of music — others have known it in a bush lapped in flame, or the action of a potter at the wheel; where they could find that the church itself was living and growing by response to such experiences; then, I believe, the Christian community would present a less mummified face towards the world and, within its own life and thought, might rediscover the more dynamic exploratory view of the knowledge of God which its own scriptures display.”

We may no longer have many confessionals in our churches, but it seems to me that we still have a long way to go on the journey on which Taylor encouraged me. Despite that, may you know the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in your life this Pentecost.

 

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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