A vision when I was young set the course for my spiritual journey ever since | Opinion

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were all locked down, I suddenly had enormous stretches of time on my hands. I did a lot of reading.

One thing I learned from all that reading was that I am, apparently, a jackleg Christian mystic.

I use the term “jackleg” according to the definition “lacking skill or training,” not the alternate definition, “characterized by unscrupulousness, dishonesty, or lack of professional standards.” Unskilled and unschooled on the matter I am; crooked, not much.

Anyway, before the pandemic I’d never imagined myself a mystic, largely because I didn’t know what a mystic was.

But among the books I read during my Covid sabbatical was “Longing for God: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism,” by William O. Paulsell, the former president of Lexington Theological Seminary. (I’m sad to say Paulsell, 88, passed away on April 14.)

In “Longing for God,” he wrote that a mystic “is a person who has experienced the presence of God in a very direct way. The event is so real and certain that there can be no doubt about what happened.”

As I said in a column last year, by that standard many folks — ordinary and extraordinary, obscure and famous — qualify as mystics. In studies conducted in Britain and Brazil, researchers found that 38 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of respondents reported having had mystical experiences. That’s probably the case worldwide.

What I didn’t say in that previous column is that I’ve had such experiences myself.

There have been perhaps five times when the supernatural burst headlong into my mundane, drone-bee existence. For me, on average that figures out to one visitation (or whatever you want to call it, I’m not a stickler about semantics) every 12 or 15 years, although my experiences haven’t been that predictable.

They’ve just happened when they happened. From age 19 to age 24, I had three of them. Elsewhere, I’ve gone multiple decades between events, groping along, studying football box scores and watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

But each of these experiences permanently changed my spiritual course.

When I was 19, I was already a long-term veteran of an evangelical subculture that was repressed, legalistic and judgmental. The faith I was raised in had its merits, but it was also steeped in hellfire and guilt, and stingy on mercy and grace. I never liked it much.

I’d just completed my freshman year at a Christian college of that same tradition, and I’d emerged from there not just a skeptic anymore but an all-out, pugnacious atheist.

I’d had it up to here with God, superstition and churches. I was done. Wounded. Angry. I wanted none of it, ever again.

I came home for summer break, before transferring to the University of Kentucky.

What happened next is a story too long for this space. I’ll cut to the gist.

One night as I was sitting alone on my bed nursing my rage, a God I didn’t believe in entered the bedroom. Out of the blue. I actually heard someone come in and turned to look, only to see nobody.

Then I was way up in the sky, hovering high over UK’s Commonwealth Stadium, now called Kroger Field. The stadium was packed for a football game, probably 50,000 people. They appeared as an indistinguishable mass of humanity.

But as I watched, suddenly my sight zoomed down to the crowd at laser speed until it pierced right into the chest of one guy who was rowdy and cheering and drunk. I saw inside him a kind of spiritual core. His soul, maybe. This core was tender and holy and precious. I felt a love for this stranger that was beyond comprehension.

That quick, my laser-sight zoomed back up, and then instantly went down again into the chest of another person, and another, and another. Each time — incredible, indescribable love.

I understood I’d been momentarily granted God’s vision, the gift of seeing with his eyes. And all I saw was love. No brimstone. No recriminations. No guilt.

Just this heart-rending love. God absolutely loved all 50,000 people, without exception.

I hadn’t dreamed this up. I knew it was from God, because it was too intense, and far beyond my ability to imagine it.

I remember saying aloud, “You’re nothing like they told me you were!”

That night changed me irrevocably, and 49 years later I’ve stayed changed. I quit being an atheist. But I also never believed again in that awful, sinner-hating God I was weaned on.

I’ve been proclaiming the Good News about this other God ever since. The good news is that God made you and loves you right now, right here, regardless. You can trust this God, I tell folks. God cares for you beyond all human understanding.

Even today, I don’t know how all this stacks up theologically. Don’t care. I know what I saw. I can still see, feel and hear it, down to the crinkle of the bedspread I was sitting on.

Experiences such as mine raise more questions than they provide answers for. But so what?

“Answers are beside the point,” the famous mystic Thomas Merton said.

He was right. Faith is a mystery. It’s meant to be. Often it transcends verifiable answers. Still, what I believe for sure is that God is real, and he’s been widely slandered, often by his own followers.

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.