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Although the following text - originally published in a different form on MyNotebook.org - is centred on the communication of spiritual experience, I suspect that its pertinence can be extended to those who teach (more generally). If learning is best considered to be the result of significant personal experience rather than the dispensing of prepared knowledge, then the preoccupations described here - with a little imagination - might find an echo for those who seek to share their passion for a subject that moves them personally.

I'd like to acknowledge the inspiration for this article which came from reading the discussion with Karlfried Dürckheim published as "L'esprit guide" by Albin Michel, 1985. I'd also like to thank Jean-Claude Schwab for pointing out Dürckheim's writings to me.

From being touched to bearing witness

Sharing the transcendent

One of the things that struck me when I interviewed the clergyman Jean-Claude Schwab for Saint-Blaise.Net, was the call people feel to bear witness to their faith. I found the same idea echoed in the writings of Karlfried Dürckheim. You have experienced something transcendent and you want others to share that experience with you. It is not just a question of describing your experience or receiving credit for it. Rather it is a deep desire to lead others to that awareness. I suspect that the way to "sharing" is full of pitfalls. Givers of lessons abound. Their generosity ends up chasing spirituality away. Worse still, there are those that use force to have others share their experience. We call them sects. We call them missionaries. We call them crusaders. We call them fanatics. How many highly spiritual people have been tortured and killed in the name of god by those who were convinced that they were the only people to have the answer? Were those gentle people not closer to God than all those who brandish institutional authority and righteousness? My heart goes out particularly to all my Celtic ancestors whom the ecclesiastical powers of the day tried to force to give up their love of nature and their faith in their own experience of transcendence. And the torture is still going on today, everywhere where ideas triumph over experience and belief triumphs over faith.

The value of experience

Dürckheim is adamant that faith springs from individual spiritual experience not lessons. He says: "There is a difference between a religion based on teaching and one based on experience." [L'esprit guide, Karlfried Dürckheim, Albin Michel, 1985, pg. 62] If the spiritual - you might say our experience of God - is anchored in personal experience, then the communication of that experience can probably only be done on a spiritual level. That is to say, it can only take place beyond the realm of words and logic.

Roads to being touched

If spirituality can not be taught, it is probably still of some use to indicate, from personal experience, possible paths down which one can go. I certainly found reading what Dürckheim had to say about the subject encouraging. I'd like to summarise his main points here and develop on them.

The silence of trees

Dürckheim talks of listening to the silence in the forest. I am lucky to have extensive forests on the mountains at the back of where we live. It has certainly been my experience that beyond that silence there is a lot to be heard. There is something extremely gentle and peaceful in the company of trees. It as if we slow down to meet their much longer rhythms. Note that I have never been able to repeat a significant experience for all my knowing where to go. Spirituality seems to defy repetition.

The caress

Dürckheim makes the distinction between sexuality and what he characterises by the caress. There is a very beautiful book by the Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin in the form of a praise for the caress [Lire aux éclats - éloge de la caresse, Marc Alain Ouaknin, Seuil, 1989]. Ouaknin distinguishes between grasping something and caressing it. Put extremely succinctly, the former takes a hold of and possesses what is touched. The later appreciates what is touched but does not seek to possess or withhold it. Translated in terms of thinking, grasping leads to dogma, whereas caressing brings ever-renewed joy and constant discovery. The hands that caress communicate great tenderness and love.

Works of Art

A work of art, whether it be a poem, a painting, a sculpture, a play, a piece of music or a dance, can open the way to transcendence. In my experience, music is extremely powerful, as if it were somehow closer to our soul. Music can set us vibrating beyond and above the material realm. Unfortunately, modern recording techniques bring with them the possibility of the ever repeated experience and have us run the risk that the transcendent turns into a sort of nostalgic addiction in which emotions are turned on and off more or less at will.

The ceremony

Dürckheim's fourth door on the transcendent experience is the religious ceremony. As he puts it, the movements and chants of such ceremonies are designed to enable participants to get closer to the spiritual. The form of the building also has this function, although modern ignorance has often led to the destruction of such powers. My personal experience in this realm has been somewhat disappointing. I find most Christian ceremonies (a culture I was brought up in) seemingly lacking in what I perhaps flippantly call "Holy Spirit". There is no flame; there is no spiritual presence, at least not for me. Maybe the heavy accent on show in our society has blunted our sensitiveness to the delicate in the sacred ceremonial.

Everyday life

The final "door" to the transcendent that Dürckheim mentions is that of everyday life. Spirituality is then lived as an integral part of life. Here, as in all the above-mentioned forms of access, the passage to the transcendent depends entirely on our openness to it. Perhaps even more so in everyday life, as there are no "special" surroundings that invite us to transcend. The other day, stepping out of the station in Geneva, a slight breeze ruffled my hair, rather like a greeting. Unexpected and short-lived, it was delightful to rediscover the contact with a realm that had forsaken me (or rather that I had forsaken) for quite a while. It was like a delicate kiss, a caress, like being blessed. I felt uplifted for the rest of the day.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise Share or comment
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Created: November 11th, 2000 - Last up-dated: November 11th, 2000