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During the week I came across a YouTube clip that has really lived with me for the past few days, and which strikes me as having something to say about our Gospel passage this morning.
The clip is of a conversation with a Dr David Hawkins, psychiatrist, physician, researcher, spiritual teacher. He is not to be confused with Richard Dawkins the Biologist, Author and atheist. Also not to be confused with Stephen Hawkins the Physicist.
Dr David Hawkins describes his experience of a spiritual awakening. He says that he was going through a period of deep anguish of the soul. He used the phrase the black night or the dark night of the soul. He said was an atheist at the time, but had he reached such a state of what he called inner spiritual agony. Looking back he suggests that it was perhaps the anguish of in fact being away from God, that was the source of his inner anguish. In this state of inner spiritual agony, he finally got to the point of saying, if there is a God, then I ask him to help me. He says he didn't hold his breathe, because he was an atheist. He says however that after that it seems for a period he didn't remember anything.
I will quote him directly from here: He said, “Everything was sort of blank and when I came to, everything had changed. There was only this Infinite Presence, of such power, of such immensity, of such dimension, as to be beyond all description. That which Is, that which always was, that which always will be, and which is at the same time all things and beyond all things, is all there was. And the individual person such as David (referring to himself) no longer existed. Had no will of its own. And would not have dared to have a thought of its own. It would have been too presumptuous. And the body did what this Infinite Presence willed it to do, which it has done to this day. ….He goes on to say... “The other thing that’s strange about this Infinite Presence is not only that it is Infinitely Powerful, beyond all dimension. It has the power to be all things, to exist as all things, or not to exist as anything. It is no different from what you are. It is closer to you than what you thought of as your self. What you call yourself is really quite distant. It isn't different from what you are. It does all things, is all things. And it’s Silent. There are no words. So the mind went silent.
Going on, Dr, David Hawkins said the following: The other thing that is interesting, now that I am looking back at it over many years, is the exquisite gentleness, this peculiar combination of qualities, this Infinite Presence which Is all things and is everywhere, is both the space in the room and the objects in the room. It is both the figure and the ground simultaneously, [and] is also exquisitely gentle. It’s touch just melts you with it’s exquisite presence. And whatever there was of the individual self is melted by it. Dissolved in it. There is no violence. It is as though one dissolves. It is like one is salt and when you’re put in water, it just dissolves and becomes one with all that is. One isn’t destroyed however, but how one thought one could be that little doll or that little piece of salt is sort of comical. So then when it happens, you laugh at yourself. And you look at your body and say, how can I have thought I was that...
The difficulty after that experience was that all those things that one calls our common human drives and ambitions and endeavours, the desire for success, to make money, to succeed, all the things that drive people, those are all gone. And so the common human motivations disappeared. There was no ambition. There was no desire even to exist in the next moment…. Anything could stop and [it would] be complete.”
There’s a lot in this quote, and many things that are perhaps beyond me and beyond my own understanding and beyond my own experience. In a way, what Dr, David Hawkins describes could be categorised as a moment of Epiphany, as we spoke about last week, in which he came to a new depth of insight into the nature and significance of life and of God, or the Infinite Presence as he refers to it in this particular excerpt. It was clearly an experience which changed the whole course of his life and his existence.
As I reflected on it, it made me wonder whether within his description, which clearly was one that was beyond words, and beyond the ability to truly express in words, we maybe catch a glimpse of Jesus’ experience described in symbolic language in the story of his baptism.
For Mark’s Gospel, this is the significant moment when the story of Jesus truly begins. Interestingly, Mark’s Gospel, which was the first to have been written, makes no mention of the birth of Jesus, which might raise all sorts of interesting questions as to why they do not appear in Mark’s Gospel. What is clear is that is is Jesus’ profound experience of baptism that according to Mark’s Gospel is the truly significant moment, and spiritual beginning, that changes the whole direction, meaning and purpose of Jesus life. He comes to see himself and God and the world in a whole new light which he later describes with the term, “the reign of God” or more commonly translated as “the Kingdom of God”..
What we have in Mark’s Gospel (and indeed in the other Gospels too) is a symbolic description of this profound moment in Jesus life. I call it a symbolic description because it draws on imagery and symbols from Jewish Scripture, and expresses it within a largely 1st century Jewish world view, which some call the three tiered universe.
According to the 3 tiered universe, which is different from the UK’s 3 Tier Covid system than has been extended to a 4 tier and now a 5 tier system, God was understood to dwell above the sky or the vault of heaven, human beings dwelt on the earth, and those who had died lived under the earth.
And so, within that world view of 3 tiered universe, how does one express an experience of being immersed (or one could say baptised) in God’s Presence? If one was going to describe it to largely uneducated 1st century Jewish fisherman for example, you would say that in that moment, it was as though the sky was torn open with the Spirit, or Breathe or Presence of God descending from above the vault of heaven to earth. As though God’s Presence normally conceived of as being above the sky, had somehow begun to spill down onto earth.
The word baptism itself would have been a helpful descriptive term, because baptism means to be immersed, and in that moment of Jesus baptism, it seems that the true baptism which Jesus experienced was an immersion in the Infinite Presence or Spirit of God, much like Dr, David Hawkins. Just as John the Baptist had suggested. I baptise with water, but he will batpise with the spirit, which can also be translated as the breathe of God.
If you were speaking to a first century Jewish fisherman, how would you describe the gentleness and the peace of being immersed in God’s Infinite Presence? You might draw from the imagery of the Noah story, of the dove that heralds that the flood is over and which declared that God’s gift of peace had been given.
How would you express the sense of a change of identity, the sense of one’s old identity having been dissolved away like salt in water? You might quote from the Psalms, verses expressing a sense of Divine Son-ship and Beloved-ness. “You are my son, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased,” two quotes spliced together from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.
How would you express the sense of a change of motivation, and the giving up of one’s normal human will. You would speak of being moved by God’s Spirit or moved by God’s Breathe, which happens in the very next story, where Mark writes that immediately Jesus was driven into the desert by the Breathe or the Spirit of God.
And what does all this mean for us you might ask? Very nice for Dr David Hawkins to have had this experience. Very inspiring to read of the Baptism of Jesus in all of that powerful symbolism that the Gospel writer uses, but what about you and me who may not have had this kind of experience?
Perhaps their testimony might fill us with a bit of hope and inspiration? Perhaps it might fill us with relief to hear that the Divine Presence is exquisitely gentle, and in the Divine Presence there is no violence and that with the gentleness of the touch of that Infinite Presence, what we thought of as our self will one day dissolve, until we see that we are not our bodies and we discover that what we truly are is not different from the Infinite Presence of God’s love and gentleness, and therefore that death is not to be feared.
Perhaps it might remind us that despite what might feel like our separation from God, who we imagine to be elsewhere, we are in fact immersed (baptised) in the Divine Presence who exists as everything and is beyond everything.
Maybe when we are battling to make sense of life with our thoughts, especially as we continue in this current crisis, it might be an invitation to fall silent before the Divine Mystery, and with our little mustard seed of faith, experiment with trusting that we are indeed embraced and held by something much bigger then ourselves, which, even though we might have only glimpsed it in the story of Jesus, and perhaps the experience of Dr David Hawkins, is closer and more real than that which we most often refer to as ourselves. Amen