Was there a singular spiritual moment that changed the direction of your lives?
When I was child, I was enthralled with the Hollywood movie "Sergeant York," which starred Gary Cooper. He won the Oscar in 1941 for his portrayal of the real life Alvin York, who is a drunken country boy until a bolt of lightning strikes him and his horse on a rainy night in the hill country of Tennessee. His rifle is destroyed, but he and the horse survive. It was a divine call to him. Sgt. York became a religious man who embraced passivism. Despite his refusal to kill any man based upon the teachings of the Ten Commandments, he eventually became a war hero in World War I.
Admittedly, I have never had that kind of revelatory experience. I wish I had because life would have been a lot clearer in choosing to be a rabbi in the first place. Some do, however, say they have experienced major events in their lives in which God touched them in the most personal and miraculous way.
What does it mean to experience this type of spiritual moment in the secular age? Does it mean spiritual moments either do not happen anymore or, if they do, it's usually to people who are considered mentally disturbed? The Christian theologian Paul Tillich defined the spiritual moment as one "which is based on God and only on God, who is experienced in a unique and personal way." The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "Each of us has at least once in their life experienced the momentous reality of God."
Many people tell me they are not religious, but rather spiritual. Such people typically say that they find this spirituality in nature, but that is generally as far as it goes. I have had such spiritual moments in nature -- for example, when I climbed the mountain of Moses in the Sinai desert and looked out to behold the Sinai Mountain range, imagining the theophany when God gave the Torah to the children of Israel. I was a student rabbi then, and it was in that moment I came to understand the meaning of encountering a God of history.
Spiritual moments large and small draw on our intuitive awareness, which comes from something creative and deep-seated in our minds and emotions. The spiritual moment in religion is more than a psychic moment. It is more about the sensation that we are not alone in the universe and that we as individuals have a divinely inspired purpose and meaning to our lives.
The challenge for institutional religion is to nurture that instinct in us to see with a different set of eyes the presence of God in our lives. Oftentimes religions can preserve the historic moment of a communal revelation, but at the same time suppress the emotional drive to reconnect to those ancient feelings.
The structure of the institutional faith system can, for some, strip the spontaneity and overburden us with too much structure that builds up over the centuries to the point that the spirituality is gone. Religion must balance between preserving the history of the spiritual moments versus not letting adherents to the religion lose the spark from that moment in history that speaks to us today.
The ultimate spiritual moments usually go beyond the event itself and point to a greater truth that was hidden and then revealed to us through the experience. Does God wait for us to search out that inner truth? Is God what we are searching for or is it the truth of the spiritual moment itself? Maybe both ideas are the same?
Is it possible that this is not a question for theologians or clergy but instead better reserved for poets? The British poet Kathleen Raine wrote:
"Truth comes full circle
As departing light
From infinite space
Returns to the heart
Still what it was,
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.