A Conversation On Religious Experience

A couple of summers ago, a friend and I waited at a parking lot by Cottonwood Pass in Colorado for a ride back to Buena Vista. Bad weather had forced us off the Colorado Trail, and we now needed transportation to the nearest lodging venue. A pair of daytrippers, a middle-aged couple, appeared, walking back to their parked vehicle, done with their viewing and photography for the day. We walked over and made our request: could we please hitch a ride with them? They were not going back all the way to Buena Vista, but only to a campground nearby; would that work? We said it would; we would find another ride from there. In we hopped, and off we went.

As we drove, introductions were made; we were from Brooklyn, our benefactors were visiting from Texas, sans children and grandchildren.  When asked what I ‘did,’ I said I was a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. Intrigued, they asked which classes I taught; when I listed philosophy of religion as one of them, they asked me if I was religious. I said that I wasn’t religious in belief or practice, but was very interested in the problems and questions that arose in that domain of philosophy. I asked my newly made friends if they were religious; they both said they were devout Christians. I asked them if their faith had been a matter of being born into a devout family, and they both replied that while they had been born into churchgoing families, each had had an individual ‘experience’ that had cemented their faith, given it a new dimension, and indeed caused them to say they ‘found Christ’ only later in life–in each case, following a profound ‘crisis’ of one sort or the other. When Christ ‘had come’ to them, they had ‘felt’ it immediately, and had never had any doubt ‘in their hearts’ from that point on. I listened, fascinated. I made note of the fact that I taught an section on ‘religious experiences’ in my class, and mentioned William James and St. Teresa of Avila‘s theoretical and personal accounts of its phenomena.

When my new friends were done recounting the story of their journey to their faith, they asked me again if I was sure I wasn’t religious. I said that I was quite sure I had no theistic belief–even as I remained fascinated by religion as a social, cultural, psychological, and intellectual phenomena and by the nature of religious feeling–which is why, of course, I had inquired into the nature of their religious belief and how they came by their beliefs. In response, my friends said they were ‘relieved’ to hear of my attitude, that they frequently skirted the subject in conversation with ‘strangers’ because they didn’t want anyone to feel they were proselytizing; I assured them I didn’t think they were, and that I had found the conversation singularly illuminating.

We had driven on past the campground that was supposed to be our destination; our friends said they found our conversation worth continuing; they would drop us to Buena Vista. Rain clouds were still threatening, so this offer was most welcome. Soon, we found ourselves on Buena Vista’s Main Street, our destination for the day. We alighted, grabbed our backpacks, posed for a photograph or two, and then bade them farewell; I asked for their names, but did not write them down, and so have forgotten them. But not that conversation; there was a refreshing warmth and openness on display that was refreshing, and in the context of the US and its endless ‘religious wars,’ a genuine sense of novelty.

The Comforts Of ‘Abide With Me’

Legend has it that Mohandas Gandhi adored Abide With Me, “a Christian hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte most often sung to English composer William Henry Monk‘s…’Eventide‘.” I learned of this particular proclivity of the Mahatma long after I had first heard the hymn’s notes as a child attending or watching the Beating Retreat ceremonies, which marked the end of the Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital New Delhi where it was “played by the combined bands of the Indian Armed Forces.” But that experience had little impact on me; the tune was one of many unfamiliar ones that I heard on that evening (the closing of which was always the melancholy, haunting performance of Taps by a bugler.) Matters changed when I attended a boarding school in India’s north-east, where, as I’ve noted, “I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required.”

There, during our daily service in the mornings, I joined in the singing of hymns with the school congregation–ably backed up by our schoolboy choir, which came with a full complement of sopranos, tenors, and basses. The congregation’s singing was trained by our school music master, Mr. Denzil Prince, a man whose love for music and passion for teaching was all too visible in his interactions with us. He transformed, slowly and patiently, an incoherent band of squawkers into a harmonious assemblage of voices. Even a recently disillusioned former believer like me could not but be thrilled at those moments when it seemed we had achieved some sort of divine harmony with the beauty of the Himalayan ranges that lay outside our chapel.

Among the hymns I sang and listened to was Abide With Me. It’s opening verse, and in particular, its opening line,was instantly memorable for someone whose melancholic bent had found–in the beauty of the Himalayan evenings and approaching sunsets, and in my separation from my mother–yet another forum for expression. But I did not miss the presence of God in my life; that particular train had long departed the station. I missed my mother. When I heard school choir sing ‘Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide/When other helpers fail and comforts flee/Help of the helpless, O abide with me/, the comfort I sought was only forthcoming from one entity, and it was not divine. My desire and longing for that missing presence though, felt to me as deep as I imagined that of any believer to be. I was thirteen years old, and I was supposed to be away from home for nine months. Letters, not phone calls, not occasional visits, were supposed to be sustenance during this period. It was not enough. But standing there, in that chapel, or sometimes, outside, listening to the choir’s evening practices, listening to those haunting lyrics and notes, sent soaring up into our chapel’s rafters and through our bodies, it was possible to begin to address some of that gaping absence.

The Organ In The Chapel

For the two years that I attended boarding school, I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required. The bell calling us to service would ring out, loud and clear and persistent; we would make our way to the chapel and file in obediently, taking our pre-assigned positions–arranged by grades. We were led through a service by one of our masters; we sang hymns, said the Lord’s Prayer; we knelt down, we stood up; we listened to the occasional ‘sermon.’ And then, as the service came to a close, and as the gathered congregation stood in silence, waiting to file out, we were treated to a short organ recital that served as epilogue.

I knew little of the organ and the music it produced; I knew even less about the many pieces I heard. Still, my body and my aural senses knew what they liked, and there was little doubt that the organ recital was the highlight of the service. I knew the master who played, up above in the loft that held the choir, was a short and stocky man, with hands like little cudgels. (Rumor had it Mr. Paul had been a boxer in his school days, and was still capable of landing a fearsome slap or box to the ears of the insolent.) I could imagine him bent over the keys, his fingers busy at work, the ‘pipes’ towering over him, his feet working the pedals, sending out those notes, sonorous, commanding, filling the spaces of the chapel and my imagination.

My musical tastes, as I indicated, were not too sophisticated. Still, I acquired an early favorite: Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. (I had first heard it on the soundtrack of Rollerball; when I first heard it in the chapel, I was curious and excited enough to find out more about this melody that had so intrigued me.) Mr. Paul, our organist, only played it occasionally, and every one of those occasions made the proverbial hairs stand on end, my skin prickling.

I was not a religious person then; indeed, I had lost whatever little religious belief I had in the years following my father’s death. I participated in the chapel service because I was required to; I was used to being subjected to school discipline, so mouthing the hymns and prayers and going through the motions of rising and kneeling in unison came easily to me. It was all a bit of a performance, and I was well aware of it. We were in chapel for no longer than fifteen minutes at most, and though I chafed occasionally at the service’s constraints, I put up with it, much like I did with all the disciplinary codes of this highly structured home away home.

But that little organ recital did not fail to induce an emotional response in me; it made me look forward to the service, if only its end. (Of course, the organ accompanied our hymns too, and thus, in them as well, I found much stirring within me.)

Mr. Paul often practiced in the evenings; on some those occasions, I, along with a friend or two, would sneak down to the chapel and treat ourselves to a free concert, standing outside the back wall. These were short, for our days were tightly scheduled. But they were memorable; I could see the Himalayas towering ahead, the well-groomed gardens of the campus laid about. And through the walls, I could hear that mighty instrument, an accompaniment to the sacral, but also capable of uplifting the profane.