Even though I lead a church, that answer never bothers me. It’s true for me too. My most transporting experiences are always either in nature or in a close personal encounter with another human being. But that doesn’t mean I scrap the church. In fact, I believe it is the lifelong commitment to prayer in community that allows me to have those extra-ecclesiastical experiences.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement tells a curious story about the connection between communal prayer and ecstatic spiritual experience in nature. “[Renowned theologian] Howard Thurman once came to visit me in Winnipeg. I asked whether he wanted to visit the Trappists, and he did. I asked, ‘Do you want to see the abbot?’ He said, ‘No, the abbot is just a manager. I’d like to talk to the master of novices.’ So we see the master of novices and Howard asks him, ‘What’s the novices’ biggest complaint?’ The master says, ‘They have to be up at 2:30 in the morning to attend matins and lauds. They aren’t too happy about that. They tell me that it’s so much better when they’re out in the fields, and they feel ecstasy and love of God and hallelujah and so on. So I said to them, ‘I forbid you to come to any services now except for the obligatory masses.’ Well, after a while they came back and said, ‘We didn’t come here to be farmhands.’”
“’ What happened to your ecstasies?’ the master asked. ‘They dried up,’ said the novices. So the master told them, ‘Of course, now you realize that what you are doing at 2:30 in the morning is what gives you the ecstasy in the fields.’”
It’s not as simple as sending people into the fields to find the presence of the “divine,” the “sacred,” the “numinous.” It’s true, but it’s only half the truth. The other half, the one (like the novices) we don’t want to hear, is that we need some discipline that keep us listening to the ancient story in Scripture, singing, chanting the Psalms, praying hundred- and thousand-year old prayers. These rituals are what slowly, like water wearing a channel in a rock, slowly changes our minds, our hearts, unstops our ears, pulls the scales from our eyes so that when we go out into the fields we are ready for ecstasy.