Describing Mystical Experience Through Poetry

Jane Downes was the scheduled speaker at semi-programmed meeting for worship on April 23, 2017.

“Each seeker of ‘God within’ is confronted by a unique personal and cultural labyrinth. that he or she must negotiate to directly experience God.”
— Rufus Jones

Mystical experience, or experiencing God directly, is at the very heart of Quakerism. The Quaker scholar Rufus Jones proposed that being open to mystical experience is a central practice among Friends. He claimed “mystical experience makes God sure to the person who has had the experience.”

How can we cultivate and deepen such experience?

Robert Achley wrote in the February Friends Journal “Being in nature, meditation, contemplative waiting, religious rituals, singing hymns, reading sacred texts, and service to others are but a few of the situations in which people find themselves in touch with God within. Among Friends, mystical experiences during meeting for worship are common, but only a minority of these experiences leads to vocal ministry. Many times the experience is not in the form of words, and putting it into words is daunting.”

One of the main characteristics of mystical experience is considered to be ineffability, or the inability to describe the experience in ordinary language. To complicate things further, it’s often hard for us to discuss spiritual matters together, because each of us has a different background, with a different culture, different life experiences — even different definitions for spiritual words. Too often we opt out of the discussion all together. We lack the ability to completely perceive or understand god, so we “dance around a divine Light that we cannot name.”

I’m a poet, and I consider it a personal challenge to try to capture those moments when the universe briefly opens. The challenge of putting those experiences into
words is a vital part of my daily spiritual practice. Capturing these Light filled moments remains an elusive goal I reach for but never grasp; words transmit the mystical experience in very uncertain and ambiguous ways.

I write poetry in an attempt to better understand my spiritual life. I’d like to share two examples.

At the close of one of the first Quaker meetings I ever attended, an elderly birthright Quaker named Marie spoke up. She said “Some Meetings are alive with the Presence. But in this one, I felt we were all sitting here like a bunch of dry sticks. When we introduce ourselves, mention what kind of stick your spiritual life reminds you of.”

People dutifully claimed twigs, kindling waiting for a match, even a pool cue. When it was my turn, I said “I’m a stick in the mouth of a large dog”. People looked at me slant- eyed, but I immediately knew this wasn’t just a throwaway line. It was a moment of clarity.

That afternoon, I wrote this poem:


I am a stick in the mouth
of a large dopey dog.
She runs across a meadow,
playfully tossing her head.
The sun is shining on her broad back,
releasing the scent of her
brown and white dogginess, to mingle
with the summer smell of grass,
of clover and Queen Anne’s Lace,
of Brown Eyed Susans. She dances
a few steps gleefully, gracefully, then
runs in ever-widening circles. Immersed
in slobber, I’m held firm: have
no say in the direction or nature
of this brief, ecstatic ride. Bees buzz,
birds sing from the far trees.
I am the stick, the bees, the grass,
the meadow. I am the dog.

Now, maybe that makes no sense at all to you. Or maybe it seems overly simplistic. That’s OK. To me, it captures a flashing moment when I understood the small still voice insisting that everything is one.

Often, a message I receive during meeting is not a voice at all, but an image, because I tend to be a visual thinker. Although the image may be sure and clear, the meaning isn’t always immediately obvious. For example, I received one image during meeting that stayed on my mind for weeks — of people’s thoughts swimming around the room like tropical fish. I later wrote this:


We gather to wait for god,
our thoughts swimming around the room
above our heads, circling,
out and back.
The flash and flutter of tropical fish:
tiny jewels glittering as they turn and dart.
Bright brief sparkle and gone.
Puffer fish bob, all spikes and bluster.
We catch the gleam and glimmer
of green scales and gold eyes, of
ominous sharks, all darkness and teeth.
Swirling, swimming.
Angel fish hover gently,
ponderous among the smaller,
faster fish.
Prayers bubble up.
As thoughts catch the current, swirl
out and back, we seek god
like fish trying to find water.

I believe it’s important to spend time with the messages received during silence, working toward further understanding. There are probably as many ways to do that as there are Quakers. Some may do it through prayer or contemplation, through art or music, through service or conversation. How do you do this important work? How do you share it with our community?

Whether you write poetry or not, you might heed the advice of Wendell Berry in How to Be a Poet:

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

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