When is it fruitful to share our deepest spiritual experiences, and when is it better to keep them close, to ponder them only in our hearts? Vistas From Inner Stillness raises the question. In it, author Richard L. Walker describes encountering God in some awesome natural settings, when his mind was in deep stillness. These experiences transformed his faith in the presence of God to an experience of that divine reality. In this 1991 Pendle Hill pamphlet he took the risk to share his unusual experiences in order to encourage others “seeking answers to their life’s quest.” His accounts reveal, however, the tender and deeply personal nature of such experiences. Only those who have been reached in similar ways can comprehend; to others is may seem mere imagination. Clear discernment about one’s own spiritual experiences, or the experiences of others, also comes from a deep place of inner stillness.
Richard L. Walker was a Quaker naturalist, astronomer, and novelist, the author of articles on binary stars and satellites of the outer planets. Starting in early childhood, he had some remarkable experiences in the natural world. From periods alone in nature and from Quaker meeting for worship, he learned to still his mind and “listen” to what he variously refers to as God, Spirit, Light, and Light of Christ. He found it was not easy to communicate to others the sense of the divine presence he sometimes encountered. Few could understand. One friend, however, offered a helpful analogy to describe the ability to perceive the divine presence: it is like finding a particular point on a radio dial that picks up a very subtle vibration:
The signal is always there, but you have to block out all external sensations to hear it. The signal is so faint, but distinct, it seems to come from a depth inside us. …and that’s what the Light is like too, a far distant, signal that only seems weak; yet, it is so clear and distinct when we listen with all we have. (5)
In the American Astronomical Society’s obituary for Walker, fellow astronomers noted that he was “a studious and very careful observer.” He made many thousands of measures of particular pairs of double stars. Over the course of his career, Walker became adept at three different successive systems of astronomical technology. In our culture, many people would readily accept the knowledge Walker acquired about distant stars and galaxies through powerful telescopes, yet some will question the cosmic awareness he gained through his spiritual perception. In one experience, for example, high on a mountainside, he encounters an enormous cloud that seems to have a very personal presence. Another exploration began when he obeyed a compelling inner call to drive up a particular mountain at night and fly a kite. Under a dark, starry sky, he experienced a sweet, peaceful reassurance and a cosmic power that was in relationship with him. Was his experience that night mere imagination, or was it a gentle encounter with God?
Possibly the most remarkable mystical experience Walker recounts took place in the remote Havasu canyon at the western end of the Grand Canyon. Walker and two Quaker friends trekked through desolate desert landscape and then six miles down into a narrow canyon. At the bottom, they walked three more miles, past awesome waterfalls, and finally pitched a camp. The three Quakers then sat on nearby rocks to hold a meeting for worship under the stars. Walker describes the thunderous sound of the waterfall, the towering walls of the canyon, the cool air, the rising moon. In the silence of the worship, in gentle “quantum steps,” he became aware of the presence of an awesome force:
As my wonderment increased, I felt I was being touched, caressed, warmed with the brush of an essence that was about me, which came from an infinite source of power and strength. I was flooded in light, granting me an awareness that in this setting of explicit beauty, I was surrounded by a facet of the infinite force of the universe, and it was contacting me with comfort, but most of all it was contacting me with an assurance that God was there. God is everywhere in our lives. (24)
Another person’s spiritual experiences or insight can never be convincing proof of the reality, presence, and power of God. Everyone must open to their own direct experience. Reading accounts such as Walker’s, however, can encourage us to trust the moments and ways when we ourselves connect with divine Reality, when we find the spot on the dial of our own perception that allows us to tune into the ever-present presence of God.
Many of Walker’s most profound spiritual experiences took place in remote natural locations. However, he writes that a Quaker meeting for worship can likewise help people find the doorway not only to perception of God, but to receiving the divine love that wants to flow into the world through us:
In our silent meetings, Friends can tap a tremendous source, a vantage point for an extra view of the universe. When we hold and nurture it, a mental respite brings fullness and purpose to our lives. … Our inner silence is like a gate through which the good of the universe flows through us. It is a good amplified in our lives that flows back leaving us reborn each time with greater love. (26-27)
Vistas From Inner Stillness: Have you ever experienced the presence of God while immersed in nature? While engaged in a meeting for worship?
My new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. It was designed to be a resource for individuals and groups to explore ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.
© 2016 Marcelle Martin
Reblogged this on The Quest for a Good Life and commented:
This post explores connections between spiritual experience and awe, from a Quaker perspective. It includes a powerful story of awe. In teaching my course in the psychology of religion and spirituality over the years, the theme addressed in this post – whether to share such personal experiences in public – is a common one that many people wrestle with.
Pingback: A Quaker’s Awe Story | Reflections on Mystery and Awe
Thank you for this post! Based on this, I ordered your book! FYI, I reposted a section on my blog devoted to mystery and awe: https://mysteryandawe.wordpress.com/
Hi Andy, I really enjoyed the gorgeous photos of the Grand Canyon you included with the quotes you took from this post about Walker’s experience in the canyon. Blessings.
Hi Andy, I’ve just read you for the first time and loved it. You asked a question, “Have you ever experienced the presence of God while immersed in nature?”
Let me tell you about the first! I lived in the Lake District in the UK. I used to walk into what I called ‘my chapels in the hills’. These consisted of short, enclosed waterfalls and pools. These did not have the awe of Grand Canyon but they had awe! I went there to meditate and pray whilst placing my boots on the boulders to get to the place where I felt the most connection. I would stay there for hours as the waterfall gave me a sense of ‘sins washed clean’. I feel myself to be too ‘busy’ in my head and too distracted. I felt that I gave off distress signals all the time; I found it hard to settle.
Finally, settle I did, and with my back to a tree I sat and became one with my surrounds. I sensed a peace, of good, of one with God’s creation. When I got up from my tree a heron had placed himself with his back to the same tree. He was fast asleep! I tiptoed away so as not to wake him.
Then, the wonder of it hit me. My city vibes had not troubled my avian friend. He trusted enough to fall asleep in my presence but, not my presence but God’s presence in this tiny out-of-the-way crevice hidden in the hills.
Thank you, Christine, for sharing your amazing story. You’ve reached my blog, A Whole Heart (I’m Marcelle). Blessings!
Good to ‘meet you’ Marcelle; I’m glad you liked my contribution. Blessings for you too!