My First Spiritual Experience

I grew up in a devout and conservative Christian household.  My father was a schoolteacher by day, a lay preacher many Sundays, and in much of his spare time he studied and wrote on evangelical theology.  My mother was mainly a housewife when my sister and I lived at home, but was also involved in church and community volunteer work – even more so after we left home. I cannot remember ever not having a sense of a spiritual world, although at that time I understood it to exist in unseen realms way beyond the physical world.  God was a far-away father figure, but who watched us all very closely and kept a record of all our misdeeds. Jesus was a little closer – ‘…the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation’ – so stated a plaque that sat on the mantlepiece in my grandparents’ home. I always thought this made him seem like an eavesdropping ghost and it felt a little spooky.  I preferred the Jesus of the Sunday School stories who lived in ancient Israel and performed miracles, like a spiritual magician.

I have a strong memory at around the age of five or six of asking my father why he spent so much time reading and studying, and not out playing football as I liked to do.  Up until that moment I had thought that grown-ups knew everything, so it puzzled me that he would spend so much time with his head stuck in books.   His answer was that he was searching for the truth.  At the time I was very impressed, and thought that that must have meant that he was someone really important, as if he had been charged with the responsibility as a seeker of ‘The Ultimate Truth’ by the rest of humanity.  I was surprised though that he didn’t already know it, as he seemed to be able to give an answer to almost every question that I had asked him up until that point.  But it must have struck a chord with me, because since then I have had a drive to know the higher truths, especially the big picture questions of what exists beyond this physical world and what happens to us when we die. Over time I was also impressed by his persistence, because I soon realised that most believers learn enough to have a simple understanding of what they believe, without further questioning.

Despite having to go to Church and Sunday School every Sunday with my parents, they were not particularly pushy with their religious beliefs, and we were given space and time to form our own belief systems.  When I was around the age of 11 or 12 I asked Jesus Christ into my heart.  I had been doing a Bible correspondence course for children, and one particular lesson was written in such a way that it led the reader to a point where the invitation was made to seem the most logical thing to do.  And so without really understanding the full significance, I got down on my knees beside my bed and prayed, and asked God to forgive my sins and Jesus to come into my heart. This made me a Christian, according to the lesson.  At the time I think I felt a little nervous buzz, but apart from that not too different from before – a little cleaner perhaps, though that feeling probably only persisted until the next time I was told off for doing something wrong…

bigstockphoto_old_wagon_wheel_1497286Some time a bit later, a few weeks perhaps, I was sitting one Saturday afternoon in the backyard of the family home in a small country town in New South Wales, Australia. As a child I would daydream a lot.  My father would often chide me for ‘living in cloud-cuckoo land’.  He had just erected an old wagon wheel (as pictured) in the garden, in order to grow plants up it.  I can remember staring at the wheel for quite a while, getting lost in a daydream, trying to work out what I really felt about this Christianity thing and what God was really like.  The wheel must have had a bit of a mandala effect on me, and I heard what seemed like a voice in my head.  However it was nothing like the voices that are usually there chattering away, expressing my thoughts and usually sounding like me or someone else with whom I might be having a mental conversation.  As I can’t remember specific words I would probably now describe it more as a deep resonating sound that seemed to come from all directions inside my head, as if I was wearing a set of headphones.  This sound seemed lift me into an altered state, to almost instantly transmit knowledge to me, rather than speak actual words. Somehow I knew that this was the ‘voice of God’ – or someone very close to Him at the very least!

As if in answer to my questioning, the voice ‘said’ that life is like the wagon wheel, that I then seemed to be merging with. God is the hub of the wheel, the centre of all life.  Humanity is the rim of the wheel, and all the religions and philosophies are like the spokes of the wheel.   Each of us are born at a particular place on the rim, close to a particular religion or belief system, that points toward God at the centre.  As we look down the spoke towards the hub, the religion gives us a glimpse of the divine.  But each religion only gives a small facet of the whole picture.  In order to gain a truer picture of God one would have to travel around the wheel and see God from every angle, looking down each spoke.

The voice finished and I returned from that trance-like state to a normal state of awareness.  At the time there was little doubt in my mind that this knowledge was somehow greater than anything I had learned up until that point.  But although I was aware of the existence of other religions, my experience at that early age had only been of Christianity.    And so I did not have a big enough frame of reference in which this knowledge was able to sit comfortably.  I tried for a time to assimilate it, but the weight of the Christian teachings that surrounded me made it impossible.  For the rest of my teenage years I committed myself to Christianity, and resolved to at least try and understand it well before exploring other spokes.  I remember slight feelings of guilt towards ‘the voice’ as over the next few years – when the memory occasionally came back to me – I would somehow distort the wheel to make Christianity the only essential spoke in the wheel, or some similar vain rationalisation.

From my late teens into my early twenties I felt more and more the constricting and often conflicting limitations of Christianity, and began to explore other belief systems.  I was particularly inspired after seeing the movie ‘Ghandi’, by his politically effective and compassionate non-violent approach that encompassed all religions, and started to read about the Hindu and Buddhist religions.  But ultimately I found that their texts just seemed like other versions of Christianity.  There were some seemingly deep truths, but it was mostly cultural histories and largely irrelevant and incomprehensible rules. I was usually left feeling that it might have made more sense if I had actually been there at the time.  So for a lot of my twenties I put the big questions on the backburner as anyway I was having too much fun to get serious. There was plenty of time for that later…

Once I left Christianity at the age of 22 however, the memory of that first experience came back more clearly and probably more often.  I no longer had a reason to distort it.  And fuller significance of the experience has only come in more recent years.  I see now for example how that as the spokes get closer to the hub, they get closer to each other, as higher truths of many belief systems share many similarities.  Also that even if one travelled all around the rim the picture would be still be incomplete, because it is impossible to see all of the hub from the two-dimensional perspective of the rim.  To see the centre of the hub where the axle sits, for example, one would have to leave the rim, perhaps by stepping out of the confines of physical existence… And ultimately these days I would say that if one were to use the word ‘God’ – something that I try to do as little as possible as it is loaded with many different meanings for each person – it would more accurately describe the whole wheel.

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