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Out Of The Mystical Closet

Writers on transcendent experiences

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

In 2005, I gave birth to my first child. Nothing prepared me for that moment and the overwhelming love that filled me. I spent long hours staring into her eyes and admiring her perfectly formed features. I’d known love before, but not on this level. My heart sang with joy. I didn’t think a greater love existed.

But a few months later, I was proved wrong. Something woke me in the middle of the night. Surprisingly, it wasn’t my baby daughter crying for milk; it was a swirling sensation of energy rippling up the length of my body.

When the sensation reached my head, a brilliant light pierced my inner vision. With the light, came an indescribable feeling of love. The love I felt for my daughter paled by comparison. Words failed me even then — long before the erosion of time and memory took their toll. Suffice to say that if love were measured like earthquakes, this love would have been off the Richter scale.

Then, as mysteriously as the light and love arrived, it blinked out.

The next morning, I relayed my experience to my then-husband. He dismissed it as a dream. This hurt me deeply. If my own husband, who knew my character and sensibilities, didn’t believe I knew the difference between reality and illusion, then I held no hope of making anyone else believe me.

As a writer, I wanted to communicate this experience to others. But as a rational human being, I didn’t dare. I feared ridicule and the effect it might have on my professional reputation.

I hid this experience in a closet in my mind; tucked away, out of sight.

However, over time, other unusual experiences occurred. Some of these included vortexes spiralling around my crown and electrical surges running through my body, to the extent that they rendered my mobile phone useless.

I could no longer ignore them and soon learned they were considered to be of a mystical nature. According to Evelyn Underhill (1915), one of England’s best-known Christian mystics, ‘Mysticism is the art of union with Reality.’ Others have replaced ‘reality’ with ‘God’ or ‘the Divine.’ Effectively, it is an experience of Oneness with our creator. From a young age, I attended Christian church and believed in God, never requiring proof to uphold my faith. In fact, I didn’t expect to receive proof and it took me by surprise when I did.

I researched mystical experiences. What I found highlighted the need to speak out.

The religious writer, Rufus Jones (1930), suggests ‘there are hundreds of mute and unnamed mystics for every one who writes a book.’ This struck a chord with me. There must be thousands of individuals around the world, keeping such experiences to themselves — either with no outlet to share them, or fearing persecution. It dawned on me that, in true spiritual fashion, I needed to do two things: face my own fear and share my experience with others so that they might not feel alone. I felt an obligation. Remaining silent wasn’t helping anyone. ‘Coming out’ would pave the way for others and allow a conversation to be had — if only amongst other mystics.

My research also highlighted the fact that mystical experiences are not the preserve of saints and prophets. Nor have they only occurred in times past. Writers have been recording their mystical experiences from time immemorial, including contemporary writers like Richard Bach and Sophy Burnham.

In The Bridge Across Forever (1984), Bach wrote of an almost identical experience to my own — except his occurred in broad daylight and upon finding love in a partner, rather than a child. He wrote:

The light, it merely represents, it stands for something else brighter than light, it stands for Love! so intense that the idea of intense is a funny feather of thought next to how huge a love engulfed me.

Burnham relates a similar experience while at Machu Picchu in Peru (1997):

No one could see that the light was pouring off their hands and skin. No one knew that we were all shining like gods with this spiritual matter, with love.

Mystical experiences have also been attributed to T. S. Eliot, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, Rabindranath Tagore and Philip Pullman, to name a few. The experiences were as different as the individuals — from more love and light to unified consciousness experiences.

These experiences aren’t limited to creatives either, but it is their calling to make meaning of the world through words and pictures. For this reason, it is the mystical writers and artists who most often attempt to record these moments of transcendence.

I say ‘attempt’ because a mystical experience, by its inherent nature, exceeds the usual limitations of our physical senses. The poet T. S. Eliot came to this realisation when he discussed his own mystical visions. He suggested that these experiences can be impossible to communicate to others in words. Additionally, due to their elusive character, they can be difficult to recall after the moment has passed.

Lord Tennyson summed up this limitation in an excerpt from his poem, ‘The Two Voices’:

“Moreover, something is or seems 
That touches me with mystic gleams,
 Like glimpses of forgotten dreams— 

“Of something felt, like something here; 
Of something done, I know not where; 
Such as no language may declare.”

John Higgs took this further in his book on William Blake (2021). He stated that, ‘The experience of a mystical state in which you understand that all is love can be life-changing, but to be simply told that all is love can have about as much emotional impact as reading a greetings card.’

Relaying these experiences to others can come across as prosaic and dull. How does one adequately describe an event for which another person has not yet gained experiential knowledge? It could be likened to describing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the deaf, or the colours of the rainbow to the blind. There is an inability to recount an experience to an audience which lacks the senses, and thus the capacity, to perceive it. While the average person doesn’t lack the senses to experience a mystical event, if it transcends any experience they’ve had to date, it will prove difficult to fathom.

This doesn’t bode well for those wishing to come out of the mystical closet. If the average person on the street fails to relate, any mystical narrations may be dismissed as the figments of a fertile imagination — just as my ex-husband dismissed my mystical occurrence as a dream in 2005.

But let’s go back to the senses for a moment. Recently, a coloured LED light stopped working. A friend assisted me in testing the remote control for it. Remotes run off infrared light waves. While we come in daily contact with infrared light waves, they’re not detectable by the human eye.

My friend instructed me to look at the remote’s sensor light. My naked eyes couldn’t detect any light. Then he told me to look at the sensor light through a camera lens. Through the lens, I could see the light blinking.

This is a simple, albeit imperfect, illustration, but I feel it goes some way in demonstrating that there is much that we don’t perceive. However, that does not mean it doesn’t exist. It merely indicates that it surpasses the range of our sensory abilities.

Could mystical experiences be similar, in that they transcend the average human reality? Perhaps it’s only in moments of intense emotion or altered consciousness that we glimpse something beyond. The veil is lifted when our means of perception are heightened.

I’m theorizing in an effort to justify these experiences when no justification should be required. They are my reality. It’s clear that while I may be out of the closet, I still fear reprisal.

Philip Pullman, who avoided the term ‘mystical’ in respect of his own experiences, shared the following in a talk he gave for Oxford University in 2002:

The whole universe was connected by lines and chains and fields of meaning, and I was part of it. It lasted about half an hour in each case, and then faded. I’ve hardly ever talked about it because it seems like something whose significance is private.

What he describes is precisely what many would describe as mystical — a transcendent experience of unity with the universe. I can’t help but wonder if the reason he’s hardly ever talked about his experience results from more than the issue of ‘privacy.’ Regardless, it’s now public, and in sharing his experience, it may provide others with the impetus to share their own stories.

As for me, and as of today, I’m officially out of the mystical closet. It’s past time to add another contemporary voice to the list of writers sharing their mystical experiences. My hope is that it encourages others not to hide behind these beautiful moments and deny them recognition and a voice.

Rebecca Colby is an award-winning author, poet, and screenwriter. She has published over forty books for children, most recently The Castle the King Built and Beatrix and her Bunnies, published in partnership with the National Trust.

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