A Taste of Heaven: God of the Synapse

I believe there are multiple ways to glimpse the Divine in our incarnate experience of this life — both direct and indirect. That is, there are both extraordinary and ordinary ways to be open to God’s impingement in our lives — from the base of our synaptic selves to the presence of God in one another as we live out our lives in community. In my last blog posting, I talked a bit about our book group at St. John’s Church. We’re currently reading a novel that was published in 2000 titled “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman. The setting is a Carmelite monastery in California where a cloistered Order of nuns — discalced or shoeless Carmelites — who lived enclosed lives, rarely leaving the monastery and praying in choir seven times a day. The protagonist is a nun called Sister John of the Cross who, after decades of living a cloistered and rather dry spiritual life, began to experience ecstatic visions. She also began to write down the meaning of her mystical experiences, and over the course of three years’ time became a popular spiritual writer of contemplative works.

Not to give away the plot beyond what the dust jacket reveals, Sister John also suffers increasingly severe headaches as prologue to her mystical, Transcendent encounters. She also begins to disrupt the cloistered community with her absences from choir and her trance-like episodes during community prayer. At the insistence of her superior, she undergoes a variety of neurological tests and discovers that the headaches are symptomatic of a dangerous brain disorder. Thus, she faces a severe dilemma: Undergo surgery and risk the loss of her ecstatic experiences — resuming a lifeless spiritual aridity again — or forego surgery and potentially die of her disorder, continuing to disrupt her community in the process.

Although the dust jacket concludes that the book describes “one woman’s trial at the perilous intersection of faith and reason,” I think that the book is also profoundly theological in depth, actually speaking to the ways that we humans can possibly engage with the Divine as human persons with all our inherit limits.

One basic question that the book raises for me is this: Is God always present — a Transcendent Presence, impinging upon us and within us in sustaining Spirit — but our incarnate consciousness normally veils God’s Presence? After all, in the Christian tradition as well as in other religious traditions, worshippers are admonished to become selfless — to let go of the ego — that can eclipse our experience of the Divine. And if this is the case, does God’s Spirit engage us — among other ways — at our most basic neurochemical level in the brain at the neural synapse — that space between brain neurons filled with neurochemicals that inhibit or potentiate cell communication at the base of consciousness?

Neuroscientists know that trancelike states can be evoked by drugs (e.g., peyote, LSD, etc.), as well as by music, dancing with abandon, and drumming, which all can cause ecstatic experiences in participants. Daniel Levitin in his “The World in Six Songs” says:
Just how music induces trance is not known, but it seems to be related to the relentless rhythmic momentum, coupled with a solid, predictable beat. … When the beat is predictable, neural circuits in the basal ganglia … as well as regions of the cerebellum that connect to the basal ganglia, can become entrained by the music, with neurons firing synchronously with the beat. This is turn can cause shifts in brainwave patterns, easing us into an altered state of consciousness that may resemble the onset of sleep, or the netherworld between sleep and wakefulness, or even a drug-like state of heightened concentration coupled with increased relaxation of the muscles and a loss of awareness of time and place. (p. 214)

In thinking about all this, I remembered Eben Alexander’s account of his near-death experience that he described in his book titled “Proof of Heaven.” Alexander is a trained neuroscientist and brain surgeon who nearly died from a brain infection. In temporarily losing his higher cortical brain function, he describes his experience of Transcendence in ecstatic terms. He had a feeling of ascending (something like Dante as he ascended to the Empyrean or Paradise in “The Divine Comedy”), to some realm that he couldn’t later capture in mere words. But he tries. He writes:
Seeing and hearing were not separate in this place where I now was. I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of those scintillating beings above, and I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang. It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it — without joining with it in some mysterious way. … I would suggest that you couldn’t look at anything in that world at all, for the word of itself implies a separation that did not exist there. Everything was distinct, yet everything was also a part of everything else, like the rich and intermingled designs on a Persian carpet … or a butterfly’s wings. (pp. 45-46)

Returning to Sister John, I won’t be a plot spoiler. But it seems to likely to me that there are multiple ways to glimpse the Divine in our incarnate experience of this life — both direct and indirect. That is, there are both extraordinary and ordinary ways to be open to God’s impingement in our lives — from the base of our synaptic selves to the presence of God in one another as we live out our lives in community. In other words, indirectly and in a more muted way, you can experience the Divine in others by giving yourself selflessly in community life. And as I described above, there appear to be more direct, extraordinary routes to Divine engagement — at the synaptic level through means of song, dance, pharmacological agents, and yes — perhaps even some brain disorders. In Salzman’s work, Sister John experiences both routes, and her life is the richer for it. But tastes of heaven in this incarnate life are available to all of us, one way and/or another. It seems that’s the way our God-shaped mind can work.

But please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not condoning the use of illicit drugs in the pursuit of Divine engagement, my friends! Nor am I championing unfortunate brain disorder. No, I instead suggest finding a healthy way of achieving engagement with the Divine. By means of music, dance, fasting, silent prayer, and selfless serving of others in loving community, you can embody, after all, the meaning of being human at its generous fullness while experiencing God at your loving best within communal life.