The experiences which I brieﬂy summarize below are highly personal and formative in my life. That I risk cheapening them in some way, by communicating them in writing or in speech, disturbs me, but I will take the risk in the hope that sharing these experiences may be of some beneﬁt to someone. It is possible that every human being has equivalent experiences. For one ﬁnds plenty of evidence of such experiences in various sacred scriptures, in the writings of mystics east and west, in philosophy, in poetry. The aim here is not to try to be original, but to know oneself and to reﬂect on signiﬁcant divine-human experiences.
Offered below are brief accounts of a class of spiritual or internal experiences to be called, for present purposes, “visions of transformation. Although the term may be too pretentious, it seems apt, for as the experiences occurred, I was aware of being involved in an intense seeing or physical-spiritual seeing. In such moments, the mind becomes suddenly awake or alert with an intensity distinct from normal, everyday conscious life. Why these experiences come when and as they do, I cannot know with certainty, but on each occasion they seem to be a conscious participation in the reality that we call “God,” or perhaps “Christ” in usual Christian language. Each experience began suddenly, and then seemed to fade into a new understanding. This change in understanding, change of consciousness, is why I call them “visions of transformation.” Not only is some part of reality seen differently, but consciousness is changed in the process. Seeing reality in a new light, one is transformed—to some degree. This change seems to fade over time, as the experience recedes from consciousness. But one’s mind becomes opened up to new thinking about God and about what it means to be a human being in God and in the world.
The experiences are datable in space-time, but when they occurred, they did feel as though they were simply in space-time, but in the borderland that is called “spiritual,” or the In-Between realm analyzed by Plato and Voegelin. They are and are not “psychic phenomena,” because all of the events were responses to, and in some ways grounded in, concrete reality. At the same time, they are not “psychic phenomena,” in the sense that they are not contained by a self-enclosed ego or mind. Nor are these experiences merely “spiritual” or “interior” in a way detached from the world of space-time in which all things exist. On the contrary, each one of them arose as if it were a response to what I was seeing or hearing in the world in which we are engaged bodily. What was engaged, however, was not merely bodily existence, but consciousness, and this consciousness was aware of being moved from beyond itself into participation with the Divine. The events recounted may clarify these general formulations.
1. “Cast me not away from your presence,” c. 1975.
From the fall of 1974 until about 1978, I attended a Lutheran church in Santa Barbara, California. The exact date this “vision” occurred I do not presently recall, but it probably occurred some time before the vision of intellect in a philosopher, recounted below. Where it occurred, and the immediate prompting, are known: On one Sunday in a local Lutheran church, as we sang the usual response after the response, something not to be forgotten happened. As we sang the words of Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, o God…and cast me not away from your presence,” I reﬂected that the psalmist, David, would have been experiencing God’s presence when he asked not to be cast out of this presence. Suddenly and powerfully, I experienced being in God’s presence. Although I was singing with the congregation, I felt as though the divine were singing through me, and all around my mind and head was a wonderful, peaceful, powerful Presence. It felt as though my mind were enlightened by, and lifted up into, the unseen, unbounded divine Presence. As I became self-conscious of what was happening (thinking, “This is neat. I wonder if other people know what is happening to me,” or foolish words to that effect), the experience of Presence weakened; but then as I attended to it, I was drawn back in. How long it lasted, I do not know for sure. Towards the end of the experience, the word that was intelligibly both divine and human came up from the depths: “Your life work is to have such experiences and to seek to understand them.”
This experience of divine Presence was not my ﬁrst encounter with God, but it remains vivid some forty years later.
2. Divine Presence as intellect in a philosopher, 1976.
On my twenty-ﬁfth birthday, 21 January 1976, I met and interviewed the philosopher Eric Voegelin at his home near the campus of Stanford University in California. With his permission, I had driven up from Santa Barbara that morning to speak with Voegelin about the Apostle Paul, on whom I was writing my doctoral dissertation in political philosophy (“The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy”). The interview lasted three hours, and to the present, many years later, it remains in my self-understanding as the single most important event in my intellectual development. Throughout the interview, Voegelin made no speeches, or lengthy explanations, except for a brief “digression,” as I named it, in which he interpreted to me Peter’s vision of the sheet descending from heaven containing various animals, and the voice from heaven saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat,” and so on (Acts 10). Voegelin interpreted that vision to mean, “All men are equal. All men are equal before God.” Although I may be mistaken, I think that he intended this one digression to help me, as he could see that I held him in high esteem, and perhaps he also saw in me a lack of spiritual self-respect. For my beneﬁt he was telling me that all human beings are equal before God.
It is not this single “digression,” however, that most stands out in my mind as I recall this interview. For nearly all of the time, Voegelin said nothing except to offer brief responses to the questions I asked him. The burden was on me to ask the right questions. Because of his brevity and clarity, we covered much ground. As one example, the last question I asked him, as we were walking to the door of his study as I was leaving, is this: “Does God change?” Voegelin said, “The best theologians do not know.” Such was the nature of this interview.
Although various words shared often come to mind and guide my thinking, what especially inﬂuenced me then and in subsequent years was an experience as we were talking. To an exceptional degree, I experienced the overwhelmingly bright light of the divine Mind, the Intellect (Nous) in and through a human being. What I “saw” with my eyes—with my mind or spirit—was bright light in and through and around the head of Voegelin. He was radiant with a “supernatural” light. I am not describing it well, because it sounds more physical than what I experienced. In this philosopher I experienced the divine Presence. And this presence was experienced not as Beauty, for example, but as Intellect, as Mind that is wise, loving, utterly real, intensely alive, personal. I use the word “loving,” even though Voegelin was at times curt with me, and at least initially in our conversation, painful to hear because of his bluntness. But I realized that he was speaking only for my beneﬁt, not to harm me in any way, but to help liberate me from the power of opinions and misunderstandings. And his words and the underlying experience have indeed had a salutary effect.
In light of these remarks on the fundamental experience, I record two more examples of our questions-responses. At some point, I used the Christian term “grace” in my analysis of the Apostle Paul. Voegelin bristled a little, it seemed, at my churchy language, or at least at a word that I evidently without clear thought. He asked me a little abruptly, “What do you mean by `grace’?” I paused a moment to think about what I meant, and I said what ﬁrst came to mind, “Presence.” He seemed to accept that, with some evidence of surprise at my word. To this day, when I think of what Christian spiritualists and theologians mean by “grace” I think primarily of “Presence” in the sense of divine Presence in and through a human being. Abstract deﬁnitions and doctrines pale before the truth of concrete experience.
At about the same time in our dialogue, I probably used the term “Holy Spirit,” and perhaps Voegelin used it, too. After a moment I asked him, “What is the Holy Spirit?” His answer has remained paradigmatic and inﬂuential in my thinking to this day: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” Ah, the Holy Spirit moves us to question, to seek God through questioning. And note that Voegelin’s response to my question was not a clever doctrinal answer (such as “the third person of the Trinity” or other abstract jargon), but itself a real, existential question: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” From this moment on, I have understood genuine questioning as a foremost activity of the divine Spirit.
This 3-hour conversation with Voegelin has remained, as noted, the single most important event in my intellectual development. Through Voegelin I experienced the divine Presence in a human being in the form of a searching mind, which is most assuredly a sharing in the divine Mind. And my own efforts to seek God through questioning—through the life of the mind that is called Philosophy—were strengthened and advanced. In decisive ways, this vision of divine Presence as Intellect was indeed transformational in my life.
3. Experiencing the divine Intellect in dialogue, spring 1978
Several years after experiencing transforming divine Presence in and through the intellect of Professor Voegelin, I had a related yet distinct experience. While interviewing for a position on the faculty of the University of Mississippi, I met a man who had been a student of Voegelin’s, and who revered him as his teacher. Professor Erwin Neumeier also studied political philosophy. During my brief visit on campus, we spent wonderful hours in conversation. In one of his ﬁrst remarks, this professor said to me, “I am in love with Socrates.” That he was a genuine seeker of truth, a lover of divine wisdom (philosophos) was evident, and it made his face shine.
During our longest conversation in his home, we spoke about God, love, and philosophy. We sipped good Scotch, listened to Mozart violin sonatas, and talked openly from about 7 pm until about 3 the next morning. During our discussion, I gradually became increasingly and then intensely aware of what I interpreted as the divine Mind illuminating each of our minds, and moving the conversation through both of us. We were the human participants in a dialogue far greater than ourselves. We were not just two separate human beings being drawn towards God, but partners in a divine process, moving us to be mindful of the God who was present in and through both of us. When I returned to my motel room that morning, I summarized the experience in a formulation which I wish to have engraved on my tombstone: “When two speak, three are present.” When two human beings truly open up to one another, moved by the power of love, and speak about what most matters in life, the Divine Partner is present in and through the two. Indeed, it is God who draws such minds together in their common search and response to God. In this experience, I directly knew that my mind was being illuminated and moved by the Presence of God, and I experienced the same reality in Professor Neumaier’s mind. In this process, we were not just two separate beings, but we were in communion with one another, and with God; and this communion formed a real union that seemed to be a sharing in the divine time known as eternity.
This experience, the one with Professor Voegelin, and the awareness of divine Presence, remain at the core of what I understand to be Philosophy: the love of divine wisdom and of the God who alone is wise. And in both of these experiences, the openness of two minds to one another was the womb, as it were, through which the Divinity was incarnating itself in the present moment. Here is incarnation and transﬁguration. Here is Christ.
4. Beholding Beauty in a magnolia blossom, spring 1979.
Professor Neumaier and I could not continue our dialogue in person, as I was not offered the teaching job at the University of Mississippi. In the spring of 1979, I was ﬂown from Santa Barbara, California, where I was ﬁnishing my doctoral dissertation and teaching political philosophy, to Washington, D.C. I was being interviewed to teach in the Department of Politics at the Catholic University of Washington. My ﬁrst impression of the city was of a very busy, congested, self-important, and run-down dump, relieved by colorful azaleas and lush green trees.
In the morning before making my presentation to some faculty members, I was walking on the campus, just outside of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was April as I recall —green, lovely, misty, perhaps drizzling. A magnolia tree caught my attention. I walked over to get a closer look, and one particular blossom on the tree arrested my attention: white, radiant, pure. Suddenly, it was not only that ﬂower that I was seeing, but inﬁnite Beauty in and through the ﬂower. Seeing this one beautiful thing, I was enraptured by a vision of Beauty beyond all imagining, beyond all that can be touched, and yet present in this ﬂower, here and now. I felt unspeakable joy in the vision.
This vision of Beauty, repeated on a number of times in my life, but perhaps never as intensely and delightfully, remains active in me when I do not just “take pictures,” but engage in the art of photographing. hen the mind is moved by Beauty, it must respond, and photography, as an art, is one mode of responding. As I have often said to students, “Everyone needs an art.” Every human being needs to engage in the process of seeing and responding to Beauty, and in this experience, to be ﬁlled with awe before the mystery of Beauty Itself. This Beauty is what some of us call “God".
Many there are who do not think that they “believe in God,” and yet they are drawn and moved by Beauty; such are they who “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4). And unfortunately, there will always be “true believers,” imprisoned in their conﬁning beliefs, who have indeed missed “the many-splendored thing” that is experienced in the self-transcending, self-forgetting love of the Beautiful and the Good.
5. On seeing Brother Dominic “transﬁgured”, late 1981 or early 1982.
While teaching political philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., I entered the Catholic Church in order to pursue a vocation in response to the preaching of Pope John-Paul II, when he said, “the church needs her theologians.” I spent six weeks in St. Anselm’s Abbey in the summer of 1981 to help me “discern God’s will” in this process. The following winter, one of the monks I had befriended, Brother Dominic, was in considerable pain with what seemed to be a pinched nerve in his neck. Dominic looked like an elderly man, bald, considerably overweight. One day when I visited him he was reclining on a bed in a guest suite, as he could not walk upstairs to his “cell,” his room in the monastery. Brother Dominic seemed discouraged, so I read to him Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, o my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” As I read the psalm aloud, this monk became very still, and seemed to be absorbed in the words, to be in a trance. He began to repeat quietly, “You are here, You are here.” I looked up at his face, and what I saw, or experienced, was a transformation of Brother Dominic: rather than a shiny bald head, he had dark brown hair, and looked to be a youthful man. How long this vision lasted, I do not know. Bro. Dominic said to me, “I see you at the altar in our chapel, celebrating Mass.” I said, “But I am not even a monk here, Bro. Dominic.” Not long after, I entered the monastery, and in due time was ordained a priest, and celebrated Mass in the chapel. Although I could see Brother Dominic’s wounds of body, personality, and character, I never forgot seeing him transformed, and showed him ﬁtting respect as a carrier of God.
Several years later, when I returned to the monastery after serving as a chaplain in the Navy, I spoke with Brother Dominic in the inﬁrmary, where he was then living. He told me that his deceased mother and another friend, who had died recently, visited him in his room the previous evening. “I could see them clear as day. They were standing right here in front of me.” Sometime that night, Brother Dominic died.
6. Visions of Fr. William, Trappist Monk. c. 1986.
From about 1982 until 1991, during my thirties, I made a number of visits to the Trappist monastery of Holy Cross Abbey in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. This monastery is known as “Berryville” for short, as it is located a few miles from the town of Berryville, Virginia. Most of my visits to the monastery were to make personal retreats, but for a while I also taught their juniors a course on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Over time I got to know a number of the monks. One whom I befriended, originally through Brother Dominic, was Fr. William, OCSO. At the time he was probably in his seventies.
From the time I met Fr. William, I perceived in and around him a kind of radiant glow, the likes of which I have rarely seen in anyone. From what I experienced, and in agreement with a good friend who knew Fr. William, I considered him to be “a holy man.” By “holy” I mean primarily one in whom the Presence of God is extraordinarily present and active. In addition to the kind of Presence experienced in Eric Voegelin, philosopher, extraordinary holiness is sensed in human beings whom one can recognize as deeply good, peaceful, loving, compassionate. As noted, from the time I met Fr. William, I considered him to be “a holy man” because I experienced qualities of humility and goodness in him, as well as seeing him “glow.”
One afternoon at this Trappist Monastery, Fr. William and I sat outside in the autumnal sunlight and had a fairly lengthy conversation, lasting perhaps for an hour. As with Voegelin, I asked questions, and Fr. William responded. He told me that he had been drawn to contemplative life as a young boy in the New York area. One day, shortly after the sun had set, he came into his house and saw his mother with a lady friend of hers, sitting in the living room, in the fading light, completely quiet, just sitting in one another’s presence. Fr William told me that this experience gave him his ﬁrst acquaintance with what contemplation is, and he was drawn to it. As a young man he entered a Trappist monastery in Rhode Island, Our Lady of the Valley, which burned down in the winter of 1950. That event led to the monastery’s being established near the beautiful Shenandoah River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I asked Fr. William a number of questions about contemplative prayer and living a life in Christ, and his answers were clear, intelligible, convincing. As he spoke, I experienced something that I have never seen before or since in my life. Within what seemed to be several minutes, I saw Fr. William in six different ways, in a succession of one vibrant image after another, something like photographs. Each seeing or vision was unique, showing me a different aspect of this holy man, and in each appearance I was conscious of divine Presence in and through Fr. William. In other words, in each sudden and illuminating vision, Fr. William was radiant, beautiful, alive with God. Again, he looked “different” in each of the six visions, but each was unmistakably him, and each was a vision of real goodness, of spiritual beauty in a human being. In sum, I have never had a similar experience of a sequence of “visions” before or since. These visions conﬁrmed and strengthened my appreciation for the saintliness of this man of God.
7. Joe Condon on his deathbed (May 1993).
We met at San Diego Naval Hospital, where Joe arrived because of serious illness, that soon was diagnosed as advanced liver cancer, exacerbated by cirrhosis. The day that we met, and when he learned that I was a Benedictine monk serving in the Navy, Joe said, “I have prayed to meet a monk before I died.” Joe was Irish Catholic, and not only a religious man, but evidently spiritual, who spent hours studying his faith, praying, meditating. Joe and his wife had raised ﬁfteen children, all of whose names began with the letter “T.” One of the boys—the one whom Joe had hoped would be a priest—died in a truck accident while training to ﬁght in Viet-Nam. When we met, Joe was a practicing Catholic, and even attended daily Mass in his parish, but his words about his experience with parish priests were passionate and incisive: “They are no longer pastors, Fr. Paul. They are administrators.” Never having been a member of a Catholic parish, and accustomed to priests in the monastery, I did not then understand what he meant. But I realized that Joe was searching for a more fulﬁlling spiritual life than what was offered in his parish.
Joe and I spent many hours talking and sharing our faith in the weeks before he died. I grew to love him, for I saw such a desire for God, genuine honesty, spiritual openness. Joe was a man of the Spirit. I took extensive notes on our conversations, because some of his words were truly remarkable. One morning at the hospital, perhaps a day or two before Joe died, I went to his bedside about an hour before I was due to report to duty. Joe was asleep, and of course I did not wake him. I knelt by his bed and prayed quietly. When I looked up at his face, I saw with clear-mindedness a sight that burned itself into my soul: As I looked at Joe, I saw the living reality of the dying Christ. At the same time, I saw Christ transﬁgured, with light radiating from Joe’s head and face. Both the dying Christ and the Resurrected LORD were clearly present. It was Joe Condon and Christ together, as one. Here, too, was incarnation and transﬁguration.
Words are brief because I cannot in any way explain the vision, only note it: the cruciﬁed and Risen Christ both present in and through Joe as he lay dying. That was all. I saw it only on this one occasion, and it remains vividly real to me still. In subsequent years, I have seen the dying Christ in a man or woman approaching death. But only on this occasion did I see both the cruciﬁed and the glorious LORD at once. In a parishioner I visited recently in hospital, I vividly saw the Cruciﬁed, but not the Resurrected; I wondered if it perhaps indicated that this person was not yet fully dying. And so far, recovery seems likely, for which we give thanks. When Christ is vividly seen in and through another being, one’s thoughts and feelings for that person are substantially changed. In Christ’s words, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you do not know me” (John 14).
8. Rummy (Dec 2001).
Some of the previous “visions” may seem fairly commonplace, a few may come across as rather intellectual. his last one recorded for the present purpose may seem “bizarre,” but once again, I think that in principle it is much more common among human beings than we may imagine, especially if we live under a heavy-handed conception that only human beings “are made to the image and likeness of God,” or can truly be “sharers in the divine nature.”
On 6 December 2001, shortly after the infamous “9/11” terrorist attack, I brought into my home in Sutherland, Iowa, an 8-week old black Labrador Retriever pup. The breeder had given the new-born to his mother, who kept him for a day, and then sold him to me, on the grounds that she preferred not to undergo the trials of raising a puppy. In that one day, she had named the young male “Jake,” and when I asked her, “Why did you name him `Jake,’?” she said, “I heard the name in a soap opera.” I used the name for a few weeks, but kept thinking, “I do not want to name my dog after a TV character.” About a month after taking him into my home, I called him to come back into our house, out of the icy January cold of Iowa. Spontaneously I called out, “Here, Rumsfeld!” I said aloud, “That’s it! That’s his name!” In the weeks and months following 9/11, the ﬁgure of Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, was prominent in the news. So the pup became “Rumsfeld Bach,” which I quickly abbreviated to “Rummy.”
Even before changing his name, probably within our ﬁrst week together, I made the mistake of letting the young and adorable pup sleep in my bed with me. It was not long before I awoke to the feel of warm ﬂuid by my side. I turned on the light, looked, and shouted out, “You peed in my bed!”, pushed him to the ﬂoor, and raised a belt over my head to punish him. The little pup looked at me with neither aggression nor fear, but with a look that I recognized, and brought words vividly to mind, “Why would you hit me?” Immediately I remembered Christ, who asked when he was struck, “Why did you strike me?” In that moment I recognized the presence of Christ in this puppy: he was looking at me in and through the eyes of this little one. I fell to
the bed, sobbing, and renouncing the evil I had in mind to do, I pleaded for divine mercy.
From that moment forward, I never forgot that I had experienced Christ in and through Rummy. He was for me a living Sacrament of divine presence. In loving him and caring for him, I was consciously caring for Christ. “Whatsoever you did to the least of these little ones,” Jesus said, “you have done unto me.” Gone in a moment was any doctrinal smugness that “only human beings can share in God.” The vision of Christ in this puppy changed me, and changed my life. Four years later, on 20 December 2005, Rummy put his paw on my hand, kissed me, and died in my arms from kidney failure. This Christ-ﬁgure returned to God.
Part B: Concluding reﬂections
Eight “visions of transformation” were chosen to share on this occasion. There have been other ones, but these came readily to mind as I decided to write this brief account. It is good, and even a divine duty, for each of us to recall such experiences, to be thankful for them, to continue to seek to understand them. For at the time we have the experience, we often “miss the meaning,” as T. S. Eliot writes in his mystical masterpiece, The Four Quartets. As one recalls the experience, it is and is not identical with what was actually experienced in the divine present. These moments come and go, yet often have lasting and profound effects on one’s consciousness and life. One of our tasks is to remember them, fulﬁlling the word of the psalmist: “Do not forget the deeds of the LORD.” Rather, one ought to “ponder these things in our hearts,” as St. Luke writes about Mary of Nazareth meditating on the divine events in her life with Christ.
What pattern, what lessons, emerge from this exercise of recalling these “visions”? First, if not foremost, these experiences have gradually and accumulatively had a liberating effect on me. It is not at all that I have been divinized, or given “certain knowledge” (gnosis) in and through these visions. On the contrary, I am left wondering about their meaning, and longing for a far more intense and lasting communion with the One who presents himself in and through these visions. I am also aware that I have not fully understood them, or integrated them into my life. One liberating effect of which I am aware is this: I am not able to be highly attached to dogmas, doctrines, rituals, or religious institutions of one type or another. It is the living God beyond all such manifestations who draws me to Himself. One must not allow his mind to rest assured in anything received, however beautiful, true, or good. Rather, without clinging to what one has experienced, one must press on and “stretch out” towards the One who has in some sense “apprehended you” and “made you his own” in these experiences. Or such is the advice of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3, and Paul knew much about experiences that transformed his consciousness. Indeed, so changed was the Apostle Paul through his divinely-inspired experiences that he could write, “Now I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2). We must not let our mind or heart come to rest in any doctrinal formulation or external form, however signiﬁcant, meaningful, beautiful. Rather, each of us must keep seeking beyond the glimpses, beyond the various experiences, for the ultimate reality that by tradition we call “God.” As Christ told his would-be disciples, “Seek and you will ﬁnd.” He did not say, “Assume that you have found.”
There is a second and related lesson to be derived from recalling these experiences, I submit: the truth of reality, as it is, presents itself to consciousness that is awake, alert, attentive, and truly loving that which it beholds. Often one is dimly or half-heartedly aware of what one is doing. Moments seem relatively rare when one is truly awake, alert, attentive, responding to what presents itself with the kind of full-attentiveness experienced by some when they are “falling in love.” A vital task in life is to be truly awake, truly alert, open-mindedly receptive before the curtains are closed, and the play here is suddenly over.
Now, as the sun declines in the west over the eastern front of the Rockies, its golden light penetrating my little farm house, I am aware that You are here, I trust that You have surely been with me all of my life, even when I have not been with You, not conscious of You, not true to You. It is You for whom I long, and not a mere shadow or belief, doctrine, ritual, or passing creature. And yet, how precious and beautiful are these passing creatures, LORD God, for each presents you in its own unique ways. You gaze at us through the eyes of creation, the eyes of creatures, and you inﬂame us through the longings of our hearts. You are the one drawing us into You, “from one degree of glory to another,” even as You remain ever beyond the veil. Ever revealing, never revealed: “You are the LORD, there is no other.”
Wm. Paul McKane