I have a story I tell about my own spiritual awakening. I was seventeen, and on a family vacation. We had driven from Wisconsin across the southwest, and all during the trip I had been moved by profound natural beauty. After a stop in Los Angeles, we drove up Highway One to San Francisco — seer coastline, the ocean breaking against the base of cliffs, seals and sea lions stretched out in hidden bays. And then I found myself in the John Muir Woods beneath the giant sequoias, crossing bridges over small gorges, the air full of the scent of the forest. I wandered away from my family and started climbing along a path past carpets of ferns, and emerged onto a high hillside covered in red bushes, and there I fell out of myself and encountered God.
A simple story, not unlike many that we could tell about our encounters with the divine, but it immediately raises questions. What was the self I fell out of? Who is God? And, once a person has had such an encounter, what should be done? A life is changed, but without any understanding of what that change entails, what new life might emerge afterwards? What ways of understanding, what worlds of story and conduct, can help carry a person through such a change? And what narratives try to repress or mitigate or cancel out the aftershocks of such divine encounter?
Although I’ve told this story many times, and although it did happen, it was not, actually, my first encounter with divinity. When I stepped into the John Muir Woods, I considered myself an atheist, but I had met something strange and mysterious once before, in a Wisconsin field at dawn. I called myself an atheist because I was angry at the church, and at God. I’m a preacher’s kid, and my father struggled in the churches he served. An alcoholic’s son, he built a wall in his life to protect his wife and children from the occasional violence and deep unhappiness of the home he grew up in. But in order to do so, he needed to assert control over many things, and didn’t always know how to do so with subtlety or grace. He was an introvert in a denomination that favored extroverts, and an intellectual who served congregations whose members, in general, did not have a high degree of education. So there was often conflict in the churches of my childhood, and I came to think of the body of the church as the people who were mean to my dad.
I rebelled. Part of my rebellion was a declaration of atheism. But the other part was a turning to drugs and alcohol and my attendance at dangerous parties. At one of those parties, in the Spring of my junior year of high school, a few months before I found myself in the John Muir Woods, I stayed up all night, tripping on acid, and then greeted the dawn in a field behind my friend’s house. I was alone, watching the sunlight shine off the top of the long grasses, and I waded out into the dew and light, my pant legs growing heavy, my arms raised in greeting, my mind dancing with something that was entirely beyond my understanding.
I didn’t make this part of my story for many years, because, after college, I gave up drugs entirely, turned my life fully over to the community of the church, and felt ashamed about my past drug use. Yet the story-world of the church is full of people who were honest about their faults and understood their failures in the light of their conversions. And the theology of the church asserts that God can work through any set of circumstances or choices. So, as I have grown in my faith, I have become more comfortable in asserting that it was God there in that field, God who I encountered while my mind was still rattling with drugs and my body still shaky with a sleepless night, and that, since I didn’t quite get the message that morning, God chose to visit me with grace twice in the course of four months.