Three Understandings of Awakening

Stages of Spiritual Development

There are so many ways to think about spiritual visitations, so many ways for the soul to awaken to God. Evelyn Underhill, in her magisterial book Mysticism, divides this awakening into two neat categories, The Revelation of Divine Beauty and The Wound of Divine Love. The Revelation of Divine Beauty is a transcendent moment, often experienced in nature, in which the limited human soul touches the absolute and eternal presence of God, and is changed by that brief touch. These words, “absolute” and “eternal” hint at the feel of this experience – it is a release from the confines of the self, a momentary escape into something huge and unexplainable, an apprehension of what Underhill calls “the impersonal glory of a transfigured world.”

The Wound of Divine Love will not release you, but instead captivate you and bring you to see all of creation through the eyes of God. You will know the entirety of God’s love and hope for us, and understand how we reject that love and act against that hope, and it will tear you to your soul. As Underhill says, “this  intimate realization  of  the  divine  has  reference  to  the  love  and  sorrow  at  the  heart  of  things,  the discord between Perfect Love and an imperfect world.” For many of the Christian tradition’s great mystics, these types of awakenings happened at odd and unexpected moments. They were almost accidental, often inconvenient, unconcerned with any schedule, task list, or even responsibility to community or loved ones.

But there is another way in which people awaken to God. Barbara Holmes points out that initiation rites in Africa, and really anywhere in the world where they are taken seriously, are intentionally designed to awaken the soul. Initiates are taken out of their every day lives, often in community with others who are being initiated, and placed in odd spaces that have odd relationships to time — “focused spiritual environments,” as Holmes calls them. “Initiates become open vessels receiving the wisdom of the elders; more important, they take their places on the great wheel of life that turns elders into ancestors and children into adults. They learn to embrace the spirit realm and to understand that life is never linear but a cycle of spiritual seasons.”⁠1 So the conditions for awakening can be created by us, although God has to choose to participate in these initiations.

There are, undoubtably, other ways of opening to God that don’t fall within this triune schema of transcendence, immanence, and initiation, and many nuances and shades of variation between each of these three ways of understanding awakening. And I don’t think that the human soul is limited to any one way of awakening. We live a cycle of spiritual seasons, and in one season awakening might happen in nature; and in another it might happen during a moment in which love swells within us and we want to extend ourselves into that love, to swim in it; and in another season still it might happen when we are initiated by a retreat, or a pilgrimage, or a preparation for baptism or confirmation, or any circumstance in which we leave our ordinary lives and immerse ourselves in a focused spiritual environment with other people.

As you think over your own life, you might be able to name many instances of  awakening. I was awakened in a field outside a friend’s house, and in the John Muir Woods. Soon after that, I was awakened by a Mexican family from Bakersfield in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and years later I was awakened while gutting houses in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, and, later still, while walking across campus and looking into the faces of the students. More recently, I’ve been awakened by group singing  — at a retreat that my friend Jane put together, with students hiking in the Hocking Hills, and at a funeral for a colleague. Every season, every moment of new growth within my life, seems to be accompanied by an awakening of one kind or another, and this may be true of you as well.

1 Holmes, Barbara A. 2017. Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church – Second Edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press.

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