We tend to give a wide berth to people who claim to be on speaking terms with the Almighty – and usually for good reason. Either they are religious nuts or just plain nuts, and there is no arguing with them. And yet millions of us troop to church or synagogue or mosque on a regular basis to hear the words of other people who claimed to be on speaking terms with the Almighty long ago. And, of course, many of them met a bad end for precisely that reason. Jesus vilified the scribes and Pharisees for killing and crucifying the prophets and flogging them in their synagogues. For his trouble, he was also flogged, crucified and killed.
One does not lightly claim to be on speaking terms with the Almighty these days, unless one also wishes to be taken lightly. You are no longer apt to be burned at the stake, as Joan of Arc was for declaring that the Lord had called on her to rally the French army against the English. Such declarations are not taken seriously, unless you commit murder and insist God told you to do it. Such was the case with Jeffrey Lundgren, a self-styled prophet -- is there any other kind? – who murdered a family of five for their lack of faith. Lundgren, the leader of a breakaway Mormon sect, was executed by lethal injection in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility after failing to persuade an appellate court that he had acted on orders from on high.
Countless millions of people have tried to start up a conversation with the Almighty, but relatively few will acknowledge having been on the receiving end of such a communication. I will admit to being one of them, although I generally don’t go around advertising that fact for all the reasons noted above. I have written elsewhere of the particulars. I want to focus here not on what was said but on the phenomenon itself. This phenomenon has happened only a few times in my life and then only once for an extended period. The voice – for that is what it was – would have been inaudible to a third party, much like the voice that normally engages in extended monologues inside my head. Except that in this case the voice wasn’t coming from my head at all. Normally we think of the self being rooted in the voice that prattles on between our ears, but this one came from much lower down, suggesting that our being is rooted in a much deeper place.
Human encounters with the divine in the Bible do not play out as interior monologues – or interior dialogues, as the case may be. I suspect this is because the ancient Hebrews had no real vocabulary to describe inner experience other than in dreams. The encounters between God and a number of key figures in the Bible were solitary and often took place in remote locations. They were also primarily auditory. A voice commands Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son. A voice calls to Moses from a burning bush while he is tending his father-in-law’s flocks on the slopes of Mt. Horeb. The prophet Elijah flees for his life to the same mountain and seeks God in the wind and earthquake and fire that Moses once encountered there. But it is not until Elijah stands at the entrance to the cave where he is camped that he hears God’s “still small voice.” Was this an interior voice that Elijah heard, with the cave representing the depths of his own being?
Which brings us to Tennyson’s “The Ancient Sage,” in which the poet advises that to hear the Nameless you must “dive into the temple-cave of thine own self.” There is little doubt that Tennyson was writing from his own experience. Elsewhere he recalled from an early age he had entered trance-like states in which
…individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.
Similarly, the narrator of “The Ancient Sage” describes occasions when
the mortal limit of the Self was loosed,
And passed into the nameless, as a cloud
Melts into heaven.
If such passages strike you as a bit gauzy, Tennyson insisted that his experience of the ineffable was anything but. As he declared in a letter to a prominent physicist in his day, “By God Almighty!·there is no delusion in the matter! ·It is no nebulous ecstasy, but a state of transcendent wonder, associated with absolute clearness of mind.”
This was also true of my experience. The voice I heard was clear, calm and deliberate -- seemingly close at hand and yet leaving the impression that it had arisen from some fathomless depth. In “The Ancient Sage,” Tennyson invokes the metaphor of “the temple-cave of thine own self,” suggesting that the voice of the Nameless was contained within that self. However, my own sense was that the self – or at least the self as I had previously known it – was contained within something infinitely larger.
Was it really the voice of God that I heard? How can I be sure? Tennyson addresses this question in his poem and concludes: “Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son/Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in….” He continues: “Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee/Am not thyself in converse with thyself….” When the voice first called to me more than 40 years ago, I had no doubt it was quite distinct from the one I normally thought of as me. Now I wonder whether I had merely been splashing about in the shallows of my being, unaware that my true self was vastly larger.
I Kings 19:7-17