Embracing mysticism, near-death experiences and spiritual encounters at church

People are having intense, life-transforming spiritual experiences, writes Graham Standish, but they don't feel the church is the right place to talk about them.

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

Last Labor Day weekend, I spoke to a gathering of people typically suspicious of pastors: spiritual experiencers who deeply distrust religion. I was on the “Spiritual AND Religious: Bridging Mystical Experiences and Christianity” panel at the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) annual conference. Over 600 people gathered to share their profound spiritual experiences in workshops, seminars and conversations.

I first became aware of IANDS in 1987 as a chaplain intern attending their two-day training program for doctors and nurses at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. IANDS was co-founded in 1978 by Bruce Greyson, a medical doctor and the Chester Carlson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. He was part of that medical school’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which has empirically studied extraordinary human experiences, including spiritual experiences, since 1967.

What’s embossed in my memory of the conference are those who spoke with me afterward. I spoke with multiple people, and they all said something similar: “Thank you so much for speaking. I love coming to this conference because I can share my spiritual experiences here, but I can’t tell them I’m a Christian churchgoer because so many of them have been hurt by Christians and church. And I can’t share my spiritual experiences at church because they say I was either dreaming or crazy.”

I’ve listened appreciatively to spiritual experiencers since I read Life After Life by Raymond Moody as a teen in 1976. Moody empirically studied resuscitated patients who reported near-death experiences (NDEs) as a medical school student at UVA.

As a chaplain intern, I thought of Moody’s book when Mrs. G, an Italian Roman Catholic, shared a near-death experience after a heart attack. She was immersed in darkness, yet overwhelmed by an amazing sense of love she said could only be God. At the center was the most beautiful flower she had ever seen, displaying luminous colors that don’t exist on earth. Looking to the right, she saw her dead husband smiling at her, and as he walked away these same flowers popped up in every footstep. She told me in her thick, Italian accent, “I tell you this because you listen. I tell my doctor. He tell me I’m just dreaming. I tell my priest. He say I’m crazy and it never happened. But you, you listen. You no tell me I’m crazy.”

I find it troubling that our churches aren’t safe places for people to share their profound spiritual experiences.

I find it troubling that our churches aren’t safe places for people to share their profound spiritual experiences. After all, our faith is built on these mystical encounters. Think about the stories in the Bible for a minute. They’re full of God-encounters. Many NDE researchers even recognize Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 as sharing a NDE.

Yet, in my experience, Christians avoid talking about the mystical at church. Even more, we tend to explain away spiritual encounters like healings, visions, appearances and voices. I’ve even seen Presbyterians denigrate religious traditions like Pentecostals and evangelicals that tend to be more open to spiritual experiences. It seems we have a limited scope for the mystical. We can have a call narrative but not a story of healing or visions. Why is that?

I understand why people are hesitant to share their spiritual encounters with Christians. Despite studying spiritual experiences for decades, I’ve generally hidden my interest except in the safety of the churches or organizations I’ve led. Embracing spiritual experiences is central to the spiritually integrated counseling center I lead, where we’re a safe place for clients to share experiences good and bad in therapy.

It was also central to the life of the church I led for 22 years, which grew significantly because we shared and nurtured spiritual experiences. We thrived by attracting people like those who spoke to me after my conference presentation. We created small groups around spiritual and devotional books, including a near-death experience group. We taught classes on spiritual growth. We created intercessory and contemplative prayer groups. We offered monthly prayer vigils and yearly spiritual retreats. We built a public, outdoor labyrinth. I spoke regularly about spiritual experiences in my sermons, offering guidance on how to nurture them and what to do with them. We collected stories from members and shared them with others in sermons (with permission), classes, and in self-published Lenten devotionals.

A great example from one such devotional was shared by church member and friend, Bill, who wrote of taking his sons and a friend to a secret childhood swimming hole amidst the rapids of Slippery Rock Creek in Western Pennsylvania. Unable to find the exact spot, they found another promising one. Before Bill was ready, his boys unexpectedly jumped into the water. The current was too strong, and the boys struggled to keep from going under. Bill was frantic because it was clear that they would soon drown. In desperation, he prayed and suddenly saw his sons move against the current toward the shore as if a hidden hand pushed them through the water. Looking in amazement, he saw the outline of a large hand in the middle of one son’s back. Bill shared this secret story with the church because we were a safe place to share.

He saw the outline of a large hand in the middle of one son’s back.

There are many types of spiritual experiences that researchers and writers classify including: God-coincidences, God-encounters, Breakthrough Transformational Experiences, Born-Again Experiences, Call Experiences, Miraculous Experiences, After-Death Communication, Nearing-Death Awareness, Near-Death Experiences, Shared-Death Experiences, and more. People in and beyond our churches encounter these things.

These experiences may or may not happen in connection with traditional prayer disciplines and practices such as centering prayer, journaling, mindfulness, lectio divina, fasting, and more. I wonder if our focus on traditional, monastically sourced spiritual practices, can subtly invalidate a wide range of experiences beyond what has become standard. Add to this our tendency to prize intellectual theological reflection, and we see clearly why the church might not feel like a safe space to bring spiritual experiences.

Practices are important, but I’ve seen transformative spiritual experiences correlate more with a radical awareness and openness to God. Perhaps cultivating a mindset, an attitude, a disposition, a “spirit-set” that opens us to experiences of God is more important than mere practices.

We see such radical openness exemplified by mystics such as Brother Lawrence, the anonymous Russian Orthodox monk who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim, the Congregationalist missionary Frank Laubach, the Quakers Thomas Kelly and Hannah Whitall Smith, the charismatic Presbyterian Catherine Marshall, the Episcopalian Agnes Sanford, St. Francis, St. Patrick, and so many more throughout Christian history.

The IANDS conference reaffirmed for me that people outside our churches are having intense, life-transforming spiritual experiences. It also reaffirmed that our churches can grow when we become safe places to nurture and share God-experiences. For that to happen, we must commit to embracing, studying and cultivating a dynamic and varied connection to God. The question is whether we’re prepared to make that shift — a shift others are already making.

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