Reading: Encounters with the Holy

“Encounters with the Holy” is a collection of primary source texts of first person description of religious experiences from a variety of religions across time and culture. As you read through these descriptions, take note of the similarities in the descriptions, despite the vastly different cultures and times these experiences come from.

  • What do these experiences and the similarities across experiences suggest about the nature of the sacred and the human experience of the sacred?

Hindu (Bhagavad Gita 11:1–14)

In thy mercy thou hast told me the secret supreme of thy Spirit, and thy words have dispelled my delusion. I have heard in full from thee of the coming and going of beings, and also of thy infinite greatness. I have heard thy words of truth, but my soul is yearning to see: to see thy form as God of this all. If thou thinkest, O my Lord, that it can be seen by me, show me, O God of Yoga, the glory of thine own Supreme Being.

By hundreds and then by thousands, behold, Arjuna, my manifold forms of innumerable shapes and colors. Behold the gods of the sun, and those of fire and light; the gods of storm and lightning, and the two luminous charioteers of heaven. Behold, descendant of Bharata, marvels never seen before. See now the whole universe with all things that move and move not, and whatever thy soul may yearn to see. See it all as One in me. But thou never canst see me with these thy mortal eyes: I will give thee divine sight. Behold my wonder and glory.

When Krishna, the God of Yoga, had thus spoken, O king, he appeared then to Arjuna in his supreme divine form. And Arjuna saw in that form countless visions of wonder: eyes from innumerable faces, numerous celestial ornaments, numberless heavenly weapons, celestial garlands and vestures, forms anointed with heavenly perfumes. The Infinite Divinity was facing all sides, all marvels in him containing. If the light of a thousand suns suddenly arose in the sky, that splendor might be compared to the radiance of the Supreme Spirit. And Arjuna saw in that radiance the whole universe in its variety, standing in a vast unity in the body of the God of gods. Trembling with awe and wonder, Arjuna bowed his head, and joining his hands in adoration he thus spoke to his God.

Jewish (Exodus 3:1–4, 33:17–23 & 34:5-8)

Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: “Moses, Moses.” And he said, “Here am I.”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken: for you have found favor in my sight, and I have known you by name.” Then Moses said, “I pray thee, show me thy glory!” And the Lord said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion.” But the Lord said, “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live!” Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”

And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and forth generations.” And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.

Christian (Acts 9:3–9)

And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are Thou, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.” And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Muslim (Hadith from al-Suyuti’s al-La’ali al-masmu’a)

Now when I was brought on my Night Journey to the [place of the] Throne and drew near to it, a green “rafraf”[1] was let down to me, a thing too beautiful for me to describe to you, whereat Gabriel advanced and seated me on it. Then he had to withdraw from me, placing his hands over his eyes, fearing lest his sight be destroyed by the scintillating light of the Throne, and he began to weep aloud, uttering “tasbih, tahmid and tathniya”[2] to Allah. By Allah’s leave, as a sign of His mercy toward me and the perfection of His favor to me, that “rafraf” floated me into the [presence of the] Lord of the Throne, a thing too stupendous for the tongue to tell of or the imagination to picture. My sight was so dazzled by it that I feared blindness. Therefore I shut my eyes, which was by Allah’s good favor. When I thus veiled my sight Allah shifted my sight [from my eyes] to my heart, so with my heart I began to look at what I had been looking at with my eyes. It was a light so bright in its scintillation that I despair of ever describing to you what I saw of his majesty. Then I besought my Lord to complete his favor to me by granting me the boon of having a steadfast vision of Him with my heart. This my Lord did, giving me that favor, so I gazed at him with my heart till it was steady and I had a steady vision of Him.

There He was, when the veil had been lifted from Him, seated on His Throne, in His dignity, his might, His glory, His exaltedness, but beyond that it is not permitted me to describe Him to you. Glory be to Him! How majestic is He! How bountiful are His works! How exalted is His position! How brilliant is His light! Then He lowered somewhat for me His dignity and drew me near to Him…

Now when He—glory be to Him – lowered His dignity for me He placed one of His hands between my shoulders and I felt the coldness of His fingertips for a while on my heart, whereat I experienced such a sweetness, so pleasant a perfume, so delightful a coolness, such a sense of honor in [being granted this] vision of Him, that all my terrors melted away and my fears departed from me, so my heart became tranquil. Then I was filled with joy, my eyes were refreshed, and such delight and happiness took hold of me that I began to bend and sway to right and left like one overtaken by slumber. Indeed, it seemed to me as though everyone in heaven and earth had died, for I heard no voices of angels, nor during the vision of my Lord did I see any dark bodies. My Lord left me there such time as He willed, then brought me back to my senses, and it was as though I had been asleep and had awakened. My mind returned to me and I was tranquil, realizing where I was and how I was enjoying surpassing favor and being shown manifest preference.

Mormon (from The Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith 2:15-19))

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.

But, excerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction – not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being – just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name, and said – pointing to the other – This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

(on another occasion):

I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when . . . after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had done.

While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air for his feet did not touch the floor.

He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. . . .

Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his continence truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.

He called me by name and said unto me that he was a messenger sent by the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do. . . .

Baha’i (from God Passes By by Shoghi Effendi)

During the days I[3] lay in the prison of Tihran, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allowed Me but little sleep, still in those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over my breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain. Every limb of My body would, as a result, be set afire. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear.

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning my face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer beings tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honored servants. Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: “By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His Glory unto all who are in the kingdom of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive.

Native American: (“The Great Vision” from Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt)

Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shapes of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

And I saw that it was holy!

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What are some of the more common elements in these mystical experiences? Which ones (if any) are present in all these descriptions? You can use this chart to help you analyze the readings.

  1. a narrow piece of silk brocade
  2. forms of praising Allah
  3. Baha'u'llah (prophet-founder of the Baha’i faith)