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Rossmann: Spirituality: Encounters with the divine

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Ed Rossmann

Ed Rossmann

When Pascal looked through the microscope, he couldn’t believe what he saw; and when he looked through the telescope, he was stunned. "How many worlds don’t know we exist?" he wondered.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French Catholic, and a scientist. He was interested in the behavior of gases and liquids, and on a mountain in central France, recorded how air pressure drops with altitude. He used his figures to calculate the weight of the atmosphere. He invented a calculating machine.

He had grown up with the medieval idea of the universe as a cozy place perhaps some tens of thousands miles across. Now the new tools of early science showed infinite space around the earth, and an infinitely small world within the objects on it. His stomach dropped: Where was he in all that, and where was God? He began to jot down his ideas. One day, there would be more than a thousand in his book, "Thoughts."

The universe might be infinite, he recognized, but he understood that fact, he could grasp it. A man was a slender reed in the world, but the reed thinks. The universe did not think, but, he, Blaise Pascal, did. He felt better. This was a start.

He looked at the world: People did terrible things to each other. History was absurd, turned on trifles and ended with death. The world was like a dungeon where prisoners were in turn summoned to execution. Only God could change this, but God was hidden!

Pascal found himself believing one moment, disbelieving the next. It was inconceivable that God existed; It was inconceivable that he did not! He was happy at the thought of God’s existence, depressed at His absence. What did these feelings mean? Could feelings mean anything? He wrote: "The heart has its reasons that reason has not." So perhaps feelings are a way of knowing? Could he rely on that?

The decisive moments came on Nov. 25, 1654, from 10:30 p.m. to half past midnight in his study in Paris. Pascal was convinced that he had passed the time in the presence of God. He described it as being enveloped in fire. But Pascal, a being of flesh and blood, was not consumed. The fire was spiritual. So, clearly, there were two realities: the physical and the spiritual. Pascal was now a convinced Christian.

In 1959, 305 years later, a young American had a similar experience, but a different outcome, owing probably to a different temperament.

Barbara Ehrenreich (1942-) is a scientist — a chemist/physicist — a political activist and "muckraking" author ("Nickel and Dimed," "Bait and Switch"), and an atheist. Early on, she learned to ask “why?" about everything. She had nothing mystical in her background, only some dissociative moments when familiar things, like trees, looked strange and unrecognizable.

In May 1959 in the California desert, when she was 17, something happened: She reported: “There is one image that seems to apply: the burning bush. … The world flamed into life. There were no visions, no prophetic voices … just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once … and you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.” Ehrenreich describes her experience in her autobiography, "Living with a Wild God."

The record of Pascal’s experience is studded with Biblical quotes: Pascal has found the Christian God. Ehrenreich’s experience left her baffled. Whatever she encountered was raw, savage, beyond understanding. Initially, she took it as an hallucination. Years later, after research in anthropology, history and theology — including William James’ "Varieties of Religious Experience" — she came to see it as an encounter, which others had had before her, with some force, or power, that was other. She rejects belief and faith as surrenders of the critical spirit. She is still seeking, asking why, trying to see more clearly. Her question is not "Where is God?" but "What is God?"

These experiences cannot be measured or analyzed scientifically, but are real enough to those who experience them: eruptions of spiritual forces into physical reality. Ehrenreich concluded her book by saying, “I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that a palpable Other or Others ... not because we love it … and not out of any intention to worship it … may be seeking us out.”

Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school.


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