Guideposts Executive Editor Rick Hamlin recalls the mystical childhood experience and talks with others who had similar “peak experiences.”
- Posted on May 26, 2020
I have a vivid childhood memory that stands out from the rest. A Wednesday afternoon in the Southern California town where I grew up. I was riding my bike home from a piano lesson.
My Sunday school class was studying the Old Testament, and as the wheels of the bike whirred, my thoughts drifted to how God spoke to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaac, to Sarah. Could God still speak to people like me? “God,” I prayed, “could you please say something?”
Winter rains had cleared the smog so that the mountains glowed in the slanting rays of late afternoon sun. It was a good day. My piano lesson had gone well; I’d earned a smiley face from my teacher. I was coming to a hill that went by the ballfields of our middle and elementary schools.
I loved lifting my feet off the pedals as I went down that hill and coasting around the curve. Wind blowing in my face, the sun sinking in the west. That’s when it happened, a defining experience, an answer to my prayer.…
Years later, when reading one of my favorite authors, Thomas Merton, I realized that he’d had a similar experience. It’s what you would call a “peak experience,” one of those life changing moments that can happen to us all in our everyday life. For him, it happened in Louisville, Kentucky. That he was a Trappist monk, usually confined to a monastery in the Kentucky hills, focusing on a life of worship and prayer, and that this mystical experience happened “at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district” is one of the intriguing mysteries of the whole thing.
In obedience to his monastic vows, Merton rarely left the Abbey of Gethsemani, but he had come to Louisville that day to run a few errands. People rushed about their daily business.
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people,” he wrote, “that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation.…” All those strangers? If he could only tell them “they are all walking around shining like the sun.” It dawned on me that my experience, and Merton’s, is something that many people of faith also encounter.
Like my friend Lissa. Lissa sings in our church choir. A woman of normally robust health, she found herself knocked back a couple years ago by a protracted illness that included risky surgeries, two bouts of pneumonia and a mysterious blood disorder. For a long time, she couldn’t sing, but when she was finally well enough to be back in the balcony with the rest of us, she had this sensation as she looked out over the congregation, many of whom had been praying for her, that she was being filled by a luminous energy. “I was aware of my chest expanding,” she says, “and felt an incredible sense of peace, unlike any I’d ever felt before.”
She gazed down the nave to the altar, and for a moment it was as though wings had sprouted from her shoulders. She sensed that if she were to step over the balustrade, she could soar over the space and the people. “I remained seated,” she told me, “but my heart soared out on its own.”
“Tom, another friend from church, described something that had happened to him years ago as he was taking an escalator up from the depths of the New York City subway. Like Merton, he could say exactly where this had occurred: in Columbus Circle, at the 59th Street exit.
That day, as he was coming up to street level, he muttered to himself, “Jesus, have mercy,” then “Christ, have mercy.” All at once Tom saw the people around him differently: passionately loved by God, even though they were oblivious to it. They were either going up or going down, but they were all part of God’s creation. Oddly enough, at the same spot, 30 years later, he had a similar vision. This time, though, there seemed to be a light coming from above—a heavenly glow. Just like that image Merton had of people “walking around shining like the sun.”
Tom felt informed, enlightened, reassured in his faith as never before. God seemed to be reminding him, “Yes, I’m still here and all these people are here, part of my kingdom.”
A bustling intersection, a subway tunnel, a church balcony, sometimes these experiences can happen also in the deepest privacy and quiet of your own home. Dawn, a writer friend, remembers such an incident. She’d never felt wholly loved or lovable as a child, and it troubled her, this deep insecurity, especially as she considered the warmth of her parents.
They weren’t perfect—none of us are—but they certainly had tried their best. Her mother had even sent her a framed portrait, taken when Dawn was a girl, that she kept on the wall above her bed.
That morning as she was sitting in her kitchen, recalling her childhood, she closed her eyes and in an instant felt wrapped in heavenly arms, as though someone were hugging her right there. She could see the portrait of that seemingly unlovable young girl at the center of the embrace, right before her eyes. Never again would she doubt the power of God’s love or its persistence. And although the photo had never left its spot on her wall, it was forever transformed in her view, the center of God’s embrace.
Which brings me back to that day when I’d asked God if he still spoke to people. That Wednesday afternoon, as I coasted on my bicycle down the hill, the wind in my ears, I heard God’s voice, though not audibly. The sound and the certainty were all inside me. “Yes,” God seemed to say, “I’m speaking to you now in the wind and the sun and the view of the mountains and the smiley face from your piano teacher. Yes,” God said, “yes, yes, yes.”
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