Cambridge, MA. The other day someone asked me, “Is enlightenment compatible with Christian faith?” It was at an interreligious gathering where I had just spoken on my experience of encountering Hinduism in its various forms, and surely my questioner was thinking of enlightenment as a decisive event in the lives of Indian spiritual figures: for example, the Buddha, who suddenly realized that he needed to abandon the life of a prince, and fled in the night, yet who also then devoted years to distracting penances before sitting beneath the tree and suddenly, finally, waking up; or the scholar/sage Sankara, who suddenly realized in an instant that the truth of Reality was the truth of his own self; or Ramana Maharshi, just over a century ago, who as a 16 year old boy had a sudden death experience that made him begin to experience the world in an entirely simple, utterly different way.
I think there were two components to the question I was asked: First, is it compatible with Christian faith that someone have a sudden, radical change in life, a single mind- and life-altering experience, insight? Second, can a Christian who experiences enlightenment have that irreversible unitive experience, realizing all reality to be simply, entirely one?
The question of enlightenment turns out to be timely, in light of this Sunday’s Gospel, the call of the first apostles in Mark 1.14-20. For is it not a kind of enlightenment scene? Consider what we hear:
First, Jesus invites all who hear him to turn around, change their lives, and believe the good news: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; change your life, and believe in the good news.’ This possibility of deep change is certainly the starting point: now is the time in your life when you can change at the deepest level. Second is the change that Simon and Andrew suddenly undergo: As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. Having cast their nets into the lake, they do not even take time to pull them back in, they simply walk away from it all and follow Jesus. Why they do this is not explained: the appeal of a different kind of fishing? the authority in Jesus’ voice? something irresistible in this man who looked at them and seemed about to pass them by?
And the third and most striking sudden change is that manifest in James and John, for they leave behind not just a boat and nets, but their own father: He saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Perhaps one might expect the hired men to feel free to leave — but sons suddenly leaving their own father? This is a still more inexplicable moment, for which no reasons are given: here, after all, he promises them nothing, not even to fish in that new way.
This meditation on enlightenment as a Christian experience — sudden, inexplicable, life-changing, in unity — can be amplified by thinking of other such stories: for instance, last Sunday’s Gospel from John 1: Jesus turned and asked the men walking behind him, “What are you seeking?” All they could answer was the odd but intuitively just right, “Where do you live?” And so they went and stayed with him where he lived, the rest of that day. For them, enlightenment dawned gradually, as in the seeing, they began to live with him. Or, also in John, Nicodemus, who out of fear comes to Jesus only in the night. Jesus asks him some paradoxical questions about being born again, from above, but there is no immediate change in Nicodemus. He apparently goes away, still in the dark. Yet when Jesus dies and all seems over with, for some inexplicable reason Nicodemus comes right into the open, to claim, for proper burial, that poor, broken, dead body. Now he was enlightened, as if a slow, subterranean process in his soul suddenly broke through, even as Jesus died. Or Saul on the road to Damscus. Or John the Baptist himself, who for reasons not told to us, came forth from his solitude in the desert an enlightened being, entirely given over to the Spirit of God.
So when I answered the question the other day, I suggested that yes, indeed, there are many enlightenment stories in Christian tradition, even if not all of them are radical, sweeping, and irreversible; we can say this, provided we admit that "enlightenment" is not one thing only. The event means also the words we put around it; what happens to people when they hear God’s voice so very close up still gets interpreted in accord with a context, by familiar words and ideas of the faith. So in Mark, the unitive experience is not a pure, simple intuition that all is one — the fisherman and the fish, the lake and the shore, the one called and one calling — but rather a deep instinct that one can no longer bear to be separate from him: they did not merely leave everything, but they did that so that they could follow Jesus; except in that dark moment of abandonment during the Passion, they would follow him the rest of their lives - now two, as if one. So, in brief, yes, there are enlightenment experiences in Christianity, and we read them in Christian terms.
Even if this dynamic precludes our saying that the disciples had “the same experience” as the Buddha or Shankara or Ramana Maharshi, and precludes our rushing to claim that “ultimate unity” is just this experience or just that experience, still it does open a door for a kind of spiritual exchange, about those moments of instantaneous change, radical, inexplicable, irreversible as it were, when religious people change all at once, and become spiritual beings. This is a conversation to be had across religious boundaries (and so it has been held, I think, in many a monastic meeting since Vatican II), a sharing of those briefest of moments when a person suddenly sees, as if for the first time: the kingdom of God has come near.