Doorways are so commonplace in everyday life that we scarcely give them a thought, unless a door sticks or a lock is balky. But a doorway may have more meaning for us symbolically or metaphorically. Many who have enjoyed reading aloud to children will remember Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic for children, The Secret Garden, in which a doorway is the very first important feature. A little girl, the protagonist, discovers a strange key under mysterious circumstances. Soon afterward she spies a doorway, hidden behind vines covering a high brick wall. The key unlocks the door and she steps into a delightful secret world.
As adults we are better able to handle abstractions. Life thus offers us the possibility of discovering metaphorical, archetypal, or exploratory doorways. Some of these doorways open onto new vistas of secular knowledge. Others can offer us access to long-sought experiences of expanded spiritual awareness. But if an archetypal doorway has no resemblance to a literal, physical doorway, it may escape our notice. Thus we need to be more "doorway-conscious," lest we miss some once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Years ago a reference to a book title was an exploratory doorway. I purchased and read the book, and thereafter never ceased being interested in, curious about, and fascinated by people’s accounts of their illuminative spiritual experiences. Thus the first year I went to New York Yearly Meeting at Silver Bay on Lake George I was, in psychological jargon, "primed" for possible anecdotes of illumination.
There must have been 400 or more people present that year. Between sessions, while strolling about the conference grounds, I chanced (or was it synchronicity?) to fall into a casual conversation with a young woman I’d never seen before, who proceeded to relate an unusual spiritual experience. Having been "primed," I listened with much interest to her account of how her husband had been stricken with a mysterious paralysis. He became less and less able to function at his office and eventually lost his job. As the paralysis progressed he became more and more helpless, and eventually bedridden. His wife had to give up her job and stay home to take care of him. With three children and no income, their financial situation was becoming desperate.
This young Quaker woman was caught in an incredibly stressful situation. She had to care for her paralyzed husband around the clock, keep the children going, and worry about the family’s precarious finances. On top of that, she was frustrated by the medical profession’s inability to diagnose or prescribe for her husband’s paralysis.
At this juncture, she learned of a church-sponsored retreat in her area, and decided to attend—as a last resort—for desperately needed spiritual support. Somehow, she was able to arrange for another person to take care of her husband and children for a week so she would be free to go.
She found the quiet, relaxed atmosphere and the daily routine of prayer and meditation at the retreat to be of considerable help, but even by the final day of the program she still did not feel sufficiently restored to go back and face the stresses of her home situation. Then, just a few hours before the retreat ended, one of the retreat leaders approached her and asked if she was now ready to "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Her instant reaction was quite negative. She said she was not worthy to receive such a gift. The retreat leader chided her and reminded her that it was not up to her to judge her worthiness or unworthiness; only God could make that judgment. So, as instructed, she sat in a chair and the retreat leader offered a brief blessing for her.
Instantly she experienced a dramatic transformation of attitude, and began to weep, not from self-pity, not from joy or ecstasy, but from a sudden comprehension of the all-rightness of everything in Creation. When she arose from the chair, her perceptions were radically altered. Everything she looked at seemed to be pristinely fresh and new and suffused with a glow of rose-colored light. (This reminded me of Revelations 21:5: "Behold, I make all things new.") And every person she looked at seemed to arouse in her a feeling of total, unconditional love. She felt as if she were walking on air. Somewhat later she realized that she had lost her customary interest in food, and she went for days without
experiencing normal hunger. Also, she discovered that she no longer felt fatigue, and she was satisfied with sleeping only an hour or two a night.
Her sole concern, she confided, was that this utterly blissful state would not last. And after some months it did indeed gradually fade away. However, the experience left her a changed person, and the memories of it were so vivid that she was continually sustained by them.
Incidentally, she reported that her husband had recovered completely, leading me to speculate that, like a Friend I knew in Fifteenth Street Meeting in New York City, he had been afflicted with a transient form of paralysis which is known today as Guillain-Barre syndrome.
A statistician could have a headache trying to figure the probability that among some 400 people wandering over many acres of conference grounds, the person I encountered on my stroll that particular afternoon would be the one person with the kind of story for which I had been primed. Jungians, on the other hand, would no doubt attribute the encounter to synchronicity.
Whether by chance or synchronicity or Providence, the next time I went to yearly meeting at Silver Bay, I found myself conversing between sessions with another young Quaker housewife who had a somewhat similar retreat experience. I’d like for my hypothetical statistician to estimate the probability that on two separate occasions a year apart I would by coincidence encounter, among the 400 or more people present, the one special person who would have the story for which I had been primed. Again, Jungians would probably say it was a matter of synchronicity.
Anyway, this second young Quaker woman had also gone to the same retreat center. The difference was that she had not gone because of being in great distress, but simply out of a very ardent desire for further spiritual growth and development. And during the retreat she, too, had the experience of receiving what the retreat people called "the gift of the Holy Spirit."
She said that when she returned home people were amazed at her appearance. All the care lines on her face had either been softened or erased, and everyone said she looked years younger. She felt younger, too, and full of energy. But what she considered most important was the wonderful way her retreat experience had enhanced her relationships with her husband and her children. And like the young woman I had met the previous year, she felt that her attitude toward life and all her relationships, outside the family as well as within the family, had undergone a phenomenal and permanent transformation.
Because I had still another such encounter, my statistician by now should be on tranquilizers and my Jungian acquaintances should be smugly satisfied that synchronicity is the only possible explanation for what had been occurring. (Personally, I would be inclined to go beyond either probablility or synchronicity and attribute my information to the enigmatic workings of Divine Providence.)
My third encounter came about as the result of a retreat I attended at Pendle Hill. Although this was Quaker turf, the retreat was sponsored by an outside group and the format was basically Japanese Buddhist. The retreatants came from diverse backgrounds, and Friends were a small minority. Anyway, after a week of total silence, people resumed conversing, and one of the first topics of conversation was the rumor that someone in the group had, as certified by the retreat leader, experienced a very profound spiritual realization. But nobody seemed to know who it was, and the individual in question wasn’t talking.
After the concluding ceremony of the retreat I was walking from Pendle Hill to the Wallingford railroad station to catch my train home. On the way I encountered a woman I recognized as one of the retreatants. She also was on her way to the railroad station, so we chatted as we walked. I commented on the rumors about one individual’s having had a profound spiritual breakthrough and she admitted that it was she. She could discuss it privately, but had been reluctant to mention it in front of the whole group.
Although all three of the aforementioned incidents involved retreats as doorways, that doesn’t mean that doorways lead exclusively to retreats. I’m just relating a few of my own personal experiences, which happened to involve retreats. Actually, the number of doorways we could enter in a lifetime must be infinite. They’re all there, but perhaps we have to be primed and doorway-conscious in order to spot them.
The book that sparked this discussion was written over a century ago, and it’s still in print. It was written by a Canadian psychiatrist, Richard Maurice Bucke, and the title is Cosmic Consciousness. At the time it was published it was praised by the great American psychologist William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. Bucke applied the term "cosmic consciousness" to the kind of spiritual experience he was describing. Others have called it "illumination," "realization," or "enlightenment." Elsewhere in the world it has been labeled kensho, satori, moksha, samadhi, or fana.
A quarter century after Richard Maurice Bucke, a British physician, Winslow Hall, wrote Observed Illumi-nates, supplementing Bucke’s studies. What Bucke called "cosmic consciousness," Hall referred to as "illumination" or "the noetic state." From a scientific perspective he speculated on its causes or origins—for example, age of onset, season of the year when it occurred, etc.
My own nonscientific view of the phenomenon is that it is best explained by the ancient sailboat metaphor. If one is in the middle of a lake in a sailboat, and there is no wind blowing, one is becalmed, and raising the sail isn’t going to help matters. On the other hand, if the wind is blowing and one fails to take the initiative to hoist the sail, again nothing is going to happen. The only way to get one’s boat under way on a windy day is to hoist the sail and catch the moving air.
It seems to me that, spiritually, all of us are in the same boat. We have no control over the wind of Grace, which blows only when and where Divine Providence has decreed. But if perchance it might be blowing in our direction, we must raise our spiritual sail in order to take advantage of it. In other words, it takes two to tango, oneself and Grace.