Spy Wednesday was the old name for today in Holy Week.
Reading about the witty, acerbic Barbara Ehrenreich’s mystical vision as a girl of 16 in 1959. The older Ehrenreich, political and atheist, came across her schoolgirl diary and began thinking about that long-forgotten mysterious experience and wrote a book, Living with a Wild God, to explore the meaning of that diary entry and her memory of who she had become afterwards.
Of most interest, of course, is that 1959 experience in Lone Pine, Calif., where, after spending the night in a car, she went for a walk at dawn and saw “the world [had] flamed into life.” A talented student (co-valedictorian in high school), especially in the sciences, Ehrenreich studied chemistry and physics in college and graduate school, a career path she abandoned during the era of Vietnam and civil rights. But ever resting like a splinter in her mind: that Lone Pine experience.
The book is inconclusive and she remains standing between belief and agnosticism, but still impelled forward by that numinous memory, an experience that can’t be explained away or relegated to some niche understanding.
Many of us have had an experience like that and sometimes we have allowed it to shape us, we have carried it as a lodestone or omen. I think of the Tudor mystic Mary Ward of the Ignatian Loreto order. And of course of Julian of Norwich.
When I think of the impetus that led me to hurry into the Roman Catholic Church, an unclear and confused impulse I could not explain to myself, I feel awkward and tongue-tied. Those mornings by the sea, reading the New Dutch Catechism and wanting to be let in, to belong, not knowing how to understand some of the teachings, let alone accept. And the lived faith as a practising Catholic no easier, my nature warring with so much, a my personal life ambivalent and compromised, my doubt always seeming to triumph over the faltering lately acquired faith.
And yet. That shaped me, that obscure and unexpected desire to become Catholic. It was not a solution but a beginning. It was bad timing in some ways but there would have been no easier time. I heard Catholic hymns for the first time, thought about my early convent schooling at Regina Mundi Convent in the mission field, I read Catholic fiction and daydreamed. I was coming into a new community and felt myself to be surrounded by a radiant and sharp-eyed ghostly crowd of saints, saved sinners and mysterious strangers. I would be changed and the nature of that change is still a mystery, a stumbling block, a challenge.
Could I learn something from that awkward eager convert of 1982? What would it mean to go back and listen to her again, acknowledge the force that rose and impelled her forward into an inexplicable conversion, something barely understood but felt to be utterly, unquestionably, necessary. And I was not happy despite rare moments of intense joy and euphoria, another story there. I did not come to belong, I struggled with myself and others. It was hard.
We don’t know enough about the experiences other people have. I suspect many people have uncanny, unaccountable experiences that they attribute to something conventional—God or what they’ve been told God is. Or they put it aside completely. What I’m saying in this book is, let’s not bury this anymore. Something happens often enough to enough of us that we ought to know what it is. The urgency for me is sharpened by my critique of science and its unwillingness in so many ways to acknowledge that there are other conscious agencies or could be in the universe than just ourselves.