“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
– Ephesians 3:18-19
I had a mystic experience about a year ago.
Now, before I go any further, I need to assure you that I am not one of those types of people who see images of Jesus on my toast in the morning or believe that God sends me the winning lottery numbers on the bar ode of my groceries. Nor was I trying to have a mystic experience, having left my breath meditation and visualization exercises at home where I felt they safely belonged.
I was in a place that, for all of you introverts, probably would seem much closer to hell than to heaven: in a subway car, headed back from a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, crammed in with a hundred other people like sardines in a tin can, but only if the sardines had Red Sox caps and been marinating in cheap beer for the last four hours. And, while you might say that I was returning from the closest thing to a religion that we have up here in New England, this was certainly not prime me-and-Jesus time.
Instead, I was aggressively staring out the window with the well-honed defense mechanism of any introvert who suddenly gets trapped with a bunch of loud, well-lubricated strangers, contemplating the city as it rolled past me.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of having mystic moments rather intimidates me, especially if those moments are going to happen in the presence of hundreds of strangers. Truth be told, I’m not sure I would ever really want one anyway.
Quite often, despite my understanding that I am supposed to enter into a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe, I find myself swimming in the spiritual shallow end more often than I would care to admit; that, most of the time, my world is as deep as my to-do list and the next crisis, and as broad as my family, my closest friends, and those very hypothetical people in other places who I don’t really know but would feel guilty if I didn’t at least try to care about.
In those brief moments, where I’m pretty sure I’m hearing a voice that’s calling me to dive into deep waters, I prefer to stay near shore, skimming across my life like a bug on the top of a pond.
I don’t want breadth and length and height and depth, I want planned-out and manageable. I can say, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it,” I can dutifully sing that cute little couplet I was taught when I was a child, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and I can believe it – but I believe it in the same way that I believe that I need to do my grocery shopping or that cute dog videos are bad for my productivity or that I should look both ways before I cross the street.
Now, I don’t know you all that well yet, maybe you are all extraordinarily introspective, disgustingly deep, intimidatingly well-actualized people, but I have a feeling that some of you might have had this experience as well: of wanting to stretch out your spirit, of wanting to at least dip your toes into the deep end, to dive into the self that you know lies beneath everything that is in the everyday, only to be pulled back, reeled in, by the irresistible, superficial, frantic busyness of a culture that tells us that we don’t have space for anything that isn’t on the surface or in front of our faces.
I was definitely not thinking any of these thoughts as I was standing in the subway, jammed into this mound of slightly sweaty, Red-Sox bedecked bodies, when suddenly a realization hit me:
God loved each of the people standing around me, and more than in a “I need to do my grocery shopping” sort of way.
That God loved each of them – in the infinite height and depth that comes with being human.
That God loved each of them – knowing all the stories they carried with them, stories so beautiful or so terrible that they would make my heart break: stories I would never hear, buried under the sea of conversation in the subway car.
That God loved each of them – delighting in the treasury of gifts, of wisdom, of kindhearted compassion, expressed and unexpressed in a thousand unseen ways even now,
That God loved each of them – embracing all the wounds, the pain, the sharp edges, and the blind spots that were safely concealed under replica Red Sox jerseys and conversation about the game,
That God loved each of them – and that love enfolded the magnificent, infinite expanse that is what it means to be human,
That I was I was standing in the midst of a sea of wonderful souls – yes, slightly over-intoxicated, obnoxiously loud souls who needed to use more deodorant – but souls of infinite height and depth nonetheless.
That while I could never hope to capture, for even one of them, a glimpse of that sacred worth in the ten minutes we were packed into that car together – that God caught all of it, and loved them for all of it.
That when I left this car and went back to my work on the streets of my city, that God loved all those people who I tried so hard to love but who honestly drove me crazy most of the time: the chain-smoking senior citizen huddled in her apartment, the erratic addict who’s ups and downs made my head spin, the shiftless twenty-something who desperately wanted to be rooted in something bigger than herself and yet chased after every new shiny thing: that God had plunged into the depths of hurt, and pain, and joy, and beauty and loved them with an unconditionally passionate love that made my efforts seem like a childish imitation.
And – that God loved me with that same love as well.
That’s not a truth you comprehend, not really.
That’s a truth you gaze at like the sun, sometimes quickly, lest it blind you.
I admit – I gazed only quickly and glanced away, swimming back to the slightly dissipated energy of a group of sports fans, grateful to be at the game, but not surprised that their team lost yet again.
Ephesians prays that we will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”: that is not an exercise in making our over-hurried, surface-skimming lives suddenly more virtuous –knowing that love is not important in the same way that eating our fruits and vegetables or having a good to-do list is, experiencing that love is not the same as having the ability to say “God loves you” to someone and thinking we probably mean it
Encountering the love of God is to gaze upon something so expansive that it touches every atom of our universe and so deep that it embraces every part of ourselves .
Have you encountered this love recently?
In my experience, it is too easy to hold that love at arm’s length, to let it into our lives only in the moments that are convenient to the frantic rhythm of the everyday, because love like this throws us far from safe shores, into deep, boundless expanses of God’s spirit
Imagine what that Love looks like. Try to look and see the edges of it.
Can you imagine God’s love enfolding the people next to you, those you know, those you kind of know, and those you’ve never met before, down to their last hidden story and swirling atom?
Look farther. Can you imagine God’s love enfolding this city, every tree, every blade of grass, each spot in the sidewalk, each hurting or hopeful person?
Look farther. Can you imagine God’s love enfolding this planet, every slum and high-rise, every mountain and ocean and forest, every crawling, swimming, flying, running thing?
Look farther. Can you imagine God’s love enfolding the stars and planets, each swirling galaxy, every asteroid and comet, even those we can only see from millions of light years away?
Gaze upon this love and remember that you participate in it.
Can you see that gifts wait in you like seeds, waiting to grow into rich harvests of blessing and peace for those around you?
Can you see that your prayers don’t just assist in the redemption of this world, but in the redemption of the stars?
Can you see that your life is a very small, but very important part of the plan that God has for bringing everything in the world, everything in this universe, everything in every possible universe, to union in love?
Pause, and stare at the breadth of that love.
Now imagine the height and the depth of God’s love for you.
Imagine looking down into yourself, down into your depths.
Can you imagine that God loves every bit of what you see and what you don’t?
Can you imagine God’s love embracing your hurt and your pain, the “why’s” and the “maybes”, the path you rejoice you’re on and the one you regret never having taken?
Can you imagine God’s love enfolding every sacred joy and hidden hurt, Every growing doubt and brittle certainty, every affection and disaffection, every growing hope and crippling regret, every small-minded bigotry that you hold with grasping fingers and every surprising moment of generous open-handedness grace,?
Can you imagine that you– every fiber and molecule, every second and season – is touched and embraced by a love that wants to heal and transform all of it?
Gaze into the breadth and length and the height and depth of the love of God
Because to comprehend this love is not to possess it, but to have it possess and transform you.
And to realize that this love: its breadth and length and height and depth is for you personally and for the whole universe as well.