The Engineer and the Mystic

finalMy mother was a devout Catholic but she was also a woman with an intense curiosity about the world around her.   As a result, she cast her intellectual net wider than most Catholics.  For example, she became a fan of Jean Dixon, the self-proclaimed psychic and astrologer that many Christians loved to hate.  She passed her open-mindedness on to me, which I believe she came to regret because I eventually gave up Catholicism.   From my Dad, I got my rational side, in part I’m sure from genes but also because he regretted his choice to join the Army instead of going to engineering school.  My rational side won out and I became an electrical engineer.  But from the time I gave up my Mom’s religion, I also became a Searcher.  I often picture myself with my Engineer on one shoulder and my Mystic on the other, both of them whispering in my ear about whatever spiritual concept is intriguing me at the moment.   They rarely agree and for many years, the Engineer called the shots.

This weekend, at my Men’s Retreat, a friend sitting next to me described a time when he felt the presence of his Higher Power in the room, a presence felt by his significant other santa-barbara-missionfelt as well.  Several years ago, at another retreat I spoke to another friend right after he had a similar experience in the chapel at the Santa Barbara mission.  He was overwhelmed with a sense of having been touched by God.   Such moments challenge me and my two shoulder companions.  My Engineer thinks these experiences are nonsense, delusional.   Give me a break, he says.  My Mystic is envious.  I want one, too, he says.  We deserve one for all the spiritual searching we do.   Indeed, we do.   As I was taking my turn to share in this year’s retreat, saying essentially what I am writing here, I recalled an experience I had many years ago.

I was standing by the banks of the Santa Ana River, out in the canyon where it flows unrestrained through a wooded area instead of in the concrete banks that carry it most of the way to the ocean.  It was a beautiful spring day, theMilkweedrising sky cloudless and bluer than is common in often hazy Orange County.   Along the banks, milkweed plants were releasing their seeds into a brisk breeze and the sky was full of white, cottony seed-carriers as far as the eye could see.   Standing there, I felt deliciously drawn to the beauty of the blue sky dotted with white, at one with the infinity spread out before me.  Of course, words don’t suffice.   I wrote it off as a peak experience, a term coined by psychologist Abraham Maslow as moments of highest happiness and fulfillment in his 1964 work Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences.   But what I felt matched exactly what my fellows described except that I didn’t think to label it the presence of God.   Maybe it was, the Mystic on my left shoulder whispers hopefully.  Not so fast, the Engineer on my other shoulder mutters.   But he’s thinking about it.

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