A new friend in Shanghai lent me her copy of Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Fingerprnts of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2009). Barbara is NPR’s religion correspondent–a keenly intellectual, gifted writer and clear thinker who has explored many aspects of religion and the religious experience over the years. She’s also a recent convert to Christianity. I enjoy the perspectives she offers and the way she feels and thinks. I almost feel like I’m reading the journal of a sister, of a seeker who gets it, though perhaps not quite the way I wish she would. But somehow I expect or hope that we will find ourselves on converging paths. I am grateful for her efforts to share her explorations with the spiritual and to let others know why there really might be something beyond the tiny glimpse of reality we get in the tangible world.
Barbara was raised as a Christian Scientist, believing in God more as a principle than a living Being, but has since become a more traditional Christian who accepts Christ as the Son of God, while also accepting modern science and acknowledging certain limitations of the Bible. She also believes that there may be many ways to follow Christ and that God’s love for His children and access to spiritual experiences is not limited to Christianity alone. There is much that I can agree with and virtually nothing worthy of cursory dismissal. One day, though, I hope she will come to know the rich core of joy and light available in the fullness of the Restored Gospel, whose blessings indeed will be made available to peoples across the continents and the centuries, even those who lived and died without ever hearing of Christ–so merciful, loving, and just is our God. Then she will be even more fully my sister.
Her personal journey and the journeys of others she interviewed for the book involve spiritual experiences that might be familiar to many Latter-day Saints and other fellow Christians. For example, prior to her conversion, she interviewed an evangelical Christian, Kathy Younge, who had found spiritual peace and happiness in spite of facing deadly cancer. She asked her how she could be so cheerful while facing that awful disease.
“It’s Jesus,” she said. “Jesus gives me peace.”
“A guy who lived two-thousand years ago? I asked, incredulous. “How can that be?”
“Jesus is as real to me as you are,” she explained. “He’s right here, right now.”
Right, I thought. Yet there was something wondrous about Kathy’s confidence…. As we talked, the night darkened. The streetlamp next to our bench cast a circle of around us, creating the eerie sense that we were actors in the spotlight on a stage. The temperature had dropped into the fifties. I was shivering but pinned to the spot, riveted by Kathy and her serene faith.
My body responded before my mind, alerting me to some unseen change, a danger perhaps. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and my heart started beating a little faster–as it is now, recalling the moment. Imperceptibly at first, the air around us thickened, and I wondered whether a clear, dense mist had rolled in from the ocean. The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone had moved into the circle and was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy. She had fallen silent in mid-sentence. Neither of us spoke. Gradually, and ever so gently, I was engulfed by a presence I could feel but could not touch. I was paralyzed. I could only manage shallow breaths. After a minute, although it seemed longer, the presence melted away. We sat quietly, while I waited for the earth to steady itself. I was too spooked to speak, and yet I was exhilarated, as the first time I skied down an expert slope, terrified and oddly happy that I could not turn back. Those few moments, the time it takes to boil water for tea, reoriented my life. The episode left a mark on my psyche that I bear today. (pp. 4-5)
It’s not always so dramatic, especially as we begin as our spiritual journey and encounters with the Spirit, but so often there is both the physical–the burning in the heart or the physical sense of a presence–as well as the mental enlightenment that comes in those moments that strengthen our testimonies as we encounter the Divine.
This was one of multiple spiritual experiences in her journey. As with so many seekers I know, so many converts to God and Christ, she had spiritual experiences involving prayer. Prayer is the real secret sauce for moving beyond the deceptions of the material world and our minuscule scope of human understanding. Four days after her interview with Kathy, Barbara reflected on that experience. Pondering, she became curious about “those Christians” who felt that they had come to know God. What had they found and how? She describes how her curiosity became a thirst, and that thirst led to prayer. It was daring to pray, daring to open her heart up much later, that she experienced just how real God is.
On June 14, 1995, around two o’clock in the afternoon, I lowered my guard. I opened myself up just barely to the notion that there might be a God who cares about me the same way that Jesus cared about, say, his friend Mary. I prayed–and in the split second of surrender, O felt my heart stir and grow warm, as if it were changing. It was a physical thing, exquisite, undeniable….
That moment was seared into my memory, and later, when I wondered if I had really encountered God, that warmed heart acted like a Polaroid snapshot, confirmation that a spiritual transformation had taken place. (p. 72)
It was not a dramatic event with angels, voices, or visions, yet it became the “continental divide” for her life. She noted that it involved both physical and mental aspects, something many others have observed, and something the LDS scriptures also mention (the “burning in the bosom” of Doctrine and Covenants 9, the revelation to heart and mind of Doctrine & Covenants 8). Fascinating.