©2014 By Bob Litton
“It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honour, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. (My emphasis.)
“When thus perplexed—and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive in order to take the eyes of Indians—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat, and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.”
–from the “Introductory” chapter to The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
One of these days, I am going to write an essay about knowing and the various ways we become aware of, and maybe even knowledgeable about, anything: the philosophers call the study of that capability, epistemology. But not today. Today I am approaching only one — albeit the most fascinating one — of the modes of knowing: the supersensible, intuitive, gut, or mystical way of knowing. And I am addressing it only through an example, not as the subject itself.
One morning back in 1991, I was enjoying my morning exercise stroll along an arc of White Rock Lake on my way to the neighborhood coffee shop, a distance of half a mile. On the way to my destination, as I watched the sun’s rays dapple the cottonwood trees’ leaves, I suddenly became aware of a new bit of sureness within myself. I could not help uttering, “I feel that I have been blessed!”
Now, Bible Belt Christians might interpret that feeling and the statement that followed it as a sign that I had been saved, something like Charles Wesley’s “warming” of the heart; but I did not view it in that sense, for I had not a heavy enough sense of personal sin to feel the requirement of salvation of that sort. Also, I had been attending church quite regularly as well as AA meetings every day; so, when I considered the moment as a possible “conversion” experience, I challenged that as a bit over-the-top. However, beyond such a simplistic explanation, I was faced with a conundrum: Why? In what way? By whom? Why now? For that matter, what does it mean to be blessed?
For the rest of that day and for weeks afterwards, I indulged in my most frequent vice: intellectualizing what I probably should not desecrate with analytical thought. But it was so much fun…even though ultimately frustrating, since no clear-cut determination was possible.
The main problem was that there are several meanings and uses of the word “bless” and its various verbal, nominative and adjectival forms. There is perhaps the most common one: one person blessing another (say, after a sneeze: gesundheit) or blessing a meal (saying a prayer over the food, supposedly to make it more nourishing or simply digestible). Then we have the dousing of someone’s head with water and providing them with a “Christian name” or to signify the person’s acceptance into a communion of like-minded souls. And we might as well include the light-weight expletive “Bless it!” (a gentler cousin to “Damn it!”). In its other forms, blessing can mean “unexpected gift” (as in “a blessing in disguise”), and bles-sed can serve as a spiritual synonym for “fortunate” (an alternative which Jesus reportedly used frequently in his “Sermon on the Mount”).
I had been aware for decades that I had been “blessed” in the sense that I was “gifted” with a few talents: but I already knew that; I did not need this sudden internal springing of a “new knowledge” that I was able to write and draw better than many others. So, perhaps you have some idea now of the quandary I was in; for, without knowing who or what had blessed me and toward what end, I could not imagine how to interpret my new knowledge or what to do about it…if, in fact, it was necessary to do anything.
Up to that date, I had had several mystical experiences and had read the writings and biographies of many Western mystics. Fortunately, among those writings — especially by St. John of the Cross; Meister Eckhart; Jan of Ruysbroeck; the anonymous author of Cloud of Unknowing; and Thomas Keating — I read of experiences that were reflective of my own experiences, and special terms that denoted them (“consolations”, “the ineffable”, etc.). I had been particularly impressed by St. John of the Cross’s vivid metaphors (although overall I consider him a turgid prose writer) and of his listing of the spiritual sins (pride, gluttony, envy): sins which are comparable to their mundane counterparts yet specifically related to religious practices. Therefore, I tried to view my mystical moments against a rational background, not to deny or ignore them but to avoid interpreting “every bird that flies over as an omen”. Still, I could not refrain from wondering what some of my experiences meant, particularly when they seemed to me to be unnecessary, as was (to me) this strange feeling of being blessed.
In due course, I became less concerned about how I should interpret my experience or to respond to it, since that clearly was indeterminable, and more concerned with the term “bless” itself and its ambiguities. As a writer and a wannabe logician, I frequently employ my imaginary surgeon’s scalpel to examine the denotations and connotations of words. Also, when I come across or recall a word that seems extraordinarily exact or just plain pretty, I coddle it by way of frequent use. But in this instance no satisfactory interpretation occurred to me.
I left the whole matter in abeyance for these many years, only occasionally allowing it to float to the surface of my consciousness…unattended to…until the day before yesterday. I thought then that it might make a good topic for a blog post; also, it might be easier to investigate, since now I have access to all the tools in my computer and on the Internet, most of which were lacking fifteen years ago. So, here I have been writing my odd experience up for much of the morning. And while I was looking through a few online dictionaries for the various definitions of “bless”, “blessing”, “blessed” and “bles-sed”, I was slightly startled to see the following: “having a sacred nature: connected with God” (Merriam-Webster).
My readers might shake their heads and mutter, “Nothing new or obscure about that definition…been around a long, long time!”
I agree. However, I believe that this time I was moved to interpret it personally. After gazing a few moments at the definition, I said to myself, “I’ll go with that…and appreciate it.”