A Spiritual High

SPOILER WARNING: There are War and Peace spoilers throughout the following post. And this blog, for that matter. On the other hand, like most great literature, War and Peace isn’t really about the plot anyway. Be ye warned.

Something that always perplexed my as a teenager was the “Life Changing Experience,” which was much sought after in Evangelical youth circles, but seldom described. I have thought about it different ways over the years, mostly based upon conjecture, some more helpful than others; perhaps it was an emotional reaction to circumstances brought on by one’s temperament and predisposition; perhaps it was a gift from God; perhaps something else altogether. Eventually I settled on the first: it must be that some temperaments are given to brilliant emotive outbursts that result in a turning point, and others for the most part aren’t. I’m not going to disavow that opinion, but War and Peace has suggested another alternative that seems, perhaps, more helpful.

Prince Andrei is wounded at the battle of Austerlitz:

“What is it? Am I falling? are my legs giving way under me?” he thought, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the fight between the French and the artillerists had ended, and wishing to know whether or not the red-haired artillerist had been killed, whether the canon had been taken or saved. But he did not see anything. There was nothing over him now except the sky — the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab — it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God!…” (W&P, 281)

But then things happen, and he forgets, until later (I’m not certain how much later… a year or so, I think), Pierre is enthusing about Masonic stuff:

Prince Andrei sighed, and with a luminous, childlike, tender gaze looked into the flushed, rapturous face of Pierre, who still felt timid before his superior friend.

“Yes, if only it were so!” he said. “Anyhow, let’s go in,” Prince Andrei added and, stepping off the ferry, he looked at the sky Pierre had pointed to, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw the high, eternal sky he had seen as he lay on the battlefield, and something long asleep, something that was best in him, suddenly awakened joyful and young in his soul. This feeling disappeared as soon as he re-entered the habitual conditions of life, but he knew that this feeling, which he did not know how to develop, lived in him. The meeting with Pierre marked an epoch for Prince Andrei, from which began what, while outwardly the same, was in his inner world a new life. (W&P, 389)

A few more months go by, and Andrei has more or less forgotten the Lofty Sky incident; among the “fluffy green shoots” of the forest, he sees an oak tree that’s still in winter:

Prince Andrei turned several times to look at this oak as he drove through the woods, as if he expected something from it. There were flowers and grass beneath the oak as well, but it stood among them in the same way, scowling, motionless, ugly, and stubborn.

“Yes, it’s right, a thousand times right, this oak,” thought Prince Andrei. “Let others, the young ones, succumb afresh to this deception, but we know life — our life is over!” (W&P, 420)

He is traveling to the Rostov estate, and there overhears Natasha exclaim in joy that she wishes she could fly up to the moon, then, returning:

“yes, here, in this woods, was that oak I agreed with,” thought Prince Andrei. “But where is it?” he thought again, looking at the left side of the road, and, not knowing it himself, not recognizing it, he admired the very oak he was looking for. The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the  rays of the evening sun…

“No, life isn’t over at the age of thirty-one,” Prince Andrei suddenly decided definitively, immutably. “It’s not enough that I know all that’s in me, everyone must know it too: Pierre, and that girl who wanted to fly into the sky, everyone must know me, so that my life is not only for myself; so that they don’t live like that girl, independently of my life, but so that it is reflected in everyone, and they all live together with me!” (W&P, 423)

As it turns out, this thought isn’t as immutable as all that after all, stuff happens, and the sky isn’t so lofty again for a while… but there’s no need to follow the whole story. Other characters likewise have epiphanies, then forget them, change their minds, have different epiphanies, and so on.

So what does all that have to do with Life Changing Experiences as understood by youth leaders and their charges? A couple of things. First: LCEs happen, but generally not as or when we expect or would like them to. Movement in people’s souls may well be only tangentially related to the external circumstances that prompts it.  I think perhaps that youth leaders know this by experience, but also know that under certain conditions people are more likely to have some kind of internal epiphany, and so strive to create those conditions. My objection is that in creating those conditions, these leaders often neglect all the other, unplanned, reactions human souls are prone to have, as well as their confused, tentative nature. They invite people with the correct reaction to give testimony before everyone, while those with some other reaction muddle through as best they can, probably in silence, perhaps wondering if something’s wrong with them. This may be necessary if you’re going to take the pressure-cooker approach to spiritual formation, which may be necessary in certain circumstances. It’s not a specifically denominational phenomenon, either: I’ve observed it in Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and non-religious settings. It seems to be, of necessity, the primary model for large-scale youth outings. They wrap things up by having participants publicly testify or write themselves a letter – probably both – expressing “what they have learned.” But because life is rather more like War and Peace than it is the movie plot Donald Miller’s new book talks about, or the Epic of Eldredge, it seems like it might be good to acknowledge a bit more publicly the complexity of how and why we do or don’t experience dramatic change at given times of our lives.

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One thought on “A Spiritual High

  1. It is odd: reading War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov were both Life Changing Events for me. It was as if I had now been affected more deeply by art than I had ever been before, even with reading Dickens and Chesterton and other great writers; or listening to great music such as Beethoven and Armstrong. Perhaps my being a Christian by this time was one reason for my receptivity; also having quite a fallow time for doing nothing but reading and writing letters and noodling about people like Eric Hoffer and Dr. Wood.
    But having an Experience and then having enough patience and perspicacity to be able to follow the events in a book such as you just did is something else, and quite a different but helpful accomplishment–what you just did is ideally what critics can do to help people first at least notice, see, things that are in front of their eyes and ears, their senses; and then they can point out the spiritual significance, the paradoxical elements that are the heart of the truth being show. You point out how the infinite lives in man and nature, and man sometimes sees and knows it; but then, as you say, these epiphanies are not immutable; stuff happens. And then more insights are given, but not once and for all. Tolstoy gets it right about living in time, extended time. Special moments or events may be necessary for many people to be see with their eyes of the heart, those may be the times that Alyosha told the children to remember so that in future life their souls may be lifted. They are a gift of God which may come at odd or ordinary or unexpected or maybe even expected moments but which can’t be counted on. I would suppose that for those whom we are specially concerned, and for whom we pray, we might pray that somehow their souls would be enlightened and lifted as only God knows how.

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