I think I have discovered why some people are willing to die for their faith, and perhaps even more impressively, to live for it. It has taken me a long time to arrive at this conclusion, although, in retrospect, I now see, as perhaps you did before me, that some of the earlier posts in this Blog reveal first glimpses of this “revelation”.
I have several times in this Blog referred to NDEs (Near-Death Experiences) and the unshakeable convictions they produce permanently in those who have had such an experience. I have explained why I never waste my time trying to enlighten such believers and prefer to target BOTBs (Believers on the Brink). It struck me recently that such a transformation, such an impermeability in persons heretofore run-of-the-mill church-going folks, as lukewarm as the majority of their fellow-worshipers who never had an NDE, can only be the result of a quite different, mystic experience in no way related to a near-fatal accident or illness. My “revelation” (anything but a mystic experience) came to me from reading a book to which I have referred in the post immediately preceding this one (October 8, 2018) : Didier Decoin’s “Petit Dictionnaire Amoureux de la Bible”. I have already expressed my admiration of the work of this gifted author and the enjoyment I have been having in discovering his personal insights into a domain in which I thought I was more than ordinarily informed. Most Catholic (and ex-Catholic !) theologians are notoriously incapable of some Protestants’ prowess in quoting the Bible, chapter and verse. We are however thoroughly familiar with not only the Bible but the scholarship revealed in learned commentaries on it. Didier Decoin is not only well-read in matters biblical but an exceptionally devout, convinced and committed Christian believer. In fact he is much more than that. He is literally in love with Jesus !
Between his Dictionary’s nine-page entry on “Jerusalem” and the seven pages he devotes to “Job”, he has dedicated eight and a half pages to “Jesus”. It is the most extraordinary chapter of his enlightening and entertaining romp through random, little-known, snippets of information about biblical figures, events and places, that never fail to keep the reader turning the pages, eager to be surprised by the next entry. The one on Jesus is unique in that it is addressed, not to the reader but to Jesus Himself ! It begins with his reminding Jesus of a book he had written many years before (1974, reprinted 1997) entitled “Il fait Dieu” . . .”comme on dirait ‘il fait beau’ ou ‘il fait jour’ “. Impossible to translate the highly original point he was making, and which he does not bother to fully explain, that just as, in French, people say “It’s fine” or “It’s daybreak”, he chose as title for his little book, after this experience, “It’s God”.
What he writes after this bizarre introduction is an extraordinary, off-the-cuff testimony of the event, the personal experience, that definitively dispelled the doubts he had had about the very existence of Jesus. “At High School”, he writes, “the little I knew about You came from friends” : stories of Saints that “exasperated” him and left him convinced that Jesus, like His Father, was “nothing but a myth, a legend, a dream”. “So, there You are ! I believed in the non-existence of both of You.” And then, at 11 pm “on September 8, You played a trick on me . . . I still had my toothbrush in my mouth . . . I found myself on my knees, on the tiles of the floor, until dawn. I could not call it a meeting because I saw nothing of You, heard nothing, smelled nothing, touched nothing. But it was overwhelming. And after a night of tears and joy, I had the certitude that You existed. So, obviously, having found You, I set out to seek You (! ). And little by little I discovered who You were, that is to say, an infinitesimal, lilliputian, nanopart of what You really were.”
The author goes on to say that “Death frightens us. To the point that many people are firmly convinced, as I had been myself, that You had been invented by men to help them swallow that more than bitter pill”. Some went further, he writes, by attacking him violently whenever he spoke of God : “they mocked me and behind my back called me a retard, these people who take You for an illusion !”. He then speaks of his efforts to defend Jesus as Someone who really existed, by appealing to and quoting the historical testimonies of Flavius Josephus, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, as well of those of contemporary scholars. But he insists that even if he is himself convinced of Jesus’ existence, “that is not enough. I want to see Your face, Your look, Your smile … to know what You smell like !”. In his final paragraph, Decoin, conscious at present of his advancing age, reveals his idea of eternal bliss : the “delicious Hell” of never seeing enough of Jesus !
This astounding expression of faith, it seems to me, would not be possible without a deeply personal impression of having actually encountered Christ. Readers will have noted the gap in the author’s account of his all-night encounter with Jesus : he tells us nothing of what actutally happened during that whole sleepless night. One has to conclude that his schoolboy experience must have been similar to that of mystics like Saint Teresa of Avila or St John of the Cross, so profound that it resulted in absolute certitude, so personal that it is literally ineffable.
I very much doubt that many of the Joe Blows and Mary Anybodies in the pews on Sunday morning have ever had such experiences. I certainly never did. But I now suspect that truly committed believers, ready to face dungeon, fire, sword, torture and death rather than renounce the Faith of their Fathers, must have had an experience in some way similar to, if not as intense as, that of Decoin. Most believers, as I once was, spend years (if not their whole lives) believing and practising their faith for lesser reasons, notably the indoctrination they were given, the environment in which they grew up and live, and their fear of what they may have to suffer after they die. Only those whose deepest self has been touched by a profound, emotional, quasi-mystic experience of what they believe is the Divine, can be called true believers. For atheist bloggers like me, they are the Untouchables.
The revelation of such imagined theophanies, even in private to family and close friends, is no doubt rare. Public revelation like Didier Decoin’s is even more unusual. The “mystic”, indeed, may feel no need to reveal his/her secret and content him or herself with the comfort of a certitude against which traditional intellectual arguments (and even a Blog like mine !) are so much blowin’ in the wind.
P.S. I hope no one is wondering whether such mystic experiences offer any evidence of actual encounters with God. The encounter which such experiences should provoke is one between the “mystic” and his or her psychiatrist. It should be even more obvious that there is no point in consulting a clergyman . . .