Perhaps many folks can point to a single moment that transformed their lives, although for most that watershed moment likely happened when they were a bit older. I was eight years old on that singular night in April of 1955 when I went to bed as a normal kid. Then I was awakened just before dawn, and I was never normal again.
It must have been about four o’clock in the morning. Nearly sixty years later I still remember it well. I woke up with the throat-clenching, heart-pounding certainty that there is no God. No God! There is nothing but screaming clockwork terror in an infinite void of nothing. I have never in my life been so afraid. As that lack of God went on for minutes, I thought of running to my parents’ bed. But what comfort can there be when there is no God?
As I stared in panic into the darkness, there came a brilliant flash of white light. It was big! It filled my room with light, so to this day I recall the lavender wallpaper with its purple and white cornflowers, the bookcase with its row of dolls, the plastic palomino with its ball-chain reins. Oddly, such a brilliant light in the darkness didn’t affect my eyes. I stared in amazement.
Then I heard a young male voice say, “You wouldn’t know what it is to have me unless you knew what it is to be without me. I will never leave you again.”
That’s nice. If you forget that there’s a God, they’ll remind you. When you are eight years old, everything is new so nothing can be very surprising, and I was so comforted by that voice that I snuggled down and went back to sleep.
Nearly forty years went by before I told anyone about this experience, but it shaped my growing-up. From that day on I always knew that God is real and there must be a lot going on behind the curtain that we can’t see. As is true of all such experiences, my memory of my formative night has remained as vivid throughout my life as if it happened yesterday, which fact bothered me as I grew older. Surely that must have been normal, right? It had to be happening to lots of people? So why was nobody talking about it at church or at school or just casually at home?
Eventually I went to Smith College, in part for its great religion department. I planned to major in religion in college, assuming still that what had happened to me had to have been a variant of normal. But I was learning that if you don’t ask questions, no one ever gives you answers. No one at college mentioned anything even similar to my experience, and soon I began to suspect that perhaps it hadn’t been so normal after all. Realizing that made me even more reluctant to mention it to anyone.
The summer when I was twenty was a time of frustration and near-depression. I still was failing at what I saw as my young life’s fundamental mission, which was to find out what my experience had been and reassure myself that I was normal. And now here I was, majoring in religion at an elite college, but this was looking like another dead-end. No one was going to answer a question that I was still refusing to ask, and what could I do with a religion major?
I came home from my summer job one evening and plunked down on my bed, feeling miserable. I was thinking about trying to declare a different major, but there was no other field that grabbed me and I had taken so many religion courses that changing majors now might mean summer school and I still hadn’t resolved my lifelong quest. What had happened to me when I was eight?
Just then – and I was sitting up, in daylight – that same white light flashed from over my right shoulder and brilliantly splashed in the center of the room. This time it was accompanied by extraordinary music, like millions of tiny silver bells. And the same young male voice said, “I will never leave you.”
My reaction to having a second experience of light was odd, in retrospect. I felt like the dunce of the universe. Apparently nobody else has to be reminded even once that God is real, but I had to be reminded twice? For many years thereafter I prayed, “Dear God, I know You’re there and I’m never alone and I promise never to forget, so PLEASE don’t do that to me again!” In all the years since, God never has.
While I was deeply involved in getting married and having babies and beginning to practice law, I dipped a toe into investigating the afterlife. I was assuming that wherever that light had come from was likely the same place where dead people went, but before Raymond Moody published Life After Life in 1975, death was not much of a topic. Wonderfully, Dr. Moody sparked a curiosity about life after death that continues to this day.
In 1991 my father had a stroke. For the couple of weeks before he died I made a daily round-trip to assist my mother. One morning I phoned her as I drove to ask how Dad had spent the night, and I found her in a state of giddiness. Something had happened that was so amazing, but…
“I can’t tell you! Don’t ask! But it was wonderful!”
“You saw a bright light, didn’t you, Mom?”
“How did you know that? How could you know that?”
“And a voice said something…?”
“How did you know that? You can’t know that!”
When I got to my parents’ home, I told my mother about my experiences of light. It was the first time I had ever told anyone. But hearing how similar her experience had been to mine, I discovered at the age of 45 that I was somewhat normal, after all. It actually had happened to someone else! Perhaps it had happened to many others, but – like my mother, like me – they wouldn’t talk about it. So then I began to mention it to people, and in the twenty-two years since my father’s death I have heard a number of amazing stories. I have found that few people will tell me about their own extraordinary experiences until after I have first shared mine, but I would guess based upon unscientific research that two or three percent of all Americans will have an experience of light in their lifetimes.
Here is what I have come to understand about such encounters with the Divine:
1) They happen when people are under spiritual stress. Not physical or emotional stress, but spiritual stress.
2) They might include a bright light or a voice, or often both a light and a voice. Rarely are there other elements. Most people agree that the light is external – anyone in the room would see it – but the voice may be in our minds.
3) These experiences remain as vivid for the rest of our lives as if they had happened just yesterday. This is true of near-death experiences and visitation dreams from the dead as well: it’s as if spiritual memory exists outside of time.
4) These experiences are transformative. After more than half a century, my experiences of light continue to shape my life.
I have read the Christian Bible from cover to cover perhaps a dozen times. I don’t recommend that anyone do this who hopes to remain a practicing Christian, but at one time it seemed like a good idea. So I was familiar with the Bible, but I was so deeply shamed by the fact that God had to remind me of His existence twice that I didn’t think about the fact that the Bible contains experiences of light until after my mother’s experience confirmed for me that it was a variant of normal. Then almost immediately I slapped my head. Of course!
In Exodus 3:2 and following, God speaks to Moses from out of a burning bush that is not consumed. They have a conversation in which God gives Moses a charge to lead his people out of Egypt, and Moses says, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” (Exodus 4:13). It’s never a good idea to make God cranky, but I’m with Moses. Who feels worthy of a charge like that? And in Acts 9:3-6, the tormentor of early Christians who was Saul is converted to the Apostle Paul when he sees a bright light and he hears Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
They both had the same experience that I had. Both of them saw that same white light, and they heard what may even have been the same voice. The same experience.
So, why me?
It is only in my latter sixties that I begin to dare to ask that question. Why me, of all people? First, of course, there remains the fact that I actually am the dunce of the universe. I needed the experience not once, but three times. I tend to identify strongly with Moses’s “Who, me?” reluctance to stick his neck out, but even he needed just one experience of light! I am weaker. I needed not only my two, but also the validation of my mother’s as well.
I still don’t know why I was given those experiences, but I am coming to think that one reason may be that being touched by God makes you brave. I am not at all brave by nature. If it were up to me, with my children grown and with my career now winding down, I would spend the rest of my days beneath a tree, blissfully reading amid flowers and birdsong. But after my father’s death, I began a single-minded quest to understand death and what happens after death that led three years ago to the publication of The Fun of Dying – Find Out What Really Happens Next! Researching the afterlife was brave, and publishing a book that some folks might think goes against their religious beliefs was brave.
Then I did something so brave that I have found that very few are willing to do it. I don’t find it scary at all, since not only do I know that God is real, but I have come to realize that God loves us perfectly and God knows us better than we know ourselves. So… what the heck. One day I told God that I will do whatever God wants me to do with the rest of my life. Anything. It’s up to You, God! I pray in gratitude affirmations, so what I actually said was, “Thank You for giving me work to do. Thank You for showing me how to do it.” I began to pray that prayer perhaps eighteen months ago, and soon thereafter I came upon a draft of a novel that I had first written in 1977. It had been preserved in a manner so unlikely that it didn’t seem possible that it was random, and as I read it I began to envision a sequel. By the time I had written that sequel, I was seeing a need for four more books in what I was beginning to understand was a series. And doing this writing is turning out to be the most fun that I have ever had in my life. Well, what do you know? If you trust God enough to offer up your life, God will give you back your life arrayed in diamonds and roses!