To Know a Cow

I spent the weekend at January Adventure on St. Simons Island with Matthew Fox and Christena Cleveland.  Both were speakers with great ideas and lots to consider, so I hope they have provided prompts for writing for many months to come.

However today’s idea comes not from his speeches, but from Dr. Fox’s book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ.  I’ve had it since seminary days, but have never been able to get into it.  I guess I am finally at the right point in my spiritual life for it, because I’m flying through it now.

Here’s the line from my reading last night that stopped me in my tracks: “To know a cow is to experience a cow – not read about one.” As I pulled steaks from my freezer for dinner tonight, I thought, “I know exactly what he means.”

Well, that’s not exactly what he was talking about, though it does fit into the discussion.  It is one thing to read about eating a delicious steak, and entirely another to bite into it.  We do not taste food with our intellect, but with our whole mouths: taste buds, mouthfeel, tenderness.  Eating is a whole experience.

Reading books is like that too. It seems natural to assume that reading is something one does with the intellect, the mind, but a whole host of other processes are involved. It is a different experience to read snuggled up on the couch versus lounging in a coffee shop or waiting in the doctor’s office. I have recently learned that reading is far more pleasant when I have the right contacts and the right reading glasses. And I can be in the right spiritual place for a book – or not.  Intellect is only one facet. The whole experience matters.

Matthew Fox took the example further. He wanted to explore not only how we do something, but how we know something. That word in English has instant connotations to our intellect, but there is a much deeper knowing that happens in the heart. I explored this is a previous blog called Soul Knowledge.

But before we get to soul knowledge there’s an intermediate step – experiential knowledge. Dr. Fox cites Carl Jung’s complaint that “modern people get their experiences from words and dictionaries to such an extent that we are surprised when we meet up with a real live cow and we actually experience its smell. The dictionary said nothing about the smell so, … we were unprepared for the full reality of ‘cow.’”

This seems like a critical distinction in a world wracked with more and more pain as we retreat to our silos. We may or may not even read about the ‘other’ in our world, and we certainly have little real experience of them. As we get our news from people who look and sound just like we do, we are less inclined to go out and experience much of anything.  I don’t know many people who get their experiences from a dictionary any more, but I know plenty who get most if not all of their knowledge on a computer – where the cow does not smell.

Our spiritual lives suffer when we focus on intellectual knowing of the Divine to the exclusion of the experiential. I know (intellectually, experientially and deep in my soul) why Dr. Fox’s words stopped me in my tracks last night: my heart paraphrased them into the deep truth that guides my spiritual direction practice and my life. “To know the Divine is to experience the Divine – not read about it.”

I am a person who loves intellectual learning – I get excited about little things I see anew in the Christian scriptures and I’m always trying to bring those things out in my sermons. But it is not intellectual tricks that draw and holds my faith. To truly trust in the Divine, I do not need words, I need experience.

Are there books on your bookshelf that you have tried to read and just could not get into? Have you ever found you were ready for one like that at a later time on your life? How would you describe intellectual knowledge, soul knowledge, and experiential knowledge? Can you think of examples In your life where you have knowledge in each of these areas?  How do you get out of your silo to experience things that are different for you? Would this be an important spiritual practice for you? How do you integrate experiential knowledge of the Divine into your spiritual life?

My intellect – and my soul – is quite excited to put a name to this intermediate type of knowledge and I can’t help but be amazed at how I can now see spiritual direction as a practice that nurtures all three types of knowledge. To find out more about how you can find a spiritual director and take advantage of this experience, contact me at Openings: Let the Spirit In.

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