nature clouds sunThis year Mary Quinalty sold her home in an upmarket neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico, gave away her possessions and moved into Trinity House, a Catholic Worker “house of hospitality” for homeless people where she is the full-time, unpaid administrator. Mary Quinalty is eighty-one years old.

“I had an experience in Mexico, about twenty-five years ago,” Mary says in explanation of her unusual move. “A spiritual vision. It changed me.” Mary’s experience is not unusual. A 2002 Gallup Poll showed that 41% of Americans have had some form of “awakening” or radically expanded awareness that has changed the course of their lives. Not all become activists, but Mary’s story illustrates the age-old relationship between spiritual awareness and community service.

Before her ‘experience,’ Mary was a program manger. In 1987 one of the volunteers she managed returned to his home in Mexico and invited Mary to visit him. The next long weekend, Mary and her partner Frank headed south in their ’63 Chevy. Thirteen hours later, tired and hungry, they found the tiny village of Colonias Juarez in Chihuahua, Mexico, the volunteer’s home town. They never found the volunteer, but in the village Mary met the man who would change her life forever, Father (Fr.) Joaquin Martinez. The priest introduced Mary to a level of poverty she had never known existed, and for the next nine years she and Frank spent every three day weekend working with him in the village.

The Mountain Top

Mary’s awakening took place on a journey with Fr. Martinez to the top of the mountains that surround Colonias Juarez. She clung to Frank as the priest’s open-topped Jeep bounced over boulders and crevasses, at times barely gripping the terrain. But eventually they reached a hamlet, a few tiny houses with mud floors. When the car stopped, the men jumped out. Mary stayed put.

Fr. Martinez went to the rear of the vehicle and when he came back into view he wore the glowing, white vestments of his vocation. He stood before the car, arms outstretched. The sun-drenched silence was absolute, the air utterly still. Minutes passed, nothing stirred. Then Mary noticed figures emerging from the rocks high above them. Whole families moved in silence, drawn to the radiant figure of the Padre. Mary had never seen him in his vestments before and watching the white fabric flowing from his outstretched arms, she realized she was in the presence of someone ‘holy’.

nature mountains roadThe scene was repeated in village after village until, at sunset, they reached their final destination, a little hamlet perched near the top of the mountain. There, Fr. Martinez introduced Mary to Rosa, a community leader and mother of seven who invited them to share her family’s meager dinner.

The next morning before leaving, Mary felt herself drawn up the trail to Rosa’s house at the same time that Rosa was descending to say goodbye. As Mary gazed upwards, Rosa’s form grew fuzzy against the morning sky. Then it began to glow, radiating brilliant light, a dazzling human shape without distinguishing features.

“I was mesmerized,” Mary says. “The brilliance reached a peak…[of] pure beauty and light. I was outside time…My whole body was filled with awe.” Eventually the radiance began to vibrate and dim, and there on the path once again was a smiling Rosa.

The Nature of Spiritual Awakening

Spiritual awakenings take many forms. The Institute for the Study of Peak States has documented over forty varieties of mystical experience across all cultures and religious traditions. Despite this variety, spiritual awakenings, or ‘peak states,’ share some key characteristics: timelessness, a radical expansion of awareness, a perception of beauty and an unconditional love so strong and solid it feels almost physically touchable, and a sense of oneness with all things.

Back in Albuquerque, Mary found that while nothing had changed in her life, everything had changed in her. She found dressing for work almost unbearable.

“I tried to pick out a suit,” she explained. “I threw one after the other onto the bed. I had shopped for them all so carefully, but I couldn’t stand them. The colors…repulsed me.”

She struggled through work and couldn’t speak to Frank without crying. Not surprisingly, a gap opened between Mary and her colleagues. Her loving, gentle relationship with Frank deteriorated into bouts of anger and tears as he struggled to understand her strange behavior.

If it is not understood, the experience of radical awareness can strain relationships.

Despite the frequency of such events, society often reacts with skepticism, fear and sometimes contempt. Some forms of spiritual awakening can be mistaken for psychotic breakdown but there are recognizable differences. In a psychotic episode ego structures break down. The boundaries between self and what is not self disappear in an often terrifying way. In a spiritual awakening, the ego is transcended but is left intact; we are both ourselves and at the same time, we are merged with the cosmos/god/life itself. We become nothing and we are everything, but we are aware of this paradox.