I don’t remember the smell of the incense, but it was being burnt as an offering to God. It’s really interesting how similar sacred practices are across cultures. We were Tennessee Christians, of the charismatic Baptist sort, burning incense, singing, and dancing; we might as well have been living in Big Sur, California in the 60s, completely hippy, connecting with our spirit animals. But that’s not the exceptional part. I will never forget this night. It is still more than I understand. I experienced what I consider to be one of the most potent religious experiences of my life. My friends mother along with a few other women began praying over our bodies – laying on of hands, its called – and what happened after that is the spiritual event called being ‘slain in the spirit‘ or ‘falling out in the spirit.’ I remember watching this woman place her hands, one by one on my two best friends next to me and watching their bodies fall to the ground supported by someone behind them. I remember the room lit with an amber hue and worship songs continuing. We were in the back. Perhaps, those moments were the most religious – in the most complete sense of the word – that I have ever encountered. I remember my turn, her hands placed on my head and the sound of her voice – words happened I have no idea what was spoken specifically. And then I remember a great wave of euphoria wash over me. I remember allowing it or excepting it, even expecting it or knowing it. Whatever the case it was not fixed or formula, like a drug once taken, whether bidden or not, one is committed or condemned to the process. On the contrary this experience required my presence and my will; it was deeply participatory and overwhelmingly intimate; it was Holy. I fell backward into safe arms and was laid on the ground. Overwhelming joy. Incomprehensible feelings of presence, safety, LOVE. I remember tears and laugher and having no clear discernment or interests between the two; they flowed together as one experience, expression of surrender. I was 16 years old.
William James, one of the most important 20th century philosopher/psychologists to live and write offered his Gifford Lectures on this very topic I describe above: The Varieties of Religious Experience.