March 1, 2013

Lenten Journey: Religious Experience

They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.
- Luke 9:36 
For Reflection...

So-called religious experiences can be slippery things.  Something happens.  I see something or hear something in prayer that strikes me as exceptional.  I am aware of a message or an idea or a deeper meaning that feels like it's come out of nowhere, something I've never thought before.  Or I see an image in my imagination that is so vivid and original and yet so descriptive of my current situation that I can't help but wonder where it came from.

Who can I tell?  With whom can I verify such experiences as both real and of God?

We've all heard of people who say they hear voices or see things that aren't there.  We call them schizophrenic.  We've probably also encountered people who, in one form or another, claim to speak for God.  We think of them as deluded or fanatical.

What does it mean to have a direct experience of God?  How do we know?  What do we do with it?

I don't know, but I can imagine, that Peter, James, and John, discussed their experience among themselves and with Jesus.  A first step in grounding a direct experience of God has to be conferring with mature people of faith.  If I think that God has a word to say to me, I need to bring that word to at least one trusted friend , a pastor, or a spiritual director, someone who I know to be of at least as mature in her walk with Christ as I am.  What does she think?  Does this word strike her as consistent with what she knows of God and of me and my walk of faith?

Another test is to hold the word I have received in the light of scripture and the Christian tradition.  Orthodox Christian belief holds that there is no new revelation in the present age, so anything that I might hear from the Lord has to be consistent with the revealed word.  God's revelation has come to us through the Bible and also through the experiences of other believers through the ages.  Is what I hear in keeping with that revelation?

Finally, God's word for me is for me.  If God is speaking directly to my heart, God's word is an intimate message within our relationship.  God's communication is not like the president to his press secretary, a movie star to his publicist, or a CEO to her public relations manager.  God is instead like a lover whispering to his beloved in the dark.

As we draw close and closer to God, we will hear God speak.  Now we must begin to learn how to listen.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in silence becoming present to yourself and to the God who dwells within you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What is your opinion of so-called religious experience?  Have you encountered any such experiences, positive or negative, personal or something you've heard from others?
  • Are you willing to be open to hearing God speak directly to your heart?  Have you heard God speak to you?  Plan again today to spend time in the silence, listening.
  • Do you have mature believers you can turn to in order to confer about your experience of God?  A pastor you trust?  A friend whose walk with Christ you admire?  A professional spiritual director?*
  • How well acquainted are you with the Bible or with the stories of people of faith?  Consider engaging in a program of reading, even if it's just a little bit each day or most days.  Some people find it helpful to start with the Gospel of Mark, which is the shortest, quickest account of the ministry and passion of Jesus.  For reading from the tradition, C.S. Lewis is an easy place to begin.  Try Mere Christianity.
As you finish this quiet time, take a moment just to be aware and present to your soul and to the God who dwells there.

* Spiritual Directors International has an on-line guide to help you find a spiritual director near you.  Members of SDI come from a wide variety of faith traditions.  If you are looking for more information, or if you have something you would like to share privately, please feel free to e-mail me.

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