For all of Lent and much of Easter season I was on the road giving parish missions across the country. I spoke about conversion, prayer, discipleship, and some of the struggles I have with each of those aspects of Christian life. In several places, I had people come up to me and ask for an appointment to talk about something that had happened in their life.
In each case, they told me about personal experiences of God's power that they had encountered, and how the experiences had changed their lives. In every case, they would preface their story with something like, "You'll probably think I'm crazy, but..." One young woman told me of having several experiences in which all of the surrounding noises, whether it was the sound of a crowd in the church vestibule or traffic noise simply stopped and she heard Jesus speak a few brief sentences of comfort or direction. Another fellow spoke of how God had made it possible for him to go on a mission trip to Jamaica with his wife, even though he really didn't want to go and had told her there were five conditions that had to be met before he'd accompany her there. God met all five conditions. Then, while giving a destitute man in a shelter a shave (while trying to stay as far away from the man as possible) he experienced the eyes of Christ looking at him with love, rather than the poor man's eyes. That completely changed his attitude towards the whole experience in Jamaica, and began a profound experience of conversion to Christ for him.
A friend of mine told me the other day that sometimes while he's praying and contemplating the events of his life the Holy Spirit shows him a connection between what he thought were random events and he is filled with joy and begins to laugh spontaneously and uncontrollably - and he loves it! I am convinced this same fellow has received infused knowledge from God; insights into the nature of God that I know from years of study that have been revealed to him in prayer.
These experiences are not unique. We read of similar experiences, as well as locutions, ecstasies, visions, etc. in the lives of the saints. But for some reason, we have come to believe they are rare and only for the select few - those destined to be saints.
All these people haven't told many others, or in some cases any other people, because they don't hear others speaking of such experiences. They may be afraid that people will not just think they're crazy, but that they think they're special, and that they're making a claim to be "holier than thou." Yet when we read the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes all kinds of powerful spiritual experiences that lead many people to speak in tongues, to prophesy, to spontaneously and joyfully praise God. The Acts of the Apostles are filled with signs and wonders performed by the Holy Spirit through the apostles and others. These experiences of the Holy Spirit lead to the conversion of thousands of people in some cases. Often we can dismiss these stories as exaggerations, group hysteria, or events unique to the early Church and no longer to be expected.
Peter Herbeck, Vice President and Director of Missions of Renewal Ministries in Ann Arbor, MI, writes about our low expectations for these sorts of religious experiences and our reticence to trust them in his new book, "When the Spirit Comes in Power." He quotes Mary Healy, a contemporary scripture scholar and theologian, who writes, "generations of ordinary lay Catholics have imbibed the notion that the spiritual life is essentially one of moral striving and formulaic prayer, apart from any direct experiential contact with God and his saving deeds." Jesus promises his disciples in the Gospel of John's Last Supper discourse, ""If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you." John 14:15-18. Yet we live as though orphaned when we do not ask for guidance from that same Spirit of truth that guided the apostles, St. Paul and all the saints. We live as orphans when we do not believe Jesus who promises to abide in those who love their neighbor and keep his commands.
Of course, the Lord is present to us in a most intimate way in the Blessed Sacrament, his Body and Blood which we receive at Mass. He is also present in the Scriptures, especially when proclaimed at Mass. He is present in the presbyters and bishops who act in persona Christi, and in his body, the Church. The Holy Spirit touches our lives through the charisms God has given to others for our benefit, and we encounter his power, provision and healing through the manifold charisms distributed among the faithful. But there are other forms of religious experience that we can, and I believe, should expect if we are open to them.
Luke Timothy Johnson defines religious experience as "a response to that which is perceived as ultimate, involving the whole person, characterized by a peculiar intensity, and issues in action." Notice the experience is a response to an encounter with someone or something that is recognized as ultimate - and for Christian religious experience that is Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega. The Lord is the initiator. The experience is not generated by person him or herself. Nor is the focus on the emotional experience, as powerful as it might be. Herbeck writes, "All the spiritual writers in the Catholic mystical tradition warn against an excessive focus on religious experience and the need to apply solid discernment when we encounter spiritual phenomena...Yet, despite their constant warning, the mystical writers understand that religious experience is a normal part of the Christian life. In fact, their warnings assume it." These experiences are so powerful because they involve the whole person: intellect, will, emotions, memory, body and soul. It is an experience that in many cases leaves the individual fumbling for words to describe it. And, perhaps most importantly, it leads to action.
Sometimes the action may be a changed life with a new interest in reading the Bible and studying the Church's teaching. It may mean a long-held vice is abandoned. Sometimes it may lead to the pursuit of a particular calling in life, as in the case of Sr. Mary Teresa, a Loretto sister teaching in a school for the children of the elites of Calcutta, who was insistently called by Jesus to don a sari and minister to the poorest of the poor.
Perhaps part of our problem is fear. In his inaugural homily, the Holy Father spoke openly and eloquently about this fear....
Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?
We may be afraid of what Jesus might ask of us, or, like the people I spoke to, wonder if people will think we are "Jesus freaks," liars, simple-minded enthusiasts, or addicts who've switched drugs of choice.
But what if during this week prior to Pentecost, we asked for an outpouring of the Spirit into our hearts? What if we took a careful moral inventory and examined where we are still selfish, and looked at what sins - however seemingly small - we still commit and have grown accustomed to? Do we really believe the Lord's promise to send an Advocate to be with us always? If so, always includes today, in your town, in your heart and mine. Let's stop underestimating God, and pray that the gifts given us in Confirmation may begin to bear fruit in our lives. May we believe that it is really possible for Jesus to abide in us and we in Him through the action of the Holy Spirit.