In spiritual direction, many years ago, a woman shared that she had a profound God experience at the age of 4 or 5 years old. She was alone in a field on a bright summer day; walking up a small hill, her legs brushed by a sea of flowers, she felt her face being caressed by the scented breeze among tiny flashes of bright colors coming from the wings of butterflies. The music of songbirds serenaded her heart. Suddenly, she became deeply aware that a formidable force, a benevolent God was at the source of everything, lovingly watching over her and everyone in the world. She felt deep peace and a blessed harmony, a sense of oneness with God that she had not experienced since that day. The directee believed this to be the foundational experience of her relationship with God. She stated it had directed her entire faith journey as a practicing Catholic. She never doubted that God loved her deeply. The experience was very intense, etched in her soul for the rest of her life. I said to her, “You have received a marvelous spiritual gift, I am curious, please tell me with how many people have you shared this special moment with?” She answered, “You are the first one.” This woman was in her mid-60s!
Like this woman, many people are strangely ashamed of such direct and powerful God moments. They have repressed, denied, or dismissed God experiences because of the fear of being judged, ridiculed. Would people label them as religious freaks? Since we cannot will nor create such moments, they represent a form of “grace without cause.” A grace received with openness and gratitude. The theologian Karl Rahner called this a type of experience mysticism of everyday or ordinary life. He believed both explicit experiences such as the one described above or implicit ones, orient life from a mystical center. He identifies non-thematic experiences of the mystery of God in the following manner: hoping beyond despair in challenging situations, remaining a long time in prayer while not feeling anything, and selfless service with no expectation of reward or recognition. All of those are examples of these inchoate movements. Have you ever experienced any of them? If your answer is yes, it is an invitation to reassess your perception of what it means to live mystically or contemplatively.
These mystical experiences require great courage because they ask to make a fundamental option for God and for a faith that includes yet moves beyond doctrinal adherence and intellectual concepts. Rahner expresses this type of essential mystical openness in a beautiful prayer:
“Thanks to your mercy, O Infinite God, I know something about You not only through concepts and words, but through experience. I have met You in joy and suffering. For You are the first and last experience of my life. Yes, really You Yourself, not just a concept of You, not just the name which we ourselves have given You!”
Like Rahner, I believe all human beings are capax dei: they all have an innate ability for and sense of the Holy mystery of God. I find it helpful to view encountering God’s mystery as hard-wired in us because it gives us more responsibility to nurture and to share our faith life. We nurture our faith by unpacking it through journaling, spiritual friendships, conversations, and communal services. A unique form of noticing God and developing our mystical approach to life is through spiritual direction. It has been part of the Christian Tradition for centuries as a privileged locus of growth to free ourselves for service and to love Jesus more deeply.
Many people who come on silent retreats discover the God of Jesus Christ by the practice of evocative contemplative prayer, sacramental life and scriptural reflection or Lectio Divina. In silence, it becomes easier to realize that God is always active in people, places, and events that are blind to us in our hectic lives. How can we be able to help others see God in their lives if we do not first notice God as the source and center of our own heart and soul? If we uncover our implicit experiences of the mystery of God and continue to sift the religious meaning of our explicit moments of God’s self-communication, we will be better equipped to help others hear God in the mystery of their own lives.