Following the theme of my previous post on the personal dimension of Christianity, and picking up on the resurgence of interest in spiritual experiences in ChristianMystics.com, this post examines what it can mean to have a ’personal’ experience of and relationship with God. As a case in point, I’ll be sharing the experience of a young man with whom I have been close friends.
I want to begin by stating that any spiritual experience or relationship would necessarily be ‘personal’ to the extent that one relates it to his or her own presence in this world as a more or less unique and self-aware human being, a person. Just as your own experience or relationship with nature is said to be your personal experience or relationship with nature, so it is with spiritual experiences. Very simply put, they are personal if for no other reason than persons are having them. Still, it’s been my observation that by ‘personal’ we Christians often mean something else. What I think we typically mean is that we are conceiving of our experience and relationship with God as we would with another person. In the previous post, I highlighted our tendency to anthropomorphize God, which is perfectly understandable since that is the primary (but not the only) language the Bible and our tradition uses to address the Divine. But rather than simply rehash that particular issue, I want to draw attention to how we conceptualize our spiritual experiences. To do that, I will start by sharing the story of a young man’s spiritual, if not mystical, experience. He prefers to remain anonymous, and so I will refer to him as ‘Thomas.’
One Sunday afternoon in his senior year of high school, Thomas lay on his bed aware that the time was drawing near for the youth meeting at church. As president of the youth group, he felt a duty to be there, but he was seriously considering staying home because he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. As a leader of his youth group and a baptized Christian, Thomas was feeling like a phony in his recent realization that he had never had the personal experience of God or Jesus that seemed to be central to the spirituality he had been taught. For weeks he had lamented that, even though he believed in God and Jesus, and loved the story of Jesus and his legacy in our religion, he only knew Jesus as a historical figure and could only imagine relating to him as the human being described in scripture. In other words, he had never sensed any living presence of God or Jesus in his heart and mind that seemed to have a spirit and life of its own. Thomas had felt strong emotions of awe, humility, and gratitude when he thought about God and Jesus, and even powerful feelings of inspiration, hope, and motivation, but he took those as his own emotional reactions to things he believed about God and Jesus. He had to admit to himself that, while he believed in God, he had never really felt directly touched by God, and also that Jesus wasn’t any more personally real to him than Moses or King David.
So Thomas lay there on his bed, unable to do anything else after weeks of wondering if there was something wrong with him, or if he had misunderstood what this whole experience of God was supposed to be like, or if he just hadn’t previously given this matter the attention it deserved. He came to the conclusion that there must be something real to a personal experience of God, and in that moment it seemed like life wasn’t worth living without it. With a silent voice from the depths of his soul, Thomas cried out that he was ready to die if that’s what it took to reveal the truth to him, one way or the other. Thomas says that he hadn’t become suicidal, but that something inside him snapped. He says he now believes it was the breaking of attachment to his old spiritual life and ways of thinking about God. In that letting go, he wept until his eyes went dry and his body simply couldn’t sob any longer, and then found himself completely emptied of any but the faintest fleeting thoughts and feelings. He was exhausted, and he was in a strange limbo between hope and hopelessness, just accepting the emptiness within him and the silence around him. And then something happened.
Suddenly Thomas clearly felt another presence, which seemed to be both within and around him. He felt the presence, its attention, and its care and concern for him, and he felt an infinite depth to it. There was no voice or other sound, no flash of light, and no vision or image that appeared before him or in his mind. He simply felt it all very clearly, and instantly knew this was something quite different from previous emotional reactions to his beliefs about God and Jesus. In that moment this presence was an undeniable ‘other’ which was nonetheless inseparable from him. And, just as quickly, Thomas responded to this presence as The Presence, as God making Godself directly known to him, and he absolutely vibrated with joy and thankfulness. Eventually he got off the bed and went to the youth meeting, and did so with an incredible new depth of assurance, gratitude, and peace.
Many observations and questions came up for Thomas in the aftermath of his experience. In particular, he noticed that there was nothing about it that immediately spoke to him as Jesus himself. In fact, there really wasn’t much about the Presence that felt remotely human to him, except that he sensed It was aware and loving. He recognized that he wanted to think of the Presence as Jesus, but he realized that to do so would have been an assumption about the Presence rather than something that was revealed to him by the Presence Itself.
One effect of this experience might seem a bit odd, because on the one hand Thomas felt a clearer and stronger connection with God and more spiritually alive than ever before, but he still hadn’t had an experience of Jesus as an actual living presence in his life. In other words, he was feeling more connected to God and therefore his religion, but was also therefore even more acutely aware that he lacked something most others around him spoke about having – an immediate awareness of, and relationship with, Jesus. Another part of the oddness was that even though he more clearly felt a difference between him and his Christian siblings on this matter, Thomas also felt a greater sense of peace with it. He now realized that his discomfort was solely about being different from other people, since his doubts about knowing and being loved by God were gone. Thomas knew there was no issue between him and God about Jesus essentially remaining a historical figure to him.
Another effect of that experience was the initiation of his interest in meditation. Soon after that experience, Thomas somehow got the impression that people who meditated were more likely to have such experiences, and even to have them repeatedly, if not whenever they liked. Perhaps you can understand why that possibility sounded attractive to him. God had given him a very tasty treat, and he wanted more! So Thomas began dabbling with meditation, but that’s about all he did. The idea of meditation, let alone the practice of it, was extremely foreign to his world, which was a predominantly Southern Baptist, blue-collar, Texas town where people still sometimes rode horses on the street. The library had only a few books that even touched on the subject, and none of them offered detailed instructions. There certainly weren’t any meditation groups or teachers in town. About all Thomas could discover was that sitting cross-legged and chanting “aum” was supposed to be powerful stuff, so he tried it a number of times and found that he liked it. He found it produced an inner calm, stillness, peace, and centeredness close to what he had known just before and after his experience of the Presence. In that space it was easy to remember the feelings he’d had in response to the Presence, and even to feel as though he was in some way drawing closer to the Presence. Even so, the Presence Itself didn’t come to Thomas again like It had that first time. He didn’t established a routine practice of meditation, and eventually ended up leaving it alone for several years, but he was still impressed with its value.
Over the next few years, as he continued to mature into young adulthood and become more acquainted with comparative religious studies, psychology, anthropology, and other sciences, and as the memory of the Presence faded a little, it became easier for Thomas to doubt the validity of his experience. He learned there were plenty of scientists who considered such things to be entirely produced by the human brain, and he found their arguments persuasive enough to acknowledge that as a possibility for his own experience. Even so, he also remained quite open to the idea that it was exactly what he had understood it to be in the moment. There were more tests and trials ahead of Thomas, including a long and sometimes miserable period of spiritual dryness. But in time other understandings and experiences would come, he would return to the practice of meditation as a discipline rather than a quest, and his faith would be more fully awakened and realized. By the way, even though Jesus has remained a historical figure to him, Thomas says Christ was eventually realized as something even more real to him than his own personality.
I want to begin wrapping up this account of Thomas’s experience by pointing out how very personal it was. Not only did he have a direct and unmediated personal experience of the Presence, it was also personally authentic. By ‘authentic,’ I mean that he was honest with himself in not succumbing to both internal and external pressure to conclude that the Presence was one and the same as the historical person of Jesus. In other words, he didn’t allow his experience to be redefined or distorted by his religion, but instead allowed the experience to transform his religion in a very personal way. Thomas further demonstrated that he wasn’t too afraid or ashamed to admit it to himself and God when he even came to doubt the experience itself. He trusted that an all-knowing and loving God must want his most honest expression of faith. Thomas realized that if he had any pretensions at all added to his faith, it wouldn’t be God that he was fooling, but only himself and other human beings. So it was that Thomas bared his whole personhood not only to God but to himself, and in doing so he found a greater sense of acceptance, peace, and communion with God and with himself.
Finally, Thomas wants to make sure two things are clear. First, just because he didn’t experience Jesus as immediately present to him in person, that doesn’t mean that he believes such a thing isn’t possible; it just wasn’t the gift God gave to him. Second, he thinks it’s very important to acknowledge that other people have emptied themselves before God the way he did on the bed that day, and yet no new awareness of God has come to them. He has no explanation for why that would happen to him and not others. He says he feels a lot of compassion and understanding for why some people might feel cheated or even abandoned by God. He asks that we remember Jesus’ statement that “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Thomas says the very fact that we so deeply want to experience God more directly is itself evidence of God’s presence in our hearts. To that, I would add only that Jesus teaches loving others is the most important way to love God, and that it follows such love is therefore a way to directly know and experience God in our lives. It might not be the kind of ‘personal’ experience we want, but it is one that is always available to us.