Sunday, June 4, 2006

Spiritual Experience

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. Amen. Acts 2:17-18

We live in a time when people are searching for “authentic spirituality,” experimenting with a variety of spiritual experiences. We are fascinated with visions, dreams, and prophecies of all kinds. There is a huge and growing spirituality market, catering to individual tastes and promising a personalized approach to self-actualization. While all of this may make us feel better about ourselves, at least for a while, I suspect it reinforces the expressive individualism of our culture that masks a deeper conformity and complicity with the status quo: much searching, but little challenge.

You might even say that there is a great temptation in our society to become spiritual junkies, craving new and more exotic spiritual experiences as an escape from reality. I’ve long suspected that my grandparents were addicted to such experiences, wrapped up in a somewhat more conventional religious package. Though their “home congregation” was a Southern Baptist church, when I was a child they often brought me to Holiness churches for prayer meetings and revivals, where the worship was very charismatic.

We would sing and shout, running up and down the aisles, weeping and wailing during worship. For working class people, poor white Southerners displaced in a strange Northern industrial city, cut off from their roots and often battling economic hardship, domestic violence, and alcoholism, such “spiritual experiences” were powerfully cathartic. But they were never enough. One always needed more.

The problem with these spiritual experiences wasn’t that they were emotional. Authentic spirituality does touch every part of our being, often evidenced by the gift of holy tears, or a joy so profound we must sing and shout about it. I’ve seen more than a few people walk into Episcopal churches and cry through the entire liturgy for months, as the Spirit of God worked profound changes in their lives.

No, the problem with the “spiritual experiences” of my childhood was not that they were emotional, but rather that they were superficial. Even as a child, I quickly learned that such experiences didn’t make Daddy stop drinking or Grandma stop worrying. Folks remained stuck on the experience itself, rather than allow the experience to open them up to the deeper work of genuine transformation that the Spirit works within us.

Thomas Merton describes this as the danger of spiritual “illuminism” or “enthusiasm”: Here the problem is that of taking one’s subjective experience so seriously that it becomes more important than truth, writes Merton, more important than God. Once spiritual experience becomes objectified, it turns into an idol. It becomes a “thing,” a “reality” which we serve. We were not created for the service of any “thing,” but for the service of God alone, Who is not and cannot be a “thing.” To serve [God] Who is no object is freedom.”[1]

To seek spiritual experiences for their own sake is a form of slavery, no better than self-centered seeking after wealth or social status or pleasure. It can be just as addictive as food or sex or drugs. In fact, it may be far more dangerous to our souls, because of the religious veneer that makes its rationalization all the more convincing.

As Merton rightly points out, when it comes to authentic spirituality, What matters is not what one feels, but what really takes place beyond the level of feeling or experience. In genuine contemplation, what takes place is a contact between the inmost reality of the created person and the infinite reality of God. The experience which accompanies this contact may be a more or less faithful sign of what has taken place . . . capable of being dissociated from any reality and being a mere empty figure.[2]

When it comes to spirituality, it is very easy to fool ourselves; very easy for spiritual experiences to become a way of remaining imprisoned within ourselves. Spirituality then simply becomes another form of entertainment to keep us from paying attention to reality, and the very real suffering in ourselves and in our world that requires a compassionate response. Genuine spiritual experiences do not leave us, or the world, unchanged, no matter how imperceptible or mysterious may be the movement of the Spirit.

Authentic Christian spirituality is never about me. It is always about us. The cultivation of spiritual experiences, the use of spiritual practices such as fasting, prayer, and worship, is never an end itself. Its purpose is to bring us more deeply in touch with reality. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.[3] The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, who comes to bring us into deeper contact with the truth of our being in God, and that of the created world of which we are a part.

Notice again that the Spirit comes to lead us, not just me, into all truth. The revelation of truth is manifest in community; not perfectly to be sure, but less prey to our capacity for self-deception. It is no accident that on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate both the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus present with us always, and the gift of the Church, the community to which the Spirit gives birth. The truth into which the Spirit leads us is the truth that can only be discovered in community.

How then do we recognize the movement of the Spirit in our midst? Our Scripture readings provide some clues. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.[4] The Spirit brings life, because God is Lord of the living, and not of the dead. Authentic spirituality is life-giving. This coming to life, however, this gift of being fully alive in the Spirit, happens in community. It is only together, as we reflect back to each other the presence of the Spirit that we see in one another, that we come to know our dignity and glory as the children of God. It is in relationship that we become fully alive.

Like the prophet Ezekiel, who is moved with compassion by the plight of his people in exile, those who live in the Spirit cannot be indifferent to the realities of suffering and death. In a world of refugees and exiles, homeless and hungry people, compassionate action in the service of justice and healing is one sure sign of the Spirit. It is the means by which we come to see the glory of God, which is revealed in human beings who are fully alive.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.[5] When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the early disciples, She was rather indiscriminate about how and where She appeared. St. Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, proclaims the remarkable freedom of the Spirit. Even women and slaves, the most marginal and powerless in society, are given the gift of prophecy – the gift of speaking truth to power.

Where the Spirit of Jesus is, there is freedom. This holy freedom embraces an ever widening circle of community, requiring the Spirit at Pentecost to give the apostles the gift of speaking in many different languages. In God’s marvelous freedom, God chooses to pour out his Spirit on the most unlikely people. The granting of visions, the dreaming of dreams, is not only for spiritual elites, much less political and economic elites, but also and especially for the poor and the outcast. Their’s is the dream of a new creation, a transformation of the status quo that reinforces privilege.

In a world where people are isolated and alone, divided into competing sectarian camps, the creation of community that transcends the most entrenched differences is another sure sign of the presence of the Spirit.

It is all too easy for us to make use of spiritual experiences to mask our fear, our envy, our compulsiveness, our violence, our divisiveness, our self-hatred. St. Paul writes, By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . . If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.[6]

The truth into which the Spirit of Jesus is guiding us is the reality that community encompasses all of God’s magnificent, diverse creation; the reality that love triumphs over death. Our spiritual practices and the spiritual experiences, sometimes quite palpable and powerful, to which they can give rise, can guide us into all the truth, the truth of a creation more integrated and beautiful, and of a God more loving and compassionate, than we could ever imagine. They can also, however, simply reinforce our preoccupation with our own self, our defensiveness toward all that is wild, mysterious, and beyond our control in the life of the Spirit. This Pentecost Sunday we are invited to let go, to give ourselves over to the Spirit whose presence can open us to new life, genuine freedom, and true joy in community. Amen.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 106.
[2] Merton, p. 108.
[3] John 16:13a
[4] Ezekiel 37:14
[5] Acts 2:17
[6] Galatians 5:22-23a, 25-26.

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