Do you have difficulty in trying to share an experience that is virtually indescribable? Perhaps it’s seeing for the first time the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, for example. The beauty, the awe, the sheer enormity and vastness of everything strike you, the scale is almost incomprehensible, and words are totally inadequate. There is a spiritual dimension impossible to describe. Yet you are filled with the feelings and emotions it arouses and you try to communicate these to others with an energetic enthusiasm. The response more often than not is just polite interest, sometimes even a hint of jealousy, but all too rarely a genuine enthusiasm to know more. Why is this?
It would seem that the frustration of being unable to express ourselves adequately is heightened by our obvious inability to “get through” to the other person. So we double our efforts, go even more “over the top” and experience even more disastrous results as people “switch off.” Unfortunately so often the effect of trying to persuade others to listen, or take some action as a result of something that has moved us or deeply affected us, is to cause them to back off. Whether this is the result of their being perverse, contrary, obstinate, inflexible, rude, jealous or just plain disinterested, is really immaterial; but it does seem that by and large it is not easy to enthuse others in this way.
What chance then do we have of sharing a “religious experience,” that moment in our life when we experience God in some very life-changing way? Much as Peter, James and John experienced at the Transfiguration. These are rare, precious, privileged moments of great grace. “Mountain top” experiences elevate and fill us with indescribable feelings of joy, love, happiness and elation, compared to which more earthly experiences like the Grand Canyon, pale into insignificance. We are walking on clouds, our feet never touch the ground, and we want to stay with the experience, and not leave the “mountain top,” like Peter who said, “It is good for us to be here.” That the experience is one of God draws us to want to share it with all those we know, and will probably lead us to change our way of living too. But what of those who live with us, who haven’t shared the experience? If it’s difficult to enthuse others about great natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, it is fairly predictable that people in general will not want to know too much about religious experiences. Added to which are other facets that can put people off. A religious experience by its very nature, will probably generate, in the one so privileged, a desire or even call, to tell everyone about it, as they will want others to come to know the Lord as they have, and in effect try to evangelise them. Observation however, shows that the reverse is more likely to happen, that people are mostly turned off by the enthusiasm and tend to avoid those who have had these experiences. There may also be in the listener, a false sense of guilt, or of being judged unworthy in some way because they have not had a similar experience, whether this is in the conscious or subconscious mind, and this too can cause estrangement for those who have had an experience.
Where does this leave us? It is a surprising and sad fact, that we learnt early in our ministry to married couples, that a religious experience in one partner (not experienced by the other partner), almost inevitably became divisive, often even driving husbands and wives apart, or splitting families. This could never be God’s plan of things, so what has happened? It would seem to be the reactions described above, which turn most people away; and if something positive is not done to curtail these, then the religious experience actually becomes destructive, because the Evil one certainly knows how to undermine what is good, in order that it becomes divisive. Some people of course fall to the sin of pride in this area, and actually consider themselves further along the spiritual journey because of what they have experienced, and may even point this out to their spouse, and say or imply they should do something about it. It goes without saying, that this is totally destructive, and will eventually split the marriage asunder unless there is repentance and healing in love.
It is essential, if we are to grow and mature from our religious experience, to evangelise and truly minister to others; that we must contain our emotions and feelings within the boundaries that are acceptable to those nearest and dearest to us. Earth our elation, in practical terms, as difficult as it may be. The results of not doing this, can not only damage our families, but the wider body of the Church; and I am sure we have all seen how some “Baptised in the Holy Spirit” in Charismatic Renewal, or those who have had experiences in Medjugorje have alienated other Christians by their overbearing and persistent approaches. These truly wonderful experiences, must be channelled into a new way of life in which Christ is truly central, then we can concentrate on being better Christians: a better husband or wife, a better father or mother, a better parishioner. Then others, especially our spouse and family will perceive a difference in us which is truly wonderful, and more importantly, acceptable; this will lead them to want to know more fully what has happened to us. This is perhaps the most powerful way of evangelising: when others see us as different, want to know why, and further want what we have! We could not do better than take Peter’s advice to heart, “Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander you when you are living a good life in Christ may he proved wrong in the accusations that they bring.” (1 Peter 3:15-16).