Poet T. S. Eliot famously observed, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” All practicing Christians have had experiences of the Spirit. Most Christians in traditional churches weren’t taught the meaning.
Eliot was referring to the “sudden illumination” of meaning beyond temporary circumstances, deep meaning across generations. Christians have moments of sudden illumination of a reality beyond themselves. When those moments reflect God’s love and grace in Christ, that is the Holy Spirit working on them.
“Experiences” don’t lend themselves to the colorless propositions of truth told in doctrinal language or in behavioral “scientific” descriptions. Experiences of the Spirit are best shared by poets and storytellers.
John Shea is a storyteller and theologian. In his book An Experience Named Spirit, he offers what I think are the best categories for types of religious experiences: 1) mystery experiences that stress expanded consciousness, 2) conversion experiences, which stress change of mind, heart and behavior, and 3) revelatory experiences, which stress the communication of a message.
His book is very challenging for me because he mostly just tells stories. I am looking for greater truths and generalizations. But that is his point. Storytelling has a power of involvement and appreciation that the mere noting of patterns or talking about experiences analytically does not have.”
Another theologian and storyteller I admire is Episcopalian Robert Capon. He offers the analogy of building a porch entrance into a house. Most of traditional theology consists of constructing ever more elaborate porches to ensure the safety of those entering. But we don’t talk much about what actually happens within the house, where we can and should experience an affirming, more life-involving relationship with God that draws us closer through his love and grace.
Of Shea’s three “categories” of where to look for religious experiences, I will touch on mystery stories here and conversion and revelatory experiences later.
Great mysteries remain in modern life. Where did humans come from, why is space endless, why is human life sacred, why is death inevitable, what happens to a person after physical death? It seems that the more we know about the brain, DNA and the atom, the less we know for sure about life forms we can observe. In the 21st century, I see greater openness to the supernatural in our culture. Encountering mysteries humbles us.
Christians can tell stories of special encounters with mysteries like these and how they felt. Christians annually encounter the mysteries of how God could become flesh at Christmas, of how God could die on Good Friday and then of what this new life is that we celebrate at Easter. Every believer has a story to tell about special feelings they experienced in one of these celebrations, perhaps only days after losing a spouse.
So share your story of encountering familiar biblical mysteries in the church year. Our church staff contributed to an Advent booklet of personal memories of Christmas past. It is widely read. Believers can even share with others great stories of joy in funeral celebrations of the life of a firm believer who has now entered eternity.
In spring 2019, the wooden roof of the ancient Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burned. Huge Gothic cathedrals usually deliver an experience of awe at their great height and beautiful windows. Millions want to restore this awe-inspiring architectural treasure. Does that mean the Spirit is working in them? Today, probably not. That would only be true for those who associate it with Christ-centered worship. Jesus taught that where two or three (or 100, or 5,000) are gathered in my name, there am I among them in my Spirit.
If you want to have a Spiritual experience worth sharing, go worship some Sunday at a great Gothic Cathedral. The two best in this country are in Washington D.C. and Manhattan. Imagine how much more powerful the experience was years ago when thousands of others added their presence and voice.