Thursday, December 08, 2005

Are you experienced?

If you can just get your mind together
Then come on across to me
We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise
From the bottom of the sea
But first, are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have
---Jimi Hendrix, “Are You Experienced?”

When I was growing up we were Catholic, at least nominally so. I can remember getting ready for Mass on numerous mornings, and even at eight, nine, ten years of age I approached the Holy Sacrifice in an attitude of prayer. “Oh God, Thou who hast created all things, whose mighty hand and outstretched arm set the stars in the sky and created dry land where no land appeared before, please, I beseech Thee, put sugar in the gas tank so the car won’t start and I can stay home.” Yep, I was a regular Praying Hyde there :) I thought Mass was boring. I couldn’t stand it. Until… I was 14 years old and I went on my very first religious retreat. It was called a F.I.R.E. retreat, the meaning of the acronym escaping my memory at the moment, and it had its roots in the Marriage Encounter movement. Obviously kids and teens wouldn’t be attending Marriage Encounter retreats anytime soon, so this was a way of reaching out to them.

I signed up for this retreat at my parents urging. I don’t know if I had good or bad feelings about it, but my parents had gone to the Marriage Encounter weekend the year prior and they were as giddy as a high school cheerleader who just got asked to the prom by the quarterback, so their enthusiasm spilled over and I decided to go. What the heck. Might even be able to pick up a girl there.

The weekend ended up being a pivotal moment in my spiritual life. There were two things about it in particular that have stuck in my mind to this day. One was a guy named Ted Thiry. I’ve written about him before. Ted, if you are out there, if you or somebody you know finds this blog by Googling your name, I want you to know that you had a big impact on me. Ted was the very first bonafide Jesus Freak that I ever met. He even had the look- 70’s style long hair and a Resurrection Band t-shirt. When we passed around notebooks yearbook-style at the end of the weekend to get everyone’s signature he wrote “Jesus Saves!” in big letters on mine. He was a walking, talking, living, breathing commercial for Jesus Christ. And that was attractive to me. His enthusiasm was contagious. I wanted to be around him. He wasn’t just talking about the Lord, he wasn’t spitting out catechism phrases by rote, it meant something to him.

The other part of the weekend that made an impression on me was the Saturday night Mass. After spending the better part of two days talking with each other encounter-group style, with laughter and tears and plenty of hugs, we shared the liturgy together. And I will swear to my dying day that the liturgy is most meaningful when you attend with people you’ve formed a bond with. It was certainly meaningful to me, perhaps the first time that I ever encountered the Mass as my own person as opposed to being an attachment of my parents. It was this experience that caused me to think about the claims of God the Son on my own, apart from the way I was raised.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing
That's how it is with God's Love
Once you've experienced it
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on
---Kurt Kaiser, “Pass It On”

Bible camp attendees nationwide have roasted their marshmallows and confessed their sins to the strains of this Kurt Kaiser classic without pondering the deeper meaning. The more cerebral among us would argue that you don’t have to experience God’s love to pass it on, that it’s all a matter of obeying Christ’s commands. He said preach the gospel to every creature (or in the New Living Campfire version, “pass it on”), so it doesn’t really matter if I want to pass it on- Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it. “Love is not a feeling it’s an act of the will”, as Don Francisco sang. End of discussion.

But that isn’t the end of discussion. When God created us he didn’t create us merely as cerebral beings. We are not just walking brains. If anyone thinks that they can comprehend by reason alone the majesty and wonder that is Almighty God, then they are sadly mistaken. Yet that’s the attitude I encounter among people who, in their zeal to distance themselves from those whose excessive religious experiences make them uncomfortable, deny the place of experience entirely.

Experience is woven into the fabric of our lives. God created us with tongues, He created us with noses, he created us with ears and eyes and every other part of the body that encounters the world and those who reside in it. Certain sounds are pleasant to the ear. Certain things are pleasing to the eye. Prime rib is delicious. Beets are not. Roses have a specific pleasant smell. Human waste has a specific unpleasant smell. Except for mine :)

Catholic moral theologians are quick to remind us that the primary purpose for sexual relations is procreation. Maybe so. But woven within the act are feelings of pleasure. It is not purely functional. If someone doesn’t receive pleasure during the act one time, OK, maybe next time. If someone never receives pleasure during the act, that person is considered to have a problem and is referred to either Rafael Palmeiro-shilled pharmaceuticals or a program on the Lifetime channel. The lack of pleasure during sex isn’t considered to be a normal state of affairs. (Pardon the pun.)

Why is it then, that when it comes to our spiritual lives, we deny the God who gave us experience? I don’t deny that some people go overboard. I know that we can’t live on a constant stream of spiritual highs. But aren’t we allowed to feel the presence of the Lord sometimes? Are we only supposed to talk about God’s love, or can we feel it as well?

Back in the 90’s, when the Toronto Blessing was at its peak, the news emanating from that little church at the end of an airport runway polarized people. On one hand you had people who said that this was absolutely not a move of God; it might even be the hand of the devil at work. On the other hand was the crowd that said that God is doing a new thing; we needed to give God back his church, jump in the river, soak, do carpet time, etc, etc. I don’t think that either side had a very good grasp of modern church history and the fate of “movements”; if they did, they would see that this too would pass. Movements flame on and flame out; personality-led movements usually fade with the death of the personality. I didn’t feel like I needed to take a side. “By their fruit you shall know them.” We don't always have to have an opinion on another person's experience of the Almighty. Sometimes we can just shut our piehole. You know what they say about opinions, right? They're like... err... "orifices". Everybody has one and they all stink.

Speaking of flaming out, I’m doing just that. See you tomorrow.


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