Friday, May 23, 2008

The Undefinable Experience

I rarely write or speak about things of this nature, especially on my blog, but I thought this was an interesting line of thinking, so here it goes!

The other night, late after I got out of my evening college classes, I was on my way home when I started feeling a draw to pray. Now, of course, we can pray anywhere (as our Protestant friends always remind us!), but this was a different kind of prayer I was feeling the need of, something that was not best suited for the car ride home. I thought of stopping in a Church, though it was late. As I work for a Church, I can unlock it and enter anytime I please to come before the Sacrament. But for some reason, I decided on the wilderness instead as the most fitting place for my prayers.

So, I drove way out of my way out into some backroads that I knew as a youth. It was about 10:30 PM and rain was coming down, though not too hard. I came to an isolated location near the entrance to a vast tract of state land, covered by massive, hulking pines. Across the country road from where I parked lay nothing but miles upon miles of desolate field, some of it turned up for sowing beans, most of it short grass for what had once been grazing land. It had once belonged to a local farmer but was now owned by some far-off corporation that rarely ever came there. The barbed wire fence that used to keep the cows in was broken down, and I easily passed from the road into the fields.

These fields were truly immense, the kind you can get lost in, if it is possible to get lost in a wide open space. The sky was dark and overcast, and rain was sprinkling down upon me. I walked and walked, further from the road, until I was truly immersed in the wilderness, where the sounds of the road grew faint and the large pines of the state land were only a dark ridge far behind me. Before me was nothing but endless tracts of barren field, devoid of even one small bush or stump and consisting entirely in hill after hill of endless, short grass. The sky was very dark, and the ground in turn was dark and unlit by moon or star, so that the darkness of sky and earth seemed to melt into one vast darkness which I was trying desperately to lose myself in. For the first time in a long time, I was simply able to marvel at Creation: not this or that aspect of Creation, but Creation as such, the fact that anything at all existed and that I existed in the midst of it, yet distinct from it. I held my hands aloft and looked at them against the backdrop of the impersonal, bleak sky and marvelled.

I often come to desolate places like this when I really want to pray from the depths of my being. Not that there is anything wrong with praying before the Blessed Sacrament; far be it from me to assert such a thing! But the wilderness is appropriate for certain types of prayer, as many saints of the Scriptures and other saints right up to our own time attest. Being alone out there helps cut through the illusions of modernity and brings you face to face with the reality of God and your own soul. It helps you come to the realization, as C.S. Lewis put it, that every man is really alone with God. Also, when I pray like this, I often like to yell, cry out, bang my fists on the ground, prostrate myself in tears and do things that would otherwise get some angry looks from the veil-covered women in the Church adoring the Sacrament.

When I came to a place where everywhere I looked was darkness, I protsrated myself on the ground and prayed with many tears and supplications. I need not mention the substance of my prayers, for I wish to write about the experience only. How often, in our fake, comfort-seeking entertainment oriented culture we are stopped from having any real experience at all! Experience of what? Sure, we experience lots of sensual stimulation, but the sense stimulation so often blocks out everything else. I tore my jacket off, leaving me in just my T-Shirt, and it was a joy to feel the stinging cold rain of a Spring's night in Michigan pelt me. The wind was frigid as well, and I felt a genuine physical discomfort, but in a deeper way, it was comforting, because it had been a long while since I'd felt any intense joy or pain. Like so many others, I'd been existing in a state of constant numbness, an emotional comatose brought on by the world in which we live and from which it is a struggle to loose oneself.

This discomfort of the rain was quickly overcome by a great interior consolation as I cried out to my God, begging Him to make Himself more real to me than my own life. I adored Him for being Who He was and asked Him for many graces that I urgently needed. Several times I got up, only to collapse to the ground again in sobs, at once petitioning, adoring, repenting and thanking, as if every form of prayer came together in one great cry from the depths of my being. I knew not what else to do, so I raised my hands to the sky and simply yelled and cried out.

Them something happened. A great silence. The wind or the rain did not stop; they actually intensified. But all the turmoil of my soul seemed to cease, and there was a great silence, a silence very thick and intense. A substantial silence. I know that grace is something that is altogether outside of the realms of sense experience and not subject to feeling or knowing, but I will say that I seemed to "feel" the grace of God come over me, or at least it was a consolation that perhaps accompanied the grace. I felt perfect stillness and harmony within my being, as if the whole world was at rest, beginning with my own soul. I had a clarity of thinking and a depth of perception that I rarely enjoy and the whole world and God Himself seemed vibrantly present to me immediately. I knelt in awe, looking out at everything and nothing in particular and simply received it, feeling like Adam looking upon the world at his first moment of waking. This persisted for five minutes or so, until by and by it passed away, and I became again part of this world, and I knew the time had come to get up and leave.

I reluctantly trudged back to my car, looking behind me often as I went, gazing at those bleak fields where, with no one in the world knowing what I was doing or caring, I had bared my soul to God and He had responded.

My wife was quite concerned when I came home, almost an hour and a half late (near midnight), covered in mud, wet and chilled to the bone. "What happened to you!?" she inquired. I was still basking in the afterglow of the experience and unable to quite put it into words, so I simply mumbled, "I was out in a field." She accepted this answer and let me alone; she has gotten quite used to this type of strange behavior from me over the seven years of our marriage, and no doubt this will not be the last time!

How do we account for such experiences? Where do we put them in the scheme of things? They are very unique because, on the one hand, almost everybody who is a serious Catholic has had some comparable experience in their life, sometimes more than once, often in varying circumstances. These experiences often give us the grace and impetus to carry on in an otherwise wearisome labor, or the power to overcome some persistent fault. In fact, I can trace the course of my entire Christian life to one such experience I had ten years ago. Had it not been for that one experience when I was 19, I perhaps would not have come to Christ. Only God knows.

Many great saints begun their work with such experiences of conversion: St. Augustine being the most famous, but also St. Francis and St. Anthony of Egypt (in his moment of clarity when he heard the Gospel about giving away your possessions) as well as a host of others. They are obviously very important factors in our own spiritual lives and in the life and history of the Church as a whole.

On the other hand, because these experiences are so individualized and "private," theology can really say nothing about them, other than to document that they exist (as many mystics have) and to lay down some general rules for how to work with them. But other than that, not much can be said of these intense and universal, yet profoundly private experiences.

This is especially interesting when it comes to proving the existence of God. If you look in any text on proofs for God's existence, you will invariably see St. Thomas' five proofs, perhaps the argument of St. Anselm, some proofs made famous by C.S. Lewis and many others. But you will not find a "proof from personal experience," and rightly so, for since it is "personal," we cannot expect it to apply to or convince all men. But yet, if you talk to serious Catholics or anyone who has converted from atheism or agnosticism, most will almost certainly tell you of some experience that gave them the initial push, some way in which God tore open the curtains of their meager little world and made Himself known to them.

That is what happened to me. I was minding my own business, living in sin and ignoring God, when I had an experience at age 19, where God "came down" and made His reality known to me with such power and glory that it was seemingly impossible for my intellect or will to deny His reality any longer. That set me moving, and I gradually grew in faith and knowledge, and then proceeded to get book-smart and learn about all the other "logical" ways to prove God's existence, not often thinking that the only reason I was even interested in "proving" God's existence is because God had proven Himself to me in a way that could never be commuincated to another. It was a revelation in my own language, so to speak, for me alone in that one place in time. Many, many people I know came to God through similar experiences, though I by no means claim this as universal.

Well, in the end, the experience must remain beyond the boundaries of explanation. I can try to tell you what happened, sure; but it falls terribly short. I do not look for these times, but take them as they come and thank God for them, because they are as refreshing to my soul as lembas bread and miruvor on a long and weary journey.

Here's some pics of the field I mentioned, though taken during the day, and the actual place I talked about was far off in the distance, far beyond the trees, so far off in fact that the trees were but tiny specks from where I stood. These pictures were taken from the road of this spot which will ever-after be dear to me:

1 comment:

Kate said...

My dear Cardinal Newman opened his Grammar of Assent, his great treatise on faith, with this quote from St. Ambrose: "Non in dialecticâ complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum." I find this comforting. If my Faith relied on the shaky structure of proofs and theological speculations I'd be a lost soul. Fortunately all those words but delineate the visible edges of something - someOne greater and more solid, and mt Faith rests on those graced glimmers of the same.

God makes Himself known to us. What more is there to say than that?