Remembering your greatest spiritual experiences
March 6th, 2017
By Sister Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM
When you go to a spiritual director so you can grow closer to God more consciously, you may be asked about a “peak spiritual experience.” The director invites you to recall a time when you felt God’s presence unforgettably. For many parents, feeling overcome by transcendence happens when their first child is born. Some remember the well of courage when they got a cancer diagnosis, or when a spouse was dying—they felt convinced that God was with them, supporting them, and this peace has never left them. For some, recognizing a vocation to religious life, leaving a non-marriage, or stepping across a chasm of uncertainty in a career change–these moments can be accompanied by dramatic physical calm, clarity, freedom and joy. A person has no doubt this is God’s assurance, the way forward, and a good and holy decision.
Some surface a moment at Mass, Benediction, or saying the rosary. In the middle of an ordinary time of prayer, they feel overwhelmed with a sense of God’s love. Other people recall their view across the night sky, the ocean’s horizon or a desert expanse, feeling ecstatic, more fully alive than they’d ever felt before, like being utterly in love. Coma survivors report an “out of the body” floating-sensation, moving into a welcoming, serene light, before “coming back,” then knowing they hadn’t died after all, but now feel deep peace without fear of death.
I remember a striking insight of Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, noted New Testament scholar, one of my professors at the École Biblique, the French Dominican school of biblical studies and archeology in Jerusalem. We visited Mount Tabor, the traditional site in Galilee associated with the phrase, “He took them up a high mountain by themselves.”
Exegetical studies typically consider the Transfiguration a narrative about the disciples witnessing a mysterious, other-worldly encounter of Jesus with the Father. However, Father Jerry proposed that the Transfiguration was, most fundamentally, a restorative, bracing moment of spiritual renewal for Jesus himself at an anguished period in his ministerial life. The human Jesus had to have felt anxiety. He had to have been shaken by the political quicksand under Herod’s rule, and a looming personal threat at the imprisonment and beheading of his cousin John the Baptist. Where could he find the courage to continue if a similar fate awaited him, if his own name were on a death list?
Up on the mountain, the entire mood lifts. Light envelopes Jesus. He feels taken out of himself and drawn into a halo of holy presences–Moses and Elijah. They speak to him as family friends, timeless ancestors, lending him their centuries of strength and reliance on God. Moses also ascended a mountain, Sinai, and brought down God’s commandments, then went on to lead his followers forward. Elijah from Galilee, like Jesus, also endured political persecution, fled into the desert, was fed by a raven, found shelter with a poor woman, and restored her son to life. He was taken up into heaven.
The anxiety of Jesus gets subsumed into a grand vision of his mission. He is not alone. And then an overpowering, unmistakable consolation. He hears the Father’s voice:
“This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
When Jesus touches his disciples, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid,” he is passing on to them the divine reassurance that has just rejuvenated his heart and mind. They too can get up and go on, no matter what the future brings. This Sunday is a time to recall your own “transfiguration moments” and take courage.
Mercy Sister Eloise Rosenblatt is a Ph.D. theologian and an attorney in private practice in family law. She lives in San Jose.
From March 9, 2017 issue of Catholic San Francisco.