Adrian Warnock has blogged about Spiritual Experiences and how we don’t like to talk about it. He is right, one of things I discovered once I had been ordained was how many people have spiritual experiences and don’t talk about them except very occasionally to a priest. Sometimes not even their priest but to a random minister!
On the one hand we feel nervous about seeming a little bit off the wall to our peers, and on the other hand we are cautious of making experience the centre rather than Christ. For the pastorally minded we can also be cautious as we recognise that not everyone has spiritual experiences in an emotionally affecting way. Much of what we describe as spiritual experience is as much the emotional or human response to God as the direct action of God - the image of wind and waves comes to mind.
We must also be broad in our understanding of spiritual experience, and I have no doubt that for many, myself included, the work of theology, preaching and the sacraments are spiritual experience. Reading the scriptures, the apostolic fathers or the liturgy centres and grounds us in the Spirit of God.
But I admit that my faith is enriched by spiritual experiences, in worship, in study, in service, in relationships. In recent years as I have embraced the idea of spiritual experience without centring on them they have deepened and broadened. The experience I want to share is a follow on from that explored in my post – The Table Church.
This year on Maundy Thursday I watched with the sacrament as I do every year. There was no easy peace – I find sitting for long periods uncomfortable and silence leads to my mind wandering. I read, I reflected, I prayed, an act of will and spiritual discipline rather than one of ecstatic devotion. Finally the church bell tolled midnight. The church I had kept the watch in did not have a garden, so I had decorated the side altar with palm fronds used on the previous Sunday. As a gathered them from the altar, clearing the church for the bareness of Good Friday I turned and through the leaves I saw Him.
It was only a glimpse for a moment, as if I had been at the back of the crowd at Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.
As if I had been running from the garden at Jesus’ arrest and turned back for one last look at my Lord.
But He was there for a moment as surely as he was in the bread and wine of the altar. With the glimpse followed a deep sense of Christ’s love, tinged with the sadness and self-sacrifice of Holy Week. Different from the centeredness of offering the eucharist , or the lift of raised hands in worship. Deeper, reflective, still.
Perhaps I was tired, perhaps I was in a heightened state of expectation, but it sustained me through the busyness of the following days and was completely unexpected.
And I am left with the word, the reminder, that in the Garden we would have behaved no differently than the disciples, we too would have given up Jesus to be crucified for us and His response is a free offering of His love.