“Have any of you ever had a religious experience?” the teacher asked the class.
Confused, the children looked at each other wondering what she could have meant. Seeing their reaction, the teacher asked again, “Have any of you ever had a religious experience?”
Again, all she received was blank stares. So she went on to explain. “Having a religious experience does not just mean seeing visions or hearing heavenly voices. We also have a religious experience when we pray, when we receive Communion or when we feel a sense of God’s closeness to us.”
So she asked the class again, “Have any of you ever had a religious experience?” This time every hand shot up.
When we hear the words, “religious experience” do we think it means only having Mary appear to us or having a so-called “out of body” experience? Or do we understand, as the teacher tried to explain to the students, that whenever we approach God with humble faith and seek Him out with sincerity we have a religious experience? Most especially, do we understand that whenever we receive a sacrament whether it be Baptism, Communion or the Sacrament of Penance we are having a real encounter with the living God?
We have all experienced moments when we have felt especially close to God, moments when we really felt His presence in a way that filled us with peace and joy. We did not see a vision or hear a voice, but we knew in our hearts that God was really there by our side. There are other times when we knew God was directing us whether by putting an idea into our minds or bringing new clarity to our thinking. These are also religious experiences, real encounters with our Heavenly Father.
However, it is natural for us to ask, is what I am experiencing really God or are they just figments of my imagination? Is it really God’s voice I am hearing or is it wishful thinking to believe that I have been in His presence?
Today’s readings can help us to understand how we can answer those questions. Both Isaiah and Peter have real, life-changing religious experiences in the first reading and in the gospel. Though they are very different in terms of the way God appeared to both of them, they have some similarities that are important for us to understand if we are to come to a knowledge of God’s real presence in our lives.
First of all, a real encounter with God produces awe. When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple and angels crying out, his first instinct is to feel ashamed. Saint Peter too when he witnesses the miraculous catch of fish falls to his knees at the feet of Jesus. They realize that they are witnessing something that is literally “out of this world” and it gives them the sense of just how little they are. In the light of God’s holiness and glory, they feel acutely just how sinful they are.
Saint John of the Cross explained this phenomenon using the example of a pane of glass. When it is dark outside, a window looks clear. However, when the sun rises and light streams through the window, we start to see its imperfections. We see smudges, fingerprints and dust that are hidden when it is nighttime. Just so, when we start to turn to God, all our imperfections and sins become clearer to us in the light of His truth and goodness.
Therefore, any real encounter with God should give us not only an appreciation for His glory but a sober realization that we are small and sinful people. So if our religious practices, our attendance at Mass or our contributions to the parish are filling us with pride or if they are leading us to judge others who are not appearing to contribute as much then they are not real encounters with Jesus. On the other hand, if our prayer is leading us to a new understanding of our weakness, if our reading of Scripture points out for us where in our lives we need the grace of conversion, and if a real desire is welling within our hearts to live as Jesus lived, then we can be sure that it is God’s voice we have heard and His presence we have felt.
Finally, a real religious experience should leave us with a sense of mission, with something that we need to do to serve our Heavenly Father. In the first reading, Isaiah hears God call out from the throne, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’. Isaiah readily responds, “Here I am. Send me!” In the gospel, Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid, that now he would be a fisher of men. The same is true for so many saints down the ages. Their religious experiences left them with a desire to serve others. When Saint Francis has the vision of Jesus on the cross, he hears him say, “Go, rebuild my church.” When Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta makes her private vow to never say no to Jesus, she receives the call to serve the poorest of the poor.
The same should be true of us. When we truly experience the presence of God, it makes us want to serve Him. Just as not every religious experience is as dramatic as the ones Isaiah and Saint Peter encountered, so every call to serve God is not as radical as those received by Saint Francis and Blessed Mother Teresa. For most us all, it will be a simple mission to love others, to pray or to forgive. It may be an idea that pops into our head about a way we can put our talents to God’s service. Or it could be a desire to join a parish or diocesan ministry. Whatever it may be, if it is really our Heavenly Father whom we are experiencing, it will result in some concrete action.
God is seeking all of us out. He wants us to be assured of His love and to commit ourselves to living our baptism by serving others. We need only give Him some quiet time every day so that He can reveal Himself to us. If in that time we have a deeper sense of His glory, a humbler opinion of ourselves and a hunger to meet the needs of our neighbors, we know that we have been touched by Him and can never be the same.