When a man and woman first fall in love, they cannot get enough of each other. As often as possible, they spend time together. In their conversations, they want to learn everything about each other. As trust grows, little by little they reveal different facets of their personality. They become increasingly comfortable being themselves as they learn to accept one another.
As time goes on, the deeply felt emotional moments begin to fade and the near ecstatic experiences of love become fewer and fewer. If the couple marries, the glow of romance gives way to the demands of everyday life - maintaining a household, earning a living and raising children. Though the feelings might not seem as intense, the love itself does not go away. Rather it is growing stronger as it grounds itself not just in emotion but in a total, lifelong commitment.
The same is true with our spiritual lives. As we fall in love with Jesus, we want to spend increasingly more time with Him in prayer. We pour over the Bible and other books trying to learn as much as we can about our Savior. At Mass or at adoration, we experience intensely deep emotions, even breaking down into tears as our Heavenly Father’s love becomes more and more real to us.
However, with time, those emotional highs become fewer and fewer. We experience dryness in our prayer and often find it a chore rather than a joy. If we are involved in the Church, we may begin to wonder if our efforts are making any difference. We may doubt that we are making any progress in the spiritual life at all. However, like a married couple, our faith is growing deeper and basing itself not on emotions but on a real commitment to Jesus, His word and His Church.
Today’s readings offer us stories about intense spiritual experiences and the hardships that followed them. .
In the first reading, we hear the call of Abram. In a mystical vision, God reveals Himself to the man who would be the father of the Israelite people. God promises to make Abram the father of a great nation, though he is an old man. No doubt, this spiritual experience was very intense for Abram. However, it came with a condition. He had to leave his ancestral land to travel to a far off place where God’s promise would be fulfilled.
This mystical experience, then, was followed by many years of traveling. He and his wife, Sarah, endured many hardships making their way from Ur to Canaan. They suffered famine, witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and dealt with all the dangers involved in traveling in the ancient Near East. We also know how much God tested Abram’s faith, especially when He asked Him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. There must have been many times when Abram wondered whether he had done the right thing in leaving his homeland and he must have been tempted to go back. However, the mystical experience of God and His promise gave him the strength to continue. Through it all, Abram trusted in God’s promise. He did not always have intense mystical visions but, nonetheless, he remained faithful to God in his everyday life.
The second example comes from the gospel account of the Transfiguration.
Jesus invites Peter, James and John to join Him in prayer on Mount Tabor. It is an invitation they had probably accepted numerous times as they followed Jesus. However, this time would be different. Jesus is transfigured before them, Elijah and Moses appear, and the voice of God is heard booming from a bright cloud which overshadowed them. In the intensity of the experience, they fall to the ground, trembling with fear. In a privileged moment, they witness Jesus in all His glory as the Son of God. However, just as soon as it begins, it is over. In a short while, they are walking down the mountain with Jesus who is telling them to keep the mystical experience to themselves.
By showing Peter, James and John the mystical vision of His glory, Jesus was strengthening them for the hardships that would follow. Once they left the mountain, they would be traveling to Jerusalem where Jesus would be put to death. The disciples would have their faith tested as Jesus was arrested, dragged through the streets and finally put to death. They would wonder whether they had made a mistake in believing in Him and following Him. By showing them His glory, Jesus hoped to encourage them in their faith, to help them believe that He was in control and that He really would rise again in three days as He promised.
Unlike Abram and the disciples, few of us have been blessed with intense mystical experiences. However, most of us have sensed God’s presence in a particularly tender way at one time or another. We may have been overcome with a feeling of His care. In our prayer, we may try to recapture such moments, trying to recreate the experience which gave us so much consolation and peace. However, those experiences are a gift. God gives them to us when we need them. There is no way to repeat them. We have to simply wait until our Heavenly Father feels it is time to grant them to us again.
At the same time, we should not be looking for such intense experiences. They should not be the goal of our prayer. We should be thankful when they do come, but we should also remember why God gives them to us. He gives them to strengthen us in times of temptation, to encourage us in time of hardship and to remind us of His love when we are feeling abandoned or overwhelmed.
As we enter another week of Lent, we recommit ourselves to the sacrifices we have promised to undertake. They too will strengthen us to face temptation. When we begin to feel weak, when it seems that we cannot go on, when we are tempted to abandon it all, that is when we should call to mind all the gifts which our Heavenly Father has bestowed on us. Also, we should be quick to share with others the joy and consolation we have experienced in prayer and in good works. Our God stands with us, ready to give us what we need on our journey to everlasting life.