Arts and Culture

Experience of Relating to God

by Father Robert Lauder

Second in a series

In last week’s column, I tried to convey the excitement and enthusiasm that was part of my experience in reading Jesuit Father Gerald Fagin’s excellent essay “Are We Relating to God in a New Way?,” which originally appeared in the Review for Religious, 1993, pp. 817-827.

In that essay, Father Fagin contrasts the way that many Catholics related to God prior to the Second Vatican Council and how they are relating to God today. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would summarize the prior approach as centered on rules, regulations, the multiplication of devotions and conformity to a spiritual model of perfection – a one-size-fits-all approach. One of the big changes in the contemporary approach is an emphasis on experience.

This will probably seem strange, perhaps even unbelievable, but in my four years of studying theology in the major seminary in the 1950s, the word “experience” was used in class only once. I don’t think my memory is playing tricks on me. The occasion when the word was used was in a comment our dogmatic theology professor made about a new book, “The Christian Experience” by Jean Mouroux.

I recall that my professor said about Mouroux’s book that “At least he tries to explain what he means by ‘experience.’” Some day I might find it interesting to look at Mouroux’s book in the light of Father Fagin’s essay. Perhaps Mouroux was one of the first theologians to herald a change in our way of relating to God.

Discerning the Spirit

As Father Fagin points out, an underlying presupposition in the new approach is that God is at work in the individual soul and that this movement of the Spirit can be observed and discerned. As an example, Father Fagin offers the directed retreat. In a traditional, preached retreat, the focus is on a common teaching for reflection. The same material is prayed over by each retreatant. However, in a directed retreat, the focus is on the individual retreatant’s experience of God.

Stressing that underlying the shift in the contemporary approach to God is a different understanding of revelation, Father Fagin writes the following:

“Revelation is imaged not primarily as propositions to be affirmed but as God’s self-communication. Revelation is not first a series of statements about God and the human condition, but a series of experiences of God that reveal who God is and how God deals with us. Jesus is the fullness of God’s revelation so that our faith life is a response to someone rather than an assent to propositions. God’s self-revelation in Christ calls us to a new relationship with God. Experience, both individual and communal, precedes articulation: and our relationship with God begins in an experience of God that then finds words in doctrines and expression in rituals.”

I think the neglect of personal experience in the more traditional approach to God was due to the idea that experience was suspect. The fear might have been that emphasizing experience would be too subjective, too arbitrary or perhaps, too colored by emotion. I can understand the concern and of course, there can be a danger that someone misreads his or her experience. That is a danger not only in our relationship with God but also in our relationship with anyone. We often find out that our first impressions of people are not on target. Even with our closest friends, we can discover qualities about them that we had previously missed.

I think of experience as human presence to other. We can experience things such as furniture, buildings and nature. We can experience other human beings, and we can experience God. I think immediately of Pope Francis’ famous interview in which he pointed out that God is present in everyone’s life. If God is present in everyone’s life, I think it is safe to say that the Spirit communicates to us. That communication can take place in many ways. It can be through the beauties of nature, great art and other people. I believe that God can communicate to us while we are praying.

Probably each of us relates to God differently. What is most important is that God is relating to each of us.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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