What do you make of religious experience – not religious ideas, religious morals, religious activities, but religious experience? Does it make you awkward, uncomfortable, even embarrassed? Many secular people find it to be so. Even many Christians avoid talking about it. To a degree, this is understandable. Religious experience can be very intimate and personal. It is not always something we want to hawk about and have discussed in public. It is after all a holy thing, and St Paul warned us not to throw holy things before the ignorant, the swinish, lest they be trampled underfoot. It can also be misused, like those Christians, and others, who sometimes tell us that unless we have their kind of religious experience – perhaps their kind of conversion or charismatic experience – then we are not Christians, or acceptable to God, at all. All that, as I say, is understandable. Yet, if it keeps us from religious experience, or reflecting on our religious experience, then it is a huge problem. For, as we see in today’s great story of Moses and the burning bush, religious experience is central to our Faith. Encountering the living God is not an embarrassing extra to life. It is at the heart of our being and our becoming. For, as Saint Augustine said, our hearts are ultimately restless until they find their rest in God...
What is your experience of God? When have you found God speaking to you, or simply present with you? It might have been in Church, but just as likely when you were elsewhere. It might have been in a special place, or, just as likely, in somewhere quite ordinary. It might have been an overwhelming experience, or, just as likely, something quite small, or specific. For God comes to us, as much in the ordinary things of life, and in small and particular moments, as in special and extraordinary ones. It may be in great joy, or in great sadness, perhaps even in the midst of great suffering or despair. We may even have given up on God altogether. Yet God is still there, longing for us and reaching out to us. Are we paying attention?
The story of Moses and the burning bush is a story of God breaking through to human beings through very ordinary things. Moses is not in a religious building . He finds himself, admittedly, drawn to Horeb, the mountain of God. Yet he is at work, minding sheep, and God speaks to him through an ordinary bush. Perhaps it is because Moses is not looking for God that God finds him. For, as Jesus suggests in our Gospel reading today, we have to let ourselves go so that God can come to us. We have to let go of the preoccupations of our life and die to them so that God can live in us. This was Moses’ experience and it is ours too, isn’t it? Isn’t it when we let go of ourselves, and all the preoccupations of our ego and restless self, that God can speak to us. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ says the psalmist. Be still, even when you are physically active like Moses, and know that you and I are standing on holy ground, God’s ground: that God is all around, among and within us, and, if we but knew it, the whole world is burning, shining with the love of God.
Do you believe that? Have you ever had that experience? It is often hard to believe it, to feel it, to know it, especially when we are preoccupied by the genuine sufferings of ourselves and our world. Yet it is real and I believe we can know it. For this is at the heart of Faith. One of the finest literary expressions of this core Faith experience is that by Thomas Merton (in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). Merton had for several years been a Trappist monk, but it was in the midst of a busy city centre that he had his greatest experience of God. Perhaps this resonates for you too?:
“In Louisville”, he wrote, “at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…
it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”
I can identify with that experience, as I can identify with Moses’ experience. For God, though often hidden to us, is always here among us. Are we paying attention and are we valuing these experiences properly? You know, for many years, I did not value religious experience properly, mine and that of others. I have come to see however that it is vital to our lives. For the central task of our lives, the greatest joy of our lives, is to let God live in us. As we do so, as we die to of our ordinary lives and preoccupations, so God lives more fully in us.
You and I live in very fortunate times. For our Church is reawakening, slowly, to the need to value our religious experience and to allow God to speak to us. That is why neglected forms of prayer, like contemplative prayer, healing prayer, quiet days, retreats and the labyrinth, have begun to flourish again in our world. That is why spiritual direction and accompaniment is growing. That is why all of us might take more time to speak with ‘soul friends’ about what God is saying to us, in the burning bushes and in the busy city streets, on the holy ground of our existence. In this is our liberation, and the source, as Moses found, of the liberation of the sufferings of our people.
Let us let go and let God, in Jesus’ name, Amen.