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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Authentic God Experience

I make no secret that I'm a huge fan of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, contemplative, and mystic. And one thing Rohr talks about often is "authentic God experience." I recently spoke to a local youth group on the topic and as I was preparing that talk I realized Scripture is full of authentic God experiences. That's almost the whole thing!

I think we can define that term with various languages - "touching heaven", "Divine Union," "understanding Reality," "the kingdom," etc. But the important thing to say is that these are moments, maybe many or maybe only a few in your lifetime, when you encounter  God in a way that deeply unseats you and your false self. That's the best way I can describe it today. And we have examples of this in Scripture.

Moses and the burning bush is one of the most timeless. Here was someone running from his past, from guilt, living in his false self, (and not possessing a mature faith in God by the way) who nevertheless encountered God and came away an utterly changed person. God spoke to Moses' inmost being and completely converted his consciousness through the burning bush. And it's partly so inspiring because Moses' religious tradition and language in no way prepared him for his own experience of God. But he trusted it anyway! How many of us are prepared to trust an experience of God if it clashes with our religious parameters or allegiances?

Figures like Hannah have completely different authentic God experiences, at least visibly. Hannah wants a child partly as a way of not being shamed but also because it happens to be her heart's desire. Eventually she conceives. She knows that this is God and you can sense her joy when reading her story. How many of her peers would've believed that she was touched by God at that moment? How many people would think that God would take the form of an everyday pregnancy or a plant on fire?

And that's the point of the experience: it's for you. It has four qualities in my mind: it's Valid, Unique, Trustworthy, and Converting.

Valid because it's God initiating these. Having a moment where you realize, experientially, something of who God is is just so life-giving. All of a sudden you know that God is real and it's a beautiful world and God's in it and you're in it and God really is Love and what joy truly means and that it's a benevolent universe. You just know that you know that you know, and no one cane take it away from you.

These experiences are unique because they never look the same for two people. This is part of the beauty of being created uniquely by a Loving God. No one else can fully interpret the meaning of your authentic God experience - only you can fully realize that. These experiences are trustworthy, even when others doubt God's hand in it. If it's real, you'll know it. And authentic God experiences are conversion experiences because you walk away fundamentally changed. We're not talking about changing your religious creed here. We're talking about changing your perception.

Like Saul, you're shown something greater that converts you to a new mindset (even to a new, literal identity as "Paul"). And by virtue of being shown something so great, you see how dim the false things really are. You see reality - existence as it truly is.

We can't manufacture these experiences. Like grace, you just have to fall into it. It's a gift. But these gifted moments will feel as if they propel you toward a new mindset, a new understanding, and toward a new trust.

This was one of my less coherent posts, partly because I'm still exploring the concept and partly because I'm at a loss for words to convey my own experience. For that, I apologize. But please leave a comment with your thoughts or your own experience.


  1. Sam, I don't think this post is incoherent because you (or anyone) isn't clear on what these experiences are. I think any description of them comes out that way because in addition to being valid and transformative, they're also ineffable! Half the miracle of the Bible is that the authors found ways to put their experiences into words... it's no easy task.

    And yes, there's something attractive about that. Isn't that what mysticism is all about? Experiencing God and being left utterly wordless? There are moments when God is simply present, and those moments can't be quantified... not because they are devoid of meaning, but because they are actually TOO FULL of it. Describing them with feeble language seems to dishonor that immensity of Truth.

    I remember once when I was on the shore of Manitou Island after the Perseids in 2007. There was nothing separating me from depths of water and space, and I knew that God was there in a complete and intimate way. I knew I could ask Him anything and he would answer me completely. His answers were singular, and can't be put into words. They are beyond language.

    1. Well said. Yes, I completely agree - there is something utterly futile about Adequately describing God but not in attempting to do it. I shouldn't be so apologetic.

      That sounds like an authentic God experience to me! I appreciate your perspective. On that note I'll be looking for a guest post on here every once in a while, the first being sometime this spring. Maybe you would be interested in doing one? Something for you to think about.

    2. Of course, I'd love to do that. I really appreciate your posts... it takes gumption to tackle the concepts you do, and I always find myself feeling thankful for having read your thoughts.

    3. Wonderful to hear! And a definite morale boost to boot! I'll probably contact you next month about the guest post. Thanks in advance!

  2. Sam, I've been thinking about this post all week. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I was just about to tell you not to apologize for anything about it, but it looks like Philip beat me to the punch. I took an entire graduate seminar about the challenge of representing our encounters with divinity because: 1) they are so ineffable that we can hardly begin to comprehend them, so 2) it is even harder to find appropriate language to communicate that which has been so intimate, so sacred, and which by nature stands outside of our representative capacities. Language mediates everything we do (and quite frankly, I often delight in this because I love language). But God can speak to us in other ways, unmediated. They are feelings, maybe, or presences. Confirmations. Blessings. However it comes to you, it comes with the Spirit as conduit. It's no wonder and no coincidence that we can't adequately describe those experiences later. The Spirit is the only one who can do that. My own sacred experiences are so precious to me (and yet so hard to define) that even when I go to write them in my journal or tell them to a trusted friend, the words and the explanations fall short. Sometimes there is really only "Hallelujah" to be said.

    But I do think it's worth it to keep trying to express these authentic God experiences (and I love that phrase, by the way) with humility and grace. That's part of the beauty and challenge of witnessing. We've seen something so holy... now what? We let it change us. We share, or we try to. And this is where I think poetry, music, and art of all kinds comes in to honor those tender moments and divine encounters. It's not about explaining them away; it's about inviting others to have a similar experience by giving them the brightest, holiest things we have to offer. And those, of course, are gifts from God too.

    I haven't quite figured this out. But that's okay. Sometimes it's enough to see a sunset, to feel the warmth of brimming tears, to be still, and to know that He's there. (Psalm 46:10)

    1. "We've seen something so what?" Exactly. What a perfect way to say it. And I think it goes beyond authentic God experiences too. Long before I comprehended those experiences for myself I had an intellectual draw to God, to Truth. Even then I thought, "I've found something what? How can I share this?" This blog is really a sort of passing on of the great things that I've received as gifts - usually from much wiser and more mature thinkers. "We let it change us. We share, or we try to." My way is stuck (for better or worse) with this blog right now and with occasional conversations. I appreciate that yours is often with poetry and beautiful expressions. Thanks for the encouragement, and I really appreciate your unique perspective and gifts, including the above beautiful explanation.