At this past Sunday’s Mass, I had a religious experience. Of course, every Mass is a religious experience objectively speaking, but I felt myself drawn in by a powerful sense of affection for Jesus Christ.
This was my first “religious experience” as a Catholic, and its character was much the same as other such encounters with Jesus throughout my life.
You see, my experience of becoming Catholic was very mundane. My Confirmation was a sacrament, and so a milestone, but subjectively it was just another step in a journey of at least a decade. Having been an Anglo-Catholic before entering into full communion with Rome, I had already experienced all the “flash” of beautiful liturgy. Indeed, by and large I experienced better liturgy.
Many who enter the Church have a different experience. For example, many have never gone to Confession before. For them, going is a religious experience. They speak of feeling like they’ve had a “shower for the soul.” As an Anglo-Catholic, I regularly went to Confession. Whatever the sacramental validity of that practice may or may not have been, I had the experience.
Both leading up to and since my conversion, I have had a mix of feelings, from excitement to fear, but until last Sunday there was nothing I would term a “religious experience.” Even last Sunday’s was mild compared to some of the religious ecstasy I felt during my charismatic youth.
But here’s the thing: none of this surprised me. As I said in my public declaration of my conversion – I became Catholic because I believe Catholicism is true. I became Catholic because of love for Jesus Christ and for the Church he founded. Emotions are a good part of how humans engage the world, but they are not themselves reasons for action. God can speak to us through our emotions, but so can a poorly digested meal.
If anything, the lack of ecstatic experience is further confirmation to me that I am on the right course. I am acting because of God’s love, not because Catholic religion is the latest thing to tickle my fancy.
True Catholic faith is like marriage. Your emotional engagement with your spouse will wax and wane, but you love her throughout it all. You pursue her in good times and in bad. Likewise, when we commit to Christian faith, we pledge to love and pursue God for better or for worse.
I firmly believe that God gives us emotional consolations to help us in our pursuit of him, but we have to learn to act not on the basis of those consolations, but on the basis of a deeper love for him. This is a hard thing to do, and I don’t speak as some expert at it. If anything, I am an expert at letting my emotions lead me about like a bit and bridle.
Nevertheless, I seek to grow in this, and I encourage you to do the same. If you are a newly confirmed Catholic, flush with the joy of the experience – cherish that as a gift from God and use it as fuel to grow, but do not base your life of faith upon it. Times will come when you feel God is far away, and far more times will come when everything just feels mundane. We need to learn to seek God in all states, building into our lives the disciplines that will help us when the consolations are absent.
But maybe you’re not in the honeymoon phase. Maybe you’re a new Catholic like me who, for one reason or another, didn’t have a “religious experience” upon entering the Church. Take comfort. You are acting out of conviction. God loves you, and he is with you. He will not leave you without consolation, but this stage of your journey is allowing God to build in you foundations firmer than consolations can grant.
Finally, if you’re someone who feels drawn to the Christian faith (or even into the Catholic Church) for one reason or another, don’t act solely on the changing tides of your excitement. Rather, pursue the one who is the source of all good things. Grow in knowledge of him and receive what comes as a gift from him. Use your excitement, but don’t be used by it.