In one of his letters Thomas Merton writes about moments of personal breakthrough in this way:
‘I can say as a Christian, and an existentialist Christian, that I have often experienced the fact that the ‘moment of truth’ in the Christian context is the encounter with the inscrutable word of God, the personal and living interpretation of the word of God when it is lived, when it breaks through by surprise into our own completely contemporary and personal existence. And this means of course that it breaks through conventional religious routines and even seems in some ways quite scandalous in terms of the average and accepted interpretation of what religion ought to be.’
Here Merton is talking about the person centred nature of religious belief…If our relationship with God is to have any meaning then it will be deeply private and personal. Indeed, it can be difficult, even for Merton, when trying to explain either epiphanies or private moments of awareness, although he does it much better than almost anyone else that I’ve read.
Always the arrival of the word of God in our lives takes us by surprise, God often relates to us well outside the expected framework and often far from ritual. Indeed sometimes the established framework gets in the way and obscures what is happening. It was Martin Buber who said that ‘Nothing is apt to mask the face of God so much as religion.’
What is so helpful about Merton’s writing quoted above is that he emphasises how the experience of the word of God arrives utterly within our contemporary lives and to us personally. And yet how often is this discussed or given sufficient space within organised religion… Sometimes personal experiences are a bit frowned on or seen as fanciful or as belonging to those who are emotionally unstable. There is a fear that they remove control from the institution or those who hold fast to it, and yet there are many experiences both from lay and religious lives that clearly describe the process.
A bit like in counselling or psychotherapy the personal experiences can be held within a framework and there is some security within this and a way to interpret what may be happening to us. There is a fascinating account in the current Fairacres Chronicle [the Journal of the Sisters of the Love of God at the Convent of the Incarnation, Oxford] which describes a contemporary conversion. Dealing with a family problem the woman who writes the account describes lying awake in a state of fury and resentment about what was happening. Everything had been tried when it occurred to her that some people might suggest prayer. As a non-believer she recoiled from this, but in the end did say a prayer and then forgot all about it. Ten days later she heard a voice in the night which told her to turn on the radio; the voice repeated the command and seeing there was no one there – it was 2.0 a.m. she felt both curious and afraid and switching on the radio heard a poem and a song exactly on the subject which was causing her so much anguish. Completely astonished she writes that, ‘For nearly a week I felt in a daze…’ All her preconceptions and expectations were shattered and feeling vulnerable, in confused pain and needing to be alone she tried to make sense of what had happened whilst the information and instructions (though no longer spoken out loud) continued in her head. She was on the receiving end of something very personal but that also felt terrifying and like a wonderful happiness… the next post will describe what then happened…