On the feast of the Epiphany, Christians world wide ponder sightings of the divine, starry appearances. In modern culture, the vocabulary of sightings, starry appearances, and epiphanies has taken on separate life. We have Elvis sightings to look to as part of that fad for laying eyes on the most elusive of our icons. The local newspapers feed us rumored appearances of this or that celebrity or rock band, not known for always showing up. As to epiphanies, someone said recently on National Public Radio: just had my epiphany concerning fashion. It's not about style, it's about money."
James Joyce is generally credited with giving that twist to "epiphany." He spoke of "epiphany" in Stephen Hero as "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or a memorable phase of the mind itself." In her introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Jeri Johnson gives us this definition of a Joycean epiphany: "a moment in which the radiant whatness and full significance of a thing suddenly become apparent."
These days, if we want to discuss evidences of God, phenomena that show a "radiant whatness" of the divine, we have to use the language of experience. The question here is whether the ordinary believer, or the minister to an ordinary believer, is capable of such experience -- that is, can palpably experience God. Evangelical Protestants have claimed, ever since Great Awakening two centuries ago, that our salvation depends upon a dramatic yes to that question. "Have you been saved?" means "Have you been swept up in an overwhelming conversion and feeling of God?"
What about the practicing Catholic, daily slogging along? Can he or she count on epiphanies -- that is, on saving experiences? To put the matter another way, can we trust the heartfelt desire for validation of our faith, the longing for some unmistakable sign of God's acceptance of us? Shouldn't we repudiate that as self-pampering, as feeding emotionalism? Ronald Knox gave the matter careful attention in his classic study Enthusiasm. Here we can make do with the following prayer of a typically uncharismatic Englishman, Saint Thomas More: "Take from me, good Lord, this lukewarm fashion, or rather cold manner of meditation and this dullness in praying to you. And give me warmth, delight and life in thinking about you" (quoted in The Catholic Prayer Book by Monsignor Michael Buckley).
We can surely desire and beg -- continually petition for -- movements of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What we call "spiritual experience" amounts precisely to that. Saint Ignatius certainly thought we needed such movements; he prized the divine gift he had received of continual tears and consolations. In his advice to those who direct the Spiritual Exercises, he indicates that a sign of authenticity is that one's affectivity is not tranquil and flat but subject to ups and downs. Conflicted feelings, even instincts of repulsion, are grist for the mill and capital matter for discernment of spirits. The retreatant is urged to pray at various times for compunction, tears, gratitude, admiration, and intense joy with the risen Christ. In advising and promoting such prayer, Ignatius risked the rigors of the Inquisition, with its dim view of private illuminations, so convinced was he that spiritual progress lies this way.
Karl Rahner, in the wake of his founder Ignatius, taught that people in general have much more experience of God than they realize. "Experience of God is inescapable," Rahner wrote in a memorable essay, "The Experience of God Today" (Theological Investigations XI). What taxes us sorely and does not go without saying is the further stage of reflection upon, appreciation of, and acceptance of the experience. "The unrecognized experience of God," Rahner maintained, "is present, whether accepted or denied, even in those cases in which any discussion of it meets only with incomprehension." It is present in that tendency of our thought and desires beyond the matter at hand, that continuous stretching toward what cannot be comprehended or held in bounds, the infinite, sheer mystery.
Rahner writes that "an element of the ineffable manifests itself in the experience of everyday life." That was a bedrock philosophical persuasion of his. He resolutely maintained that the sacred and the so-called secular are interconnected and inseparable.
This powerful insight has wide implications. Normally, Rahner says, in our busyness, we let this experience go unexamined, but certain episodes bring it to light. He lists a number of such episodes: when we are reduced to aloneness and "the silence re-sounds penetratingly"; when we have to face up to our freedom and responsibility and guilt; when we do not have external support for something hard that we know we must do; when we receive and give unconditional love, needing outside support from "a reality which is no longer subject to our control"; when we have to accept the direct gaze of death upon us.
"This single basic experience of man, ...that his existence is open to inconceivable mystery, ...is present in a thousand different forms," Rahner argues. Joy, faithfulness, angst, fear of the glaring truth -- these are some of the forms of God acting on us. Our unfortunate lack of attention draws from Rahner something very rare in his pages, a poetic expression, or metaphor, for our nearsightedness: "[We are] forever occupied with the grains of sand along the shore where we dwell at the edge of the infinite ocean of mystery." Still, he insists, "at the decisive moments of our lives, this experience breaks in upon our awareness once more with irresistible force."
Not long ago, a man came up to me, as I was about to leave the confessional and asked for the sacrament. "It's been twenty-five years," he began. Talk about God breaking in! Talk about an epiphany, even for me! But such grace is at work daily. We find it active, certainly, in the ordinary examination of conscience, or the more ample examine of consciousness, and in receiving the sacraments.
God's visitations are much more frequent than we can easily credit. Recently I described a New Yorker cartoon to a Jesuit companion. God is on a cell phone in his room, saying to someone, "I'm afraid I can't, I have to be everywhere." My confrere replied, "People can more easily grasp that God is everywhere than that God is here now with me."
Yes, if Rahner is right that we are constantly experiencing God, we should have no trouble praying with Saint Thomas More for delight in the workings of God. Saint Ignatius would approve. When he encouraged us toward "finding God in all things," he did so in the framework of a prayer calculated to stir the heart. He called it "Contemplation for Obtaining Love."
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