There is a mistake that many Christians commonly make, particularly when we are young in religion, when we speak about the life in the Spirit. The mistake comes in thinking the Spirit works only or most when we are fired up, or when we get all excited about some religious experience. You know how it is, someone goes off to a cursillo or retreat or some other powerful experience and they come back all on fire for the faith. That person has been to the mountain and has come back all glowing and radiant like Moses did when he came down from Mount Sinai. They are ready to part the Red Sea.
Maybe you have met someone like that recently. Or perhaps you are one of those people…you come back from a great retreat and you want to share your experience with a parent or a friend or the priest. You have been up there and you just have to tell it. And you start talking about the experience and everything is pouring out of you and the other person just looks at you like you have been partaking of another kind of spirit, or they just roll their eyes in a gesture which says, “Oh no, here we go again.” That other person might not be down in the valley of death, but you know that he is not picking up on your good vibrations.
You know, everyone sort of expects this at first. We’ve all been through it more than likely. You are on fire for a while. But if it goes on too long, that’s when everyone starts wondering, “What are we going to do? I can’t take it anymore. If she says, ‘Praise the Lord’ one more time, I am going to send her to SEE God.”
Before I go any further, allow me to be clear about this: The very powerful emotional experience that we can have from a religious encounter can be a spiritual one, certainly. God works powerfully at a moment when we most need it in order to turn us around and get us oriented in the right direction. If a person is not interested in religion or is mired in a particular sin and did not have such experiences, that person might not ever come to realize that God’s grace is powerful and can bring about great conversions.
ON THE OTHER HAND, we need to understand that such experiences are only the beginning of an even more profound life of faith, and something for which we need the support of others who can guide us along the path of spiritual and moral perfection. And when we are up on the mountain we need to be able to come back, get our feet on the level ground, and find a way to make sure that we put to use all the grace that God is giving, not just that adrenaline-soaked feeling of super-charged wind under our wings.
There are times, as in the case of these experiences, when God reveals things to us just as he does to the “little ones” of whom the Gospel speaks. Jesus says, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” Often the moment of coming to know that God is real is a true mountain-top experience. When you come to know God for the first time, or in a new way because of some powerful experience, then you might respond with much emotional fervor.
Still, you need to realize that it would not be good to live like that all the time because there are deeper realities. Gentler things. Joyful things. Merciful things. Peaceful things (in other words, spiritual things) that you do not want to miss as you grow in spiritual maturity. You have to come to know that a true religious experience is not a self-centered one, but an other-centered one. That Other is Christ Jesus. He wants to transform you completely in the perfect image and likeness of God and that usually takes a lot of time and work. But, in Him, that is now possible. Do you understand what I am saying? Can you believe that? By grace you can be, can really be perfect like your Heavenly Father.
We make regular use of the sacrament of confession to help deepen our conversion experience. In the first reading, we see that the nation of Israel waits for a long time for the dominion of God. And when he comes, he does not come in soaring like an eagle. He comes in on a slow-paced donkey. You see, God gives us conversion and gets us fired-up and He also gives us the steady and enduring grace of the Spirit to sustain us when we get down to where we should be. His dominion over all parts of your life does not usually happen in an instant. You have to learn how to surrender. This is the way he purifies our spirit, our intellect, our will and our emotions.
When we rejoin the rest of humanity after our mountain-top experience we are supposed to be changed forever and move from grace to grace. When I sin, I go to confession. I regain my footing. If it all depended on the way we feel, grace would not account for much because when the feeling was gone or when we fall back into an old familiar sin, we’d have to think we had run out of grace, too. I recall here the words of St. Augustine commenting on David’s confession. Augustine said, “If I admit my fault, then you will pardon it. Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon.” You see, acknowledging our sins and confessing them are works of grace in us.
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are there in our souls like seeds, continually reforming our emotions, calling us to repent, and strengthening us against the bad emotions in us that lead us to sin when all those good feelings are gone. The hope that we have of the Resurrection keeps us strong in our resolutions even when we sin. This is what St. Paul means in saying we are not debtors to the flesh. Sin cannot hold us down if we take advantage of the gifts available to us.
We do not owe that old man of flesh anything. We do not have to accept any charge that we must go back to our old way of life when the feeling of elation is gone. And we don’t have to make up some doctrine about salvation or grace that lets us think that sin isn’t real or isn’t a problem or that we can forgive ourselves. The Spirit of Jesus is living in us and in the Church, working through the Church’s ministers to deepen our conversion and remove all sin. The sacrament of confession is a sure means of spiritual growth which no sinner can do without.
We have to remember that this Spirit is there for the purpose of bringing us to our resurrection. That is where our real peace and happiness come from. The saving work of Jesus is accomplished in our resurrection. We can recall our joy and elation from an earlier experience as a promise of the future gift. But we cannot mistake that initial joy for the fulfillment of the gift.
We continue daily to struggle, but we do so now with a spiritual honesty... and spiritual maturity. We enjoyed the elation of the gift when it first came. Each day we learn to use it with greater knowledge and respect for the Spirit’s great power until He brings us to perfection.