Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Unitive Experience: A Personal Reflection

While I do not “feel” God all the time I acknowledge that when I turn my gaze toward Him most often His Presence comes rushing in.  I have always attributed that to the experience of the Holy Spirit six weeks after my conversion.  It was an experience of complete abandonment in the Presence of God.  It came unsought, pure infused grace after a year of wrestling with purgation.  Infused grace is that grace which comes as pure gift, poured on one seemingly without conscious preparation.  Purgation is a season of self-discovery under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and ends in penitence and confession.

The purgative stage was cyclical and I was through sorrow and the experience of guilt and alienation from God gradually led to such a place of self-awareness that I abandoned all and cast myself in utter trust on the mercy and love of God.  The moment of surrender and final confession opened a door into an immediate sense of the Presence of God without guilt, and without recrimination.

I had no words for the deeper experience that came six weeks later.  Eventually Charismatic theology and the words of Scripture would identify the experience as the Baptism with the Holy Spirit.  Such an identification however falls short in understanding the essence of the encounter.  An older theology would have understood it as an experience of being rapt in God that issued in a sense of being at unity with God, of oneness, a lostness in the enrapturing Presence that for those moments removed me from all awareness of my surroundings and held me tossed to and fro in the ocean of God’s boundless love.  The circumstances are not as important as the event itself.  It happened in the midst of a superficial community that was accepting at least that such things could and should happen.  But the experience itself was intensely personal and removed me emotionally, spiritually, and it seemed physically from the community itself.

Basically such an experience is word based and perhaps even the result of acquired grace.  For me the experience was preceded by avid and disciplined reading of the New Testament and by exposure to the Psalms, particularly expressions like the old Scot’s Psalter tune for Psalm 42, “As pants the heart for cooling streams When heated in the chase, So longs my soul, O God, for Thee, And Thy refreshing grace.”

 Some of the mystics would have identified it as an experience of initiatory grace.  Initiatory grace is that grace we sometimes experience at the very beginning of our spiritual journey giving us a foretaste of spiritual delights and drawing us on into disciplines that prepare us for acquired grace.  Although acquired grace is itself a gift, it is experientially the immersion in the Presence that comes in response to quiet discipline.

Certainly it was initiatory grace, but it marked me forever and left within me a spiritual and emotional receptor, a doorway for the Presence of God.  It had nothing to do with worthiness.  “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and Your servant shall be healed.”  To my sorrow and occasional confusion I grieve that I am so slow in responding obedience, but I hasten to add that whatever obedience I have is responsive by nature.  The experience left me with a sense of unity with God that fades and then is renewed in the ebb and flow of my experience of God’s love and grace in rhythm with my ongoing process of self-discovery and penitence.  The experience of unity with God has also marked me with a willingness for abandonment with God.  I would not want to be tempted to abandon the experience of the Presence which comes as pure gift, even in those times when on the surface it seems to be acquired grace. 

I have had dark nights of the soul since then, some of them unsought, some blundered into.  What I have learned is that God loves me, in tune, out of tune, at all times and delights to have me know that love.  His love precedes and transcends my transformation.  The issues of the human soul move very slowly and God will not await our timing but takes us to His bosom, as we are, in transition, in partial and sometimes inadequate, very inadequate states of sanctification.  That is what the blood of Christ is for, cleansing and purifying even as it makes this union with God a possibility.

I am at a loss to describe the experience of His Presence.  I feel enveloped.  I would say I feel loved, but how does one feel loved?  To be sure it is subjective, but nonetheless it is so persistent and sometimes so pervasive that it cannot be denied.  It is Divine hands upon my shoulders, Divine breath breathed deeply in.  It is comfort, peace, and at times physical warmth.  It is more than subjective.  It is an inner knowing, a receiving of the immanent God, “a golden breathable medium.”  I relax into it and am still.  I pick up the Scripture or my Psalter, or a book written by another child of God and feel the Presence spilling from the pages into my very soul.  I pick up my pen and write, or write even on the computer knowing all the time that He is with me.  I experience Him with the same clarity that I experience the others whom I love. 

I acknowledge that it is not something that I have done although on another level I have allowed myself to thirst for Him and for His Presence.  How should it by otherwise?  The words of an old hymn come back, “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seeking Him seeking me.”  At times I have hesitated.  At other times I have drifted away.  But, by grace, in the final analysis I respond to Him with the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                  ~ Dom Anselm Oblate, OSB ~ The Rev. Canon Dr. Robin P. Smith+