16 June 2014

On Discernment with Regard to Prayer Experiences and "the Spiritual": Making Sure these are Truly Edifying

[[But in the spiritual life, we do not need temporal justification or documentation by or of others. Consider Jesus. He did not reference or cite what temple priests, scribes or experts on Judaic law said or wrote. He referenced God the Father and the Pentateuch (the Scrolls). Consider any of the prophets. They cite God. Moses relayed what God said and did not justify his words or His Words by any other means. All this makes me ponder the more, the writings of great and holy souls in Christendom, in the Church, who have passed on to us much wisdom and guidance for the spiritual life. They do not justify themselves or their words by any other persons than The Three Persons: God, His Son, and the Holy Spirit.]] This was posted by a woman claiming to be a Catholic hermit in an apparent response to one or two posts you had put up clarifying mistakes people make in approaching mystical experiences and eremitical life:  (On Justifying Oneself ). She claims that documentation is necessary in secular matters but not spiritual ones. She also seems to believe that providing the kinds of support you did is done in an attempt to elevate oneself. Could you please comment on this?


Well, assuming as you do that this post was actually directed at me and either my recent article on eremitical life citing the Camaldolese founders and reformers or the one on contemplative prayer citing Ruth Burrows, Thomas Merton, et al, I could begin by pointing out that I am neither a great nor a holy soul, but in this case I think that is beside the point. You see this comment refers to people trying to justify or even elevate themselves and what they write in the area of spirituality by the similar positions and words of others --- except of course, God alone. The post insists that neither Jesus nor the prophets quoted anyone except God the Father and the Pentateuch. While I contend that is not actually true it is also beside the point. After all Jesus spoke with a unique authority, "You have heard it said . . . but I say. : ." while the Prophets were charged with speaking the very Word of God into their present situation. We simply don't know what else they said, nor how they supported what they had to say. The Scriptures focus our attention and accent the Prophets' authority differently than this.

But what actually is this blogger's point? As far as I can tell, she seems to believe that in the spiritual life (unlike what is acceptable in any other sphere of human endeavor) we can say anything at all about prayer, mystical experiences, eremitical life, etc., and justify it with the assertion that its source and ground is (an experience of) God: "I experienced this, it is of God because I say it is of God; nothing more needs be said. Believe me!" Do I really need to point out how specious and often destructive such a position actually is and has been in human religious history?

In any case to say that the great Saints and spiritual writers in the history of the Church do not support what they write or say by references to other great Saints, scholars, or experts is simply untrue. It would be easy to cite a paragraph or a dozen and more where the Saint or religious scholar in question cites others to support or clarify his/her position. John of the Cross, for instance cited both Latin and Greek Fathers to support and further illuminate his own positions throughout his work. It was hardly an attempt at personal justification nor was it done to elevate himself. Instead it was part of a broader conversation with the whole Church and is paradigmatic of the importance of such an undertaking. (More about this in a bit.)


Still (and meanwhile), even the assertion that great saints don't cite others is somewhat beside the point. What is more pertinent is the fact that the assertion that one does not need to cite others in support of personal spiritual experiences is nonsense and dangerous nonsense at that. In the area of religious experience it is actually more important than in most any other area of human endeavor I can think of to support what one says with the experimental findings of others in prayer. Beyond this it is critically important to justify what one says theologically and by the fruits of one's life --- not least because the sinful human heart knows many gods and the human imagination and intellect have shown time and time again their propensity to mistake the merely subjective and illusory stuff of the "false self" for objective reality and the stuff of the "true self" (which, to the extent it exists, really does know and reflect God). In other words, in the realm of religious experience human history is fraught with the mistaken, the mentally ill, the deluded, the merely sinful, the dishonest and hypocrites, as well as opportunists and flimflam artists of every kind and shade. Even when the person is acting in completely good faith we may be dealing with a bit of errant neurochemistry or neuroelectrical activity, psychological projection, or simple misinterpretation more than we are dealing with an experience of God. Does this blogger really not know this?

Prayer is our experimental means to knowledge of God and just as in other forms of human knowing which depend on the duplication of experimental results and the careful elaboration of the implications of the findings, so too do prayer experiences require something similar though, of course, not identical. (Since prayer is the activity of a transcendent and sovereign God within us, not something we alone achieve, duplication of the conditions and experience is not possible.) We have criteria for discerning the genuineness of a prayer experience (or series of experiences) and we turn to theologians and experts in prayer to explore the ramifications and implications of our conclusions. Could this have been of God? In what way is this so and in what way not (because both aspects are always present in such an experience!)? What allows me to say so? Who has known God in similar ways and what does this mean? These are a few of the questions personal experiences in prayer, despite the subjective certitude associated with them, necessarily call for in order that they may be edifying not only to the individual but to the entire faith community.


Again (and here we return to the reason St John of the Cross's citations of others are so important and a model for us) we are looking at a reason prayer, though profoundly and unquestionably personal, is also an essentially ecclesial reality and not merely a private one. Genuine discernment requires the wisdom of a praying community --- which, on the most immediate or individual level is what working with a spiritual director is about. Our individual prayer experiences must become the source of real wisdom and this requires reflection and conversation. Remember the citation I gave from Ruth Burrows: [[When all is said and done, the long line of saints and spiritual writers who insist on "experience", who speak of sanctity in terms of ever deepening "experience", who maintain that to have none is to be spiritually dead, are absolutely right provided we understand "experience" in the proper sense, not as a transient emotional impact but as living wisdom, living involvement. . . .So often, however, what the less instructed seek is mere emotion. They are not concerned with the slow demanding generosity of genuine experience.]] GMP, "A Look at Experiences," p 55, emphasis added.

For this to happen testing (sometimes called testing of the spirits) must also occur and this happens within the community of faith, not least including the communion of saints. As far as I can see, to be responsible for what one experiences in prayer requires one to submit her own conclusions to the "corroboration" (so to speak) --- or, perhaps better put, to the reverent attention and consideration of other faithful, especially those experienced in the ways of prayer. One does this so that one's own experience may become a source of genuine wisdom in a way which builds up the whole community. One does so in order that others may truly benefit from God's interaction with humanity in Christ as mediated in one's own prayer. This is precisely the way we believe and truly honor our very personal prayer experiences. Merely privatistic experiences, especially when they are eccentric or mainly rooted in the false self are not only not edifying, they are disedifying or downright destructive both of the individual and of the believing community as well.