AUTHENTICATING A GENUINE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [Isa 6:1-8; Ps 138:1-5,7-8; 1 Cor 15:1-11 (or >< 15:3-8.11); Luke 5:1-11 ]
Every Christian by virtue of his or her baptism has an obligation to spread the gospel. Yet the truth is that this responsibility is hardly felt or carried out consciously and passionately. Many are baptized just to save their own soul. It is about their salvation and happiness. Why is there such an indifference to the duty of spreading the Good News? St Paul in the second reading took his responsibility seriously. He was concerned about the salvation of the souls of others.
The truth is that many of us, even though baptized, have not had a real personal encounter with the Lord. Even if we did, we fail to be open to ongoing personal encounters with the Lord in our lives. We live our faith as if it is a philosophy of life, or as Pope Benedict wrote, “the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea.” (Deus est Caritas, 1) Rather, it is our encounter with God’s love in Jesus “that gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Deus est Caritas, 1) Without a radical personal encounter with the Lord and renewal of such encounter, our faith will be weak. It will lack power and dynamism because it is on the cerebral dimension. This explains why there is a lack of enthusiasm, conviction and joy to proclaim the Good News of our Lord. The Good News is reduced to simply the passing on of a message or a doctrine, not about the person of our Lord.
Indeed, all the three characters in today’s scripture readings, Prophet Isaiah, St Paul and St Peter had a radical encounter with the Lord. What would such an encounter with the Lord entail? People often mistake an insight with a religious encounter. Insight comes after a personal encounter. In other words, there is first an experience and the conceptualization of the experience. In fact, all doctrines are grounded in some religious experience before they are formulated in words. Isaiah was given the grace of a mystical vision of “the Lord seated on a high throne; his train filled the sanctuary … And they cried out ‘Holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” St Peter encountered the power of God in the miraculous catch of the fish. St Paul had a radical experience of being thrown off the horse on his way to Damascus. “He heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.'”
How do we know that our encounter with the Lord is real and not just a figment of our imagination? Firstly, a religious experience always brings about a sense of unworthiness and awareness of one’s sinfulness. Isaiah’s immediate reaction was one of unworthiness before the holiness of God. He said, “What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of hosts.” So too was the case of St Paul when the Lord appeared to him on his way to Damascus. St Paul regarded himself as an unworthy apostle of the Lord. He said, “I am the least of the apostles; in fact, since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle; but by God’s grace that is what I am.” (cf 1 Tim 1:13) Indeed, humility is the cause and effect of a religious encounter with the Lord. If we feel a sense of worthiness or self-righteousness and spiritual superiority over others, it could be a sign that we have neither seen God nor known Him, otherwise we would have seen the truth about ourselves, sinners like the rest of humanity before Him and yet loved by Him unconditionally.
St Peter too had this similar reaction when he encountered the Lord’s power and holiness. He thought he knew better than Jesus where to make a catch of fish. It was with reluctance that he obeyed the Lord in putting down the nets, perhaps just to prove Him wrong. When he saw the big catch that “filled the two boats to sinking point … he fell at the knees of Jesus saying, ‘Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’ For he and all his companions were completely overcome by the catch they had made.” Indeed, if we claim to have an encounter with the Lord and feel smug and overly confident about ourselves, then clearly we have not had a real encounter. Anyone who encounters the holiness of God and His glory will feel very inadequate about himself. This explains why on the last day the hardcore sinners will reject God because they will feel so unworthy to see the Lord, like Isaiah, even when the Lord forgives and welcomes them to heaven in spite of their sins.
Secondly, in an authentic religious experience, the awareness of one’s sinfulness is accompanied by a humble acceptance of God’s forgiveness. In the case of Isaiah, the Lord sent one of the seraphs “holding in his hand a live coal” and touched the mouth of Isaiah saying, “See now, this has touched your lips, your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged.” The consciousness of sin is followed by the forgiveness of sins. So too, St Peter experienced the forgiveness of our Lord, not once but twice. Jesus assured Peter, “Do not be afraid!” Indeed, even in our sinfulness, the Lord is telling us not to be afraid of His love. He welcomes us. Later He gave Peter another chance by replacing his threefold denial with a threefold profession of love.
St Paul too was given a chance to encounter the Lord’s forgiveness when He sent Ananias to welcome him as a brother. Ananias went and “laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized.” (Acts 9:17f) Saul was not just accepted as a brother in Christ, but was given the gift of physical and spiritual sight to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ.
The third effect of a religious encounter is one of gratitude and amazement. St Paul wrote to Timothy and said, “He judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.” (cf 1 Tim 1:12-15) If we have received His infinite and undeserving mercy, we will be as grateful as Peter and Isaiah. Indeed, when we think of how undeserving we are of His mercy and love, all the blessings He has given to us, our career, our health, our loved ones and our financial independence and most of all, our faith in Him, we will have nothing but gratitude because we will know that who we are today and what we do is not our efforts alone but purely His grace.
The fourth consequence of this overwhelming experience of God’s mercy is the call to serve Him and our immediate response to that call. So when Isaiah, “heard the voice of the Lord saying: Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger? I answered, ‘Here I am, send me.'” Having been touched by the Lord’s mercy, one naturally desires to serve Him without reservation. We give ourselves easily to those who love us and care for us. Indeed, God shows His mercy to us not just for our sakes but also for the sake of others. St Paul wrote, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim 1:16) So also for Peter and the rest of his friends. After the miraculous catch, the Lord said to them, “‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.’ Then, bringing their boats back to land, they left everything and followed him.” When God calls us, our response must be complete and immediate because of His love and mercy. What is most amazing again is that God has chosen us in spite of our unworthiness and sinfulness. It is not because we are talented and gifted, but He chose us when we were nothing. (cf 1 Cor 1:26-29) Our qualification does not come from us but from Him alone. It is by God’s grace that we are who we are today. “By God’s grace that is what I am”, says St Paul.
Truly, if one has an authentic experience of God’s mercy, forgiveness and love, like the apostles, we too would want to be the apostles of mercy and love, the messengers of the Good News to all of humanity. Thus, if we have no desire to spread His love and mercy, it means that we either have forgotten our encounter with Him or we have never had a radical experience of His love. That is why we rely on our intellectual knowledge or just an act of our will, which of course demands more energy from us since it does not spring from our hearts.
Hence, we must cooperate with His grace and not allow the grace of God given to us to be received in vain. This was what Isaiah and the apostles did. St Peter cooperated with the grace of God by putting down the nets. St Paul himself wrote, “The grace that he gave me has not been fruitless. On the contrary, I, or rather the grace of God that is with me, have worked harder than any of the others; but what matters is that I preach what they preach, and this is what you all believed.” We who have received the gift of faith must allow the grace of God to work in and through us for His greater glory. When we cooperate with His grace like the apostles, He will show forth His glory and power in our weakness. God chooses us, ordinary people, to be His witnesses and ambassadors of the Good News through the ordinary situations of our life. Today, the Lord continues to ask, “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?” What is your response?
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.