When I was living in Iowa, I recall talking to a woman who came up to me after an evening presentation I had given.
She shared with me a very personal spiritual experience she had had years before, and wanted confirmation from me that what she had experienced was ‘real.’ Of course, I told her I was certainly not qualified to judge that, but that I could offer her a few basic criteria any Catholic would apply to judge the authenticity and meaning of an out-of-the-ordinary encounter with God.
After we talked a bit about that, she said something very beautiful:
I have never shared this with anyone because it’s so deep and personal, and I was afraid that if I just laid it out there, and someone ridiculed it or dismissed what happened, it would lose all its power. Thank you for reverencing it.
How humbling to be given such trust, and such access to another person’s holy of holies.
I thought about this as I drove home, and realized how important it is for people of faith to be so careful about what they share with others of their own uniquely personal experience of God. Our inner experiences, and our life stories, are pearls that have to be carefully guarded, and there is a tendency in our talk-show, tell-all, voyeuristic culture to think that the more personal the information we share with others the more ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ we are.
It’s interesting that St. John of the Cross is absolutely vehement in his insistence that those who have extraordinary experiences of God should be very discreet, and even reticent, about sharing them, and should only do so after first seeking the counsel of ‘wise and prudent’ people. Not only can such disclosures feed a spiritualized form of vanity, John argues, but they can also set people up to later feel violated when they over-expose themselves to those who lack reverence. While this obviously does not mean we should not on occasion share our private, interior lives with others in order to benefit them (many a saint certainly did, and much good can be accomplished by doing so), it does mean we should exercise great care and be more aware of the motives behind our desire to share. One should never assume that simply ‘being real’ in this way is the best option, or what God is asking us to do.
This all reminded me, as I recalled this Iowa woman’s beautiful witness, of a quote from Roger Scruton. I will give him the last word.
To speak of beauty is to enter another and more exalted realm–a realm sufficiently apart from our everyday concerns as to be mentioned only with a certain hesitation. People who are always in praise and pursuit of the beautiful are an embarrassment, like people who make a constant display of their religious faith. Somehow, we feel such things should be kept for our exalted moments, and not paraded in company, or allowed to spill out over dinner.