Modesty of Spirit

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.

9 comments on “Modesty of Spirit

  1. […] 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 Source: Neal Obstat Theological Opining   […]

  2. WhoopieCushion says:

    Does San Juan offer discerning criteria for distiguishing between a spiritualized form of vanity and authentic grace sharing in this among spiritual friends? This includes grace perceived and operative in those same spiritual friendships as iconic ‘revelations’ of Trinitarian light and love. ie. “you’ll know them by their fruits”. I think here of St. Symeon the New Theologian as an example who repeatedly exalted his spiritual father for being himself in, and the conduit for, his encounter with Christ’s Tabor light.

    • Ah, spiritual friendship! Yes, John does have some to say on this, but mostly he is concerned about one relationship in particular where such sharing is both appropriate and demanded: spiritual direction. That, for John, is always the first safe-place for disclosure and the appropriate place to seek primary counsel on what should be shared in the next “circles” of intimacy. Maybe I will take up the question of what John has to say in a future blog when my readings in St John class gets to those passages. In the mean time, my favorite place to look for spiritual friendship is St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship. AWEsome. Thanks for the interest and question and musing, Whoopie!

  3. DZSJ-AMDG says:

    As I read your account of the woman who shared a moment of private revelation with you, I am thinking of two things: boundaries and potentials.
    Boundaries: I agree with the wisdom you post about carefully considering conversation partners when it comes to opening up in a really personal way. In fact, this is a form of intimacy. I think your point is right on about our greater cultural context, which is self-disclosing and voyeuristic and where reality tv and our (over)use of social media obscures authentic intimacy by a general TMI trend. When it comes to important, meaningful things in our lives, do we really need to go on a talk show or tweet/post/.blog it to the world? In some cases, sure. In other cases, TMI!

    Potentials: As we continue to unpack the call to the New Evangelization, I cannot help but think how powerful personal testimony is when it comes to sharing the Good News. I think people are most compelled to hear the Word from those it has personally moved and touched. I love thinking of the Road to Emmaus story here from Luke’s Gospel – they break open the scriptures, they break bread, and then they recognize the personal, authentic, powerful way the risen Christ has touched their lives in that moment. They run and tell and people listen.

    • AMDG is quickly rising to my favorite “Blog within a Blog”! Thank you for your careful thinking. Excellent!

    • Chrissy says:

      Right on! I know Jesus said on one occasion or two “go and tell no one” but then we also have the great commission to go forth and make disciples. And when the latter was called to go they had to go with nothing on person but their clothes on their back. Then if their testimony was not received they had to brush off their feet and leave to tell the story at the next location. The difference in the boundaryand the potential is the humility. When speaking your testimony are you looking for a showy world effect or a humble “I say this on behalf of God who wants you to know he loves you” effect?
      In my own personal walk, I feel like I could have grown quicker, been more aware how to overcome daily situations, felt more in community with others if they had taken the risk to go outside their personal boundary to give God potential to speak into my life. It always irked me to see many Catholics seeming so quiet. Even my own parents go on Sunday and are great people but they never share how that Word impacts their life daily or how that relationship with God works because then you cross into the other world made boundary in Irish eyes-Protestant and Catholic. Why is there even that wall when we are all ONE BODY. Praise God for the charasmatic movement and other things going on in dioceses to bridge our experiences with God to new evangelism. The world is dying to hear our stories and if called, we should. Take the risk for Jesus. He certainly did for us!

      • Chrissy, I like your call for risk, especially to Catholics who are reticent to speak about their own faith. And how important it is to distinguish between sharing the truth and beauty and goodness of our Catholic faith, and sharing my own deep, personal and psychologically intimate experiences of God and of life. Though they can be related, they are distinct. My central concern is really in this: I can testify that in my experience too many people who should not be sharing their traumatic life stories, or very intimate struggles of faith in public are encouraged (or even compelled) to do so under the assumption that to not do so is to fail to glorify God, to fail to share their real life faith experiences, to evangelize, etc. My point: there has to be careful judgment, case by case, with counsel sought and never merely an assumption that God-related self-disclosure in any and all settings is a good thing. That said, your wonderful boldness is called for in a general Catholic culture that greatly resists publicizing their conviction that Jesus is Lord and the Church is the bearer of His Truth. For some REALLY excellent thoughts on this reticence and its “why”, see Kreeft’s Jesus Shock.

  4. Finding the wise and prudent person to share inner holiness is a special blessing. Who is that person that someone can share with? Where are they found? The Book of Sirach tells us that a faithful friend is a study shelter and the elixir of life. Jesus does so much for me – revealing the Father’s love – sending his Spirit afresh – it is only natural for me to desire to share this outpouring of my Lord. I am grateful for those friends to share God’s consolations of prayer which makes it more real, more grounded, more experienced.

    I have found the best way to share these experiences without “spilling it out over dinner” is to take the gift and incorporating, recycling it if you will, back into my prayer life. To always remember; always express gratitude for the gift and marking it on my mental calendar in a discreet way. As I allow changes to my interior being, my exterior life is more prepared to teach the Gospel to others by simply being myself in Christ. Today, my excitement level rises wondering what my God has for me to dwell and stir my heart for his Glory.

    • You know, this idea of spiritual friendship, which you so beautifully speak of here, is a lost art and a forgotten art in our Church. Yes, people like you ‘get it’, so it’s not entirely lost! But the fact is that without such friendships genuine progress in the spiritual life is very hard. Thanks for writing on it today!

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