In the life of every Christian, after baptism there is also another “Galilee”, a more existential “Galilee”: the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission. In this sense, returning to Galilee means treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him. To return there means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me. — Pope Francis, Easter Vigil Homily, April 19, 2014
I am not a man who often can say he has received discernibly “extraordinary experiences” of God — the “fireworks” kind I spoke about back in March in my post on St. John of the Cross and the Charismatic Renewal. There have been but a few, but very rare. c/o St. John of the Cross, Deo gratias.
With some hesitation, I thought I might “return to my Galilee” and write today about one of those “extra-ordinary” experiences at the origin of my own “call,” hopefully only to add some living color to my theological reflection on the unspeakable power of the Risen Christ. I recall, as I share this, St. John’s words: “Like the apostles at the Transfiguration, those who receive any great favors from the Lord are to keep in mind they are being readied for trials.”
I had what I could call my very first conscious, unmistakable and identifiable encounter with the risen, living, in-your-face Jesus back in February of 1987 in my college dorm room. No, there was no alcohol involved. I will be circumspect about the details, which are what St. John would call the “rind,” and get to the meaty core.
I can say that that encounter was very specifically an experience of Christ as the Pantokrator, the omnipotent “All-Ruler.”
It was absolutely unanticipated, unsought. I don’t know why it was even that facet of Christ, and when it happened I had no context for locating it anywhere in my worldview. That made it simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, like looking off the edge of a steep cliff and losing all your bearings, and yet feeling strangely drawn in by the thrill of the danger. Something like that, at least. It left me — and still to this very moment leaves me — with utter and unmistakable certitude that Jesus Christ is the source and ground of all that exists. I received at that moment an intuition that everything around me was absolutely contingent, utterly dependent on Jesus (and not just a generic “God”) for its existence at every moment. I’d never thought of such a thing before, and it took me weeks to even adjust my thinking sufficiently to regain my footing. I remember even crazily touching the concrete walls around me immediately afterwards, thinking, “It’s all His.”
If I had been familiar with Colossians 1:16-17 that day, I would have told you: That’s it!
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
Or John 1:1-3
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made
that was made.
This all came back to me recently as I was reading Richard B. Hays’ fascinating book Reading Backwards. In there he makes a comment about the identity of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel that, I thought, captures my insight from that day perfectly:
Jesus is the incarnation of the Logos who was present before creation, through whom all things were made. All creation breathes with his life. He is the divine Wisdom whose very being is the blueprint of all reality. That is why he can declare, “I and the Father are one,” both evoking and transforming Israel’s Shema…
The Shema he refers to is the Jewish daily prayer/profession of faith from Deuteronomy 6:4:
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”
The effect of this experience on me remains now, and everything else that has followed in my life related to faith, I can say, in some way flowed from that 2/87 encounter. I will never seek to have it again (c/o St. John of the Cross), but when I recall it, its effect revives. In fact, it is this prayer in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that best captures the tenor of that graced evening:
It is meet and right to sing of Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. Thou it was who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven and hadst endowed us with Thy Kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks to Thee, and to Thine only-begotten Son and to Thy Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know and of which we know not, whether manifest or unseen; and we thank Thee for this liturgy which Thou hast found worthy to accept at our hands, though there stand by Thee thousands of archangels and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many eyed, who soar aloft, borne on their pinions, singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming and saying:
Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!