Occasionally students will email me with questions that they fear may be too personal for class. I tell them that in an “Ignatian Spirituality” class, ‘personal’ questions are the only ones that really interest me. After a recent discussion on ‘spiritual experiences’ a student wrote to ask if there was a particular experience that led me to become a Jesuit and if I thought that the beliefs of a person who hasn’t had dramatic ‘spiritual experiences’ (like herself) weren’t as strong as someone who has had them (like myself – she presumes). Here’s a slightly edited version of my response:
Thanks for your email. I very much appreciate your questions and your thoughtful presence in class. Answering some of these questions might take a very long time (a lifetime!) but I encourage you to keep asking them. In the meantime I’ll do my best to get straight to the heart of what I think.
There were many experiences that lead me to become a Jesuit. Most of them had to do with a deepening sense of self and a greater capacity for love–both of which I found more readily available when I was breathing ‘Jesuit air’ (i.e. as a Jesuit Volunteer, working alongside Jesuits in prisons and on immersion trips, etc.). I wasn’t raised with any explicit religious images of God so, in many ways, I came to faith as an adult. Because of this I would have to say that my ‘spiritual experiences’ were really just normal human experiences like everyone else’s.
I learned about God as you learn a language: enough people started pointing to the same thing or same types of things and using the word ‘God’; this is just to say that my life was full of typical experiences of suffering and love, struggle and joy. People I loved and respected gave me a language and a community in which to talk about these experiences. They ‘witnessed’ a lived experience of God and ‘testified’ to it in a way that I found convincing – mostly because they did it in active ways (e.g. community service, social justice, etc.). It was in this community of witnesses that I found myself longing to belong and it was from this desire for belonging, compassion, solidarity, and love that I decided to become Catholic and, eventually, a Jesuit.
In this way, reflecting on and sharing in the ordinary things of life, I came to understand my experience and myself as something spiritual. Over many years I came to know that I was loved and capable of love. So, when I say that I believe in God it is a belief based on the truth of lived experience. I know and long for God because I’ve known and longed for love.
Regarding your questions about experience and ‘strength of belief’ I want to encourage you. Trust that your experience is a spiritual one and your belief becomes a great advantage in your ability to recognize the real depth and beauty of your own life. Here’s what I mean:
Belief comes in various strengths at various times in our lives as we find ourselves more or less confident in trusting our understanding of things. This is not a qualitative judgment as much as an observation – we believe or we don’t, but mostly we live in some middle-ground between doubt and certainty. In other words, ‘strong vs. weak’ does not necessarily equate to ‘good vs. bad.’ In any case, I’m more interested in depth than strength and having depth requires only (as Richard Rohr says of wisdom) that we “experience our experiences and let them expand us.”
You say that you “haven’t had any experience like this” and yet you find yourself “moved to care for people as Jesus did.” It may seem to be a small thing, but that longing (to care about and for others) is at the heart of all great things because it’s at the heart of love.
Were the moments that led you to this desire moving in an obvious sense? (i.e. dramatic or traumatic) Perhaps not. But this certainly doesn’t mean they lack strength and it most definitely doesn’t undermine the validity of your basic beliefs. I would say that it’s simply evidence that you have been moved, that you’ve been called to something. It’s evidence that your belief is not simply an idea in your mind, but that it has some influence on your will, on your decisions, and on your life.
And there it is. You’re having a life. You’re having experiences. You’ll have more of them. To know that they are meaningful and that their strength is in their depth as well as in their simplicity, in their drama as well as in their ordinariness, in their truth as well as in their consequences – that knowledge is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality. That you’re interested in asking the question about whether your belief and your experiences are meaningful and that you would dare to use the word ‘hope’ (“I hope to live my life…“) to describe how you’re going about making decisions in your studies…well, all of this is evidence, to my mind, of real strength!
‘Belief’ in the sense that I think you mean (i.e. “I believe in God“) is helpful insofar as it gives you eyes to see that what is in front of you is sacred. What a gift you will be as a social worker if your belief in God enables you to see the people you work for and with as Jesus did – in love and with love. ‘Experience’ in the sense that I think you mean (i.e. challenging or confirming spiritual experience) is one gift among many. The gifts of experience come in all stripes, sometimes dramatic, sometimes mundane; in either case they just seem to happen upon us. The trick is paying attention when they do.
I pray (as Ignatius would) for the grace to see my experiences in the light of the revelation of God, in light of love. I find that when I’m able to do this then the ‘strength’ of my belief means a whole lot less than my ‘willingness’ to accept the great gift of my life. This is one sense in which I can understand what we mean by saying that there is ‘strength in weakness’ — i.e acceptance of gifts and graces. I find that I don’t feel confident or strong in the spiritual life as often as I feel grateful. All of this is just to say that my most sincere prayers are more full of thank-you’s than they are of I-believe’s.
As you can see, I love questions like this, so thanks for asking! I hope something in this note (now much longer than I anticipated!) will stir your thoughts on God and Ignatian spirituality like you had hoped.
In peace and sincere gratitude,
The cover image, from Flickr user Chris (chrisinplymouth), can be found here.