I prefer these paragraphs to focus on matters of heart; to offer direction for our soul’s connection with God. Not only is that a needed conversation sorely lacking, but it is the fount of all things that truly matter in life and eternity. None the less, interior issues need a framework, a context to offer insight and understanding. That means we will have to put our thinking caps on for the moment and engage in some theological reflection. So here is the question, “How do you know that your spiritual experience is genuine and not of your own making?”
First, I think it is a fair assumption that if my spiritual life were the product of my own head or longings, then it would prop up the natural values of self. My own ego would be front and centre, pampered and affirmed. My faith would enlarge me. Progress made would be in the same direction I am already heading. I am not suggesting that a spirituality of my own making would be automatically easy. Nobility, discipline and morality are still a stretch, but it would be a stretch towards more of what I am. In that way, a self made faith would be assuring. It would probably comfort me and assure me that while I am not perfect, I am heading in the right direction. In other words, a self manufactured faith would protect and affirm self. But that is not the experience of our hearts. All of you will testify to the strangeness of faith’s experience. Our interior life lead us to values which we would shun if it were not God leading us. Who embraces humility, patience, temperance, chastity, or self control? I do not suggest that we have mastered these values, but that we recognize them as essential and reach for them. The fact that we struggle to be the very things we wish to be creates an internal conviction. We feel nudged, perhaps painfully, towards a life that we would not create on our own. Correction and conversation form our path. The self life is dealt a death blow. All of this is not from ourselves. It isn’t like us. It is the way of God.
A Second assumption. If my spiritual experience was the product of my own hand, it would be what I want or expect it to be. After all, if I am making up the rules, I would want to win every time. All my prayers would be answered. There would be no waiting. The bar of expectations would be within my stride. The god I pray to would be reachable and understandable. He would be genie-like with three wishes every day. That may sound like the god we want, but it isn’t the God we have. The truth is that in prayer, God doesn’t always show up like I want Him to. In my encounters with Him, there are fewer fireworks than I would hope for. Our experience suggests that God doesn’t simply do what we want, when we want or how we want it done. He is not under our control. God confuses me with His silence and stillness. He doesn’t distribute justice like I expect. He often leads me into a desert state and seems to take a step back from me. Frankly if my interior life is of my own making - I am not doing a very good job! God’s ways are not my ways and my ways are not God’s ways.
A final assumption. Any manufactured encounter with God would produce a God or a god-like experience that would fit my size. It would conform not only to my values, comfort and expectations but it would feel manageable. It would be big enough to satisfy me but not so large that I couldn’t take it all in. It would fall within the boundaries of my own imagination or conceptual grasp which are limited. God isn’t. Every encounter with God leaves us with a sense of wonder. We get a taste of Something larger than what we are. We are introduced to infinite creativity. We are led to places we would never go. We are struck by the presence of Someone so much larger than ourselves. We can be overwhelmed. Awe is the only word. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His thoughts above our thoughts.
It is fair to question the reality and source of our spiritual experience. But don’t raise the question alone. Do it with God. He can sift our hearts and show us what is man made (there may be something) and what is from His Spirit. His Spirit, His Word and His Church will lead us into truth. The fact that the spiritual life seems topsy turvy and unlike anything we see on earth points in God’s direction. His ways and His thoughts are not our own.