Sunday after Christmas (B): On the Downplaying of Religious Experience
By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis
Somewhere in the great hazing that was the ordination process, I was trained to stop taking religious experience seriously.
I don’t imagine I’m alone in that, and I don’t imagine I’m alone in having a split attention when people are describing their experiences to me.
If a parishioner is relaying a time where they feel, however fervently, that God spoke directly to them I’ve been taught to take the same tack—nod politely and agree. Make sure what they’re experiencing isn’t threatening to themselves or others. Make sure this isn’t indicative of an abusive situation at home/school/work. Are they exhibiting symptoms of something that might be dangerous to their health? Are those visions seizures? Do I need to refer them to a counselor/psychiatrist/general practitioner, or do I just need to call 911?
The answer to each of those questions has been yes at some point or another in my ministry. There were ambulances that needed to be called, referrals that needed to be made, situations that needed to be reported. All of the questions were good.
But. I was trained to take their circumstances seriously. Not their experiences. Not their God moments.
Which might be why saying the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, every evening at evening prayer never sits quite right with me. The Magnificat is eminently easy—cast down the mighty, lift up the lowly. That’s something I can get into. That’s a canticle I can sing out and sing strong. God’s justice is real and mighty and the words of the Blessed Virgin come screaming off the page.
The Nunc Dimittis, though. The Nunc Dimittis always seems like a sigh compared to Mary’s shout. It is something deeply and intensely personal that I’m slightly ashamed to be let into. This is between God and Simeon. And here I am at the close of my day, reciting a promise that was made for someone else.
This is what St. Luke does though. The whole of Luke’s first two chapters are an action/response sequence that shows God working palpably and intimately in the lives of Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the Shepherds, and finally St. Simeon and St. Anna. It becomes a sort of formula. An Angel appears. Good news is announced. Stories are shared. God is praised.
Elizabeth praises God in Mary. Mary praises God in in the work God is doing in her. Zechariah praises God with a newly opened mouth as he presents his son in the temple. Shepherds come streaming into Bethlehem to tell Mary of the Good News that God showed to them, and the reality of that Good News in the baby that she just bore. As Jesus is presented in the temple, Simeon sings out God’s deliverance.
The Spirit shows up palpably, tangibly, in each of their lives, only to cut to moments of profound and public reflection on the spirits work.
The great songs of our faith—The Magnificat. The Ave Maria. The Benedictus. The Gloria in Excelsis. The Nunc Dimittis. All come from intensely personal moments of encountering God in Luke’s first two chapters. And yet, at least in the mainline, the kind of experiences that Luke is so intent on preserving and crafting as hallmarks of the arrival of the Christ, are the kinds of experiences that make us blush.
More and more I’m convinced that this blushing, this shying away from speaking about the way in which God shows up in tangible and meaningful ways is exactly where the work is. It is exactly what the Church needs to claim.
The twentieth century saw the mainline move its clergy into the model of a professional. We were there amongst the ranks of lawyers and doctors, giving clear and unassuming advice and counsel. Keeping our institutions running well and performing admirably. Such professionalism, as well intentioned as it may seem, can make little room for the Spirit, and even less for the messy ways in which the Spirit shows up in our own lives and in our own experience.
There is so precious little in scripture that backs this up. St. Luke seems to believe, rather clearly, that the Gospel shows up in us before we show up to proclaim the Gospel. As it becomes clearer and clearer that we can fill our desks with the utmost precision and professionalism and still see our numbers fall and our witness fade, we might need to take our stories, our personal encounters with God, as the place to start.
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Episcopal Priest and native Floridian, received his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013 and serves as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works to build community for the city’s booming downtown, and curates the Cathedral’s neighborhood satellite Circle South. He and his wife are the exhausted parents of two young boys. Feel free to follow the madness on IG @thebrokechurchman. Lee also (rarely) blogs at thebrokechurchman.wordpress.com.