Experience Is Everything
They say knowledge is power, but in matters of faith I don't think that's necessarily true. To be sure, a knowledge of Scripture helps believers comprehend and appreciate readings at Mass and the Homily. And knowledge of the teachings of the Church, what we believe, and most importantly what we don't believe, makes a strong apologist. But knowledge for knowledge's sake doesn't really get us closer to the presence of God in our lives.
You see, we aren't a gnostic church. We don't have secret knowledge to which only certain groups or people have access. We don't have successive levels of knowledge which are only unlocked as you go along. We are an Incarnational people, and the Incarnation is based on experience, not knowledge.
God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, the Gospel of John tells us. He chose that particular means of salvation to give us a Savior who experienced the fullness of humanity. A Savior who condescended to walk among us and interact with his brothers and sisters through shared experiences. The apostles in turn walked to the ends of the earth and the ends of their lives to share those experiences. The Gospels are full of the stories of Jesus' experiences among us. The parables and the Last Discourse reveal Jesus' teaching but he wraps them up in experiential language and example. He is the vine, we are the branches. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man seeking a pearl of great price. And so on.
This is important because while everyone may not have knowledge, everyone can have experience. Like Grace and Mercy, experience is not earned. Experience is not just for clergy or saints or even believers, the experience of God is open without limit to all His children. Let's recall Paul's conversion -- no knowledge required and in fact, no belief was required. It just happened because of God's Mercy. I would suspect that even after all the knowledge he acquired and dispensed so beautifully to us, the thing that kept Paul going -- even to his martyrdom -- was that experience on the road to Damascus.
Experience poses a problem to the modern believer in at least two ways. One, we aren't intentional about experiencing God on a personal level. Our lives are busy and fraught, we often push Him to the backburner. We seek Him at Mass but have forgotten him by midmorning on Monday, not to consider Him again until the next Sunday. Carving out time to be with Him is as difficult as dieting but far more important and yet has no quantitative reminder -- there is no soul scale telling us how far we're off the mark. This makes it easy to dismiss our yearning for the experience of God in our lives. And yet we yearn more deeply than we can reasonably fathom. Two, we simply don't believe in our own experiences. We can read the Gospels, and the Epistles; we can pour over the lives of the saints, profoundly moved by the likes of St. Faustina. But we don't believe it could, or has, happened to us. And we would likely be reluctant to share those experiences with others. That's when our minds get in the way of what our heart or soul has experienced. I'm fond of saying the Red Sea parts every day. But chances are we attribute it to coincidence or blind luck, or worse, we were on our phones at the time and missed it entirely.
Now to be fair, some of us seek experience as we delve into the knowledge. We believe with our heads before our hearts. That's fine so all as the heart is open and equally engaged. But try as you might, you won't be able to figure Him out completely. However, like Mary Magdalene and St. Faustina, you will see Him in your own way. It's a remarkable thing to have your own experience with the God of Many Surprises, uncolored by anyone else's. That's what a personal relationship is made up of. You may not see Him corporally, or in an image you are compelled to have painted, but He is there and most often you'll see Him through His Mercy.
Perhaps that's why I loved the Spiritual Exercises so much -- day after day of having my own experience in the Gospels. To look back on my life and see the experiences of His Divine Mercy with which He has blessed me, for reasons known only to Him, and from them to come to know His Mercy will continue. In this way, my heart informed my head, instead of the other way around. I am a sinner and yet His Mercy covers my sins. Try as I might, I can't figure that out.
Mercy is the greatest experience in our Church. Communion flows from it, so does Reconciliation. It is the reason for the Incarnation and the Resurrection. It is not a knowledge, it's an experience of God which should then flow out into our own experiences in the world. It should be a never-ending chain reaction of love. It is given freely by our Savior, not uncovered by the enlightened. Deep inside our spirits, we sense this, we know this not through acquired information but through that spark placed in us by our Creator. We are hardwired for resurrection. Not just for His, which we celebrate with such joy, but our own which we anticipate with hope and faith. His plan of Divine Mercy draws us to Him despite the sins of the world. The challenge today and always is to share the experience of that Mercy with others and so become a part of His Human Mercy. For us and for the whole world.