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Sacred Encounters: Glimpsing the Divine

What defines a genuine spiritual experience? True spirituality is a journey beyond self, connecting deeply with the divine and extending concern to all.
This is Part 3 of a 3 part series. For Part 1: The Empirical Power of Spiritual Experience For Part 2: Sacred Encounters. Answered Prayers

The ideas in this article series draw from and build on ideas initially shared at an invited talk titled “How Sacred Experiences Can Provide Reasons for Eternal Hope,” given at the Reason for Hope lecture series sponsored by the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University on March 14, 2019.

In this article (Part 3/3 of this series on the empirical power of spiritual experience), I share some ways to think about spiritual experience and sacred experiences that I hope are helpful in strengthening your hope in eternal things. My hope is that the ideas and suggestions in this article will encourage and assist you in recording (e.g., in writing, audio, or video recording) your sacred personal experiences and describing your spiritual experience for the benefit of those you love.

Spiritual Experience and Spiritual Understanding

The Apostle Paul told the Colossians he desired for them to be “filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. 1:9). He said, “he that is spiritual judgeth all things” (1 Cor. 2:15); said, “concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant” (1 Cor. 121); said, “to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6); and encouraged the saints to “desire spiritual gifts” (1 Cor.14:1). The Apostle Peter said to “offer up spiritual sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5). Alma asked, “have ye spiritually been born of God?” (Alma 5:14). 

Together these passages suggest that spiritual gifts, spiritual understanding, and spiritual experience are to be sought and treasured. In contemporary culture, the word “spiritual” is used in various ways. The entry for “spirituality” in Wikipedia states, 

Modern usages tend to refer to a subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the “deepest values and meanings by which people live,” often in a context separate from organized religious institutions. This may involve belief in a supernatural realm beyond the ordinarily observable world, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaningreligious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension.”

Some elements of this definition of the spiritual are entirely individualistic in nature and not consistent with how I think of spiritual experiences. That is, if spiritual is considered separate from religion and mainly about personal growth and meaning, and only about one’s own inner world, it is merely another self-oriented activity or experience like so many others. 

However, if spiritual experience helps a person move beyond self toward God and others, it then has relational and social value. Wikipedia includes this thought by Rabbi Dr. Erik Lankin:

Spirituality is a personal quest for the transcendent, how one discerns life’s meaning in relation to God and other human beings. Healthy spirituality fosters healthy relationships and affirms all of life’s experiences as part of the journey.

For me, authentic spiritual experience involves sacred encounters with the living God. Because God is an actual being, spiritual experience is inherently relational. Authentic spiritual experience widens a person’s sphere of concern beyond the self to include all beings. That is, spiritual experience is at once profoundly personal and sacredly social. 

Huston Smith, the great scholar of religions, stated, “A spiritual experience does not a spiritual life make.” A life of sacred experiences, spiritual beliefs, spiritual practices, spiritual commitments, and spiritual community can come together to help a person develop what might be called spiritual experience, that is, an authentic, mature way of being spiritual. 

Therefore, I distinguish what I call spiritual experience from one sacred experience. That is, when I use the phrase spiritual experience in these essays, I am not necessarily referring only to one experience but more so the sum of spiritual experiences, values, practices, and communities. When referring to one spiritual, transcendent, mystical, or numinous experience, I typically use the phrase sacred experience.

For me, since spiritual experience involves encountering an eternal being and eternal realities and concerns, a near synonym for a spiritual experience is an eternal experience. Issues around how spirituality is considered are complex and important and deserve further treatment in a future article.

Sacred experiences can be primarily cognitive, emotional, spiritual, physical, or any combination of those four. They can involve a new or deepened awareness of truth, a connection with the divine, a providential series of events, or an answer to prayer. Sacred experiences can relate to almost any matter, including temple and family history, family relationships, art, music, nature, travel, or intellectual pursuits. They may be numinous or transcendent but may also be prosaic and mundane. Sacred experiences are nearly unlimited in their nature, scope, or subject.

The Empirical Reality of Personal Spiritual Experience

The Oxford English Dictionary (1971, vol. 1, A-0, p. 854) defines the word empirical as “That is adopted because found (or believed) to have been successful in practice” and “Pertaining to, or derived from, experience.”

In his monumental work, The Varieties of Religious Experiences, William James (1902/1997) commenced to bring scientific rigor to the study of the complex and challenging phenomenon of personal religious experiences. James, credited as a founder of both empirical psychology and the psychology of religion, rigorously and systematically explored thousands of pages of written reports of personal religious experiences from hundreds of persons of various cultures, faiths, times, places, personalities, and temperaments.

While it is true that transcendent experiences may seem ambiguous and are often impossible to prove, James contended that an individual’s perceptions of his or her experiences matter more than provable facts—and that when transcendent experience influences action, it is then that “God is real since he produces real effects” (p. 400). 

James not only argued that personal religious experiences should be considered real because they produce real effects in the real world but also that religious experiences are arguably the most real things human beings experience:

 … so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with the private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term (p. 386, italics in original).

To illustrate, James referred to the kinds of transcendent experiences that each person has at some point in life: 

That unsharable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made up. 

… The individual’s religion may be egotistic, and those private realities which it keeps in touch with may be narrow enough; but at any rate, it always remains infinitely less hollow and abstract, as far as it goes, than a science which prides itself on taking no account of anything private at all.

… By being religious, we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all (pp. 387-388).

In other words, our deepest spiritual experiences, in which we encounter the divine within and without ourselves, are the most real and consequential experiences that we have as human beings. When spiritual experiences produce real effects in us by changing us in some meaningful way, it is evidence of the reality of God and of God’s willingness and desire to be in us and work through us. 

Jesus said, “By their fruits, ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20), which can be interpreted as meaning, in part, that the gospel, including spiritual experience, produces actual, real, empirical evidence of God and God’s influence on us. 

Families Can Facilitate Sacred Experiences among Members 

Family religious practices can be approached and structured in ways that can facilitate personal and familial sacred experiences. Elder David A. Bednar, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ, stated, “If members of families, as they come together, would think in terms of ‘I’m preparing to participate in a revelatory experience with my family’… I think we would prepare and act much differently.”

Support for this emphasis on the importance of “revelatory experience” in a family context is provided by scholar Jana Reiss in her book, The Next Mormons, which is based on recent social science research on the Latter-day Saint experience. Reiss states, 

I would posit that the successful transmission of a religious identity is based on a combination of three indispensable elements: orthodox belief, an accepted code of behavior, and a fuzzier category I would describe as transformative religious experience. This third category is paramount if rising generations are to fully inhabit the faith of their parents. In other words, the “secret sauce” of religion as a core identity has to include not just the shoulds and shouldn’ts of belief and behavior but also a palpable sense that a devotee has personally encountered the divine. This is an area in which Mormonism seems to excel” (p. 21, emphasis added).

For me, as someone whose own redemptive religious journey began with one profound spiritual experience and then a series of additional undeniable and unforgettable sacred experiences that changed everything, I know that even one encounter with God, when remembered and acted on, can make all the difference. 

However, as someone who, in the 46 years since that pivotal experience, has been blessed with many more sacred experiences, I know that a sustained pattern of religious activity, including regular, meaningful, spiritual practices, is even better. 

My own observation is that we are more likely to enjoy meaningful, and even redemptive, sacred experiences when we are fervently seeking to commune with God, diligently striving to serve God, humbly seeking guidance or comfort from God, begging for forgiveness from God, joyfully sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others, and faithfully engaging in religious activities.

A Few Cautions 

I would now like to suggest a few cautions about how we think about sacred experiences. We should be very careful about judging someone else’s sacred experiences because they do not conform to our ideas, expectations, or experiences. Each of us is a unique soul and has unique sacred experiences. Some regularly experience a “burning of the bosom” (D&C 9:8), but others do not. Some faithful persons I know have never felt such a thing but rather experience the Holy Spirit enlightening their minds.

People differ widely in what they might consider to be a sacred experience. One person’s fortunate coincidence is another’s answered prayer. One person’s frustrating encounter with a scientific fact or mathematical formula is another’s spiritual “Aha” experience. One person’s bizarre dream is another’s revelatory vision. One person’s faith-killing trauma is another’s faith-building trial by fire. One person’s doubt-inducing historical fact is another’s answered historical question.

In reference to the Spirit, Jesus taught Nicodemus that we “canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8, KJV). When we feel a soft breeze on our face or a strong wind on our body, we know that we have been touched by something outside, beyond, and above us.  

Like many, I have felt both soft spiritual breezes and strong spiritual gales. Like canyon winds that come in the mornings and evenings, I have often—but not always—felt the Spirit during regular spiritual practices such as worshipping in a chapel or temple or during personal prayer or scripture study. In other cases, sacred experiences have come like an unexpected mighty wind that overpowers me. In our teaching about the working of the Holy Ghost, I believe we should be careful not to suggest that we can easily or always summon the Spirit with formulaic spiritual practices.

Sacred experiences and spiritual practices are not ends in themselves but rather means to grow toward greater unity with God and others. Sacred experiences and sacred practices can and should lead to greater sanctification of our souls. Indeed, most of the sacred experiences received by most people of faith are quiet, gentle, and gradual in nature and have a sanctifying influence that occurs over time—here a little and there a little. But I know from personal experience that it also is possible to experience a “mighty change” of heart in an instant.

Finally, we should not be surprised or offended if others do not respond to or even accept the legitimacy of our sacred experiences. On the other hand, we can have the sacred experience of having the Holy Spirit bear witness of truth to us when we hear or read about another person’s sacred experience.

Some Thoughts on Sharing Sacred Experiences

I believe that when people record and share their own sacred experiences, it is important for them to attend to certain issues. Inspired by President Gordon B. Hinckley’s list of “B-attitudes” given to the youth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would suggest that those of us who record and share sacred experiences try to attend to the following:

Be honest. Try to “speak the truth in love” so that you are an authentic but inoffensive witness of the goodness of God. Avoid embellishing the experience and just report what happened and what it has come to mean to you.

Be careful. Try to get the facts (names, dates, places) right so that you place your experience in context and thus make it easier for others to connect with your experience.

Be humble. Remember to give glory to God and to other people who were involved in your sacred experience.

Be faithful. Share your experience in a way that builds faith in the living God and turns the hearts of your readers/listeners to God.

Be compassionate. Be aware of the implications of how you share your experience with others who have not yet obtained the blessings you are writing/speaking about. Be compassionate toward those who, for whatever reason, might be hurt, offended, or otherwise bothered in some way by your story.

Be generous. Give others who are involved in your experience the benefit of the doubt about their motivations and intentions—especially when the experience was not necessarily a positive one for you.

Be open. Remain willing to revise your account of the experience to be more consistent with what you learn from others who might have been part of the experience and have different recollections, feelings, or thoughts than you about what occurred or what it means.

I would like to say that I perfectly follow my own advice in every account of my sacred experiences; however, while I have tried to do so, I’m sure that I have failed in some instances. Even so, my intent is to provide an accurate and honest and open and faithful account of my own sacred experiences to bear an authentic witness of the goodness of God in my own life. 

The Unique Power of Sacred Experiences

Sacred experiences have unique power in reminding us that we are spiritual beings now embodied in physical bodies and that we are eternal beings now embedded in time. Sacred experiences remind us that although we are now beset with earthly, mundane, and profane surroundings, we are, in our deepest essence, eternal beings. 

The Scottish Congregationalist minister and Christian apologist George McDonald wrote, “Never tell a child ‘you have a soul.’ Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body1.” The French Jesuit priest, philosopher, and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously stated, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” When we have such sacred experiences, we may sense a window opening to eternity.

Nationally syndicated columnist Michael Gerson, in a sermon he gave at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, said, “The answer to the temptation of nihilism is not an argument—though philosophy can clear away a lot of intellectual foolishness. It is the experience of transcendence we cannot explain or explain away.” Gerson went on to quote the second stanza of Christian philosopher G.K. Chesterton’s poem “The Convert“:

 The sages have a hundred maps to give

That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,

They rattle reason out through many a sieve

That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:

And all these things are less than dust to me

Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

Lazarus knew from his own experience that Jesus had power over death. Those of us who have experienced divine healing, received divine guidance, been changed by divine power, been made alive spiritually, or in other ways felt the power of God know for ourselves that God lives and that we live most abundantly as we live in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Despite how eternally important I believe sacred experiences can be, I would not make such an issue about them if I believed that such experiences were only available to spiritual virtuosi (i.e., “spiritual giants”) or were purely random events or were rare and fleeting like spiritual comets. Indeed, survey research demonstrates that most Americans report having had a mystical or religious experience. 

I believe that sacred experiences are common among all people who love the Lord and seek communion with God. I believe that, while not entirely within our control, sacred experiences are available to all—including those who are not even seeking the sacred. 

Those who have not yet tasted such sweet sacred experiences can do so as they faithfully, humbly, and patiently seek after the Lord and His righteousness. And, regardless of whether someone has personally enjoyed and recognized sacred personal experiences, they may find meaning, comfort, and inspiration from hearing of such experiences from loved ones.

May the Lord bless you and keep you as you seek to recognize, to remember, and to record your own sacred experiences, to share them with others, and to thus bear your witness of the goodness of God in your life. 

NOTE:

1. Published in British Friend, a Quaker magazine.

 

About the author

David Dollahite

David C. Dollahite, Ph.D., is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith.
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