Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Spirituality: Too close for comfort
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the June 15, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
A few members of a local evangelical church recently attended Sunday Mass at the parish where I serve. After Mass they bubbled with questions: Why did I wear that big flowing robe? How did the people know when to stand, sit or kneel? What’s that little red light up there by the altar?
I happily entertained many similar questions but an unexpected query caught me off guard: Do you guys (sic) ever have personal testimony time in your services? My brief “no” and stumbling response felt inadequate because I knew that the sharing of testimonies was an integral part of my inquirer’s church service. At the invitation of her pastor I had attended one of his worship services.
I remember the occasion well. As part of the Sunday evening service, the pastor had called on a young high school student to share his conversion story. His words were quite moving as he described how he had pushed himself in a variety of directions until he had met Jesus in a wonderful experience of transforming grace. As he talked and the tears flowed I remember how uncomfortable I felt. My experience was a strange mixture of loving appreciation and happiness for him and at the same time a sense of embarrassment. Perhaps there was a bit of fear, too — fear that the pastor would spot me and call me forward to tell my story of faith. Did I breathe a sigh of relief when he finally invited the congregation to stand for a resounding rendition of “Amazing Grace”!
This encounter has come to mind often as a source of reflection about the fundamental dynamics of our Christian spirituality. This young high school student was not at all abashed about telling the story of how God had changed his life. He talked as if he were wearing a badge of courage that marked him out as special. In fact, it almost seemed to delight him to tell others what God had done for him.
We Catholics generally feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who shares their personal testimony. We can readily listen to people brag about their golf game, latest trip to Africa or night out at the movies — but let them tell us about their personal relationship of God’s saving grace, the room suddenly becomes a bit warm. Personal testimony evidently is just too close for comfort.
That’s the point — too close for comfort! Stories about golf games, fishing trips and movies — however excitedly they may be narrated — are basically sources of information. They communicate facts which may or may not be coated with emotion. We may be happy for the narrator, but we cannot enter into their experience.
When someone talks about their relationship with God, it is different — and we know it. The telling of the story strikes resonant chords in our own heart and often stirs up a lingering hunger for a similar touch of grace. We know deep inside that we share in some grace-filled way in their experience. God is the same for one and all — even if the stories are multiple of how God’s presence is experienced.
Listening to someone’s testimony can be threatening. If we listen with open mind and generous heart, their words indeed do come too close for comfort. For when we hear a humble, honest story of how God has touched someone’s life, we have to make a decision. The fundamental question is not, “How are such things possible for them?” More specifically, “Are they possible for me?” Not that I can repeat the other person’s experience (because I can’t) but the strands of similarity are sufficient to make me aware that God’s hand is not all that far from my own heart.
As the Church closes out the Easter season with the feast of Pentecost I cannot help but think once again about this encounter.
The Gospel — the Good News of our salvation in Christ — finds its roots in the testimony of the apostles and the experience of Christians ever since. There is indeed a secondary aspect to the proclamation of the Gospel we call teaching tradition, religious education, catechesis, etc. But in essence, the Gospel is testimony to what God has done for us all in the experience of the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
We can find security in our catechism answers, liturgical rituals and correct doctrinal statements, but in essence, God’s living Spirit shared ever so generously by the Risen Lord calls us to personal conversion stories as we walk with the God who floods us with amazing grace. Every disciple of Jesus, regardless of time and place, should have something to say about what has happened to him or her. We each have a story to tell.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics
Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
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