Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

That uncomfortable feeling

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the May 20, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky A couple weeks ago some members of a nearby evangelical church attended Sunday Mass in our parish. Their visit was unexpected – and the unexpected usually expands one’s horizons. After Mass the small group 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 these and several similar questions, but a particularly challenging query caught me off guard. “Do you guys (sic) ever have personal testimony time in your services?”

The question evoked that uncomfortable feeling we Catholics get when pushed outside our comfortable liturgical boundaries. My brief “no” and stumbling response felt inadequate because I knew that the sharing of personal testimony was an integral part of my inquirers’ church services. (In other pastoral assignments I had been an inquisitive attendee myself.)

I remember those occasions well. As part of the Sunday service, the pastor often calls on individuals to share their conversion stories. Or the members of the congregation seem to do so spontaneously as part of common prayer time. I remember in particular the testimony of one young man. His words were quite moving as he described how he had wandered in a variety of directions until he had met Jesus in a wonderful experience of transforming grace. As he talked and his tears flowed I remember how uncomfortable I felt. My experience was a strange mixture of 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 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. That young college student was not at all embarrassed 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 when someone shares his or her personal testimony. We can readily listen to people brag about a golf game, the latest trip to Zanzibar or the night out at the movies – but let them tell us about their personal relationship of God’s saving grace and the room suddenly turns a bit pasty. 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 a relationship with God, however, 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 do 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 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 loving hand is not all that far from my own heart.

Once again this week as the Church closes out the Easter season with the celebration of Pentecost I cannot help think once again about my brief encounters with the more “evangelical” expression of the Christian Faith. 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 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 – if we are willing to put it to words.

(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)

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