Why Experience Is Not the Foundation of (All) Spirituality

I’ve been reading a book by William A. Barry, a Jesuit priest who is an authority on spiritual direction. The book, Finding God in All Thingsis a companion to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. If you’re not familiar with it, the Spiritual Exercises are the foundation of Ignatian (Jesuit) spirituality, which emphasizes fostering a loving, intimate relationship with God as the principle and foundation of a mature and healthy spiritual life.

In chapter two of his book, Fr. Barry talks about the importance of a meaningful and life-defining experience that can orient our lives toward — to use traditional language — knowing, loving, serving and enjoying God. He notes that such an experience must be real — not an abstract idea or figment of the imagination — and universal enough that it is a common experience for all humanity.

Finding God in All Things

He goes on to describe a variety of authors, both spiritual and literary, who describe such experiences. This does not have to be explicitly religious, which is to say, an “experience of God” — it could be an experience of life-defining love, or a sense of meaningful longing for “I-know-not-what,” or even just a profound intuition of the basic rightness or goodness of things.

On the surface, I can relate to this idea: that experience is the foundation of spirituality. After all, I had one such experience when I was sixteen years old, at a Lutheran youth retreat — it was a profound, life-altering sense of God’s presence and infinite, unconditional love (you can read about it here). Based on conversations I’ve had with therapists, it’s my understanding that such “mystical awakenings” are not that uncommon, particularly among adolescents.

So I understand how this emphasis on a life-defining experience of God can seem really important to people seeking a meaningful spiritual life. Indeed, it is almost a commonplace to say, “I don’t want dogma, I want an experience of God.”

Alas, this emphasis on experience flies in the face of my formation as a Lay Cistercian — and, indeed, of my knowledge of a major stream in the history of Christian mysticism.

Not All “Experiences” Are Created Equal

If we base spirituality on experience, then this is the question that keeps nagging at me: what about all the people who don’t have (or even who just can’t recall) such “unitive” experiences?

The Cloud of Unknowing, which points us away from an “experience” of God.

I think it’s dangerous to say that experience should be the necessary foundation for spiritual growth, because if we do, where does that leave a person who doesn’t have such an experience? Are they just out of luck, spiritually speaking? Should they just “imagine” it? Or pretend? I think trying to force an experience of God is a trap — and the great medieval manual of contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowingeven suggests that people who try to “manufacture” religious experience are “the devil’s contemplatives”!

Here’s the crux of the matter. The apophatic (image-less) tradition of Christian spirituality — also known as “negative mysticism,” the tradition exemplified by Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing and John of the Cross — emphasizes the hiddenness and unknowability of God, the mystery of God, the fact that it is far easier for human beings to say what God is not than to say with any finality what God is.

So the apophatic tradition takes as its “principle and foundation” not an experience of God, but rather an acknowledgement of God’s essential mystery. God’s hiddenness, if you will. This is why Saint Paul says we are justified by faith — not by “experience.”

After all, experiences can be absent, or can be deceiving. An experience of God may be nothing more than an overactive imagination, or it might even be a projection of one’s own ego ideal onto the heavens — an experience of a “god” who is really just my ego, writ large across the cosmos! Of course, we can hope that effective spiritual direction would help a person to recognize when a purported spiritual experience is actually ego-driven rather than God-inspired. But that still leaves unanswered the question: what about people who simply do not have (or do not recall having) such powerful, experiential encounters with God?

Even though I myself had quite a remarkable “awakening experience” as a youth, subsequent to that I became involved in evangelical/charismatic spirituality. In the circles I moved, there was tremendous emphasis on experience. To be saved, you had to have an experience of accepting Christ as your personal savior. To be considered baptized in the Holy Spirit, you had to have an experience of receiving charismatic gifts, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues.

I discovered, to my dismay, that people would actually coach newcomers on how to speak in tongues. If it were a genuine gift from God, wouldn’t a person simply receive the gift — and not have to be coached on it? And if it really were meant for everyone, is it fair to call it a gift? To hear my charismatic friends describe spiritual experiences, it sounded like something people felt entitled to receive. And what is to be done about the persons who “fake” the experience, just to fit in with the tribe or to feel good about themselves?

So back to Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises. I recognize that experience is a key element of Ignatian spirituality. But I think I’m going to hold on to my monastic recognition that sometimes God meets us in the lack of any discernible experience. That leads to the dark night of faith — the cloud of unknowing — and it has its own treasures (and its own challenges). I do not write this to attack Ignatian spirituality, but rather simply to acknowledge that every system of spirituality has its limitations — which would explain why, over the centuries, God has graced the human family with many different approaches to spiritual formation and spiritual living.

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