One of the most typical reactions we have to a deeply moving experience, is to hang on to it, to cling to it. Whether it is something related to our work, to our home or social life; whether it is a moment when we seem to suddenly understand a concept we have struggled with in a particular field – science or mathematics for example; whenever we have one of these ‘aha’ moments or ‘wow’ moments, we tend to want to remain there. This is especially true in the spiritual or interior life. When we have a particular insightful moment or an awareness of God, we might be tempted to cling tightly to that insight. Often we want to revisit these experiences, sometimes even trying to escape from thinking about certain trials or struggles we go through by ‘summoning up’ a previous happy ‘moment’.
There is something to beware in this, though, especially in the spiritual life. There is a real temptation to want to ‘re-live’ or ‘re-create’ the event that brought about a particular experience – it may have been a real sense of the power of the Holy Spirit, or an insight into the unconditional love of God, or a deeply felt awareness in our own hearts of the presence of Christ in others. We may have had this experience on a retreat, or during a specific Mass. But rather than simply accepting this insight or experience as a grace moment, as a gift from God, we cling to it and try to duplicate the conditions so that we can have this experience again, and again, and again.
The fact is, when we are deep in prayer, and if we are blessed enough to have one of these insights, the moment we try to ‘figure out’ how we got to that point, the moment of that experience begins to slip away from us.
The danger in this, particularly if this involves our prayer life and spirituality, is that we have become focussed on a gift, and have forgotten about the Giver; we are hoping for the ‘high’ that we felt in that momentary experience – rather than simply accepting a gift with a sense of gratitude. We try to cling to that grace as if it is something private and meant only for us, and we become defensive if anyone should ‘intrude’ into that grace. And in doing that, we turn these ‘moments’ into something that almost become little gods in themselves.
We forget that God gives us these grace moments to draw us deeper into a relationship with Him, and subsequently to draw others into that relationship. Jesus did not teach his disciples to seek the kingdom of God solely for themselves or for their own benefit. Time after time he reminds them, and us, of our responsibility to be witnesses to the kingdom, to invite others into the kingdom – to make the love of God and the mercy of Christ known to everyone. The whole point is to go out and bring others into that loving companionship of Jesus – and not simply by quoting a few catch-phrases or nice-sounding quotes; we are to do so by a lived example; by being visible signs, by being witnesses to the very real and precious love of God moving through our own lives.
The disciples had numerous deep and moving experiences and an intimate knowledge of the power and the presence of Jesus in their own lives. The Acts of the Apostles, in our first reading on this feast of the Ascension, tells us how after his resurrection, Jesus spends an additional forty days with his friends; teaching them, comforting them, sharing with them. To say that they have had a deeply spiritual experience in the presence of Jesus, who they have seen raised from the dead, would be an understatement. But here they are, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and Jesus is lifted up.
(Luke is quite specific here – he says lifted up and that they lose sight of him in the clouds – it’s not as if Jesus kind of faded into nothingness on the ground in front of them, or ‘metaphorically’ ascended to a ‘higher consciousness’ – Luke who takes great pains in the detail of his gospel and the Acts, says Jesus was lifted up and they lost sight of him in the clouds)
But while they are ‘caught up’ in this experience, standing in awe and not moving, two strangers in white robes (we’re given the impression they are angels) say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go to heaven.” In other words, the angels seem to be reminding the disciples; you’ve had a wonderful experience. Now instead of standing here and clinging to it, do something with it!
And just what are they supposed to do? Well in St. Mark’s gospel which we heard today, before his ascension, Jesus tells his disciples to go and proclaim the good news ‘to the whole creation” Yes, he tells them they will work great wonders, but the important thing is that they spread this ‘good news’ – the good news that God has reconciled all of humanity to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That the history of God working through the children of Israel to make Himself known to all people has culminated in this point, and that this salvation, this reconciliation to God is held out for all who will accept Christ. But this language of Jesus in this gospel, to ‘go and proclaim’ is how Jesus tells the disciples, just as the angels tell them, and us; ‘you have received a tremendous gift – an experience of relationship with God himself; now do something with it! Go out and share it with others; share it with those who do not know God; share it with those who are starving for relationship; share it with those who are trying desperately to fill their lives with all sorts of things that cannot possibly satisfy them; share it with those who have no sense of being loved.’
The reality of the love of God in our own lives is not restricted to single experiences or grace moments; the love of God is something that moves and lives and breathes in and around and through us every day, all the time, if only we have eyes to see it
Perhaps in hearing this gospel we may have one of those grace moments; a sense of the wonder and beauty and nearness of God. If that happens thank God for it, and rather than clinging to it tightly as a private possession, release it with an open hand and open heart, to see how God will use this experience to draw us and others closer to himself. That is, after all, why we were created, and why Jesus entered into our humanity in the first place; to teach us how to receive the most precious gift of all, the love of God, and to do something wonderful with it.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!