Question: First, I'd like to tell you how much I love your column. I look forward to it every week. I can hardly wait until lunch to read it. I love your open-mindedness and appreciate your humor.
Now, for the topic at hand: In 2007, I was at church during Divine Mercy Sunday and preparing for my confession. I was sitting by myself in the chapel, but there were several other people around talking quietly or meditating. All of a sudden, this "feeling" came over me. It was so incredible I had a hard time understanding what was happening.
Then I realized I was crying and couldn't seem to get hold of my emotions. I sat there for an unknown amount of time, caught up in what was happening. It was such an incredible feeling both inside and outside that the only way I can describe it is as being touched by God.
Even though I was crying, I was crying for joy. I felt completely euphoric.
I can't remember if I ever made my confession, nor do I remember leaving the church. I couldn't talk about what happened for months because just thinking about it made me cry.
Any thoughts? — D., via email@example.com
Answer: I'm very happy that you take joy in what I write. I'm also glad that I help you enjoy your lunch. Your moving description of your experience in church touched my heart. I have no doubt what you felt was indeed God's touch, but for those who might not agree, I have no desire to debate the point.
Whether or not your emotional overload occurred because you felt the presence of God is the wrong question to ask, because it can't be answered with any degree of certainty. The right questions about this experience, it seems to me, are those that lead you to ask yourself what the experience means to you, or how it will change you.
The essential element I'd take from your amazing moment is that you experienced supervening joy in a broken and often joyless world. To know that absolute joy is always possible will take you through the darkest night.
Your experience validates my feeling we're not alone in an unfeeling, bleak cosmos, and that despite all despairing evidence, life is not only good, but also supremely good. I also hope that your private moment will lead you to find ways to serve others who haven't yet seen the light of joy.
Surely, many people could use your radiant smile as you serve them lunch at a soup kitchen, piercing the loneliness of their daily lives. Perhaps your tears of joy could fill others with a joy that has eluded them.
I believe God fills us with private joy in order to give us strength to fill the world with public good.
Many great writers and poets have tried to express this ineffable joy at feeling close to God. One of my favorite passages comes from psychologist and philosopher William James, who wrote of a similar experience in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902). He quotes a communication from a clergyman. I believe you'll understand every word:
"I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep — the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars.
"I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For the moment, nothing but an ineffable joy and exultation remained.
"It's impossible fully to describe the experience; it was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion.
"The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself be, if possible, the less real of the two."