Very few of the young people with whom I work are comfortable talking openly about any so-called religious experiences. This, of course, does not mean that people today cease to have such experiences. It points, rather, to the fact that we tend to frame and explain such occurrences in a very different way to how we might have done in the past. (Trystan Hughes in The Compassion Quest)
Some time ago I was visiting Niagara Falls with my wife and my in-laws. We’d parked on the Canadian side in glorious sunshine, walked along the riverside and made our way to the Maid of the Mist launch point. We’d experienced the power of the falls close up on the boat and we still have our blue plastic raincoats to remember it by. After the boat trip we climbed back up to the top and found a table at a chicken restaurant overlooking the falls. As we were sat there we saw the storm roll in from the East. Big dark threatening clouds with the occasional crack of lightning. As it got closer the rain began pounding down, and the thunder got louder and the flashed got brighter and closer. We moved to a table inside. A few minutes later – CRACK – lightning struck the building we were in. This all continued for a half hour or so. My American in-laws expressed regret that I had to see Niagara in such weather. There was no need to apologise. It was exhilarating. We don’t get weather like that over here.
Whilst I’m not suggesting that this was an overtly religious experience, it was certainly transcendent – one in which I felt very connected to the environment around. In fact, what I’ve outlined above is mostly a description of the facts involved in the day, with very little about my emotions or sense of connectedness. Perhaps due to being British or middle-class, my emotional vocabulary doesn’t quite do the experience justice. Trystan Hughes contends that the same is true of religious experience today. John Wesley describes his first major experience of God as having ‘a heart strangely warmed’. Those of us who have had such experiences will recognise such a thing, but many others in today’s society with struggle to find the appropriate language to describe it, or may even fail to recognise that such transcendent experiences are from God. It is not that these experiences don’t happen anymore, but that they are seldom spoken about.
I remember attending a Christian youth event and as part of the ‘call’ I went forward to receive prayer. As I was being prayed for a felt, as clear as anything, a hand being placed on my head, which remained there for the duration of the prayer. I had presumed that during the prayer, the person ministering to me had placed their hand on my head. But when I opened my eyes I found that their hands were by their side. This was undoubtedly an experience of God.
Many may have had such experiences but have no opportunity or language to describe them. God is not in the business of hiding himself away. Hughes again:
Perhaps, then, one of our faith’s roles in today’s society is to affirm such experiences, as one of out greatest gifts is that we can provide a language to frame such ‘encounters’.