The Varieties of Religious Experience

~3rd Sunday of Easter and a Reading from Luke 24:13-35

Emory University Hospital chaplains share overnight barracks with doctors working the 7PM to 7AM shift. These quarters are located in a small corner of the hospital in what is referred to as the Annex Building. The Annex Building of Emory’s hospital is set up much like a college dormitory. There is a common room with a television, phone, and lockers to put one’s earthly possessions. The sleep rooms are nothing to write home about. They have a humbling twin mattress, a thin comforter, and even thinner sheets. During the winter months the rooms are furnished with a portable plug-in heater that fits nicely in the corners of the virtually monk-like cells. Chaplains, like the on-call doctors, are to sleep in these cells with their phones on in anticipation of an emergency call. Unlike the doctors whose likelihood guarantees a call at some point during the night, chaplains are not given such high probabilities. This leaves the chaplain in a state of anticipation – be it holy or not. Regardless, the stress of expectancy makes for many a sleepless night.

Before the chaplain retires to the Annex Building, they are to go on night rounding. This means visiting all the ICU’s in the hospital as well as the emergency department, and the in-house hospice floor. The chaplain checks in at each nurses’ station introducing themselves as the night chaplain, and asking if the nurses anticipate any event that would require the chaplain’s presence. Most nurses would tell me not to worry, and to have a goodnight. I would respond with similar accolades, be it hesitantly, knowing in my heart that God likes to interrupt plans for the evening.

One night while visiting the hospice care unit located on floor five, the nurse informed me that a family was set to arrive from out of state in order to visit their loved one in room number two – we’ll call the patient, Mr. Jones. “Mr. Jones,” the nurse quietly said, “is waiting on his family to arrive. He understands that they are on their way, but I have a feeling,” she continued, “that once they arrive, he won’t last for very much longer. I will give you a call once they are here.” I thanked the nurse, told her both she and Mr. Jones would be in my evening prayers, and made my way back down to the Annex Building.

Hospital chaplains are privy to the thin places in this life, and when you get two or more talking, the subject of death – and when he visits – becomes speculative conversation. At the beginning of my time as a chaplain one of the supervisors informed our chaplaincy group to be aware of 3 am. The morning hour of three, so it seemed, was a time when death liked to make his rounds. So, it was no surprise when around 2:30 in the morning, I received a call from Floor 5 – the hospice floor. The family from Alabama had arrived, and they requested the night chaplain. I quickly got dressed, grabbed my prayer book, and as I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to the 5th floor elevator, I said at least two Our Father’s.

By the time I had arrived at the threshold of Room #2, Mr. Jones’ family was gathered around his bedside keeping vigil. Hushed voices and quiet tears were the evening’s oblations. Solemnity was the prayer. This calm was slightly disrupted by a young woman, probably Mr. Jones’ granddaughter. When she saw me, she quickly asked if I could get some water. “Sure,” I said. I’m happy to do so. Would you like tap, or bottled?” “No no no,” she protested. “It’s for his baptism.” I was taken aback. I didn’t quite understand. “His baptism,” I inquired? “Pappi would like to be baptized.” I looked up at the nurse who I had spoken with earlier in the evening, and she simply nodded.

At this point in my ministry I was very green. I was in the middle of discerning whether or not I wanted to be a priest. I certainly was not ordained, and I had yet learned the riches of the prayer book that at the time I was tightly holding onto, hand sweating. I don’t know if I’m allowed to do this, I thought. What will I tell my discernment group? Will this hinder me from becoming a priest? Can Mr. Jones even speak letting me know he does, indeed, want to be baptized? As these stressors entered into my brain, I made my way into the break room where I would find a simple bowl and the tap. As I placed the bowl under the facet and turned the nozzle, all my anxiety the moment before stopped as the water started. The water – the element that gives us life, cleanses us, and with God’s grace sets us free. I had bathed in this water before, and now God was asking me to bathe another.

When I reentered Mr. Jones’ room I had my prayer book at the ready. I had noticed grape juice and crackers in the kitchen, and had asked the nurse to bring those in as well. She set the table up for me while I bent down to Mr. Jones’ ear and whispered the question, “Do you desire to be baptized?” He was not able to speak, but nodded slightly. I then asked the family to answer on behalf of him when it came to the part in the baptismal liturgy where questions would be given. They agreed, and gathered around the prayer book. We began with St. Paul’s words, “There is one Body and one Spirit. There is one hope in God’s call to us. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; One God and Father of all.” After the baptism of Mr. Jones, the family and I concluded the liturgy with Holy Communion where wine was substituted with Welch’s grape juice, and bread with Saltine crackers. After the family thanked me, and we had said one final prayer, a very large man (maybe Mr. Jones’ son?) grabbed hold of me, and gave me a huge bear hug before I departed the room. I add this detail to my story only because it was at that moment above all others where I sincerely felt the presence of Christ. I found God through that embrace. The world had stopped for just a moment, and Christ was letting me know he was in the room. He was there in the midst of death, in tap water, crackers and juice; and in that life-giving, loving embrace. At around 3 in the morning, I left the room thankfully broken before God – my heart burning with His Presence.

In this 3rd Sunday of Easter, we are no longer gazing dumbstruck at the empty tomb; instead, we are telling stories of God’s presence. The Church bears witness to our storytelling in the same way those disciples on the road to Emmaus were witnesses to Christ’s company. Scholars will tell us that St. Luke’s story of the walk to Emmaus narratively signifies the Holy Eucharist. The first part of the liturgy – the Word portion – is represented narratively when Christ opens up the Word of God to his friends so much so that their hearts burned within them. The second part of the liturgy – Holy Communion – is represented narratively when Christ was made known to them in the breaking of the bread; and look what happened after the liturgy. The disciples went to share their story with the other disciples, thus making God’s presence and story real to others.

Persons often speak with one another revealing stories of religious and spiritual experiences. Some of these stories are interpreted through the lenses of the Church. Others are not. Regardless if you have ever had a spiritual experience like the above does not matter. What does matter is that each and every one of you gets to experience Christ within Holy Eucharist – in the Word spoken, and in the breaking of the bread. If you have never had a religious experience where the thin places of this dimension and the next were laid bare for you, don’t worry. You are invited to have a religious experience with the Risen One every time Mass is said and divine elements are taken in. But don’t get so hung up on the experience itself that you forget the most important part: To go and share your storied experience about the Risen Christ in whatever form or action he chooses to reveal himself to you. Tell His story, and if you need some help let the Church guide you through her holy gifts for holy people.

One thought on “The Varieties of Religious Experience

  1. Pingback: God Desires to be Seen, Sought, Expected, and Trusted | fatherbrandon

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