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The Importance of Experience

Spiritual Direction

The Importance of Experience
Sunday, June 20, 2021

No matter the religion or denomination in which we are raised, our spirituality still comes through the first filter of our own life experience. We must begin to be honest about this instead of pretending that any of us are formed exclusively by the Scriptures or our church Tradition. There is no such thing as an entirely unbiased position. The best we can do is own and be honest about our own filters. God allows us to trust our own experience. Then Scripture and Tradition hopefully keep our personal experiences both critical and compassionate. These three components—Scripture, Tradition, and experience—make up the three wheels of what we at the CAC call the learning “tricycle” of spiritual growth. [1]

Historically, Catholics loved to say we relied upon the Great Tradition, but this usually meant “the way we have done it for the last hundred years.” What we usually consider “official teaching” changes every century or so. Most of our operative images of God come primarily from our early experiences of authority in family and culture, but we use teachings from the Tradition and Scriptures to validate them!

If we try to use “only Scripture” as a source of spiritual wisdom, we get stuck, because many passages give very conflicting and even opposite images of God. I believe that Jesus only quoted those Scriptures that he could validate by his own inner experience. At the same time, if we humans trust only our own experiences, we will be trapped in subjective moods and personal preferences.

It helps when we can verify that at least some holy people and orthodox teachers (Tradition) and some solid Scripture also validate our own experiences. Such affirmation makes us more confident that we are in the force field of the Holy Spirit and participating in God’s sacred work in this world.

Jesus and Paul clearly use and build on their own Jewish Scriptures and Tradition, yet they both courageously interpret them through the lens of their own unique personal experience of God. This is undeniable! We would do well to follow their examples. I will admit that the experiences we have of God—and of our own lives and desires—can be confusing and sometimes even contradictory to one another. This is why it is so helpful to have someone to walk with us as we uncover the deeper meaning of our experiences and what they might reveal to us about God and ourselves.

Christians have always relied on wise individuals to companion them in the process of coming to know who God is for them and who they are in God. As my friend Tilden Edwards, founder of the Shalem Institute writes, “We yearn for a soul-friend with whom we can share our desire for the Holy One and with whom we can try to identify and embrace the hints of divine Presence and invitation in our lives.” [2] Such soul-friends are sometimes called “spiritual directors,” the subject of this week’s meditations.

References:
[1] I am grateful to spiritual director Rev. Carolyn Metzler for this helpful “tricycle” analogy, a dynamic improvement upon the traditional Wesleyan “quadrilateral,” or four-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. I hesitate to give reason a full wheel on our model—at this point in history it entirely takes over! Instead, I try to use Scripture, Tradition, and Experience in self-critical and “rational” ways. It took me a long time to come to that hopefully helpful principle. (No offense to dear John Wesley.)

[2] Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion: Guide to Tending the Soul (Paulist Press: 2001), 2.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . : Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), 5; and

Scripture as Liberation, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2002), MP3 download.

Explore further resources and watch Father Richard Rohr explain why more people are asking for—and benefiting from—spiritual direction.

Story from Our Community:
Fr. Richard’s reflections and spiritual direction help me to listen to my dreams, own my shadow, and trust the authenticity of my own experience. Even though I may never witness their fruits, my intention is to scatter seeds of hope and love. Thank you.
—Marie M.

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, caught II (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.
Image inspiration: This pattern of leaves exists for a brief moment in time—a calm just before wind buffets the surface and the leaves shift. Like these leaves, our many facets of human experience are in constant motion. Spiritual direction invites us to gently reveal this dance, moment by moment.
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