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  • David OMalley

Returning to Religion of The Heart


In 1986 John McCarthy, a journalist, was abducted by jihadist terrorists in Beirut. He was alone in his cell for over three months and hearing the sound of tortured prisoners all around him. One morning the cumulative fear overwhelmed him. He said that he felt that he was being sucked down into a whirlpool of despair. Suddenly he was on his knees, gasping to breathe and almost lost consciousness. He could only cry out, ‘help me please, oh God help me!’ The next moment he was on his feet and surrounded by a warm light and was dancing! In less than a breath, his despair had vanished and he was full of optimism and hope. He was left with a huge sense of gratitude, but not being religious, he was unsure whom to thank. Eventually he described it as a good spirit and he revisited that experience many times whenever his resolve began to slip.

John is not unusual. Many people, especially when they meet situations that take them out of their normal environment are opened up to spiritual experience. It may be an accident, an illness, or a separation that triggers an awareness of a deeper and wider dimension of life. That awareness can lead to a complete re-shaping of priorities, a deeper view of the world and often a more positive and generous outlook on life. Those changes are often sustained throughout the rest of life. All this is achieved without a formal religious background so it seems that this awareness is ours simply because we are human.

If that is true, then every person in our churches and our schools is already spiritual even before they reach the baptismal font. They are already in a relationship with the spiritual mystery at the heart of existence that we often call God. Spiritual experience is ordinary experience in depth. It is so intimate and close, and yet it also reaches out to encompass all space and time. It escapes words and breaks through without our control. We are not in charge, our sense of time is changed, we learn something vital but cannot get it into adequate words.

When Jesus emerged from the waters of Baptism, he had such an experience. He was overwhelmed by the Spirit and also the awareness that he was the Son of God. Such an awareness probably left him confused enough to escape to the desert, to be alone, and to make sense of this deepened awareness of his life’s work. Spiritual experience is like an earthquake, it has a strong initial impact that is followed by smaller ‘aftershocks’ which clarify the implications for a way of living. It takes time and reflection to unpack, it takes time to allow the experience to reshape life.

A spiritual experience may last for seconds or a few minutes but the reverberations are overwhelming. The process of reflecting and interpreting begins immediately and can last a lifetime. The way that a person interprets an experience can clarify it, twist it, or discount it. I am reminded of Scrooge reflecting on his experience of Marley’s ghost in ‘A Christmas Carol’ which he puts down more to gravy than the grave. Many people discount these experiences because our culture is toxic to this area of reality. It cannot be measured, controlled or tested and therefore is called subjective. If that is so how come it was able to transform the hostage experience of John McCarthy? Such experiences have real effects in our world. They make us stronger, wiser, more resilient, more at peace and open-minded.

How do people describe these experiences? You can see thousands of experiences recorded at The University of Lampeter Archive of Religious Experience and see the variety of experiences, ages and settings within which people frame their experience. Three words emerge that seem significant to me, three words that form the roots of personal experience and also formal religion:


Good True Beautiful

The goodness of spiritual experience overwhelms the individual; it resonates through their life story and has a purity and benevolence that moves a person emotionally. There is also an awareness that the experience is more true and real than anything else, evaporating our normal awareness with its intensity. Finally, it is beautiful. There is a harmony and a rightness about the experience that captivates and includes the individual.

These words, through interpretation, become the roots of formal religion. It might be better to see that connection in the form of a diagram.


For more on this approach read: Steindl-Rast, David. “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion.” New Realities Vol. X No. 4 (March/April 1990): 35-37


If the pathway for a renewed religion of the heart is anything like that which is traced above, then all of us have work to do. We may be Christians, Muslims, Jews or Sikhs but we need to re-engage with the original vision and connect to experience before we start to stress ritual, morality or dogma. In the end all religious authority depends upon the genuine experience of the original vision, be that Jesus, Mohammed or Moses. It is only by entering into that experience that we can renew our dogmas, refresh our rituals and engage with passion and compassion in ethical and moral lives in the spirit of our founder.

This task is more vital in these times than ever because contemporary awareness has developed so rapidly in the last five decades.



Our awareness has expanded to include:

· Psychology

· Quantum physics

· Feminine giftedness

· The limited resources of the world

· Climate change

· The size of the universe

· The differences and mixing of cultures

· The need for migration

· The authority of experience

· The background setting of scriptures

· The understanding of sacrament

· The common good

· The causes of poverty


This limited list underlines the need to re-frame our proclamation of our faith in ways that respect and deepen the individual experience of our congregations. It is not enough for example, to lead a Mass and make no connections between that remarkable Last Supper and the challenges and upheavals in the lives of the congregation. It is not enough to go through a ritual that speaks less and less to those who attend. The liturgy and the dogma of the church needs to be “re-enchanted” by the vision and presence of Jesus. It is not enough for church to stop when rituals are completed. The implications of the experience of the Gospels for example mean that every member of the church must be engaged with the common good, through their families, through their small groups, through acts of kindness and campaigns to change the world around them. The energy to do that comes from an inner passion that is ignited by the original vision and spirit of the founder.

Maintaining that passionate link to the founder, in Christianity, to Jesus, is the task of the church so that church members can make visible in their lives the same spirit for the good of the world. So church is not just about Sunday attendance, reciting creeds that are hard to understand and keeping on the right side of God. Going to church should be lighting the touch paper of passion for another week of sharing the same vision and energy that moved Jesus. It is about unpacking the meaning of the pattern of cross and resurrection unfolding moment by moment in the life of the world and each individual.


Only then will we see that those who are researching in science, protesting at climate change, being engaged in the local community and giving themselves to the care and support of family are the very ones who are living the in the spirit of Jesus, often without the awareness of the Easter mystery in their lives. That Easter mystery must break out of our ritualism, dogmatism and moralism if we are to be true to our founder, Jesus. That Easter mystery is the core of the Good News that we must share.




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