Young adults and spiritual experience
Alone in a quiet chapel in Eastern Europe, a young woman is making a retreat. Without warning she suddenly feels that she is being hugged from behind with a great tenderness. She did not move an inch because she knew that no one else was in the chapel. She had been hugged by God, she told me.
On a hillside in a Mediterranean country a lorry is out of control, sliding down a narrow coastal road. It turns over and slides to a halt inches from a family car parked at a view point on the cliff edge. Watching from the back seat of the car is a fourteen-year-old boy who looks up at the huge juggernaut in shock. As he looks, he is overcome with a sense of God’s goodness and protection for him and his family. Despite the shock he feels a great peace and safety. God’s hand has moved in his life.
It is the evening before his Granddad’s funeral and a young Belgian sits thinking about life and death. Suddenly he is overwhelmed by a feeling that everything is one and that somehow everything is God. It came with a huge sense of being loved and a strong sense of peace.
These stories emerged easily from a series of short conversations during a Salesian Youth event in Brussels called Eurizon in Belgium. There were fourteen European national groups involved. All of those interviewed were able to recount an experience that brought them close to a presence or a power in their lives that was different from their normal sense of awareness.
The young people all spoke excellent English but they still found that words failed them in this area of experience. “I felt huge as a person, as if I filled the whole world, but very small and vulnerable too” one young person reported. Another person said simply “I felt like I was part of everything” None of the young people felt they had expressed themselves clearly enough because as one said “the experience was too big for words.”
Interestingly, few of the young people had ever spoken about these experiences to anyone else. It was too intense and personal according to some, too vague or strange according to others. When they were shared it was more likely to be with a friend rather than a family member. The experiences all happened alone, even if others were around, and were recognised as intended only for the individual concerned.
Sat on a cliff top in Malta a young adult is overcome by the beauty of the view. She is overcome too by a sense of peace and calm that seems to come from inside and soak into her from the outside as well. It is an experience that she goes back to when she feels low in spirit or in confidence. The girl hugged by God in the chapel finds that the memory of that experience sustains her through hard times and gives her an inner strength, a sense of partnership with God. The boy involved in the lorry accident above is strengthened in his trust in God and he finds it easier to do the right thing when under pressure.
All of these young people recognise the sacred nature of these experiences that have so much in common with each other. But there were also some differences in the way that different nationalities spoke about such moments in their lives.
Young adults from Eastern Europe were quicker to name such experiences as religious, as from God. Those from Western Europe were sometimes reluctant to put any religious label on their increased awareness. For the eastern Europeans it seems that these experiences confirm their formal religious faith and for western Europeans the experience seems to challenge formal faith.
For eastern Europeans there was a strong sense of duty emerging from the experience. They came away with a sense of obligation to do the right thing and to live morally and peacefully alongside others. For western Europeans the moral and social sense was almost entirely absent, to be replaced by an intense personal feeling. They were less likely than eastern Europeans to connect their experience to church or an external moral code.
For eastern European youth, church seems to be offering a strong setting for interpreting these experiences in a religious language. The church is seen as a trusted friend, a sustainer of people in time of war and oppression and a stable focus when government and politics are in chaos. In the west the church is seen as well meaning but out of touch with reality for young adults. Therefore the young person may prefer to hang on to the vague personal nature of the experience and is far less likely to share it with others. It becomes a privatised experience.
For all these young people the experiences have been life changing. For one Belgian it leads her to appreciate nature and to keep searching it for a sense of the sacred. For another eastern European, the experience has strengthened his conscience to do the right thing and admit his faults more often. For another western European youth, his sense of empathy has increased alongside a respect for nature and the environment. For another it is the challenge of coping with an illness through the energy of dream where she is embraced by a figure of Mary the mother of Jesus. For another it is the ability to work hard for exams with a sense of purpose and energy that were not there before the experience happened.
These life-changing experiences are scattered through young lives in a way that should reassure that they are never far from the presence of God. What they make of them depends very much on how the young people feel about their church and culture. I will leave one of the young voices to have the final word:
“I felt hugged from behind. It was so real, a real presence, that I had to look behind me to check. There was no one there. I felt so strong, so filled with life. I was connected to everything and everyone. Whatever happens to me, I know I can live from this experience for many years.”