Richard Rohr, OFM – The realm of Personal Experience

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

From the Center for Action and Contemplation

Week Twenty-Five: Spiritual Direction

The Importance of Experience

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.

 [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.

 Prayer For Our Community

Loving God, you fill all things with a fullness and hope that we can never comprehend. Thank you for leading us into a time where more of reality is being unveiled for us all to see. We pray that you will take away our natural temptation for cynicism, denial, fear and despair. Help us have the courage to awaken to greater truth, greater humility, and greater care for one another. May we place our hope in what matters and what lasts, trusting in your eternal presence and love. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our suffering world.

________________________________________________________________________________________

In today’s offering – from Richard Rohr, OFM’s Daily Meditations – we are introduced to a fourth leg of the Faith Process of John Wesley’s ‘3-Legged Stool’ which informs most strands of Evangelical theological piety.

We Anglicans are used to the Wesleyan model: ‘Scripture; Tradition and Reason’, but some of today’s Catholic Scholars, like Richard Rohr, are suggesting that another important – but hitherto negelcted element – is the important faculty of personal ‘Experience’.

When we stop to think about this, it seems natural that without the application of what we have learned through personal experience, our theological basis can be found wanting of the fuller authenticity that is required for us to attach the proper degree of attention to the Scriptures, Tradition, and Reason that has, hitherto, formed the total basis of our theological speculation

One instance of the need for a practical application of our own personal experience of the world as we actually know it – is to consider those people in both Church and society whose gender or sexuality make-up is in any way different from the binary norm! Scripture, for instance (which informs Tradition), may not directly address the pastoral need of members of the LGBTQI+ community, and yet their presence in our world is now publicly recognised as constituting a legitimate sector of society that exists – and probably always has existed in creation – and yet has never been formally recognised and valued by the Church. The Church has, in fact, gone along with the ancient (extant?) understanding that any sexual activity that was not binary (i.e. stricly heterosexual) was ‘against’ God’s plan for humanity and therefore objectively sinful and outlawed. (The fact that same-sex pair-bonding is present in other sectors of the created order was once considered irrelevant)

The one possibility of ‘difference’ from the binary norm for human beings – which accentuates the urge to procreate – that appears in the Scriptures is gleaned from a reading of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 19, where Jesus is speaking about the exigencies of marriage. In verse 12, Jesus tells his audience that there are those who will not be disposed towards marriage (eunuchs), providing 3 distinct categories of such people: (1) ‘eunuchs who have been so from their mother’s womb; (2) eunuchs who have beenmade so by men; and (3) those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingom of Heaven.

Those in the 3rd category are obviously people who have vowed themselves to celibacy.

The 2nd category includes those who suffered castration for whatever reason.

The 1st category, it has now been deduced through medical science and social research, covers people whose gender/sexual make-up renders them unlikely to take part in the work of procreation – e.g; the intrinsically homosexual community. In the context of this article, it is such people whose own personal experience informs them that they need the important added category of their own EXPERIENCE, in order to deal with the realities of Scripture and Tradition – both of which, until recently, have not included the wisdom of personal experience of being ‘gay’; which modern reason demands should be taken into consideration.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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