In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Father James Martin explains that the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are characterized by their practicality. When it comes to finding God, they turn first to experience, rather than lofty theology. The fact that God chose to be incarnated into this world, Father Martin says, proves that He wants to communicate with us in our everyday lives through the things of this world.
Here’s an example of one of Father Martin’s spiritual experiences in the everyday world:
Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies and black-eyed Susans. Crickets hid in the grasses and among old leaves. Bees hummed above the Queen Anne’s lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons. Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch. The air was fresh, and the field was alive with creation . . . I felt an overwhelming happiness. I felt so happy to be alive. And I felt a fantastic longing: to both possess and be a part of what was around me.
This longing after the mysterious and beautiful, Father Martin says, is ultimately a longing for God. But, he points out, the idea that God communicates with us through our experiences in this world is antithetical to the mindset of the modern West, which denies spiritual experiences altogether, instead lumping them in with “emotions”:
So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional . . . It’s a natural reaction: much in Western culture tries to tamp down or even deny these naturally spiritual experiences and explain them away in purely rational terms.
I love his wording here: “Western culture tries to damp down or even deny . . ..” Isn’t that just the case? We all have these experiences–we just don’t talk about them. After all, the great project of the Enlightenment was to explain the entire world with no reference to the spiritual. This necessitates lumping a whole lot of things, from spiritual experiences like the above, to inspirations, movements of the will, nudgings of the conscience–into the laughably inadequate category of “emotions.”
Guess what: Japanese people talk about their spiritual experiences. They’re not embarrassed to get poetic about, for example, the ways they feel inspired by the sky. And it’s refreshing. It makes more sense to simply admit to these things than to write a thesis trying to explain them away. It’s more freeing–more human.
Reading Father Martin’s book, I was reminded that encouraging me to acknowledge reality–including its mysterious, beautiful and poetic aspects–was a major way in which Japan coaxed me out of atheism and prepared me to return to the Catholic Church.