I slid into the fourth pew from the back on the left side of Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University. It was a 1975 summer evening with a soft sun backlighting the five-paneled stained-glass window featuring the Sacred Heart of Jesus behind the altar. It was quiet, a solemn quiet. I was on my knees and then, in a slow-moving but eerie transition, I was no longer in the fourth pew from the back on the left side of the chapel in Georgetown University.
I didn't know where I was, but I felt a light touching my soul. It was peaceful, stirring, fully engaging, and warm with a gentle tingle that I knew was massaging my spirit. I felt the light absorb me and infuse me with acceptance and verification, words that do not do justice to the experience but are still minimally accurate.
Much later, I connected the light with the descriptions by people with near-death experiences. I heard nothing distinct that I can remember but I heard the presence, if that makes any sense.
It took about an hour for things to get back to normal. Of course, normal was never the same again, even though I tried to act like it was for decades. It was an experience that I locked up in my mental safe deposit box and only took out rarely when I had the courage to ask God to provide the second matching key to open the box. Every time I glanced at it, I didn't know what to do, so I quickly put it back.
I don't know how long the experience lasted (maybe 10 minutes?) because when I was aware again that I was in the fourth pew from the back on the left side of the Georgetown chapel, I just sat there stunned. The mellow glow remained but I had no idea what had just happened.
I still don't know, but now, 40 years later, I am willing and more prepared spiritually and emotionally to open that safe deposit box and spend more time in the presence of that event. I was always aware that it was personal, relational and that it didn't just happen to me but also with me. I was not a spectator but a deeply involved participant, even though the mystery was clearly the initiator and a lot bigger than me.
My wife, Fran, and I had been at Georgetown for a two-week Scripture course. When it ended, she went home and I stayed another week to edit a booklet for the National Catholic Educational Association. That's when Dahlgren Chapel erupted into peace.
Over the decades, I have mentioned this experience a few times, a little more frequently in recent years but, honestly, this is the first time I am writing about it and describing it in some detail.
What took me so long?
I was scared. I now identify with the servant with one talent who buried it in fear of losing it (Matthew 25:18). I had no categories to put this experience in, no reasonable thought patterns that fit, no words that expressed that reality, no understanding. I had 12 years of seminary education, multiple weeklong retreats, innumerable morning meditations, daily spiritual readings, prayers in varied forms, and a couple of spiritual directors. Nothing prepared me for the light in the Georgetown chapel in 1975.
I didn't talk about it because I didn't know what it was. I didn't think about it because I didn't know how to think about it. I chalked it up to a psychological episode; my emotions were ripe for something unusual, a midlife reward for being a "good boy." I let it go at that, even though I knew that was nonsense -- and I wasn't that good of a boy anyway. Back in the safe deposit box!
Two recent developments coaxed me into looking at the event more closely. Richard Rohr's invitation to examine the perspectives of the second half of life seems to fit with my Georgetown experience. And our small faith community is exploring mysticism.
I am finally, gratefully and humbly willing to look seriously and honestly at those extraordinary 10 minutes. I am no longer afraid.
I now suspect that I was blessed with an intense moment of unmerited grace. Grace, I am convinced, is not a thing, but a relationship with God. Therefore, all things and people are graced because we all are in relationship with God.
There are "moments of intensity" in this dynamic relationship, and I had an intense one in July 1975 in the Georgetown chapel. I have not had another one like that since. But I guess I don't need another one, since I am barely catching up with the first one.
Does anyone need an empty safe deposit box?
[Tom Smith is the author of eight books, most recently Church Chat: Snapshots of a Changing Catholic Church. He and his wife, Fran, live in Shiloh, Ill.]