(In offering the story below, I do so with some trepidation. I know that many readers will be sceptical or cautious, may even find it ridiculous. I myself, given my particular background in faith and religious temperament, would have been made distinctly uncomfortable if any of my friends had asked me to take such a story seriously. Still, I think it is time to share it. I leave you to decide for yourself: was this a genuine mystical experience, as my eminently well qualified spiritual directors believed? Or was I just suffering from some kind of spiritual delusions of grandeur? Make up your own mind.)
During Advent of 2002, I underwent a 6 day directed retreat which turned out to be the most extraordinary spiritual, even mystical, experience of my life, which in certain key respects fundamentally changed my outlook on faith.
Background & Context
As the experience really was remarkable, sounding like an account that I myself would previously have dismissed as ramblings from the sentimental / superstitious wing of Catholicism, I want to begin by setting out my prior religious / spiritual background, as well as the context in which I began my retreat. This will provide both context and contrast for what followed.
After drifting away from the church during my twenties as a married man, I later came out as a gay man. Ironically, it was only after setting up in a committed long gay relationship that I was moved to return to the church. The parish I then joined was led by Jesuit priests, and in time I began to explore the Ignatian approach to spirituality, by way of increasingly heavy involvement in the CLC – “Christian Life Community”. In spite of this involvement, I did not see myself as particularly “religious” (a word I detest), nor “spiritual”, with all its connotations of “piety” and mysticism. I simply knew that I enjoyed profound satisfaction in setting aside time for quiet reflection on my life. My take on all matters of faith was primarily cerebral. (I was distinctly uncomfortable with the more ostentatious displays of images and relics, of novenas and special prayers “guaranteed” to bring results, or of mystical voices and apparitions.) I did, however, find value in the Jesuit emphasis on balancing the promptings of head and heart, and on the value of paying attention to experience. I became of convinced of the truth that Prayer is not just about speaking to God asking for favours, but also of attempting to listen. I knew that by proper attention to the discernment of spirits within, one could, with care and imperfectly, hear the voice of the Lord speaking directly to us.
The context for this retreat was that after a long period of careful discernment, my partner and I had taken the important decision to leave South Africa, the only country I had ever known, to take up teaching posts in the UK – a country which I had never even visited. This was to be my final Christmas in South Africa, and the decision lay heavy on my mind. I was also reoccupied with the nature of my gay relationship. I had repeatedly considered the issue of homosexuality in prayer and under spiritual direction, and was comfortable that there was nothing immoral or reprehensible in our relationship. Still, I was just a little bothered by the possibility that perhaps after all, I was fooling myself, making excuses and rationalising away some inner doubt. So I was looking for final reassurance on two key questions in my life: the decision to emigrate, and my status as a sexually active gay man in the church.