The first time I ever truly had what I would consider a religious experience was in France in 1997. I was with a study group at the monastery of La Tourette in Lyon. We arrived in time to sit in the main chapel and listen to vespers. Something about the space and the music — the contrast of darkness and colored light, the echo of the voices off the concrete walls — struck me in an emotional way that no religious service ever had before.
It actually brought me to tears.
I’ve not managed to find a religious experience to rival it since.
But I have wondered exactly what it was about the experience that affected me so deeply, and why I considered the experience particularly spiritual. For a long time I referred to it as a religious experience, but the only particularly religious aspect of it was the location. And though it produced a profound emotional reaction, it didn’t make me feel as though I was necessarily more connected to any spiritual force or any closer to god.
If I had to put a name to the emotion I felt at the time it would be awe in the classical sense: reverential, speechless, wonderstruck. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the experience in some unquantifiable way. And it wasn’t something shared by those with me, at least not to the same extent.
Is it possible that we use spiritual terms to describe emotional experiences which fall outside the spectrum from simple happiness to simple sadness? Or is it the unexpected nature of an emotional experience which causes us to put spiritual significance to a moment of deep feeling?
In retrospect, maybe it was the fact that the religious tradition in which I was raised had no similarly grand components, and the experience of finding myself so taken with a religious environment was simply so new as to be overwhelming. Or maybe it was the anticipation of solitude and silence after weeks of being in forced social interactions and strange, foreign routines.
In any case, whatever it was about the moment had very little if anything to do with god, and did not come with any particular spiritual revelation. I didn’t walk away from that monastery with a deeper understanding of the divine.
But I did walk away with a desire to search out more of those types of experiences.
So is that what religion is? At its core, is it simply a search for experiences and rituals which touch the deepest parts of our emotional selves? Is it a collective effort to create and share strong emotional experiences? And more importantly, what is spirituality for those who never feel such a reaction?
I’m not sure if there is an answer to that, I only know I don’t have an answer to it at the moment. But there is something about that moment of breaking into tears in the midst of echoing song and rays of sunset which has stuck with me over the years. That moment was the point at which I realized that my spiritual life could be so much more than routinely attending church services and absorbing as much doctrine as my brain would hold. It could be deeply touching and deeply personal.
Perhaps that is what is missing from so much of religion. Maybe that lack of personal connection with the experience itself is why so many are walking away from religious traditions to find something more meaningful. Maybe religion isn’t really supposed to be about what is taught and thought and believed, but about what is experienced and felt. We can find doctrine and truth in so many parts of our lives.
The real question is where to find awe.