I just read an article that touched me. It was a story of personal experience. It was a story about grace, as the author narrates it. And it contained the lovely phrase at the end that serves as the title for this inspirational reflection.
The author, Tom Smith, is not someone I know although I have since discovered he has written a few books. The title of the little article is “Light touching my soul---40 years later, I am finally ready to look at this intense moment of grace.” Smith begins to recount his experience in 1975 in the fourth pew in Dahlgren Chapel on the campus of Georgetown University. Smith says he knew he was in the fourth pew and then he began not to know.
I like how he engaged me with his narration. He said, I did not know where I was, but I felt a light touching my soul. It was a peaceful, stirring, fully engaging, and warm with a gentle tingle that I knew was massaging my spirit.” I find this description moving and powerful. Clearly it seemed to me, he was describing some sort of mystical or unitive experience. But he was not yet using that terminology. Nevertheless, I wanted to linger in the middle of his experience.
In this first instance, this obviously was coming as a gift. As he will say later, in a way he prepared for this for a long time. He had studied religion, had done weekend retreats and so forth. But like most of us, he understood you can’t manufacture a mystical experience just because you want one! They always come as gift. The way I read the Christian tradition anyway, is you are called into relationship with God and are called to be obedient in developing and following that relationship. No fancy experiences are guaranteed.
I like how Smith said he felt a light touching his soul. In our rational minds it makes no sense to say a light “touches” us. We see light; we might sense light. Furthermore, that light touches his soul. In reading this I realize all over that mystical experiences are literally impossible to describe. Language is inadequate. But we have to do the best we can. So we use images, such as light. And in the experience light can touch souls.
I love how he describes the touch: peaceful, stirring, fully engaging and warm. That sounds like a good deal to me! And then I almost laughed when he said it was “massaging my spirit.” What a great image---a soul massage! I was ready for the rest of his description of that experience.
Smith says, “I felt the light absorb me and infuse me with an acceptance and verification, words that do not do justice to the experience but are still minimally accurate.” Again, this is powerful language. Verbs like “absorb” and “infuse” seem to be not only touching, but also blessedly invasive. Simply speaking, we could say he was all taken up into the experience---the Spirit of God.
The result is great. He felt accepted and verified. What else could a human being finally want except to be accepted and validated---sure he or she is true and for real? What is interesting is Smith did not know what to do with all this in the moment. Because of this, Smith said he locked that experience in his “mental safe deposit box.” Only 40 years later is he ready to deal with it again.
As he now ponders it, Smith arrives at conclusions I also would make. He says, “I now suspect that I was blessed with an intense moment of unmerited grace.” Then he adds his definition of grace, which I think is a great one. “Grace, I am convinced, is not a thing, but a relationship with God.” I would go on to add that I believe there are two kinds of grace at work here. The first kind of grace is what I would call “general grace.” That is the grace---the gift, if you will---that pulls all of us into and sustains our relationship with God and with each other.
General grace is usually not splashy or spectacular. In fact, over long periods of time it feels very normal and ordinary. Often we are experiencing this kind of grace and we don’t even know it. That kind of grace can give way to what could be called “special grace.” This is the kind of grace that came to Tom Smith that day in 1975 in the Georgetown University Chapel. It gifted him with an extraordinary encounter with the Spirit.
I love how he ends the little article. He notes, “There are ‘moments of intensity’ in this dynamic relationship, and I had an intense one in July 1975 in the Georgetown chapel.” I can almost see him smile when he continues, “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.”
All of us are wrapped in the general grace of God. Occasionally and for no apparent reason, some of us at some point may be granted some special grace. When that happens, we will get our own moment of intensity.