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Sharing stories of mystical experiences

Before giving his Theology on Tap presentation, “Prayer: Encounters with God,” the lively and gregarious Rob Goodman introduces himself. In addition to serving as a permanent deacon at Three Holy Women Parish in Milwaukee, he is a father of four and director of First Stage Children’s Theatre. He takes a quick sip of Miller Lite from a plastic cup and grins. “You usually get water when you speak.”

After an animated hourlong presentation on prayer, Goodman invites the more than 50 young adults in the room to share some of their own experiences.

“What was your first encounter with God?” he asks the group. Brief silence follows, and then the hands are raised, slowly, somewhat tentatively at first. The stories and reflections are thoughtful, poignant and all very different. One participant speaks of his mother’s death when he was in first grade as an encounter with God. Another speaks of a profound Sunday homily she heard just when she was on the verge of a breakdown.

“I was a mess,” she admits. “Why is it when you are 21 you bawl at everything? The gospel and homily focused on the exact issues I had been thinking about.”

One young woman speaks of a mission trip to Haiti as a young adult. “I wish I could say I felt that I encountered God earlier than that,” she says. “But about four years ago we were driving through the trash, dust and dirt in this impoverished country, and then I saw a man walking through all of it with a huge bushel of beautiful, white, pristine calla lilies on his shoulder. It was the first time I realized that, because of God, amongst filth there is beauty.”

For another participant, an experience of nature provides a simple but profound encounter with God. “I like sunrises,” he says. “There is nothing like driving west with the sun shining over your shoulder. I just want to say to God, ‘Good job!’ ”

For a young teacher, God’s presence manifested itself in the simple discipline of listening. “In my profession we tend to talk a lot,” she says. “It is hard for me to listen without jumping right in with advice and criticism. But one time I had an important conversation with my sister and I really focused on listening. I realized that I was almost praying while I was listening so intently to her. I realized that sometimes it’s better just to shut up.”

Goodman nods with approval as the stories are shared. “Everybody can have a unique personal relationship with God,” he says. “However, I would not recommend saying, ‘I want to be a mystic.’ You’ll be disappointed. I have heard tonight, though, at least four or five mystical experiences that people have shared.”

He looks at his watch and realizes it is time to wrap it up. It is 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight, and this thoughtful group has been together for two-and-a-half hours. “I just want to end tonight by saying that my prayer for you is that God will give you more faith than fear.” His final advice is a bit more practical, meant to emphasize the importance of personal initiative in prayer. “If a ship is in a port, it doesn’t go anywhere,” he says. “The wind of God can’t blow you anywhere if you will not get off your duff.”

-- Renée M. LaReau

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002