Catholics/Religious Experience

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Question
How does one recognize and identify a religious experience that is instead a powerful emotional and mundane experience? Isn't it likely either one can make a great impression and even change one's life? Especially in evangelism and Christian cults the receiver is confident they have obtained a deep loving personal relationship with God and cannot even imagine this could be a mistake.

Answer
I admit the ability to distinguish an authentic encounter with God or an authentic religious experience from a powerful emotional experience is not easy.  Even the most experienced and knowledgeable spiritual directors find this difficult and even they can be fooled.  Discernment of Spirits can be a very difficult undertaking.  With patience however, time and prayer one can successfully do so.   

This is because in part Satan can pretty much mimic anything God can do and he does this to fool us. The one thing Satan cannot mimic is Love.  This is why one of the true marks of the Church must be that it embodies the Cross in her Faith, Life and Worship.  That is the one thing Satan cannot mimic.This is why the Cross figures so predominately in Catholicism.  

I would suggest, therefore, that one of the ways we can distinguish between an authentic religious encounter from a powerful emotional experience are the following:

1) A powerful emotional experience tends not to have lasting fruits, whereas an authentic religious experience does.

2) A powerful emotional experience does not usually effect a major change in our lives whereas an authentic religious experience does. It tends to change us for the better.  

3) An authentic religious experience will tend to lead us to being more loving, more obedient, holier, (morally perfect) more selfless, etc.  A powerful emotional experience tend not to have those fruits.

4) An authentic religious experience will tend to conform our lives more closely to the Cross of Christ; it will make us more ready to embrace suffering for the sake of others willingly and gladly.  One would more readily recognize strength in weakness and the glory present in suffering.

The fruits of an authentic religious experience will tend to last and they will produce a lasting peace and joy.  The "fruits" of a powerful emotional experience tend to wear off rather quickly and do not produce a lasting joy and peace.   

The things of Satan promise happiness--and they do give happiness---but it isn't long before that happiness wears off.  It is analogous to using drugs and getting high: you feel really good, but then get let down hard.  Eventually you become addicted and need drugs just to keep from feeling terrible.

I admit I am no master spiritual director, and I do not pretend to have climbed a seven story mountain--at least lately, but, I like to say that the things of Satan produce in the person an instant gratification and feeling of happiness that quickly wears off and leaves the person feeling empty. The things of God often take a lot of prayer and a lot of work to attain--they do not promise instant gratification; sometimes they produce suffering.  But in the long run and in the long term they produce lasting joy and peace while changing us and making us more like God.  

A powerful emotional experience therefore will probably produce in us a short term happiness, but in the long term will leave us empty, whereas an authentic religious experience will not necessarily produce in us a short term feeling of happiness and peace, but may produce suffering.  In the long term however we will find lasting happiness and peace.  

I am not trying to have a "works" based theology when I say this, but, real prayer takes hard work--and I do mean hard work.  It also takes patience.  One could be praying for years and years and years----and not think anything of benefit is happening.  They might pray for years and years and years and not feel the presence of God.  If, however, they have become more loving, more conformed to the Cross, holy, etc, that is where the real fruits of prayer lie.  Real prayer is like anything else: practice makes perfect.  The more we practice prayer, the better we will get.  The more time we devote to the things of our Faith, the more we will start valuing the things of God over the things of this world.  Real prayer is like anything else too: if you want to get good, you have to work at it.

Prayer isn't so much about changing God as it is changing us.  Prayer isn't so much about God "doing" something for us--like getting us a job, curing an illness, etc, (though certainly it can be) as it is us finding where and how God is revealed in the events of our lives--the good, the bad and the ugly.  

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Father Dave Bechtel

Expertise

I am a Catholic priest in good standing and in active ministry in the Diocese of Scranton PA. I can answer most any question about the Catholic Faith, however my area of specialization is Systematic Theology. Systematic Theology is a branch of theology that focuses on the fundamental tenants of the Faith and the Dogmas of the Faith. I have specialization on the Reformation and Catholic vs. Protestant theology/issues and answering Protestant challenges to the Faith.

Experience

I was ordained in June of 2008. Since that time the thrust of my ministry has been specialized. In my first assignment I was an assistant pastor. A year later I was sent to work in education. I spent six (6) years in education and have now assumed my first pastorate. While education was the thrust of my ministry, nevertheless I continued to have a hand in parish ministry, hospital chaplaincy and prison chaplaincy. Now that I am out of education I will obviously be focusing more on parish work than specialized ministry. I have two years of formal Clinical Pastoral Education and prior to ordination I successfully pursued Board Certification for health care ministry through the NACC. My certification needs to be renewed and I plan to seek dual certification in health care ministry (NACC and APC) when I renew my certification. I have a breadth of experience working with Protestant ministers and collaborating with them to achieve the goals of hospital pastoral care and chaplaincy. These ministers run the spectrum from the liberal to the conservative.

Education/Credentials
Bachelors of Science-- University of Scranton PA Masters of Arts Theology--- Saint Mary's Seminary and University Baltimore MD Masters of Divinity--- Saint Charles Borremeo Seminary Philadelphia PA Board Certified Chaplain (up for renewal)

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