On the Second Sunday of Lent, we read the Gospel Account of the Transfiguration (Mk 9: 2-10):
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter spoke to Jesus. ‘Rabbi,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.
As they came down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.
What happened on the occasion of the Transfiguration may seem difficult to believe, yet it became one of the stories that Mark thought worthy to record. It seems that this was a group religious experience, and was remembered by those men, and discussed by them. The experience was so strong they wanted to make it last with the three tents . Whatever happened here probably took only a split second of time, though it may have seemed longer for those involved.
Louise de Marillac and her ”Lumiere” (Light) experience
On the Feast of Pentecost, during holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was instantly freed of all doubt. I was advised that I should remain with my husband and that a time would come when I would be in a position to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that I would be in a small community where others would do the same. I then understood that I would be in a place where I could help my neighbor but I did not understand how this would be possible since there was to be much coming and going. I was also assured that I should remain at peace concerning my director; that God would give me one whom He seemed to show me. It was repugnant to me to accept him; nevertheless, I acquiesced. It seemed to me that I did not yet have to make this change. My third doubt was removed by the inner assurance I felt that it was God who was teaching me these things and that, believing there is a God, I should not doubt the rest. I have always believed that I received this grace from the Blessed Bishop of Geneva because, before his death, I had greatly desired to communicate these trials to him and because since that time, I have had great devotion to him and have received many graces through him. On that occasion, I had a reason for believing this to be so, although I cannot now remember it. [SWLM: A.2]1
Like the Transfiguration experience, all this may have been experienced by Louise in an instant, though it would have taken time to absorb it. The experience stayed with Louise the rest of her life.
Louise’s other religious experiences
Louise had other religious experiences or experiences of God during her life – though perhaps none were as strong as her “Lumiere”. In 2010, at the Vincentian Study Week in Salamanca, Spain, Benito Martinez Betanzos CM presented an article titled Saint Louise de Marillac, a Mystic2. In the article, developed from Louise’s own writings and thoughts, he focused on Louise as a Mystic, and showed how she experienced the various stages or phases of mysticism in her life. Quotations from Louise’s writings and thoughts confirm that Louise frequently had religious experiences or experiences of God in her life, particularly in her prayer. The use of phrases like ‘filled (with)”, “I was moved” “I felt consoled”, “I had this feeling”, “I was consoled”, ”I was moved”, “I was made to understand”, “I felt moved”, “God was asking it of me” etc., all point to an experience during prayer or reflection. Some examples are in the quotes that follow:
God is He Who has filled me with peace (SWLM:352 [L.305]).
I shall have great confidence in Him who has assured me that, despite my misery and powerlessness, He will accomplish all that he desires in me (SWLM:717 [A.8]).
On the Feast of Saint Benedict … after having failed to receive Holy Communion and grieving for my sins, I was moved by a strong desire for the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, I asked God that, if such be His holy will, He might inspire my confessor with this thought. I had said nothing to him about my desire when he sent for me to speak to me about it. I was greatly consoled by this very special grace of Divine Providence. In His goodness, God had revealed His great love for me by making me realize that, although I had forgotten some sins in confession and knew full well that sin alone could separate me from Him, His love was so great that not even sin could prevent Him from coming to me (SWL:733 [A.16]).”
Considering myself as belonging to God because He is God and because he created me, which are the two foundations of His proprietorship over me, I saw that I belong to Him also because he preserves me. This preservation is the support of my being and a sort of continuous creation (SWLM:817 [A.26]).
At holy Mass, as I was giving myself wholeheartedly to the Blessed Virgin so as to belong entirely to God according to His good pleasure, it seemed to me that Our Lord was presenting my past and future unworthiness to His Holy Mother. Believing that they both had accepted me, I asked a proof that… (SWLM:719-720 [A.8]).
From time to time, especially on solemn feast days … my soul was made to understand that my God wanted to come to me. However, he did not wish to come into some temporary dwelling but to a place that was rightly His and which belonged entirely to Him (SWLM:697-698 [A.17]).
I suddenly felt moved by the desire that Our Lord should come to me and communicate His virtues to me (SWLM:825 [A.18]).
My heart is still filled with joy at the understanding our good God seems to have given it of the words “God is my God,” and the awareness I had of the glory which all the blessed render Him in consequence of this truth. I cannot refrain from speaking to you this evening to entreat you to help me make good use of these excesses of joy (CCD:III:233).3
On Ember Wednesday preceding Christmas, I left for Asniéres. I was fearful of making this trip because of my ailments, but the thought of the obedience which was sending me on this trip strengthened me considerably. At Holy Communion, on that day, I was moved to make an act of faith, and this sentiment stayed with me for a long time. It seemed to me that God would grant me health so long as I believed that He could sustain me, despite all appearances, and that He would do so if I often reflected on the faith that enabled Saint Peter to walk on the waters. Throughout my trip, I seemed to be acting without any contribution on my part; and I was greatly consoled by the thought that God wished that, despite my unworthiness, I should help my neighbor to know Him. I left on the Feast of Saint Agatha, February 5th, to go to Saint-Cloud. At the moment of Holy Communion, it seemed to me that Our Lord inspired me to receive Him as the Spouse of my soul and that this Communion was a manner of espousal. I felt myself more closely united to Him by this consideration which was extraordinary for me. I also felt moved to leave everything to follow my Spouse; to look upon Him as such in the future; and to bear with the difficulties I might encounter as part of the community of His goods (SWLM:704-705 [A.50]).
It seemed to me that our good God was asking it of me. Therefore I gave Him my full consent to operate in me by His power whatever he willed to see accomplished (SWLM:720 [A.12]).
… immediately after the reception of the Host, my heart was filled with sorrow for having been preoccupied with creatures (SWLM:711 [A.29]
Moving on from the experience
Like the disciples at the Transfiguration, Louise moved on with the rest of her life. Neither her “Lumiere” nor her other religious experiences caused her to “build three tents” or to remain tethered to the experience – rather, though she obviously remembered them, they led her forward in her union with God and her continuing work for the poor.
Our Own Experiences of God
We don’t have to be Mystics, or even be involved in contemplative prayer, to have religious experiences. They can be as simple as an awareness of the prompting of the Spirit, an awareness of the presence of God in our life, a moment of conversion or conviction when we realize that a new direction or understanding is called for in our own life or in the life of a group to which we belong. We probably find religious experiences difficult to share – either because they are hard to describe or because they are so personal and private. And we do not seek religious experiences in order to “feel good” – this would be a distortion of prayer, which sometimes happens with people who have an excessively devotional spirituality.
But we can ask ourselves – have we ever experienced a special moment or realization which we could call a religious experience or an experience of God ? What did it mean for us at the time ? What does it mean looking back ? Did it bring us closer to God and lead us forward, like Louise, or did we try to stay in the experience like the disciples who wanted to build the three tents ?
The Season of Lent is a good time to reflect on our own experiences of God.
- In this article, SWLM refers to the English edition of The Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, Correspondence and Thoughts, edited and translated from the French by Sr. Louise Sullivan, D.C.
- Martinez Betanzos CM, Benito, Saint Louise de Marillac, a Mystic, accessed in Vincentian Encyclopedia, March 5, 2012.
- In this article, CCD refers to the English edition of Vincent de Paul – Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, New York, edited and translated from the work of Pierre Coste CM.