Dear Father John, I am a fairly recent convert to the faith. My conversion took place over a period of 3 years in which I had a series of powerful experiences of God’s presence and action in my life. It wasn’t just coming into the Church for me – it was discovering that Jesus is a real person, someone interested in my life. During my conversion, I understood this turn-around (this discovery of Jesus) as being “born again.” I also have understood this kind of experience as being necessary to have my place secure in heaven. And yet, I now know so many Catholics who have never had this kind of experience. They don’t talk about Jesus as if he is a real person. But they seem to think their place in heaven is secure anyway. This is all kind of vague, but I guess my basic question is: What does the “born again” experience have to do with our salvation, and with our friendship with Christ? Am I overemphasizing it, or are other people under-emphasizing it?
I think I detect two different questions in your note.
God and Emotions
The first is: Does someone have to have a deeply felt born-again experience in order to get into heaven? The answer is no. It doesn’t have to be deeply felt. It doesn’t have to be emotional. It just has to be real. There is a difference between “emotional” and “real.” On the one hand, I can have a profoundly moving emotional experience in the movie theater, but the drama that caused it wasn’t real. On the other hand, I can have a profound but un-dramatic relationship with a relative who is confined to a hospital bed, someone I visit regularly over an extended period of time without experiencing any strong emotions during those visits. Normally, some kind of interaction happens between the realm of real interpersonal experience and the realm of intense emotion, but we must keep in mind that the two realms only overlap; they are not equivalent. The same thing goes for our friendship with Christ.
Remember, God deals with each of us in a personal, individual way. He has given you (and many of us) a very dramatic, emotionally undeniable experience of his love, his truth, and his presence. But to others he gives different graces. I have known people who have lived in deep intimacy with God for more than 80 years without ever having a “born-again” experience. It’s as if they are continually, quietly born again every day, every time they go to confession, every time they go to Mass. This is real. It proves its reality in the way they live, the way they pray. Remember Matthew 25? The “final exam” on Judgment Day isn’t whether or not we had an emotional, dramatic born-again experience. The wisdom of the Church also provides for a gradual growth in intimacy with Christ, and a quiet, discrete way of giving one’s life to Christ over and over again through the years, through the liturgy and the sacraments. I think you and I should be grateful for the dramatic, emotional born again experiences that God has given us. God knows we need them, and that’s why he gives them to us. But it is not our place to define how God should work in everyone else’s life. We need to trust his wisdom, and the wisdom of his Church. And we also need to make sure that our love for Christ isn’t built solely on those positive emotional experiences; it would constitute the classic mistake of loving the gifts more than the Giver of the gifts, and it can get us into trouble.
Our Place in Heaven
Second question: Is your place in heaven secure? Yes. Is mine? Yes. Is everyone’s? Yes. The place is secure. God “wills all men’s salvation” as St Paul puts it. The INSECURE part is whether we will end up occupying it. That doesn’t depend just on God. It also depends on us. Remember, the essence of Christianity is a living relationship with Jesus Christ, a friendship with him. Now, common sense tells us that no real friendship automatically lasts forever. I can break a friendship. I can leave my friends and not come back to them. This is because I am a human being; I am free. This freedom is not eliminated by Christ. He doesn’t make us less human when he offers us his friendship. It is possible to backslide. It is possible to be seduced by the devil and to abandon Christ. Just look at the New Testament – Judas, Peter… This is why the New Testament at times seems to contradict itself. Our salvation is assured, because it depends on God; AND our salvation is a process, to be “worked out in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). It’s kind of a paradox, but it’s clear. We can fall away: “We ought, then, to turn our minds more attentively than before to what we have been taught, so that we do not drift away” (Heb 2:1). The most eloquent scriptural explanation of this comes from Revelation 2, 3, and 4. It’s all about Christ warning the Churches that they need to keep watch, they need to do their part to keep the faith, to keep their friendship with Christ vibrant and growing. This isn’t meant to be scary. If we make a decent effort to keep our prayer life in shape, if we stay close to the sacraments and continually follow God’s will as shown in Church teaching and in our well-formed conscience, the friendship will keep growing. That’s why we can have that quiet assurance in our hearts and look forward to heaven (this is the virtue of hope). But we can’t put it on automatic pilot. Real friendships don’t work like that (this is the sin of presumption).
Both of these issues can have a strong effort on our efforts towards spiritual growth. If we are too concerned about concocting emotional experiences, our prayer life and sacramental life may start leaning towards self-centeredness instead of Christ-centeredness. If we become obsessed about whether or not our salvation is assured, the devil can use that worry to cause interior turbulence, leading to distractions and, once again, self-absorption.
I hope these reflections have settled your mind, and I also hope they help you discover the magnificent variety of ways in which God touches the hearts of his beloved children.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC