“In my earlier years, the “religious” was for me the exception… ‘Religious experience’ was the experience of otherness that did not fit into the context of life. Since then, I have given up the “religious” which is nothing but the exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy; or it has given me up. I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens. I know no fullness but each mortal hour’s fullness of claim and responsibility.”
Jewish mystic and philosopher Martin Buber wrote the words quoted above following a meeting with a student who took his life soon after their encounter. Buber acknowledged being only half present to the young man due to a “religious experience” that left him focused on the life beyond this life. Here he states the radical way he changed upon hearing the tragic news of his student’s death; namely, that religion that is not grounded in “each mortal hour’s fullness of claim and responsibility” was no longer of interest to him.
Most of us go a lifetime without the kind of “religious experience” that consumed Buber, but we may all be prone to looking for the religious/spiritual dimension of life beyond the demands and duties of everyday life and relationships. God is in heaven, religion is in church, holiness is synonymous with the virtue of saints, and a religious experience is “out of this world.” When we fall prey to this sort of thinking, we run the risk of missing not only the sacredness of ordinary life, but the joys, pains, and struggles of the people we encounter every day. If instead we embrace an understanding of God as the Ground of being, the spiritual essence at the heart of nature and human nature, then being religious becomes a matter of being fully present to wherever we are, whomever we meet, and whatever we do.
Jesuit priest, mystic, and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin reminds us that the religious is to be experienced within life when he states: “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.” Extraordinary experiences can make us aware of a reality beyond life as we know it, but they are a distraction if they cause us to lose touch with the nitty-gritty of life in the world, for “the mystery has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens.”