Reprints from Shalem: Authentic Spiritual Experience by Dr. Gerry May MD
Someone describes a vision, an encounter with the divine. Is this “real” or is it an illusion contrived by the ego? People interested in spirituality and psychology have always been concerned with differentiating authentic spiritual experiences from psychological symptoms. In my recent research, I have collected eight qualities that may help in reflecting on those differences.
We must remember, however that the philosophical line between reality and illusion is a very shaky one. Because our minds continually create images of reality through our senses and conditionings, it would be true to say that all experience is at least somewhat psychologically contrived.
Similarly, since God’s grace cannot be destroyed even by our most extreme psychological distortions, it is just as true to say that all experience, no matter how crazy it may appear, holds at least something of God’s truth.
Therefore, the qualities that follow should not be used too arbitrarily.
Further, our experiences cannot be judged on the basis of that content alone. We must look at how these experiences are integrated in the larger picture of life: In contrast, in community, and over time.
1) Meaningful Integration
Authentic spiritual experiences do not exist as isolated “highs.” They occur within the context of real life and are integrated in a way that is meaningful for both the individual and for community. Authentic experiences may contain a perfect end-in itself quality, but they still have meaning and impact on life.
2) Bearing Good Fruit
Authentic spiritual experiences lead to good effects for the individual and the community. Classically, this includes deepened faith, hope, trust, compassion, creativity, and love. Authentic experiences do not lead to privatism or destructiveness.
3) Decreased Preoccupation
Authentic experiences lead people to feel more identified with the rest of humanity and the world. Experiences that lead to feelings of being more special or better than other people , or to self absorption, are probably not authentic.
4) Self Knowledge
Authentic experiences lead to a greater understanding of oneself. Signs of repression, denial, or shutting out self awareness indicate a lack of authenticity.
Authentic experiences lead to a particular kind of humility, one that painfully recognizes more of one’s human inadequacy, yet at the same time, increasingly realizes one’s own preciousness and worth as a child of God. It is a humility that is combined with dignity. This is in contrast to experiences that lead to either arrogance or devaluing of oneself.
6) Openness to Differences
By deepening trust in the power and goodness of God, authentic experiences leads to less defensiveness about one’s own faith, and increased respect for and openness to dialogue with people of differing faiths. Authentic experience may lead to a desire to share the truth, but they do not result in defensive or aggressive clinging on to one’s own understanding.
7) Open Endness
Authentic spiritual experiences contain a quality of further invitation: deepened yearning, inspired energy, continued growth and healing. In contrast, experience that communicates a sense of “having arrived” are cause for suspicion.
Although authentic experience may be accompanied by celebration and enthusiasm, or by fear and trepidation, their integration brings about a quality of wondrous appreciation of the ordinary: life is holy, and the miraculous presence of God’s grace flows through all of it. Experiences that lead to a strong separation of the holy from the mundane must be questioned.
Much more could be said about these qualities, but I hope that this abbreviated discussion will assist you in your own reflection. If there is one basic factor that distinguishes the authentic from the inauthentic experience, it can be found in a paraphrase of John of the Cross:
In the end, all of us, and all of our experiences, must be judged on the basis of one thing, and that is love.