In the summer of 1964 I was working as a painter in apartment buildings that stretched all along Kenmore Avenue, the city line between Kenmore and Buffalo, New York. Across the street was the edge of the city of Buffalo. I had worked with the painting crew for three summers before this. The apartments began two blocks from my home so I was able to walk there, and someone would give me a ride to wherever we worked that day.
One day I was painting stucco and trim around bay windows three and a half stories up at front of one of the buildings when I ran out of paint. I climbed down the ladder and walked across the next side street and back to the paint and equipment garage in the next block. I got two gallons of paint and headed back to where the 40-foot ladder was leaning against the apartment building.
Halfway across the side street, and between steps, I had a religious experience that is as fresh as if it happened ten minutes ago. I can even remember the exact spot, right in the middle of a quiet side street, and between steps.
To put the experience into context, I had already been a seminarian in the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary in Buffalo all during high school and had completed two years of college with the Columban Fathers, first a year in Milton, Massachusetts, and then a year in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I was next to go for a full calendar year to our spiritual year in Bristol, Rhode Island. It was to last from September 1st until August 31st.
The problem was that although I had faithfully lived all the practices of minor seminary and two years of college with prayer, daily Mass, study, and even third order Carmelite practices I still felt that it all just hadn’t “come together” for me. That summer I had happened to work alone a lot painting stucco and trim on the front of brick buildings. I’d been consistently praying and begging God to help me understand how doing this practice and that practice and then another practice all fit together rather than feeling like I was jumping from one thing to another.
The answer came that day, literally, between steps. William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experiences observed that such experiences are transitory, that is, brief, temporary, even momentary. Indeed, this experience was less than a second. I don’t remember that I even broke stride but I was convinced then and remain convinced now that an amazing thing had happened. I didn’t know then, and don’t know now how it happened. It was certainly “of God,” of that I was sure. In that instant all my prayer practices came together and never came apart again. In fact, if I have a question about some practice or the advisability of some practice here and now I can still go back to that instant and the answer is there.
As a man of faith I learned that God can be more unaccountably and imperceptibly powerful between steps than I had before that believed possible.
These blogs aim to look at a whole variety of religious experiences. As you’ll see if you read on, many great saints and psychologists have written about these experiences. The Bible is also full of accounts of religious experiences. Hopefully, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just Jesus in the past who, “…beginning with Moses and the prophets…interpreted to them (the apostles) what pertained to him in all the scriptures, (Luke 24:27). Jesus is still active in teaching and showing us the way today.
Deacon Ray Biersbach, PhD