During mass, I usually sit in the last section of pews, even sometimes in the very last pew. Contrary to what one might think, I am not far from God there. In fact, I find God’s presence to be very strong in our Old Mission Church, so strong that when I approach the altar, I involuntarily tremble. Deep within me and simultaneously all around me and spread throughout the church but epicentered at the altar is a power so immense that it exceeds the ability to comprehend. In the back of the church, I am free to bask quietly in the radiant presence of God’s love. Sometimes, in the basking, I do not know where I stop and God begins, a continuum that I experience in greater intensity during contemplative prayer.
All the same, there is a part of me that feels unworthy, having spent so many decades as an atheist, to approach the altar, that awesome place of divine glory, and so I sit, appropriately in my consideration, in the remoter pews in our large church. When I look around me and especially in front of me, I see people who have spent their entire lives worshiping God, and then I begin to feel like an interloper even though I know that God wants me there. Especially difficult for me were daily masses the winter before last when the only warm place in our unheated church during an unusually cold spell was around the altar, where chairs were placed for the few of us who attended daily mass. I would shake throughout the entire mass. It was not from the cold but from the overwhelming sense of God's powerful presence.
There was a time, however, when I was impelled to approach this glorious presence. A visiting friend, Julie, preferred to sit in the front section of pews. I described to her my reaction whenever I came close to the altar, so we compromised on the last row of the front section. She had not experienced such a reaction, but she was a cradle Catholic who knows much more than I do about God and His church. Most of my "knowing" comes from experiencing God although I do read voraciously. Most of her knowing came from catechism lessons and a lifetime of church activity. She was, however, to have an experience similar to ones I have periodically.
As she was getting on the plane to return home, she heard a very clear voice say, "Tell Beth to come closer." She immediately knew that this referred to my reluctance to approach the altar. Surprisingly, she never questioned what she had heard. As soon as she arrived home, she called and told me.
"I don't know, Julie, if I can do that," I told her. "I am afraid."
"Well, I think you better at least try," she responded. I knew she was right, but I really was nervous about it. I also knew that if I shared this nervousness with anyone else in the congregation, they would consider me odd. And if I told them what Julie had heard, they would likely consider both of us delusional. So, I said nothing, but I knew I would obey. Since my conversion, I always obey, which is quite strange considering that I had previously always been considered a rebel.
At vespers the following Saturday after receiving the host, I paused nervously at the altar railing, silently stating, "Okay, Lord, here I am; I came all the way to the front and instead of quickly passing on to the cup and returning to the last pew, I am still here."
"Not enough; come alone" was the response. Alone? Alone was even more frightening! Alone, in fact, was highly frightening! But alone it would be.
Our mission church is considered a tourist attraction. Therefore, it is open all day every day. Nonetheless, there are times that it is empty, and I know when those times are. So, I came back -- alone, as ordered.
As I knelt alone at the altar railing, I saw what looked like heat waves rising from the altar. As I watched, the height of the waves grew higher and higher. Concerned that my eyes were playing tricks on me, I pulled my driving glasses out of my purse and donned them. Once again, the waves started as a thin layer on top of the altar and grew higher and higher. And then I heard the words: "Do not be afraid to come all the way to Me."
I do not know how long I knelt there. I could not immediately move. I did not want to move.
I am still sorting out what this experience means and why God graced me with it. Maybe I will never know the answer to either question. Maybe it is not meant for me to know. If I am supposed to know, God will send someone or another experience to teach me that which He would have me understand.
Meanwhile, I continue to sit in the back of the church where I do feel God's presence. I still feel less worthy than others to sit farther forward. I am no longer afraid, however, to come all the way to Him, to experience the awe of His divine glory, or to allow Him full access to every fiber of my being during contemplative prayer.
I would love to know if others have had similar experiences and how that experience was interpreted. What do you know about such things?