Two or three times a year, my wife Rose goes out of town a few days to visit family and friends. My "bachelor time" is pretty routine, definitely not a living-it-up period. There is usually one evening, though, that has become special.
I plan a simple dinner to eat alone at the table, usually a nice steak and salad, with the only big decisions being whether to cook on the patio grill or at the stove, and whether to add sautéed mushrooms to the fare. A standard ... and requirement ... is a glass of a driest white wine. (I know, it should be red; but, white is my choice for about any entree.)
Candles are optional, depending on whether I even think of them. Never TV! Playing CDs on the stereo is a requirement, the genre not fixed: Often Alison Krauss, sometimes hymns/praise songs, frequently classical stuff. Slice a bit of steak, admire my getting it done just right, and drink some of the dry white. Enjoy the music. No rush, this is to be the extent of the evening. Live in the moment.
Usually, about half-way into the steak, I'd feel a warm buzz from the wine. Not like too much, just that a-bit-mellow feeling. The music, steak, wine seem to blend and produce a sense of "this is nice. I can remain here." Sometimes I'd feel tears welling up. Not sadness, but a quiet peace, maybe subdued joy. A feeling of contentment, that life is good. That it is well with my soul.
While I'd relish this feeling, and welcome its return, I usually attributed the warm sensations to the wine. I assumed I must be in that zone where the wine controlled thought and feeling. But lately I've wondered. Perhaps there was more. Maybe it wasn't the wine. Perhaps I was short-changing my emotions; they might deserve more thought. Was I experiencing God somewhere in the mix?
In a delightful book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. James Martin, S.J., HarperOne, 2010. author James Martin, SJ, emphasizes a need for us to pay attention to our emotions. Perhaps God is connecting with us through our emotions. These heartfelt connections can be ways of "becoming conscious of the desire for God. We yearn for an understanding of feelings that seem to come from outside of us," Martin writes. He says we feel that we are standing on the brink of something important, on the edge of experiencing something just beyond us.
But, Martin continues that we usually don't pursue these feelings. He says, "We ignore them, or deny them. We chalk them up to being overwrought, overly emotional. 'Oh, I was just being silly!' you might say to yourself. ... So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional." (Or, as in my case: "Oh, it was just the wine.")
Fr Martin gives a number of examples of ways one might wonder about where their emotions are coming from. Are these emotions more than just emotions? A couple of his examples of types of feelings we might want to ponder:
You are walking along the beach, and as you cast your eyes to the horizon, you are filled with a
peace that is all out of proportion to what you expect. You wonder: "Why am I getting so emotional about the beach?"
You are out to dinner or with a friend and feel a sudden sense of contentment, and you recognize how lucky you are to be blessed with her friendship. You wonder: "This is an ordinary night. Where did this deep feeling come from?"Ibid., page 55.
"In our deepest longings we hear echoes of God's longing for us. And the more we can follow these deep-down desires, those that God places within us for our happiness, the more joyful we will find ourselves."
Fr James Martin, S.J.James Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, HarperOne; Reprint edition (September 11, 2012) You can probably recall your own similar feelings and wonders. But, Martin says, we should think more about these feelings. "Gratitude, peace, and joy are ways that God communicates with us." (And also through more negative emotions such as the anger we might sense building while watching a news report about an injustice.) "During these times, we are feeling a real connection with God, though we might not initially identify it as such. The key insight is accepting that these are ways that God is communicating with us. That is, the first step involves a bit of trust."
Maybe during some of my dinners I was really experiencing God. No message, no command, just God's loving presence. Maybe the wine wasn't generating a false peace; but, perhaps the wine did play a role. The wine may have lowered my defenses against accepting my emotions. Perhaps it slowed my mind, which always seems to want to race and bounce from thought to thought. Rather than the wine clouding my thinking, perhaps it helped me focus ... and see and hear more clearly.
I hope no one views my comments as advocating alcohol to help one experience God. I know the trouble alcohol use and abuse can bring to individuals and families. The point would be that many of us do not take the time to put ourselves in an emotional and/or mental position to be open to hearing God. We can be so involved with keeping connected to friends via email, Facebook, texting, and the like that we are rarely in a mode to connect with God, our own feelings, or life itself. Are we able to take time and, as the psalmist says, "Be still, and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)
A dinner alone a few weeks ago, my Three Tenors in Concert CD was playing, a T-Bone grilled a perfect medium-rare, the wine a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend. I was in that zone where it's difficult to distinguish feelings from reality ... and with no urge to distinguish. The tenors were well into Nessun dorma. Life is good!
Then I think I heard the voice of God. Not booming or with a pronouncement like I might expect. No, the voice was somewhat small and still. But, even though almost a whisper, I heard it over the dynamic aria. Almost like I had my ear outside an ajar door, I realized I was overhearing God singing. But the divine voice was not singing along with Pavarotti and friends.
Although the voice was faint, as I listened in, I think I heard the words and familiar melody clearly: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, ..." At the refrain, I realized I was singing along. "It is well, it is well; it is well, it is well with my soul."
After cleaning up from dinner (actually just piling dishes in the sink), I sat and read my psalm for the evening and talked a bit with the one I had overheard singing. Then went to bed. Pulling up the covers, I noticed I was humming, "It is well, it is well with my soul." It would make a neater story if I said my bedtime humming was as a duet. But I hummed alone. However that night, I didn't feel like I slept alone.
Well, that's the way I remember it. Perhaps I was imagining. Perhaps I was just tired at the end of the day. Perhaps I could rationally explain-away my feelings. But, I choose to just remember it the way I think I experienced it. "Maybe it wasn't the wine."
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.It Is Well with My Soul, Horatio G. Spafford, 1873.