Autumn 1988, Vol.40 No. 3, pp. 196-207.

Elizabeth Bellefontaine:
      A Spirituality of Meaningful Experiences:
           Some Biblical Lessons

Discovering the meaning of remembered experiences through faithful interpretation can lead to new understandings of God and of self.

Sister Elizabeth Bellefontaine, S.C., is chair of the Religious Studies Department at Mt. St. Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. She holds a doctorate in biblical studies from Notre Dame University and has published widely in biblical journals.

JOURNEYING is a common and apt metaphor for life. We use such expressions as "our journey through life," "reaching another milestone," "turning the corner," and even "being over the hill." But journey is also a symbol of our life as members of the people of God. The entire biblical story as the story of God's people can be viewed as a journey. What is probably the earliest liturgical creed of ancient Israel and the core of the Pentateuch begins: "A wandering Aramean was my father" (Deut. 26:5). God's first words to Abram, ancestor of the people of God, was a command to set out on a journey to an unnamed land: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1; cf. Heb. 11:8-16). In biblical terms, to be chosen by God entailed a call to get up and go, to leave behind, to risk insecurity and to go forth on mission and in trust (Ex. 3:10; Amos 7:15; Is. 6:8; Jer. 1:7). The Israelites' journey through the desert from Egypt, the place of oppression, to the promised land, etched itself so deeply upon their memory and their faith that it became a paradigm of hope for other saving acts of God in their history (Is. 40:3-4; 43:16-21). Christians, too, have always understood themselves to be a pilgrim people. In the gospels, discipleship is described as "following Jesus," who "went about all the cities and villages, teaching... and preaching... and healing" (Mt. 9:35; cf. Acts 11:38), who journeyed to Jerusalem (Lk. 9:51 -- 19:45) where he passed out of this world to the Father" (Jn. 13:1). Moreover, Jesus proclaims himself as "the Way" his disciples must follow (Jn. 14:5-6). According to the Acts of the Apostles, one of the names by which the earliest Christians called themselves was "the Way." This name indicates how they perceived faith in Jesus as characterizing their Christian existence in the world (Acts 9:2;19:9; 22; 22:4; 23; 24;14; cf 18:15,16). So it is in keeping with the most ancient biblical traditions that the Second Vatican Council in "The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" depicts the people of God as a pilgrim people,(1) as "wayfarers,"(2) and as constituting the "pilgrim Church,"(3) which moves "forward through trial and tribulation... strengthened by the power of God's grace... that moved by the Holy Spirit she may never cease to renew herself, until through the Cross she arrives at the light which knows no setting."(4)

As Christians, our personal journeying is two-fold. It comprises, on the one hand, all the events of our pilgrimage through life, our outward journey. At the same time, it entails an inner, spiritual journey. This two-fold journey is essentially a pilgrimage in faith, a pressing forward in response to our call and fidelity to our mission. However, as the ancient Israelites and early Christians did in writing the scriptures, as the Church did at Vatican II, so individually, at certain points along the way, we pause to reflect upon where we are and how we came here. It is helpful to look back from certain vantage points to draw together life's journeyings -- both outward and inward -- as a story, as a record of connected and meaningful events in life, a weaving together of events with their meaning. For it is only in their meaning as related to the whole of life that events are remembered and are worth remembering. The past is meaningful not because it is past but because its meaning carries into the present. This truth is evident time and again in the scriptures.

The Old Testament records the faith journey of the Israelite people; the New Testament records the faith story of the first believers in Jesus. The people of Israel give us in the Old Testament an account of their relationship with God over a period of a thousand years. They record how they experienced God being present to them, acting to save them, calling them by means both gentle and firm to fidelity. This record is not just a map of their wanderings or a story of changing political, social and religious scenes. It is the transmission of accounts of significant events, that is, events which also signify some other reality. It is these events with their meaning which are valued and remembered. In fact, because the meaning is more important than the events, they are often depicted in ways which highlight their lasting significance to the community. Thus the Old Testament is the embodiment of a people's reflection upon their experience and their responses to those experiences. Such ongoing reflection -- through time and amid changing historical situations -- enabled the Israelites to discover and proclaim the reality of God and, and the same time, to find meaning both in their personal lives and in their on-going communal journey through history.

The people of Israel had a unique understanding of their history, based on the conviction that God accompanied them on the way, protecting, judging, forgiving, and saving them. They understood themselves and their history in the sight of God,(5) and as a moving forward into the future in company with God. The Exodus provides an apt example. This event, which resulted in a group's basic liberation from oppression, is not recorded in Egyptian annals. The incident was probably interpreted by the Egyptians as the escape of a mere handful of slaves. Some individuals, Egyptian or even Hebrew, may have considered it merely a "lucky break" or a shrewd tactical move to make at an opportune time. But for the people who retained the memory of it throughout their history, the Exodus was the great saving act of God and the model and basis of all subsequent saving acts. Through this event they experienced and acknowledged God present with and acting to save them. This is not to say that they projected either God or a "spiritual" meaning into their experience. Rather, these people forced us to attend seriously to their message by their claim that God did act in their lives. This was their experience, and this is the power of its message. In their reflection in faith, they discovered the reality of the Exodus event; they comprehended the meaning of what had happened. The significance of this historical experience, which was at the same time a religious experience, formed the unshakeable foundation of the faith of the people of God. Through this event God was known as being their God and they knew themselves to be the people of a saving God. As they re-told this and other events in their life's journey to generation after generation, it became clear that their perduring significance made the events worth remembering, re-telling, and re-living.

When we turn to the New Testament, we know that the Gospel accounts are not simply biographies of Jesus but a deposit of early Christian reflections in faith upon the experience of God through Jesus. To those who had heard Jesus' words and witnessed his deeds, the full impact of their experiences was grasped only in the light of post-Resurrection faith. Having received the Holy Spirit, the disciples remembered with new insight the words and deeds of Jesus. The Gospels declare the meaning of Jesus, the significance of his person, his words and deeds to us now, in the present. As John proclaims, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (John 20:29).

The meanings discovered in historical events, such as those recorded in the Bible as well as those found in the ordinary occurences of daily life, provide us with two vital gifts: a new or deeper understanding of God and the ways of God, and a new self-understanding.


We are accustomed to think of scripture as recounting God's gradual self-revelation to humanity. However, it may be more helpful and valid to view scripture as a record of the growth of the biblical people in understanding God and who God is in relation to them, and as their progress in grasping God's selfrevelation. Such development is demonstrated frequently in the Bible. Israel's knowledge of God was not an abstract, speculative knowledge. Rather, it was an undeniable experiential awareness of God, of God who is present to people, who calls, forms, saves, judges, forgives, and reconciles. For, in biblical terms, to know is to experience. The Israelites called upon God as one who "is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Ex. 34:6), because, in the midst of suffering, even that brought on by their own sinfulness and infidelity, they had experienced God's mercy and graciousness, and had received divine salvation and forgiveness. They trusted God, whom they called their "Rock of safety" (Deut. 32:15, Ps. 31:2, 62:2), because they had experienced unshakeable divine steadfastness and long-suffering fidelity. They knew God as "the Holy One of Israel" (Is. 1:4, 5:19, 24, 6:3, etc.; Lev. 11:44, Jos. 24:19) because they were overwhelmed by attractions towards the Sacred Other whose Reality they experienced as present to them while, at the same time, they were imbued with awe and dread. So Moses took off his shoes (Ex. 3:5f.), the Hebrews dared not approach the mountain (Ex. 19:10-25), the people refrained from entering the Holy of Holies (cf. 1 Kgs. 8:12f.; Lk. 1:9f.).

At the time of the Babylonian exile, when it seemed that all relationship with God had come to an end along with the land, the Temple, and the monarchy, Israel made a major breakthrough in the knowledge of God. After a forced journey to a foreign land, in a new and painful historical situation, their vision of God was expanded and they recognized their God as being also the God of all peoples and lands, the Lord of History, the Creator and Redeemer. Above all, they realized that God is bound by neither time nor territory, and that within human history a wonderful divine purpose is worked out. The people of Israel grew, as Jesus' apostles and disciples would grow, in their understanding of God as, pausing in their journeying, they reflected upon events in their lives and on the pattern formed by those events. Often it is only in light of the pattern, in recognizing the connectedness of events, that the authentic meaning of experiences is discovered. Thus, it was only at the end of the story that Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, only after all the conflicts, problems, and tensions had finally been resolved, could find in them a pattern and explain to his brothers the meaning his faith had perceived: "You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20). In like manner, through reflection in faith upon life's experiences and upon their responses to them, by recalling and reviewing the road they have traveled, God's people of all times can say in truth the words of the psalmist, "I have learnt for myself that the Lord is great" (Ps. 135:5). They discover that their dual journeying has not been made alone but always in the light -- or shadow -- of God's presence.


The second result of faith reflection on our life story is further understanding of self. In the light of God's Reality, one comes to know oneself more clearly and more convincingly than in any other light. Each advance in Israel's experiential understanding of God and the ways of God effected at the same time growth in the people's knowledge of themselves, of who they were in relation to God, to each other, to the world around them; what kind of people, individually and collectively, they were to be for God. Because Yahweh was revealed as their unique God, a mixed and disorganized group of slaves knew that they were called to be God's own people. Experiencing God as Savior, as one who is moved by the cries of the poor, who frees the oppressed, condemns injustice, and supports the weak against oppressors, Israel knew that it was to be a correspondingly special kind of community, one who hears the call to defend the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, to establish justice in the land, to forgive debts, release slaves, and to share its harvest. Because it was overwhelmed with the Holiness of God, Israel knew itself called to be the consecrated people of God: "You... must be holy as I your God am holy" (Lev. 11:45); "You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). It was also under the light of God's Holiness that Israel recognized itself as sinful and in need of mercy. Israel learned and passed on the message that religion consists not only in experiencing God but also in knowing one's self and shaping one's life according to that experience.

But Israel, like other nations throughout history, did not always perceive and understand the divine action in human events. Then it became the mission of special persons, notably the prophets, to point out the meaning and consequences of events. Thus, to an unfaithful Israel, the Word of God came through Amos:

"I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities;
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me;" says the Lord.
"And I also withheld the rain from you
when there were yet three months to the harvest...
yet you did not return to me," says the Lord.
I smote you with blight and mildew;
I laid waste your gardens and your vineyards;...
I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I slew your men with the sword;...
yet you did not return to me," says the Lord.     (Amos 4:6-1)
Although Israel had experienced drought, famine and defeat, it had failed to hear in these occurences God's call to recognize and admit its sinfulness and to return to its Lord for pardon and salvation. These events were not mere natural disasters; nor were they just harsh instances of divine punishment for sin. They were above all God's efforts to bring unfaithful Israel to selfknowledge, to a recognition that it was straying from the path of right relationship with its God and its own reason for being. Unmindful of its state, it could not read the signs of the times. It was only through God's Word communicated by the prophet that the Israelites learned the meaning of what they were experiencing.

Likewise the Samaritan woman at the well was invited by Jesus to probe deeper into her life and into what she was hearing and seeing that day: "If you only knew," Jesus told her, "what God is offering and who it is who is saying to you, 'Give me a drink; you would have been the one to ask and he would have given you living water." And she still did not fully know what she was asking for when she said, "Sir, give me some of that water." Yet, in her prolonged ocnversation with Jesus, in her questioning, he revealed himself to her as the Messiah. But he also revealed to her her own self, her personal journeying to this moment and its potential for salvation. "Come," she said to her townsfolk, "and see a man who has told me everything I ever did. I wonder if he is the Christ?" (Jn. 4:1-30). The episode shows that knowledge of the Lord and knowledge of self are interrelated. This woman, making her usual trip to the well on what must have seemed just another day, could not have imagined how she would be changed by experiencing a life review in the presence of and in dialogue with Jesus.

The story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35) shows how insight into the meaning of experiences can occur even on the way, in the process of journeying, and even in the midst of grief and hopelessness. Jesus, accompanying them on the road, unveils for them the meaning of the events of Holy Week. As they journey together, the dispirited disciples recount for him in detail the events of the preceding days. However, they had totally failed to grasp the significance of the events until they reflected on them with Jesus. Luke writes, "Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself." Later, at table, "they recognized him in the breaking of bread." After this recognition of Jesus in the Word and in the Eucharist, they exclaimed, "Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?" When they left Jerusalem, they were traveling away from events which had shocked and saddened them and which they interpreted at face value as signs of disaster and failure. But, in the presence of Jesus in Word and Sacrament, they receive insight of both mind and heart into the true meaning of those events. They come to know Jesus as the Risen and Living Lord and themselves in union with him and each other as sharing in that transformating life. Joyfully, they return to Jerusalem and recount for the gathered disciples "what had happened on the road" (v. 35). Clearly, events which touch us deeply call forth a response, but the appropriate response can be given only when events' meanings for us are clear, convincing, and engaging.


Sometimes it is only a further experience of God, a new hearing of the Word of God, or the faith of another which empowers us to probe the meaning at the depths of our personal story and the circumstances of our journeying. Jurgen Moltmann, a German Lutheran theologian, from age eighteen to twenty-one spent the years immediately after World War II in British prisoner-of-war camps. He was overwhelmed by the anguish of the defeat and the tragic collapse of his country. One day an army chaplain gave him a New Testament. "It was out of place. I would rather have had something to eat," Moltman writes.

But then I became fascinated by the Psalms (which were printed in an appendix) and especially by Psalm 39: `I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred' (but the German is much stronger -- 'I have to eat up my grief within myself') .... Hold thou not thy peace at my tears; for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were'. These Psalms gave me the words for my suffering. They opened my eyes to the god who is with those 'that are of a broken heart'. He was present even behind the barbed wire no, most of all behind the barbed wire. "(6)

When the disciples of John the Baptist asked if Jesus were the one they had been waiting for, Jesus told them to observe what was happening and to draw upon their Jewish faith to interpret what they had heard and seen. "Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me" (Mt. 11: 4-6). When pondered with the context of all faith's resources, events experienced along the way become signs pregnant with meaning. Faith unlocks the sign, revealing the significance of what is experienced, its transforming power, and the direction it sets for our on-going journey.

It is with this biblical appreciation of the relation of past to present that our personal past, our traditions, as well as our present situation can become the well-spring of our prayer. Our whole lifetime along the way bears upon our present experience of God. Our developed understandings of self, of others, of the world and its affairs, and all that comes under the light of our experience of the Holy One, converge in the present into conversation with God in prayer. Time and again we turn to the Lord, to the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the Christian community, with new, accumulated life experiences to be pondered, embraced, lamented, integrated, and shared. The biblical prayer book, the psalms, many of which were composed by individuals but which were taken up into Israel's communal worship and later into the Church's liturgy, spring out of real life situations. They reflect the entire range of human experiences brought before God; they express every aspect of human dialogue with the divine: praise, lament, thanksgiving, sorrow, petition. All the anguish and questioning of human living are made the subject of prayer: Why? Why not? How long? How soon? Wake up! Arise!? Whatever thought or feeling the past or present human reality evokes, it may be brought before God and expressed in the divine presence. Even at different junctures in our journey, in new and different situations, we pray to no strange God, but to the God who has known us from our youth, who knit us in our mother's womb. "No one comes to the Lord in a vacuum."(8)

Thirty years after the event noted previously, Jurgen Moltman reflects upon it and writes:

Perhaps there are certain deeply rooted experiences in every life which mould existence and sustain it at the same time. We return to them again and again recalling them and thinking them over. We continually give them anew interpretation. As we enter into them they become present, and the time that cuts us off from them ceases to exist. We experience ourselves as being still the same person, though new and different things have been added. We find our identity of being in all the changes life brings. That is the way I still experience today what I went through over thirty years ago.(9)
A spirituality which embraces meaningful experiences integrates our two-fold journeying, the outward and the inward. It prompts us to remember and experience anew God's active presence in our life, to reflect upon our memories, to re-interpret and find new or deeper meaning in them. Our memories are part of us. They help define us -- as individuals, as unique persons, as members of families, as men or women of God, as members of each community to which we have belonged and now belong. Remembering in faith helps us to truthfully trace the way we have traveled. It brings the past into the present and asks: What is your story? How have you traveled? What personal understandings of God and of yourself do your derive from your story and from the events along the way? How much of your story is personal? How much communal? How much of it can you share as witness to God's presence in the world through you, to God's presence, with you on your journey? What do you mean when, perceiving the pattern of your life, the map of your journey, you say with the Psalmist, "I have learnt for myself that the Lord is great" (Ps. 135:5)?

How we answer such questions at different points along life's way discloses and articulates our spirituality. By facing the questions and responding to their scrutiny, we are able to view life not as a record of disconnected incidents but as a reality of related and meaningful experiences. Like the Emmaus disciples and like Moltman, we are enabled in faith to find new meanings in life's events in each new present time and a fresh call to respond in new and creative ways.

The development of a spirituality of meaningful experiences leads us to take seriously our status as wayfarers, as members of the Pilgrim Church. By its designation as the pilgrim people of God, the Church acknowledges that it lives out its existence and mission in the "already" and "not yet" time of the establishment of the kingdom, that it continues in its life Jesus' Passage to the Father, his life, death, and resurrection,(10) and that it answers a call to on-going conversion and reform, a response which opens it to God's saving and transforming power. As members of this pilgrim people, we share in the dying and rising of Christ, and in the continuous call to conversion and renewal. By developing a spirituality of meaningful experiences as part of our faith life, we are being faithful to authentic biblical and Christian tradition. We ready ourselves for a deeper sense of God's reality and of our own being. We learn to value the past, to embrace the present, and to move onward into the future with hope and joy. As our dual journeying becomes one, our outward journey becomes at the same time a purposeful religious pilgrimage deriving its meaning from the latter, while our spiritual, inward thrust unable to be contained, becomes externalized in concrete daily living. In biblical terms, our life becomes a "walking with God" (Micah 6:8; Ps. 89:15), so that, drawing into the present the meaning and value of past experiences, we dare to take the "risk of journeying with God"(11) into the future.


  1. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) Ch. 1, art 8; ch. 2, art 9, translated by Joseph Gallagher in The Documents of Vatican II. Edited by Walter M. Abbot, S.J. (New York: The America Press, 1966).
  2. LG, ch. 7, arts. 49, 50.
  3. LG, ch. 7, esp. arts. 48, 50.
  4. LG, ch. 2, art. 9.
  5. Gerhard von Rad, God at Work in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 87.
  6. Jurgen Moltman, Experiences of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), p. 8.
  7. Roland Murphy, The Psalms, Job, Proclamation Commentaries: The Old Testament Witnesses for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), p. 40.
  8. Murphy, p. 50.
  9. Moltman p. 9.
  10. Kevin McNamara, ed., Vatican II. The Constitution on the Church. A Theological and Pastoral Commentary (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968), pp. 25-28.
  11. Brother John of Taize, "The Pilgrimage Seen Through the Bible," Lumen Vitae 39:1 (1984) p. 384.