What is a “religious experience”? The phrase is sometimes used humorously to describe any intense, or intensely pleasurable, experience, as in “that chocolate cake was a religious experience.”

Used more literally, the expression evokes visions, voices and other manifestations of a direct encounter with the divine. It seems magical, or scary or perhaps both, and appears to suggest that there’s something special about the one having the experience. After all, not everyone has such experiences, do they?

Actually, I think more people have divine encounters than might be commonly imagined – and most people could.

Partly, this is a matter of what you call it. For example, the first time I went to Yosemite National Park, I was agog at the majesty and beauty of it. I truly felt awed by God’s creation, as if I had been touched by the divine creative power. I remember telling the friend I was with that I didn’t mind missing church that day, because I’d already been.

Was that a “religious experience”? To me it was; to someone else it might just have been a pretty view.

Another time, I was kneeling for communion one Sunday at a church where I also helped out with a weeknight meal for the homeless. I looked down the line of people kneeling with their hands out and it hit me: there was no difference between the Eucharist and that Thursday night supper. We were all dependent on God for our survival, and all caught up in a web of blessing, caring and being cared for.

Except that’s not exactly it. There is no way to describe the immediate and certain knowing that came over me without in some way making it less or other than it was.

Then there was the time I was on retreat at a monastery on Boston’s South Shore. This was during a time of great stress and emotional pain for me. I was meditating in an arbor covered with vines; orange lilies were planted along one side. It was a warm summer day.

As I sat meditating with my eyes closed, I could see the lilies and heard God say to me, “Remember the lilies of the field …,” reminding me that God’s love and care for me were unconditional. Then God made a promise to me, “Whatever happens, I will be with you.” I was flooded with the certainty that it was God who spoke to me and that God’s promise was true. This was knowledge beyond the intellect; it was the “peace that passes all understanding.”

My life did not suddenly get easier after that, but I felt lighter, less burdened, and I had a deep sense of God’s presence with me. And I felt profoundly grateful for that encounter.

That was probably the most profound religious experience I’ve had, and I’m still finding new meanings in it.

I don’t think my experiences are unusual at all, nor do I think they make me special. They happened because I was open – in all three cases, my guard was down, for different reasons. The last one happened because I was very vulnerable and offered up the only thing I had: my need.

I believe that anyone who is open can encounter the divine. I’m sure I miss opportunities all the time just because I’m preoccupied, operating on automatic pilot, just not paying attention.

There is an Elizabeth Barrett Browning quote about this very thing. Here it is:

“Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
and every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and eat blackberries.”

May we see with just-opened eyes, hear with newborn ears and be companioned by the divine wherever we go.