One function of spiritual direction is to create a safe relationship where an individual can explore spiritual experience. Many people have profound and sometimes dramatic experiences in the context of prayer or worship. In sharing these experiences with another that person may begin to appreciate fully the nature of the experience and begin to reflect on its meaning and purpose. In the Christian spiritual tradition there are many occurrences where a momentary experience or a series of dramatic prayer visions or messages have taken a life time of reflection: Julian of Norwich and Hildegaard, to name but two. Often it helps to write down a description of the experience or experiences. It is from a diary of nun recalling such experiences that the following is drawn (with her knowledge and permission): ‘Four times it has been granted me in my very long life’, she writes, ‘to smell the sweet fragrance of the consecrated host. There were about twenty years between each occasion, so it is rare.’ It is rare to read of the most profound communion with God in such a simple and direct way; and yet why should it not be so? The nun’s straightforward recollection of spiritual experiences that are also sensual – including smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing – prefigure the resurrection of the body. The Lord’s incarnation revealed that the physicality of being human can bear the full weight of glory. She quotes Richard Rolle of Hampole: ‘By his wounds ye are healed. Sweet Jesus, your body is like a meadow full of scented flowers, sweetly aromatic.’

The nun has also heard the sound of the soul opening at the pouring of the chalice: ‘The power of the Blood of Jesus draws our soul up from its moorings in the depth of the body. It rises to the surface like a fish, just as Jesus Christ promised the disciples that they would catch men.’

Feeling physical sensation can also be a sign of the Holy Spirit at work. A burning sensation in the hands often accompanies prayer for healing where hands are laid on another person. The nun has had experiences where this contact for comfort and strength is purely in the spirit and yet still intensely personal. ‘It is possible for the spirit of one’s soul to enter the soul of another for protection and comfort, proceeding by a burning sensation.’

For many that walk the ascetic way of penitence and prayer the physical world, though having real impact, becomes very ‘thin’, as the spiritual and eternal become the context of living in the physical. Whereas for most Christians physical needs and weaknesses are the context in which the spiritual is sought and yearned for. The nun writes, ‘the soul is raised above the body, which seems to hang below the soul like a cumbering form of clay. The glorious rays of the God’s outer glory can be seen, yet softer than the sun – more like moonshine.’

She ends with this exhortation which takes on a whole new meaning in the light of her spiritual pilgrimage and the many graces she received in a ‘very long life’:

Oh enter then his gates with praise,
Approach with Joy his courts unto;
Praise, Laud and bless his name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

Andy Hawes is parish priest of Edenham in the Diocese of Lincoln