How do I find God?
That question marks the starting point for all seekers. But, surprisingly, many books on spirituality often downplay or ignore them. Some writers assume you already believe in God, that you have already found God or that God is already part of your life. But it is somewhat ridiculous not to address those questions when it comes to the spiritual life. It would be like writing a book about swimming without first talking about how to float.
To begin to answer that question, "How do I find God?" let's start with something more familiar. Let's look at the ways that many people seek God. Even though there are as many individual ways to God as there are people on the earth, for the sake of clarity, I'll break down the myriad ways into six broad paths. These paths, which will form a six-part series for The Huffington Post, are taken from my book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.
Each has its benefits and pitfalls. You may find yourself on several different paths during your lifetime. You may even feel like you're on more than one path at the same time.
The Path of Belief
For people on this first path, belief in God has always been part of their lives. They were born into a religious family or were introduced to religion at an early age. They move through life more or less confident of their belief in God. Faith has always been an essential element of their lives. They pray regularly, attend religious services frequently and feel comfortable talking about God. Their lives, like every life, are not free from suffering, but faith enables them to put their sufferings into a framework of meaning.
The early life of Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit priest who spent 20 years in Soviet prisons and Siberian labor camps beginning in the 1940s, reflects this kind of upbringing. In his autobiography With God in Russia, published after his return to the United States, Ciszek describes growing up in a devout Catholic family in the coal belt of Pennsylvania. Family life centered around the local parish: Sunday Masses, special feast days, weekly confessions. So it is not a surprise when Ciszek says this in his book's first chapter: "[I]t must have been through my mother's prayers and example that I made up my mind in the eighth grade, out of a clear blue sky, that I would be a priest."
What for many people would be a difficult decision was for young Walter Ciszek the most natural thing in the world.
The benefits of walking along the path of belief are clear: faith gives meaning to both the joys and struggles of life. Faith in God means that you know that you are never alone. You know and are known. Life within a worshiping community provides companionship. During times of hardship, faith is an anchor. And the Christian faith also holds out the promise of hope beyond this earthly life.
This kind of faith sustained Walter Ciszek during his years in the Soviet labor camps, and enabled him, as he finally left Russia in 1963, to bless the country whose government had caused him untold physical and mental suffering. At times he struggled with his belief -- who wouldn't in such conditions? -- but ultimately his faith remained firm. With God in Russia ends with these haunting words, describing what Ciszek does as his plane takes off: "Slowly, carefully, I made the sign of the cross over the land I was leaving."
Others often envy people who walk along the path of belief. "If only I had faith like you!" a friend often tells me. While I understand her sentiment, that perspective makes faith seem like something you "have" rather than have to work at keeping. It's as if you're born with unquestioning faith, like being born with red hair or brown eyes. Or as if faith were like pulling into a gas station and filling your tank.
Neither metaphor is apt. Ultimately, faith is a gift from God. But faith isn't something that you just "have." Perhaps a better metaphor is that faith is like a garden: while you may already have the basics -- soil, seeds, water -- you have to cultivate and nourish it. Like a garden, faith takes patience, persistence and even work.
If you envy those on the path of belief, don't worry -- many people go through a period of doubt and confusion before they come to know God. Sometimes for a long time. Ignatius finally accepted God's presence at an age when many of his peers were on their way to a family and financial success.
None of these six paths is free from dangers. One pitfall for those on the path of belief is an inability to understand people on other paths, and a temptation to judge them for their doubt or disbelief. Certainty prevents some believers from being compassionate, sympathetic or even tolerant of others who are not as certain in their faith. Their arrogance turns them into the "frozen chosen," consciously or unconsciously excluding others from their cozy, believing world. This is the crabbed, joyless and ungenerous religiosity that Jesus spoke against: spiritual blindness.
There is a more subtle danger for this group: a complacency that makes one's relationship with God stagnate. Some people cling to ways of understanding their faith learned in childhood that might not work for an adult. For example, you might cling to your childhood notion of a God who will never let anything bad happen. When tragedy strikes, since your youthful image of God is not reflected in reality, you may abandon the God of your youth. Or you may abandon God completely.
An adult life requires an adult faith. Think of it this way: You wouldn't consider yourself equipped to face life with a third-grader's understanding of Math. Yet people often expect the religious instruction they had in grammar school to sustain them in the adult world.
In his book A Friendship Like No Other, the Jesuit spiritual writer William A. Barry invites adults to relate to God as an adult. Just as an adult child needs to relate to his or her parent in a new way, so adult believers need to relate to God in new ways as they mature. Otherwise, one remains stuck in a childlike view of God that prevents fully embracing a mature faith.
Like all of the six paths, the path of belief is not a path without stumbling blocks.
Next: The Path of Independence.
James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, from which this series is adapted.