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Want to Experience God? You Already Have: Common Longings and Connections

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Many people say that they could believe in God if they only experienced God. "Then I would believe!" And in my last post, I suggested that one way of becoming aware of God's presence in our lives is through the very desire for God. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord," wrote St. Augustine, the fourth-century African bishop.

The desire for God, I believe, comes from God, and is in fact a way of experiencing God. So becoming aware of those desires is one of the first steps towards growing in awareness of the way God works within us.

Last week we looked at the feeling of incompletion as a way of experiencing the innate desire for God. There are other ways, as well.

Sometimes you experience a desire for God in very common situations: for example, standing silently in the snowy woods on a winter's day, finding yourself moved to tears during a movie, recognizing a strange sense of connection during a church service -- and feeling an inexpressible longing to savor this feeling and understand what it is.

In the years after my sister gave birth to my first nephew, I often felt overwhelmed with love when I was with him. Here was a beautiful new child, a person who had never existed before, given to the world. One day I came home from a visit to their house and was so filled with love that I wept -- out of gratitude, out of joy, and out of wonder. At the same time I longed to connect more with the mysterious source of this joy.

Common longings and heartfelt connections are ways of becoming conscious of the desire for God. We yearn for an understanding of feelings that seem to come from outside of us. We experience what the 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross calls the desire for "I know not what."

Many of us have had experiences like this. We feel that we are standing on the brink of something important, on the edge of experiencing something just beyond us. We experience wonder. So why don't you hear more about these times?

Because many times we ignore them, reject them, or deny them. We chalk them up to being overwhelmed, overwrought, overly emotional. "Oh, I was just being silly!" you might say to yourself. So you disregard that longing you feel of the first breath of a spring breeze on your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional. This happens even to those practiced in the spiritual life: often, after an intense experience in prayer during a retreat, people are tempted to dismiss it as simply something that "just happened."

Or we simply don't recognize these moments as possibly having their origins in God.

"I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." That's Julian Barnes, beginning his recent, and haunting, memoir Nothing to be Frightened Of. The acclaimed author of Flaubert's Parrot takes as his subject his overpowering fear of death.

Barnes writes, "I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm." Barnes misses God. Who is to say that this "missing" does not arise from the very desire for God, which comes from God?

One friend, a self-described workaholic who hadn't been to church for a long time, went to a baptism of a friend's child. Suddenly she was overtaken by powerful feelings -- mainly the desire to live a more peaceful and centered existence. She began to cry, though she didn't know why. She told me that she felt an intense feeling of peace as she stood in church and watched the priest pour water over the baby's head.

To me, it seemed clear what was happening: she was experiencing, in this moment, when her defenses were down, God's desires for her. And it makes sense that a religious experience would happen in the context of a religious ceremony. But she laughed and dismissed it. "Oh," she said, "I guess I was just being emotional." And that was that.

It's a natural reaction: much in Western culture tries to tamp down or even deny these naturally spiritual experiences and explain them away in purely rational terms. It's always something other than God.

Likewise we may dismiss these events as being too common, too simple to come from God. Once, Mike, a Jesuit high school teacher, preached a short homily in our house chapel. The reading for the day was a story from the Old Testament, the Second Book of Kings (5:1-19), about Naaman the Syrian. Naaman, commander of the Syrian king's army, is suffering from leprosy and is sent by the king to ask the Prophet Elisha for healing. In response Elisha tells him to do something simple: bathe in the Jordan River seven times.

Naaman is furious. He thought that he would be asked to wash in some other river, some more important river. His servants say, "If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?" In other words, why are you looking for some spectacular task? Do the simple thing. Naaman does it and is healed.

Mike said that our search for God is often like Naaman's. We're searching for something spectacular, to convince us of God's presence. Yet it is in the simple things, common events and common longings, where God may be found.

You may also fear accepting these moments as signs of the divine call. If you accept them as originating with God, you might have to accept that God wants to be in relationship with you, or is communicating with you directly, which is a frightening idea.

Fear is a common experience. Confronted with an indication that God is close to you can be alarming. Thinking about God wanting to communicate with us is something that many of us would rather avoid.

That is why so many stories in the Bible about men and women encountering the divine begin with the words, "Do not be afraid." The angel announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary says, "Do not be afraid" (Luke 1:30). Nine months later, on the eve of the birth of Jesus, the angel in the fields greets the shepherds. "Do not be afraid," the angel says (Luke 2:10). And when Jesus performs one of his first miracles in front of St. Peter, the fisherman falls to his knees, out of awe and fear. "Go away from me!" says Peter. And Jesus says, again, "Do not be afraid" (Luke 5:10).

Fear is a natural reaction to the divine, to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as the theologian Rudolf Otto says, the mystery that both fascinates and leaves us trembling.

Religious experiences are often dismissed -- not out of doubt that they aren't real, but out of fear that they are real after all.

Reflection Questions:

1) If you've never believed in God, or have doubted God's existence, have you ever had a desire for God? Or a longing for "I know not what"? How do you feel about identifying that desire as coming from God?

2) If you've wandered away from belief, do you "miss" God, like the author Julian Barnes does? Why?

3) Naaman dismisses the suggestion that the water from the Jordan River could heal him because it's too "common." What areas of your life might you be overlooking as "common" but which could be ways that God is present?

4) When you think of God communicating with you directly, through these heartfelt desires, does it ever make you frightened? Why? What does this say about your image of God?

In our next post, we'll look at "uncommon longings" and "everyday mysticism" as a way of experiencing God.

James Martin, SJ, is a Catholic priest and culture editor of America. This essay is adapted from his new book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.