Want to Experience God? You Already Have: Desires to Follow and Desires for Holiness

05/21/2010 02:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"If only I could experience God, then perhaps I could believe." That's a refrain of quite a few seekers and agnostics. But they may already have experienced God: the desire for God is very often a sign of God's call to us. In the echo of our longing for the transcendent, we can begin to hear God's voice.

Many agnostics (as I can see from the comments to my last posts) find this hard to accept, but I would suggest that in these deep desires God calls to us. Many atheists (as I also see from the comments) flat-out disbelieve what I'm saying. In response, I would ask them to consider the possibility that there may be in the human desire for the transcendent a sign of God's activity. God is often most active in our hearts and often speaks most clearly to our most private selves. As St. Augustine said, God is intimior intimo meo, nearer to me than I am to myself.

In my last few posts, I've looked at ways these desires for God play out in our everyday lives, including incompletion, common longings and connections, uncommon longings, and exaltation and clarity.

Now let's look at two more: desires to follow and desires for holiness.

Desires to Follow

Desires to follow God are more explicit than a simple desire for the transcendent. It is not a desire for "I know not what," as St. John of the Cross put it, but for "I know exactly what." And you may be able to identify it as the desire for God.

At the beginning of his classic manual on prayer, The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century Spanish mystic and founder of the Jesuit Order, invites believers to meditate on the gifts that God has given you, and then on your own sins and failings.

This is not as formulaic as it sounds. After spending a good deal of time thinking about blessings in their lives, people often feel, in a sense, "unworthy" of what they have received. Not that they're bad people. "By no means," as St. Paul would say.

Rather, many people naturally find themselves asking, "What have I done to deserve all this?"

At this point in a retreat, your faults often come to the fore. As Bill Creed, a Jesuit spiritual director, once told me, "In the bright sunshine of God's love, your shadows begin to emerge."

This leads to the realization that you are, as Jesuits say, a "loved sinner," someone imperfect but loved by God. Typically, this prompts gratitude, which leads to a desire to respond in thanksgiving. You may feel so overwhelmed by God's love for you, even in your "imperfect" state, that you want to say, "Thank you! What can I do in return?"

For Christians this often takes the form of a desire to follow Jesus Christ. The response to the urge comes in later on in The Spiritual Exercises, where Ignatius presents a series of meditations on the life of Christ, taken from the Gospels. The desire here is more explicit than one for "I know not what." It is for a particular way of life, that is, following Christ.

But you don't have to be in the middle of a guided retreat for this kind of desire to manifest itself.

You may be reading something about religion or spirituality and think, "This is what I've always wanted, to follow this path."

You may be sitting in a church service, hear about Jesus and say, "Why don't I follow him?"

You may remember the way you felt about God as a child and think, "What would happen if I returned to that path?"

Your desires are more formed in these cases. And you are able to identify your desires as following a specific path, or following God. This is another way that God calls us.

Desires for Holiness

An attraction to examples of holiness is another sign of the desire for God. This can be triggered in at least two ways: first, learning about holy people in the past; and second, meeting holy people today.

In the first case, one example may be that of, once again, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Formerly a vain courtier and soldier, Ignatius was seriously injured in a battle in 1521 and was carried back to his family's castle in Loyola, Spain. His life, he felt, was more or less over, his dreams of success as shattered as his body. During his painful recuperation from surgery, he asked for some reading material, preferably tales of derring-do and chivalry. To his dismay, all that could be found in the house were stories of the saints and a life of Christ. He took them up only grudgingly.

Then a strange thing happened. While reading the lives of the saints, he began to be attracted to the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, the great apostle of the poor, and St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. Ignatius started to think, in essence, "Hey, I could do something like that." Ignatius's overweening vanity was attracted to their great deeds, but a more authentic part of himself was attracted to their holiness.

This is one way that God can call you to -- through a heartfelt attraction to holy men and women and a real desire to emulate their lives. Through a call to holiness.

But holiness resides not only in canonized saints like St. Ignatius, but also in the holy ones who walk among us -- that includes the holy father who takes care of his young children, the holy daughter who cares for her aging parents, and the holy mother who works hard for her family. Nor does holiness mean perfection: the saints were always flawed, limited, human. Holiness always makes its home in humanity.

We can be attracted to models of holiness both past and present. Learning about past examples of holiness and meeting holy people today often makes us want to be like them. Holiness in other people is naturally attractive, since it is one way that God attracts us to himself. Experiencing the attractiveness of sanctity today also enables us to understand why Jesus of Nazareth attracted crowds of people everywhere he went.

Holiness in others draws to the holy parts of ourselves. "Deep calls to deep," as Psalm 42 says.

This is something of what the novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, had in mind when she wrote in an article, "What I might call personal holiness is in fact openness to the perception of the holy, in existence itself and above all in one another."

Reflection Questions:

1) Have you ever felt a desire to follow the example of a religious figure -- like Moses, Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Can you see this as a way of God drawing you closer to a life centered on God?

2) Who in your own life -- family or friends -- lead holy lives? Are you attracted to their manner of life? Might that attraction indicate a desire for God, the source of all holiness?

3) "Deep calls to deep," says Psalm 42. How does God call to the "deep" parts of your being?

4) Do you experience any desire to live a "holy" life? Might this be a desire to experience God's holiness?

In our final post, we will look at how vulnerability can sometimes lead us closer to an experience of 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.