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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

Want to Experience God? You Already Have: Vulnerability

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Here's an often misunderstood and misinterpreted statement: Many people feel drawn to God in times of suffering.

During a serious illness, a family crisis, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one, many people will say that they've turn to God in new ways. Atheists, agnostics, and those with more skeptical minds usually chalk this up to desperation. The person, they say, has nowhere else to turn, and so turns to God. God is seen, in this light, as a crutch for the foolish, a refuge for the superstitious, or a haven for the gullible.

But in general, people do not turn to God in suffering because we suddenly become irrational. Rather, God is able to reach us because our defenses are lowered. The barriers that we erected to keep out God -- whether pride or fear or lack of interest -- are set aside. We are not less rational. We are more open.

When he was in his late 50s, my father lost a good job. After a long while, he found a job, but one that he found unsatisfying. As too many people know today, it is difficult to find work and start a new job later in life, at an age when many people are looking forward to retirement. It was hard for him and for my mother.

His job required an hour-long commute from our home in suburban Philadelphia. One dark night, in the parking lot of his office, far from home, my father had a dizzy spell, lost his balance, and fell. He ended up in the hospital. Tests showed what everyone feared: cancer. Cancer of the lungs had spread to his brain, which had caused the fall. (My father had been a heavy smoker for much of his life.)

During the next nine months, my father's physical condition went steadily downhill, despite chemotherapy. Soon he was bedridden and began to rely on my mother to care for all of his physical needs at home. During the last month of his life, when my mother could no longer help him out of bed, he said, "I think I should go to the hospital." So we moved him to a sub-acute care facility.

But while his physical condition declined, his spiritual condition seemed to improve.

Near the end of his life, my father started to talk more frequently about God. This was something of a surprise. Although he had been raised Catholic and graduated from Catholic grammar schools and high schools, and although he attended Mass during important feast days, he had, at least as long as I had known him, never been overtly religious.

But as he neared death, he asked my Jesuit friends to pray for him, he treasured holy cards that people sent him, he mused about which people he wanted to see in heaven, he asked what I thought God would be like, and he made some suggestions about his funeral Mass. My dad also became more gentle, more forgiving, and more emotional.

I found these changes both consoling and confusing.

One of the last people to visit with him was my friend Janice, a Catholic sister who had been one of my professors during my theology studies. After his death, I remarked that my dad seemed to have become more open to God. In response, Janice said something that I had never heard before, but which I seemed to have already known.

"Yes," she said. "Dying is about becoming more human."

Her insight was true in at least two ways. First, becoming more human for my father meant recognizing his inborn connection to God. All of us are, in the core of our being, connected to God, though we may ignore it, or deny it, or reject it during our lives. But with my father's defenses completely lowered, God was able to meet him in new ways. Whatever barriers that kept God at a distance no longer existed.

This, not desperation, is why there are so many profound spiritual experiences near death. The person is better able to allow God to break through.

But there is a second way that Janice's insight made sense. My father was becoming more "human" because he was becoming more loving. Drawing closer to God transforms us, since the more time we spend with someone we love, the more we become like the object of our love. Paradoxically, the more "human" we become, the more "divine" we become.

This is not to say that God desires for us to suffer. By no means, as St. Paul would say. Rather, when our defenses fall, our ultimate connection is revealed.

The contemporary German theologian Johannes Baptist Metz may have expressed this best in his short book Poverty of Spirit:

If a person ... focuses on his naked poverty, when the masks fall and the core of his being is revealed, it soon becomes obvious that he is religious by nature. In the midst of his existence there unfolds the bond (re-ligio) which ties him to the infinitely transcendent mystery of God, the insatiable interest in the absolute that captivates the person and underlines his poverty.

Thus, vulnerability is another time in which we draw near to God and God is able to draw near to us.

The God Who Seeks

This experience, which many of us have had, as well as those that I've been discussing in my posts over the last few weeks -- experiences of incompletion; common longings and connections; uncommon longings; exaltation and clarity, desires to follow and desires for holiness; and now vulnerability -- are all ways of becoming aware of our innate desire for God.

Anyone, at any time, in any of these ways, can become aware of their desire for God. Moreover, finding God and being found by God are really the same, since those expressions of desire have God both as their source and goal.

Thus, the beginning of the path to God is not only trusting that these desires are placed within us by God, but also trusting that God seeks us in the same way we seek God.

That's another wonderful image of God: the Seeker. In the New Testament, Jesus often used this image (Luke 15:3-8). He compared God to the shepherd who loses one sheep out of one hundred, and leaves the other 99 behind to find the one lost. Or the woman who loses a coin and sweeps her entire house in order to find it. This is the seeking God.

But my favorite image is actually from the Islamic tradition, which depicts God as seeking us more than we seek God. It is a hadith qudsi, which Muslim scholars translate as a divine saying revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad: "And if [my servant] draws nearer to me by a handsbreadth; I draw nearer to him by an armslength; and if he draws nearer to me by an armslength, I draw nearer to him by a fathom; and if he comes to me walking, I come to him running."

God want to be with you. God desires to be with you. What's more, God desires a relationship with you. All you have to do is say yes.

Reflection Questions:

1) Do you desire God's presence in your life? Can you see that desire as coming from God, as a way of drawing you nearer?

2) During tough times, have you ever become aware of a greater desire for God? How did you respond?

3) Johannes Baptist Metz believes that deep within the core of our being we are tied (the meaning of the word "religion") to God. Do you feel "religious by nature"?

4) Does the image of the "God who seeks" make sense to you? Have you ever thought of God seeking you?

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.