05/14/2010 02:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Want to Experience God? You Already Have: Exaltation and Clarity

Seekers (those looking for God either alone or in a community) and agnostics (those who doubt God's existence) are often looking for a clear experience of God. "If only I could experience God," some say, "then I could believe."

In my last few posts, I've suggested that our very longing for God is a sign of our innate religious nature. That is, God calls to us through those desires. As St. Augustine said, "O Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

Atheists and non-believers probably won't believe this (or me), but I believe our desire for God comes from God and is one key way that God calls to us. (Even if you say that these desires are merely biological or psychological phenomena, I would say that God can use even these means as ways of attracting us.)

Indeed, how else could God call to us if not interiorly?

But how do we become aware of our desires for God? So far we've looked at incompletion, common longings and connections, and uncommon longings or "everyday mysticism." Let's look at two more ways: exaltation and clarity.


Similar to common and uncommon longings are times that might be best described not as ineffable desires or strong connections, but as times when one is "lifted up" or feels a sense of exaltation or happiness. Different from longing to know what it's all about, here you are feeling that you are very close to, about to meet, the object of your desire.

Here you may feel the warm satisfaction of being near God. You are in the middle of a prayer, or are in the middle of a worship service, or are listening to a piece of music, and suddenly you feel overwhelmed by feelings of beauty or clarity. We are lifted up and desire more.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was an English Jesuit priest and a poet renowned in the literary world for his creative use of language. In the religious world he is also renowned for his desire to find God in all things. In his poem "Pied Beauty," Hopkins evinces a love of God, nature, and wordplay. It is a prayer of exaltation:

Glory be to God for dappled things--

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Almost a century later, during a summer evening, the English poet W.H. Auden gathered together with his fellow teachers at the Downs School, when something unexpected happened to him. He describes it in the introduction to a book edited by Anne Fremantle called The Protestant Mystics:

One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had we any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly--because thanks to the power, I was doing it--what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself....My personal feelings toward them were unchanged--they were still colleagues, not intimate friends--but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.

Auden seems almost to have met the desire of his heart, almost to have found exactly what he was looking for, but when he arrived at the place he was just as quickly taken away from it. Such powerful experiences increase our appetite for a relationship with God in the future, even if we never again experience God's presence in quite so clear a way.

Beauty as a passage to God is another experience that crops up in real life almost as often as it does in fiction. In Evelyn Waugh's magnificent novel Brideshead Revisited, about a Catholic family in England in the 1920s and '30s, one of the characters, Sebastian Flyte, a young aristocrat, confesses that he is drawn to the beautiful stories in the Gospels. His friend, an agnostic, protests: one can't believe in something simply because it's lovely, he says.
"But I do," Sebastian replies. "That's how I believe."


There is a New Yorker cartoon that features a wizened, monkish-looking man hunched over a large book. He looks up and says to himself, "By God, for a minute there it suddenly all made sense!"

Sometimes we feel that we are tantalizingly close to understanding exactly what this world is about. On the day of my ordination to the priesthood, eleven years ago, at a Jesuit church in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I entered the church a few hours before the Mass was to begin. The choir was rehearsing, and as I stood in the empty church, which would soon be filled with friends and family, I thought, "This is right where I should be."

Feelings of clarity may be similar to feelings of exaltation. Indeed, many of the feelings we're describing in this series may overlap. In many of the cases described in this series, we might experience what Ignatius calls in the Spiritual Exercises "consolation without prior cause," a sense of God's communicating with you directly and giving you encouragement. "When the consolation is without a preceding cause there is no deception in it," he writes, "since it is coming only from God our Lord."

Isak Dinesen spoke of clarity in her book Out of Africa. She writes about the "transporting pleasure" of being taken up in an airplane by her friend Denys Finch-Hatton: "You may at other times fly low enough to see the animals on the plains and to feel towards them as God did when he had just created them, and before he commissioned Adam to give them names." Moviegoers will remember this scene from the film of the same name, in which Meryl Streep speaks lines from the following passage. Dinesen writes:

Every time that I have gone up in an aeroplane and looking down have realised that I was free of the ground, I have had the consciousness of a great new discovery. "I see:" I have thought, "This was the idea. And now I understand everything."

In such moments do we become aware of our longing for God, and in such moments does God call to us.

Reflection Questions

1) Have you ever felt a sense of being "lifted up," or being close to God?

2) Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem speaks of how nature can lift us to God and evoke praise. What in your life prompts this in you?

3) W.H. Auden's experience with his friends imprinted itself on his memory. Have you had any similar experiences in your life? Did you connect them with a longing for God?

4) "Now I see," wrote the author Isak Dinesen. "This was the idea." Whose idea? When you experience "clarity" do you have a sense of whose vision it is?

In our next post we'll look at desires to follow and desires for holiness as ways to 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.