When I entered the Jesuit novitiate, I was baffled about what it meant to have a “relationship” with God. We novices heard about that a great deal, and I was stumped: What was I supposed to do to relate to God? What did that mean?
My biggest misconception was that I would have to change before approaching God. Like many beginners in the spiritual life, I felt that I wasn’t worthy to approach God. So I felt foolish trying to pray. I confessed this to the assistant novice director. “What do I need to do before I can relate to God?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “God meets you where you are.”
That was a liberating insight. Even though God is always calling us to constant conversion and growth, and even though we are imperfect and sometimes sinful people, God loves us as we are now. As the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello said, “You don’t have to change for God to love you.” This is one of the main insights of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola: We are loved even in our imperfections.
The Christian can see this most clearly in the New Testament. Jesus often calls people to conversion, to cease sinning, to change their lives, but he does not wait until they have done so before meeting them. He enters into relationship with them as he finds them. He meets them where they are and as they are.
But there is another way of understanding this. Not only does God desire to be in relationship with you now, but God’s way of relating to you often depends on where you are in your life.
So if you find meaning primarily through relationships, this is how God may want to meet you. Look for God through friendship. Just the other day a man who comes to me for spiritual direction said that he was having a hard time being grateful. When I asked where he most found God, his face brightened and he said, “My children!”
God can meet us anywhere. One of my closest Jesuit friends is a prison chaplain named George, who has recently started giving the Spiritual Exercises to inmates in a Boston jail. Not long ago, one inmate told George that he was about to punch a guy in the face when he suddenly felt God was giving him “some time” to reconsider. Here was God meeting an inmate in his prison cell.
God also meets you in ways that you can understand, in ways that are meaningful to you. Some-times God speaks to you in a manner that is so personal, so tailored to the circumstances of your life that it is nearly impossible to explain it to others.
One of my favorite instances of this in fiction is in Gustave Flaubert’s luminous short story “A Simple Heart,” written in 1877, which tells the tale of a poor servant named Félicité.
For many years Félicité, a goodhearted young woman, patiently bears up under her grim employer, the imperious Madame Aubain. At one point in the story, Madame Aubain gives her servant a brightly colored parrot named Loulou, really the only extraordinary thing that Félicité has ever owned. (This is the eponymous bird in Julian Barnes’s popular book Flaubert’s Parrot.)
Then disaster strikes: her beloved Loulou dies. In desperation, Félicité sends the bird to a taxidermist, who stuffs him. When the bird is returned, Félicité sets it atop a large wardrobe with other holy relics that she keeps. “Every morning,” writes Flaubert, “as she awoke she saw him by the first light of day, and then would recall the days gone by and the smallest details of unimportant events, without sorrow, quite serenely.”
After her mistress dies, Félicité grows old and retreats into a simple life of piety. “Many years passed,” writes Flaubert. Finally, at the moment of her own death, Félicité is given a strange and beautiful vision: “[W]hen she breathed her last breath she thought she saw in the heavens as they opened a gigantic parrot, hovering over her head.”
God comes to us in ways we can understand.
In the Beauty of the Lilies
Here is an example from my own life: At one point in my Jesuit training, I spent two years working in Nairobi, Kenya, working with the Jesuit Refugee Service. There I helped East African refugees who had settled in the city start small businesses to support themselves. At the beginning of my stay, cut off from friends and family in the States, I felt a crushing loneliness. After a few months of hard work, I also came down with mononucleosis, which required two months of recuperation. So it was a trying time.
Happily, I worked with some generous people, including Uta, a German Lutheran lay volunteer with extensive experience in refugee work in Southeast Asia. After I had recovered from my illness, our work flourished: Uta and I helped some refugees set up about 20 businesses, including tailoring shops, several small restaurants, a bakery and even a little chicken farm. Uta and I also started a small shop that sold the refugee handicrafts. It was located in a sprawling slum in Nairobi.
It was a remarkable turnaround—from lying on my bed, exhausted, wondering why I had come here, anguished that I would have to return home, puzzled over what I could ever accomplish, to busily working with refugees from all over East Africa, managing a shop buzzing with activity and realizing that this was the happiest and freest I had ever felt. Many days were difficult. But many days I thought, “I can’t believe how much I love this work!”
One day I was walking home from our shop. The long brown path started at a nearby church on the edge of the slum, which was perched on a hill that overlooked a broad valley. From there the bumpy path descended through a thicket of floppy-leaved banana trees, thick ficus trees, orange day lilies, tall cow grass and cornfields. On the way into the valley I passed people silently working in their plots of land, who looked up and called out to me as I passed. Brilliantly colored, iridescent sunbirds sang from the tips of tall grasses. At the bottom of the valley was a little river, and I crossed a flimsy bridge to get to the other side.
When I climbed the opposite side of the hill, I turned to look back. Though it was around five in the afternoon, the equatorial sun blazed down on the green valley, illuminating the long brown path, the tiny river, the people, the banana tree, flowers and grass.
Quite suddenly I was overwhelmed with happiness. I’m happy to be here, I thought. After some loneliness, some illness and some doubts, I felt that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
It was a surprising experience. Here was God speaking to me where I was—physically, emotionally and mentally—and offering what I needed on that day.
What was it, precisely? A feeling of clarity? Of longing? Of exaltation? It’s hard to say, even today. Perhaps all of those things. But it was especially meaningful to me where I was at the time.
Any Time, Anywhere
God speaks to us in ways we can understand. God began to communicate with St. Ignatius during his long recuperation after sustaining injuries in a battle, when he was vulnerable and more open to listening. With me, on that day in Nairobi, God spoke to me through the view of that little valley.
God can also meet you at any time, no matter how confused your life may seem. You do not have to have a perfectly organized daily life to experience God. Your spiritual house does not need to be tidy for God to enter.
In the Gospels, for example, Jesus often meets people in the midst of their work: Peter mending his nets by the seashore, Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. But just as often Jesus encounters people when they are at their absolute worst: an adulterous woman about to be stoned, a woman who has been sick for many years, a possessed man not even in his right mind. In each of these situations God said to these busy, stressed-out, worried, frightened people, “I’m ready to meet you if you’re ready to meet me.”
If God meets you where you are, then where you are is a place to meet God. You do not have to wait until your life settles down, or the kids move out of the house, or you have found that perfect apartment, or you recover from that long illness. You do not have to wait until you’ve overcome your sinful patterns or are more “religious” or can pray “better.” You do not have to wait for any of that.
God is ready now.
Listen to Father Martin discuss Ignatian spirituality.