The National Catholic Review
James Martin, SJ
Are you?
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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.

Félicité’s Bird

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.

James Martin, S.J., is culture editor of America. This article is an edited excerpt from his new book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (HarperOne).

Comments

REV JOHN PESCE | 3/11/2010 - 9:04am
Apropos of James Martin's observations are the words of Martin Buber in the penultiamte paragraph of his classic "I andd Thou":
"One must, however, take care not to understand this conversation with God- . . . - as something happening solely alongside or above the everyday. God's speech to men penetrates what happens in the life of each one of us, and all that happens in the world around us, biographiccal and historical, and makes it for you and for me into instruction, message. demand. Happening upon happening, situation upon situation, are enabled and empowered by the personal speech of God to demand of the human person that he take his stand and make his decision. Often enough we think there is nothing to hear, but long before we have ourselves put wax in our ears" At the same time, encouraging and challenging. Pay attention! Stay awake!
1301383 | 3/4/2010 - 11:05am

Thank you, Fr. Martin for such a heart-touching commentary on "God is ready ... ", beautiful illustrations and all.


I've often thought how wonderful it might  be to publish a piece of writing called WHILE GOD WAS WAITNG ...  While it often seems that we are the ones waiting on God (to have revealed His presence in our lives, perhaps or to be given a signal when we feel lost and confused that helps blast our way back home), isn't it God who waits on us?


So let's enjoy the sumptuous banquet God the Prodigal Father/Mother lays before us, our loving, humble, generous Servant-God, and know out of sight doesn't have to mean out of mind, "out of heart." How can God be invisible when He shows himself in all things? We just have to show up at the table and not let the feast go cold.


 


 


 


 


 


 

Joan Torres | 3/3/2010 - 11:32am

In working with RCIA folks, we often ask them, "Where did you experience God's presence in your life this past week?"  -and over the years we have seen that this is particularly difficult for them.  They tend to look for the big experences, the happy times of life, and fail to appreciate God's presence in the everyday, in the unexpected, and in the challenges.  You have expressed this presence well in describing the joy that welled up in merely looking back over your shoulder to the valley below.  It's this joy - an inexplicable joy - that I have experienced at times and attribute to the abiding presence of God.  I supposed other people  may not connect joy to that presence, but for a person of faith, it is unmistakable.  Thank you.

Beth Cioffoletti | 2/28/2010 - 3:54pm

I love your line, "I'm happy to be here, I thought".

Oftentimes, despite all the trouble and problem that I seem to be immersed in at the time, that simple insight is what cues me into the gift and mystery of my life.

6466379 | 2/26/2010 - 8:06pm
The great spiritual writer, Jesuit James Martin, in "God Is Ready," points out that God speaks to us by coming in ways we can understand, anytime, anywhere. It's been my experience that God also comes in ways we don't understand. I think this is part of Fr. Martin's "anytime" a pretty broad designation covering all kinds of moods and events, a wide spectrum including much.

I see a link too, in Fr. Martin's other insightful work, "Becoming Who You Are," referring to Jesus gappling to fully understand his mission, where the writer says, "near the end of his life he struggled with a complete embrace of his mission." For me this is a comforting focus on the reality that Jesus was indeed "true Man" and as such hoped that suffering was not part of his Father's plan for him. Very understandable!

How I wish (we all wish I'm sure) that we could have been there to comfort Jesus in his fear, reassuring him in the words of another great Jesuit priest and spiritual writer, R.T. Gawronski, "Anyone who would truly love in this fallen world, must know the way of suffering!" Because God is love, Jesus had to suffer. We too! What a mystery!

As a Jesuit scholastic James Martin labored in Kenya among the poor, part of Jesuit Relief Service, at one point experiencing "crushing loneliness" and an illness that took two months recuperation. Quite suddenly he found himself overwhelmed with happiness wondering even now about the source of that sudden uplift of "clarity" of a feeling of being satisfied. It was God! The only person fully satisfied with himself is God. I'm not talking of material satisfaction, but of satisfaction that's rooted in the soul, something totally of the spirit. When experienced there is no doubt about it - it is of God and impossible things suddenly become possible. Oh yes. Gid is always ready.

On the Cross the good Jesus in his last moments experienced that sense of real satisfaction, the refreshing realization of a job well done and in exhillaration whispered loudly, "It is finished!" Would that we should be so blessed.
lLetha Chamberlain | 2/26/2010 - 12:47pm

This is so beautiful, Father!  I've longed to read more simple, "ordinary" articles (I've turned to St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, O.C.D.)... and have wandered from the "heavy, theological treatises" because I've learned that although God is Truth/Love/Beauty-the path by sublime knowledge (mysteries beyond my abilities) to me has been a path to increasing pridefulness-which is so difficult for so many.  To simply live in His Presence with a growing awareness of ALL His manifestations and works has been my hope and joy in the troubling waters of these times.  Simplicity-beloved!  No more high fallutin' wanderings for me!  My Catholic faith has provided so amply for everything I need to reach in and touch the Divine!  Thank you again.