Experiencing God through Desire

The fifth in a series on Huffpost. 

"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 incompletioncommon longings and connectionsuncommon 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.

Read the rest here.

James Martin, SJ


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8 years ago
I've been following the series too and liking it very much.  Still pondering what you wrote about consolation without prior cause last time
James Lindsay
8 years ago
My personal proof of God is my experience of Grace. Indeed, the fact that significant numbers of people do experience grace in the Roman Catholic Church, with all its institutional faults, is proof that it is the bearer of grace and that God exists.
Bill Collier
8 years ago
I've been following your series with appreciation, and thanks for the inclusion of Eugene Burnand's "Peter and John Running to the Tomb." It's one of my favorite paintings, and it's a wonderful accompaniment to the themes you've been exploring.


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