James Martin, S.J.March 11, 2011

In addition to the ways of desiring God that I spoke about in my article in this week's issue, “Get Closer,” here are several other common experiences.  Many have had these experiences—without being aware that they may be ways of hearing God's voice in our lives.

Uncommon Longings

Also in the rather loose category of "longing" are more intense experiences. Sometimes we feel an almost "mystical" sense of longing for God, or a connection to God, which can be triggered by unexpected circumstances.

"Mysticism" is often dismissed as a privileged experience for only the super-holy. But mysticism is not confined to the lives of the saints. Nor does each mystical experience have to replicate exactly what the saints describe in their writings.

In her superb book Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, says bluntly that mysticism is not simply the province of the saints. "For what is the mystical life but God coming to do what we cannot do; God touching the depths of our being where man is reduced to his basic element?" Karl Rahner, the 20th-century German Jesuit theologian, spoke of "everyday mysticism."

What does it mean to have a "mystical" experience?

One definition is that a mystical experience is one in which you feel filled with God's presence in an intense and unmistakable way. Or you feel "lifted up" from the normal way of seeing things. Or you are simply overwhelmed with the sense of God in a way that seems to transcend your own understanding.

Needless to say, these experiences are hard to put into words. It's the same as trying to describe the first time you fell in love, or held your newborn child in your arms, or saw the ocean for the first time. But just because they are difficult to explain doesn't mean that they're not real, or authentic.

St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, once described experiencing the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christian faith) as three keys that play one musical chord, distinct but unified. Sometimes people describe finding themselves close to tears, unable to contain the love or gratitude that they feel. Recently, one young man described to me an experience of feeling almost as if he was a crystal vase and God's love was like water about to overflow the top of the glass.

While they are not commonplace, mystical experiences are not as rare as most would believe. Ruth Burrows writes that they are "not the privileged way of the few."

Such moments pop up with surprising frequency not only in the lives of everyday believers but also in modern literature. In his book Surprised by Joy, the British writer C.S. Lewis describes an experience he had when he was a boy:

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's "enormous bliss" of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to "enormous") comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? ... [B]efore I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.

That's a good description of this desire for more. I don't know what a currant bush looks like, but I know what that desire feels like. It may be difficult to identify exactly what you want, but at heart, you long for the fulfillment of all your desires, which is God.

This is closely aligned with the feeling of "awe," which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified as a key way to meet God. "Awe ... is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. ... Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple."

In my own life I have encountered these feelings a few times. Let me tell about one.
When I was young, I used to ride my bike to school in the mornings, and back home every afternoon. Sometimes I would ride to school with a boisterous group of friends from the neighborhood. We would start off early in the morning, carefully lining up all our bikes in front of a neighbor's house, each jockeying for the lead position.

But some mornings I would ride to school by myself. There were few things I enjoyed more than sailing downhill through our neighborhood, down the clean sidewalks, past the newish late-1950s houses, beneath the leafy trees, under the orange morning sun, the wind blowing past my ears.

Closer to our school was a small concrete path that ran between two houses in our neighborhood: the school lay at the far end of the path, behind what seemed a vast tract of land. At the end of the path was a set of six steps, which meant that I had to dismount and push my big blue Schwinn up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs lay one of my favorite places in the world, the memory of which, though I am writing this over 40 years later, uplifts me. It was a broad meadow, bordered on the left by tall oak trees and on the right by baseball fields. And every time of the year it was beautiful.

On cold fall mornings, clad in my corduroy jacket, I would pedal my bike over the bumpy dirt path through a meadow of crunchy brown leaves, desiccated grasses, and dried milkweed powdered in frost. In the winter, when I would not ride but walk to school, the field was often an open landscape of silent snow that rose wetly over my galoshes as my breath formed in cottony clouds before me.

But in the springtime, the little meadow exploded with life. It felt as if I were biking though one of the science experiments we did in school. Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies, the black-eyed Susans. Crickets hid in the grasses and old leaves. Bees hummed among the Queen Anne's lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons. Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch. The air was fresh and the field was alive with creation.

One spring morning, when I was 10 or 11, I stopped to catch my breath in the middle of the field. The bike's metal basket, packed with my schoolbooks and homework, swung violently to one side, and I almost lost my homework to the grasshoppers. Standing astride my bike, I could see so much going on around me -- so much color, so much activity, so much life.

Looking toward the school on the brow of the hill I felt an overwhelming happiness. I felt so happy to be alive. And I felt a fantastic longing: to both possess and be a part of what was around me. I can still see myself standing in this meadow, surrounded by creation, more clearly than any other memory from childhood.

In such uncommon longings, hidden in plain sight in our everyday lives, does God call to us.

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.

You may be reading something about religion or spirituality and think, "This is what I've always wanted, to follow this path."

You may be sitting in a church service, hear about Jesus and say, "Why don't I follow him?"

You may remember the way you felt about God as a child and think, "What would happen if I returned to that path?"

Your desires are more formed in these cases. And you are able to identify your desires as following a specific path, or following God. This is another way that God calls us.

Desires for Holiness

An attraction to examples of holiness is another sign of the desire for God. This can be triggered in at least two ways: first, learning about holy people in the past; and second, meeting holy people today.

In the first case, one example may be that of, once again, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Formerly a vain courtier and soldier, Ignatius was seriously injured in a battle in 1521 and was carried back to his family's castle in Loyola, Spain. His life, he felt, was more or less over, his dreams of success as shattered as his body. During his painful recuperation from surgery, he asked for some reading material, preferably tales of derring-do and chivalry. To his dismay, all that could be found in the house were stories of the saints and a life of Christ. He took them up only grudgingly.

Then a strange thing happened. While reading the lives of the saints, he began to be attracted to the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, the great apostle of the poor, and St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. Ignatius started to think, in essence, "Hey, I could do something like that." Ignatius's overweening vanity was attracted to their great deeds, but a more authentic part of himself was attracted to their holiness.

This is one way that God can call you to -- through a heartfelt attraction to holy men and women and a real desire to emulate their lives. Through a call to holiness.

But holiness resides not only in canonized saints like St. Ignatius, but also in the holy ones who walk among us -- that includes the holy father who takes care of his young children, the holy daughter who cares for her aging parents, and the holy mother who works hard for her family. Nor does holiness mean perfection: the saints were always flawed, limited, human. Holiness always makes its home in humanity.

We can be attracted to models of holiness both past and present. Learning about past examples of holiness and meeting holy people today often makes us want to be like them. Holiness in other people is naturally attractive, since it is one way that God attracts us to himself. Experiencing the attractiveness of sanctity today also enables us to understand why Jesus of Nazareth attracted crowds of people everywhere he went.

Holiness in others draws to the holy parts of ourselves. "Deep calls to deep," as Psalm 42 says.

This is something of what the novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, had in mind when she wrote in an article, "What I might call personal holiness is in fact openness to the perception of the holy, in existence itself and above all in one another."

In all these ways does our innate desire for God call to us.  A call which comes from God and leads to God.

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Bill Collier
10 years 6 months ago
You've had many excellent posts, Fr. Martin, but I'm putting this one in your top 10 (so far). :)

I especially enjoyed that you drew on Surprised by Joy and Gilead, two of my favorite books.

Moreover, your story about the meadow of your childhood reminded me of a similar nature experience that perhaps others have also enjoyed. I have particular spot I like to visit in the fall to see the foliage changes. The spot is isolated enough that I selfishly think of it as my own. The tree limbs form natural arches that have become gothic cathedral-like in size over the years. Ever since I was a child I have been awed by the beauty of the place at "peak" foliage. When I learned a little biology in high school, however, the experience became even more special. I learned that the red and yellow pigments in the leaves are present from the time the leaves bud and mature in the spring. The pigments are masked, however, by the green pigment of the chlorophyll throughout the spring and summer. It's the green pigment that first begins to dissipate when the cooler weather comes on in the fall and the leaves begin their death throes, finally revealing the glorious and almost infinite variety of hues that have been invisible to our eyes through most of the life of the leaves. I won't call it "mystical"-I'm a bit uncomfortable with that word-but it isn't much of a stretch for me to liken in some small way the beauty of the dying leaves to Christ's revelation of His divinity through His Passion and Resurrection. (Of course, a withered leaf doesn't resurrect, but it can become a component of the soil that brings forth new life.)  
10 years 6 months ago
"St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, once described experiencing the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christian faith) as three keys that play one musical chord, distinct but unified".

Fr. Martin: He also said " one momentary intution of the Holy Trinity taught him more about God than he'd ever learned in his whole life", but I am sure you already know that. Do you think, perhaps, that this was the moment to which he referred?
10 years 6 months ago
To bloggers:  Years ago I stumbled into Abraham Joshua Heschel's book:  God in Search of Man.  Check it out. 

And Fr. Martin, thank you again.  I love your stories.  I read somewhere that it was discovered by healthcare givers, that telling one another's stories are very healing. Now they encourage patients to tell their stories and hear others theirs too.  We should take the hint from Jesus Himself,  He went around telling stories (the parables)...and those who heard, were healed.
Mary Messinger
10 years 6 months ago
Wow!  Could you imagine if we all leapt into Jesus' arms.  Never read one of your articles before and this was just absolutely beautiful.  I loved your story when you were a boy riding to school.  I've experienced 'ahh' like that and it is God.  
I can totally relate to your article.  I once walked out of my Chapel on the Gaurdian Angels Saint day.  Might not be called that, but I remember feeling like I was walking on air to my car.  I was in utter peace.
I have your, ''Who Cares about the Saints'' DVD and love it.  I teach PREP and use it in class.  The kids really enjoy.
You are an inspiration.  Saw your name and had to read the article.

Thank you so much and Many Blessings. (^_^)
Winifred Holloway
10 years 6 months ago
This is a beautiful essay, Fr. Martin.  My first experience of what I would call transcendence came when I was 6 years old and standing outside my house, all by myself.  It suddenly came to me that I was a person, by myself, apart from the family and life around me.  I remember saying to myself, "I am a person and I live in the whole world."  Although I was recognizing my separateness, it had the paradoxical effect of making me feel more connected to all that was sacred and at peace.  A similar experience occured when I was about 11 and sitting on a rock over a lake in Ipswich, MA and feeling again that all was as it should be and how at peace that made me feel.  Like C.S. Lewis's experience, it lasted barely a second but I have never forgotten it.  At 11, I felt that I was in the presence of God.  I suspect that these moments are more common than we can know.  They are just the sort of experiences that we are normally careful not to share, for fear of being thought of as weird or as some kind of pious nut. 
Crystal Watson
10 years 6 months ago
A great post, Fr. Martin.    I've had a few of those transcendent experiences, mostly when out in nature but one more particularly religious while I was making my bed  :)  More than anything else those have helped me believe in God.
10 years 6 months ago
See how people become alive to tell their stories!!!  It is so affirming!  Fr. Martin, you might just have started a new "movement", of waking people up from their cocoon( through story telling!) and to get up and begin to live the joy of discovering that truly we are loved by God.   He is always seeking us out, but we are such zombies/unconscious little critters!  We are so unaware of the blessings around us.   Thank God for Lent,  we are summon to "live anew" (Sr. Joan Chittister).....a reminder to wake up, to be aware, to be conscious, to live life, to notice everything/ anything, from weeds to beautiful flowers....anything at all in nature.  (Mary Oliver) is a great model for this.  And of course to notice people (especially our own family!), making eye contact  to recognize and affirm their existence!  As Monsignor Tinsley said in his homily the other day at the novena of grace in  honor St. Francis Xavier: "Be a blessing to your loved ones!"

Thank you again.
10 years 6 months ago
Fr. Martin-Thank you! Found two explanations;

"On another occasion, while praying on the steps of the monastery in Manresa, he was divinely inspired in his understanding of the Holy Trinity. Once during Mass in the monastery Ignatius had a vision of Christ as the priest elevated the host during the consecration, leading him to a clear understanding of the dual nature of Christ, both human and divine". Arcadian Publishing

"It was also on the banks of this river that he had a vision which is regarded as the most significant in his life. The vision was more of an enlightenment, about which he later said that he learned more on that one occasion than he did in the rest of his life. Ignatius never revealed exactly what the vision was, but it seems to have been an encounter with God as He really is so that all creation was seen in a new light and acquired a new meaning and relevance, an experience that enabled Ignatius to find God in all things". -The Life of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Jesuits of the New Orleans Prov.)

Well Father, whatever it was, we are mighty grateful the gift of him, aren't we?
Michael Olson
10 years 6 months ago
I am 71; about 7 or 8 years ago I asked the Father in prayer, ''What is heaven really like?'' I immediately got an answer, which is unusual, but like a strong voice, not audible, but one a person just does not forget.  It astounded me.  The answer was, ''My heaven is being with you!''  My first reaction was humorous, thinking. ''Wow, God must really like to slum it!''  Not that I live in a slum, but do lead an ''ordinary life''.   Then I was aware that God sees everyone in the same light.  He is with us always whether we are aware of it or not.

Others have had similar and much deeper experiences.   Nanci Danison in her book, BACKWARDS - Returning to Our Source for Answers, writes of an experience during an NDE (Near Death Experience), ''And then Source brought me back into itself so I could remember that I have never been alone.  That I have never been separate.  That all of those times of feeling small, worthlelss, or powerless were just an illusion, so that I could come back into Source and appreciate how much love it feels for me.  How much power I really have.  How incredibly spectacular we really are.  Because I never would have appreciated those things without the contrast of human life.''  P. 257.   Her books are on Amazon.  She had, ''twelve years of Catholic education and decades of religious services.''

As a young man I studied for 8 years as a Jesuit scholastic.  I think the Jesuits have to have the courage to ''open up'' to what is going on.  The official Church authorities are afraid to acknowledge the experiences people are having and writing about.  In those studies during those 8 years we were told,  ''Never be afraid of the truth.''  Also we were encouraged to ''Work very hard to try to understand what people are trying to tell you before you tell them what you think you should tell them.''  I think St. Ignatius could handle it, but it is questionable whether the ''dogmatic'' Church can handle it. Individuals may well be able to do so, but they have to be quiet about it.

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