A quintessentially American question: How can I find God?
Editor's note: This article was originally published in the 9/30/1995 issue of America.
It was a quintessentially American question that was posed to me a few weeks ago by a close friend: “How do I find God?”
The question was asked by a good person, a Catholic who has lost touch with her church. Although, like many contemporary Americans, she views herself as “non-religious,” she envies friends who live lives of faith and desires that faith for herself. Still, she is essentially a skeptical woman—intelligent, well educated—living in a secular culture.
It was a real conundrum for her: If you don’t have real faith in God, how can you search for God honestly? Doesn’t the search itself imply faith? Can you somehow “get” faith?
She wanted to know if I had any answers for her. I did the best I could and then decided to ask other people of faith what they might tell my friend who asks how she can find God.
If you don’t have real faith in God, how can you search for God honestly? Doesn’t the search itself imply faith?
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and the author of numerous books, including Modern American Religion and (with the photographer Micah Marty) the forthcoming Our Hope for Years to Come: The Search for Spiritual Sanctuary.
Turn it around: how does God find me? If God is, but is ineffable, beyond beyondness, self-contained, forget it. Then God is unfindable. Rather than seek God, eat pomegranates, shoot pool, listen to Scarlatti, munch almonds, watch fireflies, visit the Andes. If God is, and is ineffable, beyond the gods but still relational, remember it. Then God is findable. While seeking God, eat pomegranates, etc....
God being ineffable is not sufficient for your search. Effable: “that which can be expressed or described in words.” “God is addressed, not expressed..” says Martin Buber. But address involves a mixture of postures, gestures, stances and uses of words. “I” meets “Thou,” the “Other,” the “Different,” and, on occasion, despite doubts and suspicions, disappointments and setbacks, mixed signals and unclear signs, one responds with a yes, as in “Yes, God.”
“How do I find God?” Bum steer Number One, 1995 style: Find God as yourself and yourself as God; find God in yourself and yourself in God. No. You know yourself well enough to know the specters and the shadows, the uncontrollable will and intractable desire to cling to the old, that haunt you and hold you back. Find God as yourself or in yourself and you will soon get bored with what you’ve found.
“How do I find God?” Bum steer Number Two, 1995 style: Find God as energy, connections, nature.” No. You know too much about mere chaos, contingency, tarantulas and earthquakes to count on finding God immediately there.
“How do I find God?” Certainly by beginning with a sense of wonder and being ready for awe. God may cause you to be “surprised by joy.” But it may take billions of particulars, including affirmations, recognitions of Christ in the homeless, readings of Scriptures, experiences of friendships, transcendings of despair, for this surprise to work its way, to elicit awe from you.
“How do I find God?” The God who is addressed and addresses effably speaks most clearly when words come into play: “Let there be light.” “Little children, love one another!” “Christ is risen.” That light can dawn in the heart and be in you, so then, yes, God is “in you.” That love can be formed with Christ in the heart and then there are energies and connections with the surrounding universe(s). Yes, then God is “around” you. “How do I find God?” By listening closely and, with suspicion momentarily suppressed, by responding. Awe-full, isn’t it?
“How do I find God?” By listening closely and, with suspicion momentarily suppressed, by responding. Awe-full, isn’t it?
Mary Rose McGeady, D.C., is president of Covenant House, which provides food, clothing, shelter and medical care to 41,000 adolescents under the age of 21 each year. Sister McGeady resides in New York City.
To assist those with little awareness of faith in their lives to “find God” is often an awesome task. For our adolescents, whose life experience is characterized by abuse and negativism, it is especially challenging to present the picture of a giving, loving God in their lives. One way we often find effective is to have them reflect on the goodness they find within themselves and identify that goodness as coming from, indeed being, God present in them. Most of them can easily see the good within and from there we can help them become aware of so much goodness around them, in spite of so much evil.
We also find that teaching young people to pray is much easier than might be thought. They can quite readily transfer their new awareness of God present in the goodness around them to being able to talk to that God through their own words, which are most powerful prayers. Some of the most sincere prayers I have heard in my life I have heard in our own Covenant House chapels when kids come together, read parts of Scripture and pray in their own words, usually begging God to strengthen them, help them to forgive and be forgiven and to start a new life. Their ready will to depend on God is so evident and so readily brought forth.
It seems to me that faith is indeed dormant in every child, and, despite its being banned by experience, that dormant faith can be fanned into fire. But the rekindling may take a lot of patience and faith in the one who fans the sparks.
"It seems to me that faith is indeed dormant in every child."
Andre Dubus is the author of The Times Are Never So Bad, Adultery and Other Choices, Finding a Girl in America and a book of essays, Broken Vessels. A book of his short stories, Dancing After Hours, will soon be published. He lives in Haverhill, Mass.
For nearly 50 years I found God in prayer and, I think, most of all in the Eucharist. I think I also found God in the gift of writing. When I began writing, as a college undergraduate, I prayed each morning that I would write well, of God and for God, and I still say that prayer. When I was nearly 50.1 was hit by a car and crippled and everything changed: not only every physical act I performed, but the way my soul feels in the world. I lost the illusion I had as a biped: that discipline and will were the sources of a full life. Because I had to. I began surrendering to my life as a cripple, a life given to me by God. I pray more often now and love God in the Eucharist; but the Eucharist, the physical presence of God. has become evident to me in the mundane. I have come to see life as a gift and each breath as a sacrament.
In my first year as a cripple, a Jesuit friend and a woman who was my eucharistic minister told me to read the New Testament. They were right. I read a chapter at breakfast and a meditation by Mother Teresa, and those feed my soul. I do not know how other people can find God. He has given himself to me since I was a Catholic boy; now he has given me gratitude, and two years ago, when I was in spiritual pain, he taught me to thank him for that too; for being alive, to receive pain.
"I have come to see life as a gift and each breath as a sacrament."
The Hon. Corinne C. “Lindy” Boggs served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1991 and is president of Former Members of Congress. Mrs. Boggs lives in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
I find God in the unfolding of the mysteries of the universe by the brave and knowledgeable astronauts and by the look of wonder in the eyes of my three-year-old great-granddaughter as she chases a butterfly. I find God in the flock of robins that unfailingly zoom down to the berries in my garden on their annual escape flight from the northern winters and in my resident mockingbird that sits on the gnarled branch of an old tree and welcomes me home with his complete repertoire. I find God in all the evidences of boundless hospitality provided by my children and their spouses and by my grandchildren in sharing their homes and their hearts with their friends and neighbors and with those who are troubled or displaced or ill. And I find God in an elderly neighbor searching through the crowded shelves of our corner grocery store for an expensive bottle of olive oil that his ill friend greatly enjoys but cannot afford.
I find God in the memory of my husband, Hale, and my daughter, Barbara, talented defenders of human rights, and of my last-born, William, and of my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, all swirled together in the communion of saints. I find God in the love of holy tradition in my young friend, the wife of an admired rabbi, who revealed at their son’s Bar Mitzvah that she had nervously anticipated her participation in the ceremony since the day of his birth.
I find God in the magnificent music of the gospel choirs of the predominantly black church congregations in New Orleans and in a young nun’s crooning of the French lullaby “Frère Jacques” to an emaciated Cambodian baby amid the sporadic shelling of a Thai refugee camp. I find God in the startling sight of the Washington Cathedral perched in strength and beauty atop Mount St. Albans and curiously framed in the kitchen window of my Washington apartment. I find God in the old St. Louis Cathedral, my New Orleans parish church, an oasis of peace and tranquillity in the noisy, sometimes raucous, neighborhood. I find God through the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who opens my mind and soul to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Most especially, I find God in the holy Eucharist, the ultimate act of unselfish love by his divine Son.
"I find God in the holy Eucharist, the ultimate act of unselfish love by his divine Son."
John Eudes Bamberger, O.C.S.O., is abbot of the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee, in Piffard, N.Y.
I happen to live in a setting where God seems to be everywhere; he is in nature in an unending variety of ways, from the marvelous forms of trees to the beauty of complex organic chemical structures. But above all God lives within the human spirit.
That is why I believe that the most fruitful place to search for God is at the center of the soul of the person you love most personally and so most purely, with the greatest respect for the uniqueness and well-being of that person. We cannot find that center of the other without discovering, reflexively in our own spirit, the same presence, the same uniqueness that strives to honor the goodness that is the other. There is an elusive presence that forms the ground of any truly personal exchange with another. When the other is the most loved, that presence becomes less elusive; it takes on a density that is more readily recognized as being transcendent to the beloved and to my love. It casts a brighter light, can be felt as the atmosphere that envelopes the person of the beloved. To perceive something of this radiance that is at the heart of human life, affirming, knowing and creating what is most precious of all things, the One Beloved, is to know that there is an infinite, transcendent, living God who is the secret answer to the mystery of the human heart. Look intently, in quiet, with desire to see what is most desirable in what you desire, and you will find it quite natural to believe that God IS.
"The most fruitful place to search for God is at the center of the soul of the person you love most personally and so most purely."
Jean Morman Unsworth is an artist and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is the author of Playing With God and creator of the video series Art Shapes Faith Shapes Art.
A few years ago, ! wrote a book called Playing With God. The title, which was my publisher’s idea, prompted me to think about play— about the way that children can become totally engrossed in it. and the way that adults can become totally absorbed in playing, or watching, a game. It made me think that if we take our search for God as “seriously” as we take our play, if we give it the same enthusiasm, creativity and openness to what can happen that we give to our relaxation, we just might find God.
Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., is superior general of the Society of Jesus and resides in Rome.
“You would not be searching for me unless you had already found me,” Pascal suggests. In this sentence, the question posed already contains an answer of a sort. The question brings to mind an experience of a famous abbot in the Middle Ages. I see myself more or less in his story. This abbot used to speak very well, every morning to his monks, on finding God, on searching for God, on encountering God. He carried on until the day on which a monk dared to ask him if he himself had ever encountered God. After a bit of embarrassed silence, the abbot frankly admitted he never had a vision or a one-on-one meeting with God. Nothing surprising about that, since God himself had said to Moses, “You cannot see my face” (Ex. 35:20). But this very same God taught Moses that he could see his back as God passed across his path. “You will see me pass.” And thus, looking back over the length and breadth of his life, the abbot could see for himself the passage of God.
The One who wishes to write together with each of us our individual history comes and abides to live with us—often despite us. Without these respectful but definitive passages of God, our life would not now be what it is. In this sense, it is less a matter of searching for God than of allowing oneself to be found by him in all of life’s situations, where he does not cease to pass and where he allows himself to be recognized once he has really passed: “You will see my back.”
"The One who wishes to write together with each of us our individual history comes and abides to live with us—often despite us."
Helen M. Alvaré, an attorney, is director of planning and information for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities in Washington, D.C.
God is often at work finding you in experiences of being loved by people whose actions far transcend our limited expectations of what is owed to us in the name of merely human justice or fairness. Your small child jumps into your arms and kisses you just for being her mother; your husband leaves you a sweet note when you arrive home late at night after work. One glimpses God’s amazing kindness in these expressions of love that confound the merely worldly notions of what human beings owe to each other.
God is also present in the experience of witnessing the transforming power of the word of God. Even when the word is spoken by ordinary women and men, in ordinary ways and settings, one watches in awe to see lives touched, changed and moved. It is unexpected, inexplicable, in the tiny framework of human reason; but in a framework that includes God, it is gift and encounter.
"God is often at work finding you in experiences of being loved."
Leo O’Donovan, S.J., is president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The paradox has only grown deeper for me in life’s course, namely, that seeking God always precedes and supports and follows any sense of “finding.” I remember so well first hearing Ignatius of Loyola’s marvelous counsel to find God in all things. At the time, it seemed both self- evidently true and a profound blessing. But gradually, experiencing again and again the universality of Christ’s cross, the hazard and anguish of the process has become more clear. “I greet Him the days I meet Him,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, “and bless when I understand.” And what we understand best in the darkness, far beyond all our striving and reaching, is how much more profoundly God is in search of us and, “with ah! bright wings” bent on finding us.
Theresa Kane, R.S.M., is a lecturer on women in church and society. In her role as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she addressed Pope John Paul 11 during his 1978 visit to the United States. Sister Kane lives in Yonkers, N.Y.
The words “to find God” or even “how I know God” don’t capture my experience as much as saying that it is God who knows me. So perhaps I can answer the question by explaining who God has been for me.
God has changed for me, and within me, through the years. Earlier, God was a parent, primarily a father. God continues as a loving parent—both father and mother—but has become much more of a friend, a companion, an advocate. God is also a source of power, of strength and very often a presence, a spirit of faith, of hope. So often I get an overwhelming sense that God is director, the force that propels me. The word “grace” has become very meaningful for me; grace is a power, a surge; a spiritual reality that drives my life.
My image is of God holding all that is in her/his hand. All forms of creation are precious to God, and nothing is out of God’s sight or control. This belief has enabled me to be not afraid—not of others, of human powers or of death. It is God who directs and determines my life. My responsibility is a vigilance to all that God has called me to do and be. Life—with all its joys and sorrows—continues to change, but I am deeply convinced that life does not end and will continue forever in different forms, as God wills.
"God continues as a loving parent—both father and mother—but has become much more of a friend, a companion, an advocate."
Robert Coles, M.D., noted psychiatrist, teaches at Harvard University and is the author of many books, including The Spiritual Life of Children, The Call of Service and Dorothy Day: A Life.
We find God, I think, through others—through the love we Ieam to offer them, through the love we Ieam to receive from them—no small achievement and, indeed, a life-long effort. We find God with difficulty—the obstacle of pride is always there, with its various forms of expression: self-preoccupation, self-importance, smugness, arrogance, pretentiousness, in George Eliot’s phrase, “unreflecting egoism”—all of that hinders, squelches the movement of the mind, heart, soul outward, toward others, whom we might come to know, trust, love, were we less locked into the prison of the self. God, then, is the great Other and comes to each of us, lives for each of us. insofar as we can find him through our daily lives: how they are lived with our fellow human beings.
The Most Rev. Patrick F. Flores is archbishop of San Antonio.
I find God by falling on my knees early in the morning and at the end of the day. In silence I pray, “Lord, help me to see you more clearly in what I say, in what I do and in the people whom I meet from day to day.”
I find God in the poor, the abandoned, the elderly, the rejected. I always bear in mind that Jesus has assured us, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do to me. For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was homeless and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me.” I find God most of all when I offer a helping hand to people in such circumstances, and I thank God that I am able to find him in the people I meet each day.
"I find God in the poor, the abandoned, the elderly, the rejected."
Pheme Perkins is professor of theology at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. She is the author of a number of books, including Reading the New Testament and Gnosticism and the New Testament.
The question “How do I find God?” presumes that “God” is missing somehow. Of course, there are times in the spiritual life when God’s presence is missing—a rather normal state of affairs if mystics et al. are to be believed. Presuming that one has a reasonable practice of private prayer/meditation, communal liturgical worship, study and service, then dealing with the “missing God” is more or less a matter of “waiting it out”—sort of like a heat wave. God’ll be back. Probably with a new challenge...so it’s just as likely to be the case that finding God is not the problem.... God’s more like the nasty black fly behind my ear when jogging. How to get rid of God?
"The question 'How do I find God?' presumes that “God” is missing somehow."
The Rev. John McNamee is pastor of St. Malachy Church in Philadelphia and author of Diary of a City Priest and the recently published Clay Vessels, a book of poems.
The philosopher Gabriel Marcel said that the believer and unbeliever can communicate only when the believer reveals the strains of unbelief in himself. We are all St. Peter walking on the water: Believing, he walks the waves; unbelieving, he sinks into them—faith and unfaith together in the sitme person at the same time. A venerable theology helps me very much here. The will nudges the intellect where the mind would not go for want of clarity or evidence. That nudge is called grace by the scholastic theologians. We are all John Henry Newman in a dreary Victorian library coming to full faith by turning the pages of early church Fathers to discover a way “commending itself.” Even the unbeliever Freud had such a secular hope that in the welter of human emotions the fragile thread of reason could be grasped and followed. Intellectus quaerens fidem: understanding in search of faith. Our task is paying attention. What we find is indeed a mystery of grace.
Kathleen Haser is the director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: East. She lives in Philadelphia.
How do you begin to find God? In your own life experiences! People of faith live in the belief that God has created them and the world, loves and sustains them and desires the fullness of life and justice for all. The desire you express is given to you by God, so God has already found you. Take 10 minutes at the end of the day to be quiet. Say, “God, help me to know you.” Consider your day: when you felt peaceful or most yourself, when your spirit soared or you were deeply moved by someone’s pain. God is there—not as an object to be found, but offering a relationship to enter into. Tell God what you are grateful for. Read through the psalms until you find one that speaks to you. As you become aware of God’s presence in your life, ask your friends who live lives of faith to help you sustain your experience of God.
Anne Carr, B.V.M., is professor of theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and author of Transforming Grace.
If I were asked this question about finding faith or finding God, I would guess that the questioner already had a desire for God that entailed a kind of implicit faith. I would also guess that the questioner was asking about Catholic Christianity. My hunch is that the best route might be for the searcher to participate in a powerful liturgical experience, the very best expression of the liturgical renewal of Vatican Council II, an experience of biblical preaching and thoughtful presiding, of music and song that is real prayer. In such a context, the seeker would have, in a personal way, the symbolic, many-leveled experience of the word proclaimed, the community in its deepest faith-action and the possibility of personal communion with Christ, with God, in the Spirit. He or she might be drawn into the experience of faith, of genuine participation in a situation that, ideally, touches whole persons in their intelligence, emotions and senses. In the full liturgical experience, Eucharist not only expresses faith but nourishes it.
"In the full liturgical experience, Eucharist not only expresses faith but nourishes it."
Elie Wiesel is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the author of Night.
“How do I find God?” you ask. I do not know how, but I do know where—in my fellow man.
Avery Dulles, S.J., is Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Theology at Fordham University in The Bronx. N.Y.. and the author of numerous books, including Models of the Church and, most recently, The Assurance of Things Hoped For.
Each story of finding God is different. Individual converts bring to the process all that they have and are: their abilities, temperament, previous experiences and encounters, expectations, desires and anxieties. There is no common rule.
My own approach to faith was in some degree philosophical. If I were asked to name the critical turning point, I would say that it was the tension between the dictates of virtue and self-interest. Plato’s dialogues convinced me that it would be unacceptable to pursue one’s apparent advantage at the expense of what is objectively right and just, and that no one can be made worse by upright conduct. The obligation to do good and avoid evil, I reasoned, must have its source from above, in a higher personal being. An obligation that is absolute (as that obligation evidently is) must have its source in an absolute personal being, i.e., in God. And if we cannot be injured by right conduct, there must be a future life. The One to whom we are accountable must control our ultimate destiny and must know us through and through. I began to consider that we are living always in the presence of a personal being who is Creator, Lawgiver, Judge and Rewarder. Only after I had come to this conclusion did I begin to recognize the force of other proofs of the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument and the argument from design.
These ruminations gave me the background for finding in the New Testament a luminous revelation of our Creator and Savior which both fulfilled and surpassed the intimations of philosophy. My personal synthesis of Platonic ethics and biblical faith was deepened and confirmed by works such as the Confessions of St. Augustine. Studies in European history and the reading of dozens of modern authors, together with some visits to Catholic churches, gradually led me to Catholicism.
In answer to the editor’s question, then, I would say that the search for God can appropriately begin from a reflection on the voice of conscience. Anyone who experiences the fact of moral obligation has the makings of a belief in God and has the prerequisites for hearing God’s word fruitfully. But the hearing of that word will not result in faith unless it is accompanied by prayer. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”(Lk. 11:13).
Theologically, it is correct to say that the very desire to find God is evidence that God is drawing us to himself. To find him, in the last analysis, is to be found by him.
"The very desire to find God is evidence that God is drawing us to himself. To find him, in the last analysis, is to be found by him."
Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is editor of Commonweal magazine and lives in New York City.
In an age when revelations, conversions and epiphanies are preached as the precursors for a life of faith, there is something solidly reassuring about having lived with faith from the beginning, of being a cradle Catholic. At first, that may be expressed in a kind of a childhood “magical realism,” and embedded in life shared with parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. It’s part of who you are and where you come from.
Of course, this inevitably changes; or it should. In adolescence and young adulthood, choices are made, books are read, ideas and behaviors are accepted and rejected, teachers and peers become part of our life of faith. If not, even cradle Catholics do not survive the storms of growing in faith, as in life.
I suspect that many people looking for an adult faith have in their hearts such a “cradle religion,” be it Lutheran or Methodism, Judaism or Islam. It cannot be called adult faith, but it can be called upon to help support and shape adult faith. It can be summoned, just as those of us who have always swum in the sea of faith can summon rich memories of faith given us in abundance by baptism and by the community of believers.
The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the Crowley-O’Brien-Walter Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, is the author of Catholicism and editor of the recent Encyclopedia of Catholicism.
I don’t believe it is possible for any ordinary mortal, this side of the beatific vision, to “find” God directly. I am convinced, in fact, that honest, searching, mainline believers have more in common with agnostics and even some atheists than they do with religious enthusiasts who are certain not only of having “found” God but of knowing precisely “his” mind and will on a wide spectrum of religious, social, political and economic questions.
To the extent that any of us “finds” God, it is indirectly, not directly. The theological synonym for “indirectly” is “sacramentally.” We come to a knowledge and experience of God through others. The invisible God is made visible through the sign of the neighbor. We know God’s love, mercy, justice, compassion and forgiveness through the love, mercy, justice, compassion and forgiveness that we receive and share with others. That is why St. John reminds us that “Whoever does not love does not know God. for God is love.... Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn. 4:8, 20). Looking for God? Look across, not up.
"We come to a knowledge and experience of God through others."
William E. Simon was Secretary of the Treasury from 1974 to 1977 under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He is currently chairman of William E. Simon & Sons, New Jersey, and president of the John M. Olin Foundation.
How do I find God? This is the everlasting question that every thinking person must confront at some time in his or her life. That we become ill, grow old and die means that we will never rest entirely content with our material and secular achievements. Our human condition leads us back to basic spiritual questions: What is God and how do we find him?
Thankfully, the answers to those questions do not depend on us alone. I believe that God, in his infinite wisdom, mercy and patience, allows all of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, opportunities to find him along our own paths in life.
So there is not one answer, but many, and each brings its own value and honors God in a unique way. My own perspective is drawn more from practical experience, rather than philosophical speculation. I am a lifelong Catholic who began to know God as an altar boy and have drawn closer to him as my family and I became more active in our faith.
And what I have come to see, probably more belatedly and imperfectly than he would like, is that God is alive in every person. I believe this because I have seen it throughout my life, in my work as an active Knight of Malta, and most recently and most powerfully as a eucharistic minister at Morristown Memorial Hospital, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in New York City. I find God within the walls of these hospitals as I attend to the welfare and needs of people, many of whom are terminally ill and always alone and searching.
During these visits, I have become humbled by the faith that the patients demonstrate as they look to God for strength. These people, young and old, are afflicted with fatal illnesses, yet they are at peace with God and with themselves. Many times I have come away from the hospital wondering if I have given the sick and infirm half of what they’ve given me. I have seen in their eyes that God isn’t everything—he’s the only thing. When I see God’s divine work in these people, I feel profoundly grateful to them for helping me to strengthen my own faith.
On one occasion, I was visiting a young man who was dying of AIDS. His body was pitifully thin, racked with pain. As we prayed together, I looked down on this poor soul and remembered Christ’s words—whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you have done for me.
I’ve thought about that moment several times since. And I realize that I was not just looking into the face of that young man—I was looking directly into the eyes of Christ.
So, one answer to the question “Where and how do we find God?” might be—almost everywhere, in fact, many times right in front of us, if we just open our eyes and hearts to let him in.
"What I have come to see, probably more belatedly and imperfectly than he would like, is that God is alive in every person."
Tim Unsworth is a freelance writer and columnist for The National Catholic Reporter. His most recent book, Catholics on the Edge, has just been published. He lives with his wife, Jean Morman Unsworth, in Chicago.
“God forgive me, Father,” the Irishman whispered into the priest’s ear. “I’ve lost my faith.” It can happen that way. There is nothing that holds everything together.
American Catholics have a tendency to separate everything, as if we were sorting mail. But faith resists such a process. My faith more resembles the tides and contradictions within the Irishman’s soul.
The Swiss Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, wrote dozens of books examining the DNA of faith. Yet toward the end of his life, when asked to synthesize it all he responded: “Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so.”
It’s that way with me. My faith convinces me that we must have some chaos in the soul in order to dance with a dancing God.
Jane Redmont is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today. Her book in progress, When in Doubt, Sing, is about prayer in the modern world. She is a student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
I want to honor your asking the question, first of all. It’s a difficult and holy one, and the fact that you are asking it means that you have already, in some way, “found God.” I write this in quotes because I am not sure one “finds God,” and I am positive that no two-paragraph answer will give you magic wings to fly in that direction. Nevertheless—a few thoughts for you, with my deepest respect, on what will often feel more like slogging through the mud than being carried on angels’ wings.
I keep hearing Jesus’ words to his would-be disciples who asked him, “Where do you live?” How do we find you and what you stand for? For what and for whom do you live and die? They asked. “Come and see,” he answered. I say to you, “Go and see.” Don’t think too much about “finding God.” Do something, and the finding will follow. I once preached a homily about how one finds hope by committing acts of hope. It may be the same with faith. Start doing it. Any part of it. Prayer, care of the poor, action on behalf of justice, deep wrestling reading of good theological texts, singing Gospel hymns or the Fauré “Requiem,” whatever is congenial to you and to your life at present.
And do it on two levels. Of course, find what speaks to your deepest heart. Go to that intimate place where you are infinitely sad, or ecstatic, or creative or talented, or bereft or deeply engaged, and there you will find God, if you enter into that place and ask what it means for you and for the world that you are there. This will require of you both ruthless honesty and tenderness with yourself. The second level may be even more important because you have asked “How do / find God?” Go find yourself a “we,” a community, any Christian community—one that meets some of your standards of intellectual honesty, lack of hypocrisy, sincere concern for others, non-coercive welcome to the stranger. It might be a parish; it might be a prayer group or a Catholic Worker House, or a study group, or a Women-Church liturgical gathering, or a team that cares and prays for people with AIDS or an adult education class with some soul and some teeth. You may have to look around, and you may have to try a few different groups. Give them a chance. “Come and see.” Then stay for a while. See what happens. “Finding God” often happens in the midst of a “we.” That’s why so many of those biblical stories about the Holy Spirit happen to groups.
"We discover the ever-present God in our own goodness, creativity and capacity for self-transcendence."
Jon Hassler is the author of 10 novels, including Staggerford, Grand Opening, Dear James and the recently published Rookery Blues. He is also professor of English and writer-in-residence at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.
I’m no authority, but I suspect that one finds God while looking for something else, much the way a novelist will find that his writing style has coalesced between the lines of his novel while he was absorbed in his plot and characters and scarcely conscious of where he put his commas.
Fifty-five years ago I recall Sister Constance saying that because playing came naturally to children, we served God by playing. What a liberating thing for us to hear! As third graders, we’d been struggling so hard to memorize the catechism, pray five times a day and refrain from eating or drinking before Communion that we were led to believe that being good was like picking your way through a minefield. And then to be told that playing was not only fun but pleasing to God—whew.
This truth was brought home to me 30 years later, when I began seriously to write novels. At first, I was rather alarmed to discover that the deeper I went into my fiction, the less devoted I became to the rituals of Catholicism. But now after 10 novels, I’ve stopped being alarmed. Instead. I’m convinced that my writing springs from the same underground current that used to feed my prayer life. I pray much less often, yet I feel involved in a useful mission. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t ask for it, but, judging by what I hear from my readers, I seem to have been ordained to scatter my stories among people who enjoy them, value them and actually seem to need them.
Allow me a few examples: “How do you know so much about the soul of an old man?” (This reaction from an elderly reader of Simon’s Night.) “Yours was the only book my mother wanted to read as she lay dying of cancer. She read until she couldn’t hold the book any more, and then I read to her. She lived until it was done” (Dear James). “I’m a Lutheran minister, and now I begin to understand how a Catholic priest tried to handle his impossible vow of celibacy” (North of Hope). “I’m a Jew married to a Catholic, and your book has taught me how my husband thinks” (A Green Journey).
I can’t take credit for any of this. I didn’t set out to write informative, consoling works. Each day, sitting down at my desk, I intend simply to tell a story as clearly and gracefully as I can. It must be providence. It feels like play.
Catherine Mowry LaCugna is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life.
One “finds” God because one is already found by God. Anything we would find on our own would not be GOD. If we think that by our own efforts, or our own ideas, we have found GOD, we may have “found” just a product of our own imaginations, or needs or wishful thinking. But it might be difficult to tell the difference between the true, living God and the God whom we have devised for ourselves, a God enshrined in expected religious symbols and ritual gestures. God who dwells in light inaccessible exceeds every concept and image we have of God; else, God would not be GOD. Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite, puts it this way: “We want our own version of [God], one we can, so to speak, carry around in our pockets rather as some superstitious people carry around a charm. We can hold endless, loving conversations with this one, feel we have an intimate understanding with him, we can tell him our troubles, ask for his approbation and admiration, consult him about all our affairs and decisions and get the answer we want, and this god of ours has almost nothing to do with God.” The only sure path to finding the true living God is to be rid of all impediments and sin—to this end there is no alternative but discipline, ascesis and, above all, ceaseless prayer.
One well-recognized way to guard against idolatry is known as the via negativa, the path through denial and darkness that leads us toward the effulgent life of the true, living God. The whole of the Christian tradition is full of examples and endorsements of the via negativa. At the same time, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and all other great theologians and mystics through the ages have balanced the perspective by the “positive way,” which affirms the very real knowledge of God to be found in creation/nature, in the desires of the human heart and in the capacity of human beings for deep communion with other persons and with all creatures. Indeed, we are made to know and love God through love of others, love of self, love of all creatures. We discover the ever-present God in our own goodness, creativity and capacity for self-transcendence. God desires nothing more than to be known and loved by us,to be in eternal communion with us—which is why we are indeed already found by the true, living God.