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Jim McDermottJanuary 26, 2023
Photo: iStockPhoto: iStock

As Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz reported in The Atlantic last week, the Harvard Study of Adult Development—which has been looking into what makes people flourish since 1938—has found that deep relationships are a key to long term emotional well-being.

That’s probably not a surprise to anyone. But as I read their findings, I found myself wondering how many people would include a relationship with God as one of the deep personal relationships of their lives.

I can appreciate why many would not. Sure, I believe in God, I go to church, I do my part to be a good person. But a “deep and personal relationship”? What would that even look like?

I am not someone who has profound conversations with the Lord or ecstatic visions of Our Lady. But I believe that God is someone that every person can have a friendship with.

I am not someone who has profound conversations with the Lord or ecstatic visions of Our Lady. I have never gotten so much as a postcard from Jesus, and honestly if I did it would probably freak me out. (Please do not send me postcards from Jesus, Zac Davis.)

But I really do believe that God is someone that every single person can have an actual friendship with, and I know that relationship can have a big impact on one’s happiness.

Here are a couple things that have helped me to find a relationship of my own.

Slow down and savor

When I first entered the Jesuits, my superior was a lanky, middle-aged cowboy who loved to take photographs and ride horses. He had spent a lot of his life doing parish and retreat ministry in rural South Dakota, and one of the things those years had taught him was the value of taking the time to savor the experiences of our lives. If you’re taking a walk or you’re on a retreat, he would tell us, force yourself to go slower than you might normally move. When you’re at meals, try to taste each bite of food and sip of drink, and spend time with the other people at table. Resist the impulses to rush through or rush off.

His idea was, the more we can slow ourselves down, the more we are able to be present to the moment. And I found that slowing down also came with a sense of being a part of something bigger than myself, of being connected to God and to the world.

It sounds so ordinary—taste each bite. Walk slowly. Breathe. How can any of that create a friendship with God? But you might try it. Maybe the biggest obstacle to having a relationship with God is our expectations of what that should look like.

Think side to side, not face to face

Early in my formation as a Jesuit I was assigned to help out at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota about 90 minutes from Mount Rushmore, Pine Ridge is the home of the Oglala Lakota Nation, which has a rich set of cultural traditions very different from my own suburban Chicago upbringing.

As part of my orientation, I attended a seminar about Lakota culture. We were cautioned about looking people in the eye, as traditional people find that highly rude. Likewise, we were told that the practice of trying to get to know people by peppering them with questions—where are you from? what do you do? are you married?—was considered deeply intrusive and was to be avoided.

When hanging around together, Lakota people often do not stand face to face, but side by side. Part of that was again about politeness. There’s something confrontational about facing each other. But this was also about communication, we were told. Lakota people often don’t need a lot of words. They “speak” with their hearts.

What that meant was a complete mystery to me at the time. But in my years at Pine Ridge I would certainly learn. I remember walking once into the school gymnasium for a basketball game and seeing a bunch of people in the stands that I knew. By my own upbringing, the polite thing to do was to move through the room and say hello to each of them before finding a seat. But as I was moving on from the first set of people, they stopped me. “Where are you going?” they asked.

Especially with people we’ve known a long time, sometimes the best “conversations” aren’t conversations at all. They’re time spent together.

Thinking that there must be something important they wanted to talk about, I sat down with them. And then…nothing happened. We just sat there watching the game. And almost nothing was said.

Yet that silence was not empty. There was a deep reservoir of life to it, one that I found slowly drawing away my own social anxieties and allowing me to just be present and enjoy this time with them.

This isn’t a totally unfamiliar experience, right? Especially with people we’ve known a long time, sometimes the best “conversations” aren’t conversations at all. They’re time spent together.

When we are kids, the church teaches us to relate to God mostly in face-to-face terms. We’re given prayers to say to God, and encouraged to share with God our needs. But that face-to-face notion of relationship has limitations, because God is not physically there. He does not laugh at our jokes, argue with us about politics or react to our fears.

Working at Pine Ridge was a great reminder that there are other kinds of relationships that are just as meaningful. A relationship with God doesn’t need to be about words at all. It can just be about being present in the moment together, side by side, looking out on the world.

Daydream with Scripture

Early in his life Ignatius of Loyola spent months in bed recovering from a war wound. And he spent much of that time daydreaming about his future. Sometimes he imagined himself as a courtly knight, sometimes as a saint. (The only books he had to read were the Bible and a Lives of the Saints.)

Over time Ignatius began to notice that when he imagined life as a saint, it left him with an abiding sense of satisfaction and peace that being a knight did not. And it made him wonder whether this wasn’t an invitation or desire that he should take seriously, which led him to completely change his life.

A relationship with God doesn’t need to be about words at all. It can just be about being present in the moment together.

Coming out of that experience he created a form of prayer in which individuals are given passages from the Gospels to daydream over, with the hope of developing a connection with God that is their own. Occasionally I am asked to give a talk on this kind of prayer, known as Ignatian contemplation. But I always find myself a little nervous about it. It seems like the kind of thing that will put most people off. Seriously, I’m going to daydream my way into a personal relationship with God? What?

But I’m also surprised at just how formative those sessions usually are. When people give Ignatian prayer a chance, it really does seem to work, no matter where they are starting from.

If you’re interested, here is an exercise you might try. Below is a short passage from the Gospel of John; read it to yourself slowly. And then sit quietly for a moment, just letting yourself take it in. Think of it like taking in the aroma of a cup of coffee or the flowers in your garden.

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.(John 1:35-39)

What word from the passage stands out to you? Or a word that comes to mind? Take a moment to sit with that word. See how it makes you feel.

Now read the passage again—once again, slowly—but this time pay attention to your desires. Jesus asks the disciples what they want. As you listen to the story, what do you find yourself wanting? Take a moment to sit with that desire.

Then, read the story one last time. And this time, if you want, follow through on that want. For instance, if as you were reading you wished that Jesus would go somewhere specific, or that you could take him somewhere, then daydream about going to that location. Imagine being in that place with Jesus. Or if you found yourself wishing for a bowl of ice cream, go get yourself a bowl of ice cream, and enjoy that.

Whatever it is, follow your desire and then sit with that experience. Take it in.

Finally, take a moment to consider the whole experience. How do you feel right now? What of this experience stands out?

Everyone’s different, and this may not work for you. Again, there are many kinds of relationships. But you might find that practicing this exercise or one of the others offered here gives you a sense of God as someone who is not just “out there” but close and accessible, a friend you really can lean on for courage and comfort.

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