A Friend in God: To draw close to the holy, pay attention to ordinary experience.
In the course of helping people to relate personally with God as a psychologist and spiritual director, I have become convinced that God wants our friendship. As St. Ignatius Loyola wrote in the Spiritual Exercises, the creator communicates directly with the creature and the creature with the creator. You might wonder: “What does this mean for me? I’m not making the Spiritual Exercises. In fact, I don’t pray very often.” I believe, however, that God wants a personal relationship with you along with every other member of creation. God does not discriminate in this desire, wanting friendship only with certain special people. God wants everyone’s friendship. And that means that God is communicating personally with you and wants you to respond in kind.
God’s act of creation is not a past event, because the divine is not subject to time. Creation is ongoing, never ending, ever present. God’s desire for friendship is therefore always at work. What this means is that you can communicate with God, but you need to pay attention to pick up the signals.
Sometimes when we hear the term “religious experience” we think of something esoteric, even odd, something only experienced by holy people. But if it is true that God is communicating with each one of us at every moment of our existence, then any human experience can have a religious dimension. Ignatian spirituality speaks of finding God in all things, because God is present and active throughout the universe. All that is needed is to pay attention and to discern in the welter of dimensions of any experience what is of God from what is not of God.
What do I mean by the “welter of dimensions” of experience? All of our experiences are influenced by our mood at the moment, by our expectations, by our upbringing, by the nature of the things we encounter, even by our digestive system. Thus there are physiological, psychological, sociological and cultural dimensions to any experience. Of course, we are not always aware of each of these dimensions. We need to focus our attention in order to become aware of the effect of our mood on our experience of a sunset, for example.
If you want to engage in a friendship with God, you need to take time to become more aware of what is happening within you as you go through your day. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” At every moment you are in the presence of God. So you must seek to take a contemplative stance toward the world. Pay attention to what you encounter in your ordinary life, and you will experience God’s presence.
Attending to and Savoring Experience
In my work as a spiritual director I try to help people attend to their experience: to notice what happens when they see the ocean, listen to a Gospel story, watch a baby crawl, read the newspaper or listen to television news. Then I encourage them to talk with a friend about what they notice or to reflect on this during spiritual direction. The contemplative stance is something like what the Ignatian examination of consciousness seeks to foster: a way of noticing what has happened during the day in order to discover God’s presence and how we responded to it.
Helping people to adopt a contemplative outlook is one of the challenges of spiritual direction. It is not easy to pay attention to something outside the self, to really see, feel, smell and touch a tree, for example (Oh, it’s just another oak). Or to pay attention to a Gospel text (Oh yes, the prodigal son). Or to pay attention to what a friend is actually saying to you. We have so many preconceived notions, so many cares and concerns that we do not really pay attention to the other, whether the other is a person, a thing, an event, a text of Scripture or God. Just think of what happens when someone tells you about his knee operation. Most likely the first thing you think of is your own knee operation or your mother’s, and you talk about that. The other person has no time to discuss his or her experience.
The former poet laureate Billy Collins’s humorous poem “Introduction to Poetry” gives an idea of the challenge of assuming a contemplative stance toward anything:
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide or press an ear against its hive. I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch. I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore. But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Many of us want to beat understanding out of our experience before really paying attention to what exactly happened. We have to be patient with ourselves. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that my experience is worth paying attention to; it often seems so banal. You may feel the same way. Yet our ordinary experience is where we encounter God.
What kind of experience am I talking about? Well, after a day of work and dinner with your family, you sit down to watch the evening news on television. Pictures of an automobile accident flash on the screen, and the announcer says that four teenagers died in that crash. Your son is out with his friends. “Could it be Tim?” you wonder but then are relieved to hear that the accident occurred in another city. Suppose you paid attention to this experience. You might become aware of how much you love your son, even if you are often annoyed by his antics. “God, how I would miss him if he were to die in a senseless accident.” Reflecting on this simple experience gives you something to talk over with God, namely how much you love your son and how much you are afraid for him. Perhaps in this ordinary moment you are being invited to share with God your feelings about your son and to listen to what God feels for your son and for you.
Here is an example from the detective novel Original Sin, by P. D. James. Kate Mishkin, a Scotland Yard detective and agnostic, is in her apartment overlooking the Thames:
Standing now between the glitter of the water and the high, delicate blue of the sky, she felt an extraordinary impulse which had visited her before and which she thought must be as close as she could ever get to a religious experience. She was possessed by a need, almost physical in its intensity, to pray, to praise, to say thank you, without knowing to whom, to shout with a joy that was deeper than the joy she felt in her own physical well-being and achievements or even in the beauty of the physical world.
These two examples illustrate how paying attention to the ordinary events in our lives can help us to develop a friendship with God. Kate Mishkin feels a great sense of well-being coupled with a desire to say thank you. The religious dimension of her experience lies close to the surface. If Kate took her experience seriously, she might discover that she has been touched by God. In the first example, the religious dimension came later, when the father reflected on his emotions and sought to communicate with God about his love for his son.
Finding God in the Everyday
Early on in my work as a spiritual director, I met a married woman who wept with relief and joy when she found out that she could talk about her experience of God with someone who was interested. I discovered that the most important thing I could do as a spiritual director, and possibly in most of my ministry, was to listen to the other person. By doing so, I was allowing the person to take his or her experience seriously as a sacred place where God was present. When people tell me of the times they encounter God, the room becomes a holy place. Often enough the person re-experiences God’s presence by simply recounting those holy moments, and I feel that presence too.
Once you have paid enough attention to your experience and savored it, then you can begin to ask questions, to try to make sense of it. What is of God in this experience? What is not? Here the rules for discernment of the Spiritual Exercises come in handy, because they are practical. Experiences that make you more alive, more caring, more loving are probably from God; those that make you more self-centered, more worried, more anxious are probably not. God is always trying to draw us into a relationship of friendship that will make us more like God, that is, more like the human beings we are created to be.