Desire is a key part of Christian spirituality because desire is a key way in which God’s voice is heard in our lives. And our deepest desire, planted within all of us, is our natural desire for God.
Perhaps you are surprised by the notion that everyone has an innate desire for God. Perhaps you are not sure you have ever experienced such a desire. So how does this desire manifest itself? What does it feel like? And how can you become aware of your desire for God?
There are many ways in which our desires for God are revealed. Let’s look at three: incompletion, common longings and vulnerability.
Many of us have felt that, even though we have had some success and happiness in our lives, there is something missing. Way back in the 1960s Peggy Lee sang, “Is That All There Is?” In the 1980s, U2 sang “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” We all feel that lingering restlessness, the nagging feeling that there must be something more to life than our day-to-day existence.
Feelings of incompletion may reflect dissatisfaction with our daily lives and point us to something that needs to be rectified. If we are trapped in a miserable job, a dead-end relationship or an unhealthy family situation, it might be time to think about some serious change. Dissatisfaction does not have to be stoically endured; it can lead to a decision, change and a more fulfilled life.
Yet no matter how happy our lives are, this feeling of incompletion never fades. This inner restlessness provides a glimpse of our longing for God. “O Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” as St. Augustine wrote. This longing is a sign of the longing of the human heart for God. It is one of the most profound ways that God has of calling us to the divine. And in the echoes of our restlessness we can hear God’s voice. Sometimes those feelings are stronger than simple incompletion and feel more like an awful emptiness. One popular name for this is the “God-shaped hole,” the space within our hearts that only God can fill.
Some, however, try desperately to fill that hole with money, status or power. They think: If only I had more I would be happy. A better job. A nicer house. Yet even after acquiring these things, some may still feel incomplete, as if they are chasing something they can never catch. We race ahead, straining to reach the goal of fulfillment, yet it always seems just out of reach. The prize of wholeness is elusive. Emptiness remains.
In their drive to fill this hole, others are pulled toward addictive behaviors, anything to fill them up: drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, sexual addictions, compulsive eating. But those addictions lead only to a greater sense of disintegration, a more cavernous emptiness and, eventually, to loneliness and despair.
This hole in our hearts is the space from which we call to God. It is the space where God wants most to meet us. Our longing to fill that space comes from God. And it is the space that only God can begin to fill.
Your desire to fill that emptiness is one way that God calls to you.
Sometimes you experience a desire for God in common situations: for example, standing silently in the snowy woods on a winter’s day, finding yourself moved to tears during a movie or recognizing a strange sense of connection during a church service—and feeling an inexpressible longing to savor this feeling and to understand what it is.
In the years after my sister gave birth to my first nephew, I often felt overwhelmed with love when I was with him. Here was a beautiful new child, a person who had never existed before, given to the world. One day I came home from a visit to their house and was so filled with love that I wept—out of gratitude, out of joy and out of wonder. At the same time I longed to connect more with the mysterious source of this joy.
Common longings and heartfelt connections are ways of becoming conscious of our desire for God. We yearn for an understanding of feelings that seem to come from outside of us. We experience what the 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross calls the desire for “I know not what.”
Many of us have had experiences like this. We feel that we are standing on the brink of something important, on the edge of experiencing something just beyond us. We experience wonder. Awe. So why don’t you hear more about these times?
Because many times we ignore them, reject them or deny them. We chalk them up to being overwhelmed, overwrought, overly emotional. “Oh, I was just being silly!” you might say to yourself. So you disregard the strange longing you feel at the first breath of a spring breeze on your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you or try to convince you) that you were simply being emotional. This happens even to those practiced in the spiritual life: often, after an intense experience in prayer during a retreat, people are tempted to dismiss it as simply something that “just happened.”
Or we simply do not recognize these moments as possibly having their origins in God.
One friend, a self-described workaholic who had not been to church for many years, attended a baptism of a friend’s child. Suddenly she was overtaken by powerful feelings—mainly the desire to live a more peaceful and centered existence. She began to cry, though she did not know why. She told me that she felt an intense feeling of peace as she stood in church and watched the priest pour water over the baby’s head.
To me, it seemed clear what had happened: she was experiencing, in this moment, when her defenses were down, her desire for God. And God’s desires for her. It makes sense that a religious experience would happen in the context of a religious ceremony. But she laughed and dismissed it. “Oh,” she said, “I guess I was just being emotional.” And that was that.
It is a natural reaction. Much in Western culture tries to tamp down or even deny these naturally spiritual experiences and explain them away in purely rational terms. It is always something other than God.
You may also fear accepting these moments as signs of the divine call. If you accept them as originating with God, you might have to accept that God wants to be in relationship with you or is communicating with you directly, which is a frightening idea.
Fear is a common experience—in the Old and the New Testaments and with modern-day believers. Being confronted with an indication that God is close to you can be alarming. Thinking about God wanting to communicate with us is something that many of us would rather avoid. Fear is a natural reaction to the divine, to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as the theologian Rudolf Otto said, the mystery that both fascinates and leaves us trembling.
So religious experiences are often dismissed—not out of doubt that they are not real, but out of fear that they are real after all.
Here is an often misunderstood statement: Many people feel drawn to God in times of suffering.
During a serious illness, a family crisis, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, many people will say that they have turned to God in new ways. More skeptical minds may chalk this up to desperation. The person in need, they say, has nowhere else to turn and so turns to God. God is seen in this light as a crutch for the foolish, a superstitious refuge.
But in general, we do not turn to God in suffering because we suddenly become irrational. Rather, God is able to reach us because our defenses are lowered. The barriers that we erected to keep out God—whether pride or fear or lack of interest—are set aside. We are not less rational. We are more open.
When he was in his late 50s, my father lost a good job. After a long while, he found a career, but one that he felt was unsatisfying. As too many people know, it is difficult to find work and start a new career later in life, at an age when many people are looking forward to retirement. It was a hard time for him and for my mother.
His job required an hourlong commute from our home in suburban Philadelphia. One dark night, in the parking lot of his office, far from home, my father had a dizzy spell, lost his balance and fell. He ended up in the hospital. Tests showed what everyone feared: cancer. Cancer of the lungs had spread to his brain, which had caused the fall. (My father had been a heavy smoker for much of his life.)
During the next nine months, my father’s physical condition went steadily downhill, despite chemotherapy. Soon he was bedridden and began to rely on my mother to care for all of his physical needs at home. The last month of his life, when my mother could no longer help him out of bed, he said, “I think I should go to the hospital.” So we moved him to a sub-acute care facility. But while his physical condition declined, his spiritual condition seemed to improve.
Near the end of his life, my father started to talk more frequently about God. This was a complete surprise. While he had been raised Catholic and graduated from Catholic grammar school and high school, and while he attended Mass on important feast days, he had, at least as long as I had known him, never been overtly religious.
But as my father neared death, he asked my Jesuit friends to pray for him, treasured holy cards that people sent him, mused about which people he wanted to see in heaven, asked what I thought God would be like and made some suggestions about his funeral Mass. My dad also became more gentle, more forgiving and more emotional. I found these changes both consoling and confusing.
One of the last people to visit him was my friend Sister Janice, who had been one of my professors during my theology studies. After my dad’s death, I remarked that he seemed to have become more open to God. In response, she said something I had never heard before, but that I seemed to have already known.
“Yes,” she said. “Dying is about becoming more human.”
Her insight was true in at least two ways. First, becoming more human meant for my father recognizing his inborn connection to God. All of us are connected to God, though we may ignore it, deny it or reject it during our lives. But with my father’s defenses completely lowered, God was able to meet him in new ways. Whatever barriers kept God at a distance no longer existed.
This, not desperation, is why there are so many profound spiritual experiences near death. The person is better able to allow God to break through.
But there is a second way that Sister Janice’s insight made sense. My father was becoming more “human” because he was becoming more loving. Drawing closer to God transforms us, since the more time we spend with someone we love, the more we become like the object of our love. Paradoxically, the more “human” we become the more “divine” we become.
This is not to say that God desires for us to suffer. Rather, when our defenses fall, our ultimate connection is revealed. Thus, vulnerability is another way in which God is able to draw near to us.
The God Who Seeks
These experiences, which many of us have had, are all ways in which we can become aware of our innate desire for God. There are many others as well, some of which might be so personal as to be incommunicable to others. But anyone can become aware of his or her desire for God. Moreover, finding God and being found by God are really the same, since both of those expressions of desire have God as their source and goal.
Thus, the beginning of the path to God is not only trusting that these desires are placed within us by God, but also trusting that God seeks us even more than we seek God.
James Martin, S.J., blogs about the many ways to God.