The world is nauseated by the fast food of pop spirituality, and starved outright by materialism that denies that the soul even exists. People are hungry for God. We are thirsty for prayer.
And many people don’t know if it’s even possible. Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing the question – from several directions, with increasing intensity – “Can I really experience God?”
People don’t ask me a lot about the intellectual aspects of the faith, to be honest. But they do want to know why it hurts so much to be alone with themselves. They want to know if there is more to life than the meaningless sound and fury that surrounds them, and if so, how they can embrace that meaning. Most of all, they want to stop being so incredibly, inconsolably, cripplingly lonely. They are homesick for something, and they don’t want to sit back and analyze their homesickness, they just want home.
Is it possible for ordinary, honest-to-God people, ones like us who do dumb and selfish and mean things, to encounter God? Would He even want anything to do with me? And what’s it like to actually talk to Him?
It is, He does, and I’m going to talk about what it’s like. This is a literary blog, so I’ll talk about it using books: the three most realistic examples of experiencing God that I can find in literature.
Before I dive in, I want to break a few things down. First, the Catholic tradition uses the word prayer much more broadly than the secular world does. In pop culture, “prayer” has basically come to mean closing your eyes and saying words out loud to ask God for something. Catholics call that “vocal prayer,” and it’s important, but it’s not the whole picture. The Catholic tradition, codified in the writings of the saints and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sees prayer as the whole range of experiences of God. And, ultimately, the goal is to “pray without ceasing,” not just constantly saying words to God, but living a life that rests in His presence. So the terms “experiencing God” and “prayer” are interchangeable.
That leads to the second point, which is that God isn’t an experience, but a Person. Encountering Him isn’t about experimenting with a new spiritual technique. It’s about meeting someone, and that is far more unpredictable. Add up all the first-date butterflies you’ve ever had, and multiply them by all the job interview nerves you’ve ever experienced – that should give you an idea of how viscerally real it is to look at God and realize that He is looking at you too.
Still, encountering God isn’t completely unpredictable. We have the wisdom of the Church and her Saints to tell us what to expect when we encounter Him. Some of the ideas in this post are my own, but everything I say should stay firmly within the bounds of Church teaching. Otherwise, it will only lead you astray and make the problem worse. If my advice is shaky or questionable, see Spiritual Direction for advice that won’t steer you wrong.
Finally, I want to say that the examples of prayer I’ve collected here are only the beginning. They are the first date thrills, and God wants to win our hearts for an eternal marriage. The Bible and the saints tell us about what it’s like to live a whole lifetime of prayer, and perhaps I’ll get to write more about that later. That’s why this post is called Part I.
But for now, let’s give our thirsty souls some living water to drink. Here are my three favourite literary examples of the experience of God.
Emily of New Moon – “The Flash”
Emily Starr, heroine of L. M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, is a sort of shadowed counterpart to the more upbeat Anne Shirley. Where Anne is idealistic and sunny, Emily is artistic and withdrawn. Her story is set apart among Montgomery’s works by the darker melancholy that clouds it, and the fact that it is haunted by more direct spiritual experiences than any others.
The child Emily describes an experience – a strange experience that will continue to happen throughout her life – that she calls “the flash.”
“It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a very thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music. The moment came rarely, with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of “Holy, holy, holy” in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark night … And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.”Emily of New Moon, L. M. Montgomery
C. S. Lewis calls these moments “stabs of joy.” We’ve all had them, especially when we were children (we tend to get too busy and practical as adults to remain that sensitive to beauty). They are the moments when something awakens in us, a certainty that there is more to life than the daily grind, and it fills us with a mixture of joy, sorrow, shame, and hope. But mostly of terrible, homesick longing.
But what does this have to do with experiencing God?
It is the very beginning stage of a relationship with God. These stabs of beauty and longing are God’s voice calling us, reminding us that we are made for more than this world. It hurts, because we realize that we are missing something, and it’s terrifying, because we realize that the thing we want isn’t something we can get for ourselves.
This kind of experience, a nameless longing for something more, is just a tiny ray of God’s love. It’s the faintest echo of His voice that gets through to us when we are trying to block Him out. Many people – like Emily of New Moon’s rather rigid relatives – are frightened by the intensity of longing that these kinds of spiritual experiences awaken, and would rather stifle those desires than risk being swept away by them. But that depth of longing is a necessary ingredient of the spiritual life. God is trying to wake us up to the fact that we are created for infinite love, so we have to realize that we have an infinite desire.
The thing about this longing is that we have to respond to it somehow. God calls to us – what do we say in reply?
There are a few ways that people reply. First, you might try to avoid responding altogether. You might try to ignore the piercing longing, fill your schedule until there’s no time left to face the voice that calls you in the quiet moments. You might try to smother the pain under other, shallower, fulfillments – and from junk food to sex to Netflix to Candy Crush, they’re all equally useless. The stabbing joy will still get through.
Second, you might choose to stay on the fence. This is an option that artists and intellectuals tend towards, and others who like the tantalizing taste of spiritual reality but haven’t actually stepped into it. Sometimes this is an outright self-centered choice to play with spiritual desire to prolong the drama (I see you, Oscar Wilde). And sometimes taking a big spiritual step genuinely takes a whole lot of time (looking at you, St. John Henry Newman). In the end, though, the decision has to be made.
The third is to say yes. At this point, we don’t even really know what we are saying yes to. All we know is that something is tugging on our heart, and it’s scary and painful, but also beautiful and good. To say yes means to consciously engage with God in prayer – which our next example will teach us how to do.
Christy – “I Knew That I Was Loved”
Emily’s childhood experience of awareness and longing for “something more” is the place where we all begin in our experience of God. The second step is to realize that the “something” we long for is not at all a thing, but a Person.
Catherine Marshall’s Christy is the story of an idealistic nineteen-year-old who leaves her comfortable life to volunteer as a teacher in a rural Appalachian mission outpost. Her faith is sincere, but immature, and it begins to crumble under the tragedies and suffering she sees. Finally, in the face of her best friend’s death, her faith – or what she thought was faith – unravels completely.
Christy takes her spiritual crisis to her mentor, Miss Alice, who responds with a challenge: to set aside time every day to find solitude in the mountains and be alone with God.
At first, Christy fills her new prayer time by pouring out her anger at God – the God who would allow innocent children to get caught up in brutal family feuds, who would let good people live and die in such terrible poverty, and above all, allow Fairlight to die. She half-expects to be hit by a lightning bolt, or hear some sort of divine justification for these tragedies, but that’s not what happens.
Instead, sitting alone on the mountain and writing in her journal, Christy gradually experiences a growing certainty that she is deeply, deeply loved. Gazing at the splendor of the Appalachian mountains, she realizes,
“The ‘starter-force’ behind the magnificence displayed before my wondering eyes had an authority behind it that could be no abstraction, for it had immediacy – known and felt. Call this what you might – ‘starter-force,’ ‘God,’ ‘Father’ – it was personal all right. It thrust deep into me. It pulled.”Christy, Catherine Marshall
Emily’s childhood experience of beauty was impersonal – she was merely aware of a transcendent something beyond the curtain. Christy, facing adult challenges, is ready for adult answers. She thinks that her faith is crumbling, and that she is lashing out at God, but she is actually beginning to pray for the first time. Instead of relating to God as an impersonal justice system, she finds that He is a Person. And not just that, but a Person who loves her.
This is the certain result of pursuing God in prayer. He wants to reveal Himself to us; He does not want us to live our whole lives behaving as if he is an unreachable, unknowable force. If we give Him half a chance, He will willingly pour out His love for us. And the way to give Him that chance is to sit down and be with Him for a few minutes (at least) every day.
If you’ve never had this kind of encounter with God, ask. Let Him know that you want Him to reveal Himself to you. Then give Him a chance to do it. Set aside just five minutes of silence a day to be alone with Him. Here’s what to do during those five minutes and here’s what not to do, but the most important thing is to show up and ask. Then show up again, and again.
That Hideous Strength – the Presence of the King
No one knows longing for God like C. S. Lewis. He uses the full range of sci-fi and fantasy to describe what it is like to meet God – from Aslan of the Narnia series and the god in Til We Have Faces, to the eldila of the Space Trilogy.
The Space Trilogy blends theology and sci-fi very closely, especially the final book, That Hideous Strength. The main character is Jane Studdock, is a prosaic, modern young woman. She’s vaguely post-religious and proud of her self control.
When the forces of good and evil come to bear in her life, Jane’s common sense world and tame liberal values begin to dissolve in a swirl of extraordinary events. Finally, she’s forced to seek help from a group of acquaintances, whom she finds both intriguing and offensive to her liberated modern sensibilities.
The turning point for Jane comes when she is introduced to the leader of their company. She approaches him in fear and trembling, because her new friends show such a strange mixture of love and reverence to him. Above all, she promises herself, she won’t act silly or fall under his spell like everyone else seems to have.
“This is the young lady, sir,” said Miss Ironwood.
Jane looked; and instantly her world was unmade.
Pain came and went in his face: sudden jabs of sickening and burning pain. But as lightening goes through the darkness and shows no trace, so the tranquility of his countenance swallowed up each shock of torture. She remembered the imagined Arthur of her childhood – and the imagined Solomon too. Solomon – for the first time in many years the bright solar blend of king and lover and magician which hangs about that name stole back upon her mind. For the first time in all those years she tasted the word King itself with all linked associations of battle, marriage, priesthood, mercy, and power …
And the voice also seemed to be like sunlight and gold. Like gold not only as gold is beautiful but as it is heavy: and now it was addressing her.
She was shaken; she was even shaking. She hoped intensely that she was not going to cry, or be unable to speak, or do anything silly. For her world was unmade; anything might happen now.That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis
This is more than a spiritual longing for something unknown. It’s more than an encounter with a faceless God. This is meeting God face to face, through Jesus Christ.
If we seek God, we will find Jesus, because Jesus is His perfect revelation to the world. God became a man so that He could sanctify our humanity, and pay the debt for all our sins. That’s why we need Christ to be saved – there’s no other way to square the debt that we incur through sin, because no one other than Him can possibly pay it.
But God didn’t just become man for the sake of a legal transaction. He came so that He could look us in the eye with love (Matt 10:17-27, by the way). He loves us too much to remain at a mountaintop distance from us. So, He came to be like us in everything but sin, to eat with us, laugh with us, talk with us, cry with us, and set us free from sin to share His eternal life with us. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He’s the beginning and the end. He’s the start and end of the story, and everything in between.
That all sounds beautiful. But what does it mean for us, today?
First, it means that if we are serious about seeking God, we are going to encounter this Person, this Jesus. And just like Jane Studdock found out, He will be both the best and most frightening thing that has ever happened to us. We won’t be able to keep our cool or stay in control.
Lewis points out the fact that this Person that we meet is in a serious amount of pain. He’s talking about Christ who was crucified. The crucifixion wasn’t just one event in Jesus’s life – that suffering, that sacrifice, defines Him. The Person Lewis describes is in pain, but amidst it, He is at peace. If we embrace Christ, we’re going to get the Cross as well.
Next, Lewis touches on the fact that Christ is a King. (The character he’s describing here is actually named Mr. Fisher-King, which is both an unsubtle connection to Christ’s kingship and also a reference to the Arthurian legends that he ties in, because Clive Staples Lewis doesn’t consider narrative subtlety or genre distinctions important. More reasons to love him.)
All that aside, Lewis is acutely sensitive to the shades of meaning that the word King summons up: marriage, priesthood, love, gold, battle, power, mercy, grandeur. This is someone whose presence overpowers all our posturing and pretension. He’s not demanding obeisance; it’s just that who He is brings us to our knees.
If we seek out God, we’re going to find this Person who can undo our little egos with a single glance. He is a merciful, loving, kingly Person, but His love burns like fire, and leaves us with the terrifying impression that “our world is unmade; anything can happen now.”
In the adventure of seeking God, encountering Christ is the point of no return. When we meet Him, we realize that life comes down to the single choice of saying yes to that burning love, or saying no. Both are frightening. Either way, our lives will never be the same.
But this is where our spiritual hunger leads us; His terrifying love is the only thing that will ever satisfy that longing. We have to choose between handing ourselves over to the power of the King, or letting the hungry void grow bigger and darker until it swallows us up completely.
If you really want to encounter Jesus, go to Mass. If you really want to be near the lover of your soul and in the presence of the King, seek out Eucharistic Adoration. He is really present in the Eucharist. If you can’t go be with Him physically, pray to Him in your heart. Go and say yes to Him.
What Prayer Is and Isn’t
Why do you spend money on what is not food, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.Isaiah 55:1
We’re hungry. Unless we give our souls prayer to eat, we will spiritually starve.
God is not giving us Goldfish Crackers here. He is inviting us to a feast.
That doesn’t mean a life of prayer is effortless or that you can fix the loneliness of your life in five easy steps. It does mean that amid the struggle, we can be fully alive in His love.
If you want more, A Guide to Practical Mental Prayer by Soul of the Christian Apostolate is the best summary of the life of prayer out there.
Here are a few more notes on experiencing God and what the life of prayer is not.
- It’s not separate from living a moral life. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “It is impossible for a person who prays regularly to remain in serious sin; the two are incompatible. One or the other will have to be given up.” If a person loves Christ, it will show up in their life; they will do the things that He has asked. And if you yourself are seeking God, expect to start feeling convicted about the ways that your life is out of line with His commandments.
- It’s not experiential voyeurism. Prayer is not about “getting centered” or “finding yourself,” or anything else that places yourself in the center. It’s really the one chance we have to be free from our boring self-obsession and fall in love with another Person.
- It’s not for a chosen few. Absolutely everyone is called to a deep, lasting, terrifyingly personal union with God in Christ. (Church teaching is crystal clear on this – from St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, to the modern day Catechism of the Catholic Church.) That’s what it means to be human.
St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us.