Read an Excerpt
If you are familiar with my writing on prayer, you know that I am fascinated by the deep desire planted in each of us for union with God, and, in connection with that, union with one another. At the same time, I continually note in myself and in those who have confided in me a strong resistance to the fulfillment of that desire—a fulfillment I believe is passionately desired by God. If you have this book in your hands, you already know something of what I mean. Like me, you want a closer relationship with God yet find yourself resisting God’s advances.
I wrote this book for readers like you. It is a collection of meditations that I hope will help you not only make sense of the seeming paradox of wanting something so much and yet resisting its fulfillment, but also move toward your heart’s desire.
The book has three parts. In the first, we will explore God’s desire for a relationship of intimacy with each one of us and how we experience that desire. Here I hope to guide you toward recognizing your own foundational experiences of God and some of the consequences of taking those experiences seriously.
The second part looks at a few of the paradoxes entailed in this relationship. How do fear of God and attraction to God coexist? How can we trust a God who does not save us from awful sufferings? These are some of the questions I have had to face in my relationship with God, and in talking with others, I have found that I am not alone. I hope the meditations in this part will intrigue you and assist you in your own conversations with God.
The third part of the book focuses on the implications for our lives of friendship with God. In creating this world and us, God needs friends who will cooperate in the project Jesus called the kingdom. Here I hope to help you enter the conversation with God about your part in this project.
I dearly hope that you will find this book helpful to your developing relationship with God. As we begin, let us pray together these words of St. Anselm of Canterbury:
Teach me to seek you,
and reveal yourself to me as I seek;
for unless you instruct me
I cannot seek you,
and unless you reveal yourself
I cannot find you.
Let me seek you in desiring you;
let me desire you in seeking you.
Let me find you in loving you;
let me love you in finding you.
Building a Relationship with God
In his poem “Scaffolding,” Seamus Heaney uses the metaphor of scaffolding to say something profound about his relationship with a loved one. The couple in the poem have built the wall of their love so solidly that they do not need the scaffolding anymore.
Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.
I want to develop the metaphor in Heaney’s poem so that we can see its application in the relationship God desires with us. Can we apply what we know of human relationships to our relationship with God?
The Importance of Rites in Human Friendship
First, let’s look at the development of a strong friendship between two human beings. What might be the scaffolding necessary for it? I am reminded of the fox who asked Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little prince to become his friend. The little prince wants to know how to go about it, and the fox replies:
You must be very patient. First you will sit down at a little distance from me—like that—in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing . . . but you will sit a little closer to me, every day.
The next day when the prince comes, the fox tells him:
It would have been better to come back at the same hour. If you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you. . . . One must observe the proper rites.
The French of the last line is more concise: Il faut des rites; rites are necessary.
Earlier in the conversation, the fox says:
One only understands the things that one tames [befriends]. Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more.
In these days of instant friendship, such attention to rites may seem arcane and a bit romantic. Television and film seem to require little more for love between a man and a woman than a passionate look before they are in bed together. The fact that commitment in marriage or friendship seems more the exception than the norm may reveal the bankruptcy of the culture of instant relationships. Perhaps Saint-Exupéry is not so romantic after all. Perhaps rites are necessary for developing a strong friendship.
Joseph Flanagan, SJ, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, has noted that Americans have lost the rites of courting and dating. When those of us who are over fifty were growing up, we had a pretty good idea of how to act with the opposite sex. It was a somewhat daunting prospect to begin the process of developing a relationship, but we knew the rites, as it were. Now many young people are at sea because there are few guidelines, few accepted ways of acting that allow for a gradual development of intimacy. As a result, young students heading off to college are barraged with courses and talks about the use of alcohol and drugs, date rape, and racial and sexual stereotyping. But most of the input is information. What seems terribly lacking are generally accepted rites of passage and standards of moral behavior that can guide young people as they explore new relationships and learn the ways of intimacy and friendship. Getting close to and befriending another person takes time and requires rites. We need to reestablish these rites, because they are the scaffolding that enables two people to build the wall of a sound and lasting friendship.
What are these rites? First, having felt an attraction to you, I try to spend time with you, perhaps at first seemingly by accident, in an attempt to get to know you better. As it becomes apparent that the attraction is mutual, we will make time to be with each other, to do things together. Then we will gradually reveal things about ourselves to each other. Finally, when both of us are relatively sure of the depth of our friendship, we will formalize what has become a reality. We will begin to date, or we will affirm that we are best friends, or we will in some other way acknowledge that we are special to each other. In the process of building our wall, we may have some difficult times, times when we fail to communicate, when we quarrel, when one or the other of us feels unappreciated. We are, after all, human beings, with all the foibles and fears we are heir to. We may each be as skittish as the fox in The Little Prince. But once we have befriended each other and established ties, then “we may let the scaffolds fall / Confident that we have built our wall.”
The Scaffolding Necessary for a Friendship with God
Now let’s see what might follow in our relationship with God. The analogy limps on the side of God but holds up quite well as far as we are concerned. We know from revelation that we exist because God desires us into being and keeps us in being. God, it would seem, is madly in love with us and is always attracted to us. The problem is that most of us do not really believe it. Many of us harbor an image of God as a taskmaster or even a tyrant because of psychological trauma or poorly assimilated teaching about God. As a result, the desire for God that is implanted deep in our hearts by creation is often muted, if not smothered, by fear of God. We need experiences of God as attractive. We have to give God a chance to prove to us that he really is our heart’s love and desire.
As C. S. Lewis noted in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, every so often we are overcome by a feeling of enormous well-being and a desire for “we know not what.” This desire is what he calls joy, and he describes it as more satisfying than the fulfillment of any other desire, even though we recognize that it cannot be fully satisfied this side of heaven. We need to recall and savor these experiences of joy so that we will want to develop an intimate relationship of friendship and love with God. I have come to believe that these are experiences of our own creation. Moreover, I believe that they are the experiences that led St. Ignatius of Loyola to formulate his First Principle and Foundation at the beginning of The Spiritual Exercises. In this rather abstract statement, Ignatius shows that God creates each human being for union with the triune God, and that nothing but such union will ultimately satisfy us.
Here is an example of the welling up of such a desire in an ordinary experience, one that any teenager might have. In his memoir Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner tells of an incident in Bermuda, where his mother had taken him and his brother after his father’s suicide. Near the end of his stay, Buechner, then thirteen, was sitting on a wall with a girl who was also thirteen, watching ferries come and go. He recalls:
Our bare knees happened to touch for a moment, and in that moment I was filled with such a sweet panic and anguish of longing for I had no idea what that I knew my life could never be complete until I found it. . . . It was the upward-reaching and fathomlessly hungering, heart-breaking love for the beauty of the world at its most beautiful, and, beyond that, for that beauty east of the sun and west of the moon which is past the reach of all but our most desperate desiring and is finally the beauty of Beauty itself, of Being itself and what lies at the heart of Being.
Buechner himself notes that there are many ways of looking at this experience. He recognizes the possibility of psychological and sexual influences. He goes on to say that “looking back at those distant years I choose not to deny, either, the compelling sense of an unseen giver and a series of hidden gifts as not only another part of their reality, but the deepest part of all.”
Many people have such experiences, researchers tell us, but not many people savor them and reflect on them and draw the implications of them for their lives. Ignatius did all these things. From such experiences and from his theological studies, he came to see that the universe is a place where God is continually drawing each and every one of us into the community life of the Trinity. It is as though the three Persons in God, the perfect community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, say to one another, “Our life in union is so rich and satisfying. Why don’t we create a universe where we can invite other persons into our community life?”
Ignatius invites us to take seriously these foundational experiences of God creating us out of love and for a loving friendship with him. When we have such a relationship with God, we want nothing to get in its way, which is what Ignatius meant by the notion of being indifferent to all created things. It is not that we do not care for things, but rather that we do not want to be so attached to any of them that we miss the pearl of great price, which is to be in tune with God’s purpose in creating the universe and each one of us.
Once our desire for a more intimate relationship with God is aroused, then we need to take time to let God draw us closer. Like the fox, we may feel a bit skittish with God. If so, we can tell God to take it slowly, so as not to frighten us off. Such a statement is a wonderfully honest prayer. We can also tell God that although we are somewhat fearful, we are attracted to a deeper relationship with him. In order to make time for God to draw us closer, we might take a page from the fox and set aside a particular time each day or week for the encounter with God. The time does not have to be long, but it is good to be regular—Il faut des rites. I would also suggest that we be clear about our desires, and about the ambivalence of our desires. Even though every human being is constantly being drawn by divine love toward union with God, still we all have conflicting desires as well. Fear gets in the way of our desire to become more intimate with God. Hurts from our past may leave us unsure if we can really trust God with our future. At this stage of our journey toward God, as at any stage, honesty is the best policy. Telling God about our deep ambivalence, and then listening for God’s response, is part of the process of building the wall of friendship.
In these early stages of a developing intimacy with God, the rite of praying at a certain time, in a certain place, and in a certain manner is the scaffolding necessary for establishing a solid foundation for the friendship. Prayer books and books on prayer can also be helpful as scaffolding. In religious congregations, novitiates are places where structure and order are needed. They are the scaffolding necessary for building the wall that is a way of life. When the wall is built, then the scaffolding can gradually be allowed to fall away. So, too, in a developing relationship with God, when the ties are firmly established, the rites necessary at the beginning can be dropped. Indeed, a slavish holding on to the rites may be an indication that the relationship has not been well established. Ultimately, in our developing friendship with God, there comes a time when “we may let the scaffolds fall / Confident that we have built our wall.”
Why We Pray
Some years ago, I attended a workshop on the relaxation response led by Herbert Benson, MD, a pioneer in mind/body medicine, and his associates. Dr. Benson has found that this response is the physiological opposite of the fight-or-flight response, in which, in times of perceived danger, the output of adrenaline leads to increased metabolism, blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate and faster brain waves. The opposite reactions—decreased blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate and slower brain waves—Benson calls the “relaxation response.” Unlike the fight-or-flight response, which can lead to many physical and psychological illnesses if exposure is prolonged, the relaxation response has beneficial physical and psychological effects. Benson found that this response is induced by meditation, the kind taught by the Benedictine John Main and his followers and called “centering prayer” by the Trappist M. Basil Pennington.
This workshop once again brought up for me the question, why do we pray? Do we pray for utilitarian reasons—because it benefits our physical or psychological health?
Honesty compels me to say that I often do pray for utilitarian reasons. First of all, most of my prayers of petition ask for some good result, either for me or for someone else or for all people. Moreover, I feel contented when I remember in prayer the people who mean much to me, even if my prayer is not answered. I notice, too, that I feel better about myself when I pray regularly. I feel more centered, more in tune with the present, less anxious about the past or the future. So I suspect that I do pray for the purpose of psychological or physical health. But does that exhaust my motivations for prayer?
Thinking of prayer as a conscious relationship, or friendship, with God may be illuminating. Why do we spend time with good friends? As I pondered this question, I realized that I relish times with good friends for some of the same reasons just adduced for spending time in prayer. If I have not had good conversations with close friends for some time, I feel out of sorts, somewhat lonely, and ill at ease. When I am with good friends, I feel more whole and alive. Still, I do not believe that my only reason for wanting time with them is to feel better. I want to be with them because I love them. I am genuinely interested in and concerned for them. The beneficial effect that being with them has on me is a happy by-product. Moreover, I have often spent time with friends when it cost me trouble and time, and I did it because they wanted my presence. Haven’t we all spent time with a close friend who was ill or depressed, even when the time was painful and difficult? Such time spent cannot be explained on utilitarian grounds. We spend that time because we love our friend for his or her own sake.
Of course, there are times when we need the presence of close friends because we are in pain or lonely. Friendship would not be a mutual affair if we were always the ones who gave and never were open to receive. But if we are not totally egocentric, we will have to admit that we do care for others for their own sakes, and not just for what we can get from the relationship. We spend time with our friends because of our mutual care and love. Can we say the same thing about our relationship with God?
Mutuality in Friendship with God
Before we look at the positive side of the analogy, let’s notice where it limps, and badly. All human relationships, no matter how one-sided they may seem, are based on mutual need. To be anywhere near our best selves we need people who love us. As an infant, every one of us needs others to love and care for us. Without a caretaker we would die, and without a caretaker who shows care we would not develop as a person. Our dependence on others to be ourselves continues throughout life, even if that dependence lessens as we grow up. Even the parents upon whom the infant relies need the infant in some way, if only as the consummation of their love for each other. God, however, does not need anyone else. God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is the perfect community. They need nothing else for their completion. We must not succumb to the romantic notion that God decided to create a universe with other persons in it because God was lonely. God does not create out of need, but out of love.
Even though God does not create out of need, this does not mean that a relationship of mutuality is impossible. Such relationships are created by intention and desire as well as by need. Of course, I need my friends, but if my need is the prevailing motivation, then my fear of losing them will predominate over my love for them. So if we, with our neediness, establish friendships that are mutual, clearly God can do so. If God invites us into the community life of the Trinity, then God desires a relationship of mutuality with us.
The Hebrew Bible gives some indications of such an intention on God’s part. In Genesis, we get the impression that before the Fall, God walked and conversed with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening. We can also look at the Abraham stories in Genesis 12–18 as a saga of a growing mutual relationship between Abraham and God, culminating in God’s decision to tell Abraham what God intends to do to Sodom and Gomorrah. God’s revelation of the intention to destroy the cities leads Abraham to haggle with God to save them. Abraham goes so far as to tell God how he should act.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples (and through them, us): “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:15). He goes on to underline his intention when he says: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (15:16). Throughout the history of Christianity, men and women have discovered, to their wonder and delight, that God wants an intimate mutual friendship with them.
Now, friendships of mutuality are characterized by mutual transparency. Jesus makes this clear in the passage from John’s Gospel. He wants to be transparent to his friends. And what he reveals is his very intimate life of union with the Father and the Spirit. To Philip’s request that Jesus show the disciples the Father, Jesus replies: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Throughout the last discourse in John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals in a variety of ways his own inner life, culminating in the final prayer in chapter 17. Christians believe that Jesus is still revealing who he is and thus who God is to all those who are willing to pay attention. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, took it so much for granted that Jesus wants to reveal himself to us that he suggests that retreatants in the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises ask for “an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely” (n. 104).
It works the other way as well. People who take seriously the invitation to an intimate relationship with God find that God wants them to reveal themselves as well. God wants to know our hopes and dreams, our loves and hates, our fears and anxieties. What astounds us is that God seems to be pleased when we are transparent, even when what we reveal about ourselves seems unsavory or unsuitable to say. God does not stand on protocol with us. Our triune God seems delighted with our willingness to trust in God’s desire for mutuality. Even when we tell God how angry we are with him, God listens with interest and sympathy. God desires to know us just as much as we desire to know God.
Why Do We Pray?
Prayer is a conscious relationship with God. Just as we spend time with friends because we love them and care for them, we spend time in prayer because we love God and want to be with God. Created out of love, we are drawn by the desire for “we know not what,” for union with the ultimate Mystery, who alone will satisfy our deepest longing. That desire, we can say, is the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in our hearts, drawing us to the perfect fulfillment for which we were created—namely, community with the Trinity. That desire draws us toward a more and more intimate union with God.
We pray, then, at our deepest level, because we are drawn by the bonds of love. We pray because we love, and not just for utilitarian purposes. If prayer has beneficial effects—and I believe that it does—that is because prayer corresponds to our deepest reality. When we are in tune with God, we cannot help but experience deep well-being. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of consolation as a sign of a person’s being in tune with God’s intention. But in the final analysis, the lover does not spend time with the Beloved because of the consolation; the lover just wants to be with the Beloved.
Another motive for prayer is the desire to praise and thank God because of his great kindness and mercy. In contemplating Jesus, we discover that God’s love is not only creative but also overwhelmingly self-sacrificing. Jesus loved us even as we nailed him to the cross.
If we allow the desire for “we know not what” to draw us more and more into a relationship of mutual love with God, then we will, I believe, gradually take as our own that wonderful prayer so dear to St. Francis Xavier that begins O Deus, ego amo te, nec amo te ut salves me: “O God, I love you, and not because I hope for heaven thereby.” Gerard Manley Hopkins translated the prayer:
I love thee, God, I love thee—
Not out of hope for heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.
Thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu so much in love with me?
Not for heaven’s sake, not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and will love thee.
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?
For being my king and God. Amen.