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Excerpt: 'The Jesuit Guide To (Almost) Everything'

Experiences of the Desire for God

Maybe you're surprised by the notion that everyone has an innate desire for God. If you're an agnostic, you might believe that intellectually but haven't experienced it yourself. If you're an atheist, you might flat-out disbelieve it.

So for the disbelieving, the doubtful, and the curious (and everyone else, for that matter), let's turn to how these holy desires manifest themselves in everyday life. What do they look like? What do they feel like? How can you become aware of your desires for God?

Here are some of the most common ways that our holy desires reveal themselves. As you read, you might take a moment and consider which have been at work in your own life.


Many of us have had the feeling that, even though we have had some success and happiness, there is something missing in life. 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 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 serious change. Dissatisfaction doesn't 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, part of this restlessness never goes away; in fact, it provides a glimpse of our longing for God. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in you," as Augustine wrote, 1,500 years before Peggy Lee and Bono. 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. In the echoes of our restlessness we hear God's voice.

Sometimes those feelings are stronger than simple incompletion and feel more like an awful emptiness. One writer called this emptiness within our hearts the "God-shaped hole," the space that only God can fill.

Some people try 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, people may still feel incomplete, as if they're chasing something they can never catch. They race ahead, straining to reach the goal of fulfillment, yet it always seems tantalizingly out of reach. The prize of wholeness is elusive. Emptiness remains.

That was my experience early in my business career. After graduating with a business degree, I thought that once I landed a good job, pumped up my bank account, and filled my closet with elegant suits, I would be happy. But even with a job, money, and the best suits I could afford, I wasn't satisfied. Something was missing. It would take me several years to figure out what it was.

One of the best reflections on this topic comes from the twentieth-century spiritual writer Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and psychologist, wrote a perceptive book called The Selfless Way of Christ in which he examined this relentless quest to fill the empty hole in our lives. He observes that those rushing to fill that hole already sense that it is a useless quest.

Somewhere deep in our hearts we already know that success, fame, influence, power, and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. Somewhere we can even sense a certain envy of those who have shed all false ambitions and found a deeper fulfillment in their relationship with God.

Yes, somewhere we can even get a taste of that mysterious joy in the smile of those who have nothing to lose.

In their drive to fill this hole, some are pulled toward addictive behaviors, anything to fill them up: drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, sexual activity, 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.

Common Longings and Connections

Sometimes you experience a desire for God in very common situations: standing silently in the snowy woods on a winter's day, finding yourself moved to tears during a movie, recognizing a strange sense of connection during a church service — and feeling an inexpressible longing to savor this feeling and understand what it is.

In the first few 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 freely 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 this mysterious source of joy.

Common longings and heartfelt connections are ways of becoming conscious of the desire for God. We yearn for an understanding of feelings that seem to come from outside of us. We experience what the sixteenth-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. 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. Or we are not encouraged or invited to talk about them as spiritual experiences.

So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell 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 don't recognize these moments as possibly having their origins in God.

"I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." That's Julian Barnes, beginning his memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Barnes is the acclaimed author of many books, including Flaubert's Parrot. (More about that unusual bird later.) He takes as his subject his overpowering fear of death. Barnes writes, "I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm."

Barnes misses God. Who is to say that this "missing" does not arise from the very desire for God, which comes from God?

One friend, a self-described workaholic who hadn't been to church for many years, once went to 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 didn't 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 was happening: she was experiencing in that moment, when her defenses were down, God's desires for her.

And 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's 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's chalked up to something other than God.

Likewise we may dismiss these events as being too common, too simple to come from God. Mike, a Jesuit high school teacher, once preached a short homily in our house chapel. The reading for the day was a story from the Old Testament, 2 Kings 5:1–19, about Naaman the Syrian. Naaman, commander of the Syrian king's army, is suffering from leprosy and is sent by the king to ask the prophet Elisha for healing. In response Elisha tells him to do something simple: bathe in the Jordan River seven times.

Naaman is furious. He thought that he would be asked to wash in some other river, some more important river. His servants say, "If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?" (v. 13). In other words, why are you looking for some spectacular task? Do the simple thing. Naaman does it and is healed.

Mike said that our search for God is often like Naaman's. We're searching for something spectacular to convince us of God's presence. Yet it is in the simple things, common events and common longings, where God may be found.

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 spiritual life. 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.

That is why so many stories in the Bible about men and women encountering the divine begin with the words, "Do not be afraid." The angel announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary says, "Do not be afraid" (Luke 1:30). Nine months later, on the eve of the birth of Jesus, the angel in the fields greets the shepherds with "Do not be afraid" (Luke 2:10). And when Jesus performs one of his first miracles in front of St. Peter, the fisherman falls to his knees out of awe and fear. "Go away from me!" says Peter. And Jesus says, again, "Do not be afraid" (Luke 5:10).

Fear is a natural reaction to the divine, to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as the theologian Rudolf Otto says, the mystery that both fascinates and leaves us trembling.

Religious experiences are often dismissed — not out of doubt that they aren't real, but out of fear that they are real after all.

From The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything Copyright 2010 by James Martin, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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James Martin