In a recent episode of the TV series The Crown, Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Phillip, had a brief conversation with his mother Princess Alice of Battenberg, who asked him casually “so how is your faith?” After a slight hesitation he replied, “dormant.” The aging Princess told her middle aged son bluntly…. “That’s not good, let this be a mothers gift to her child … find yourself faith, it helps, no… not just helps … its everything.”
It is easy to imagine why the husband of the Queen of England might find himself too busy to worry about his faith… too busy to “bother with God.” After all, there are all those royal ceremonies to attend! But what about you and me? Why and when did we let a sense of the divine, the spiritual or the sacred slip out of our lives? Or maybe we are hard core materialists (if you can’t see it, then it doesn’t exist) and have never had any sense of the spiritual in the first place? If so, you would not be all that unusual in the secular world in which we live today. Most of us today don’t “bother with God.”
Personally, I’ve always had a vague sense that there is something “greater than me out there”. I have spent many years trying to define that “something” by studying various religious traditions. While I was born into a Christian family, I thought that I was “way too smart” to put my money on that old Judaeo-Christian biblical story. So I went searching for a God that made sense to me among the many of flavors of religion available to us today, both East and West…. but mostly without success. It has only been through a living experience that I have come to a place where my relationship with something that I call God now has a central part in my life.
My first deep experience of a God came to me from a sense of desperation. It happened through a 12-Step Program where I was told to get on my knees and pray to a God that I didn’t think I believed in – to keep me away from an alcoholic drink for one day.
I did…. and it worked.
Over the past two decades, this growing relationship with a God of my own understanding has helped to keep me sober as well as relatively sane even during “troubling times.” And if we live long enough, we all get to experience “troubling times.” In fact, there seems to be nothing quite as effective as suffering to either cause us to initiate our search for God or to make sure we continue to broaden and deepen our faith in something “greater than ourselves.” I’ve learned it is true that faith… “helps, no… not just helps … its everything.”
This blog post is addressed to those of us with little or no sense of the sacred in our lives, for whom perhaps our faith has gone “dormant.” I will lean on Henri Nouwen’s little book, “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World”, which I gave to my brothers, my son’s and my nieces and nephew for Christmas this year. Nouwen wrote this book for a friend, a young professional living in New York City, who had challenged him to write something that would speak to people living in a secular world who apparently had no real need for a God.
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch author of 40 books, international speaker, Catholic priest, and like me, a university professor. Father Nouwen taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard Universities. What makes his story so unique however, is that at age 54 he quit the university and spent the last 10 years of his life as a pastor working among a community of people with physical and developmental disabilities. One of his tasks was to provide personal care for a man who could not walk, talk, eat, dress or bathe on his own. Nouwen said the transition from international scholar to personal caregiver provided him with the most meaningful and fully spiritual experiences of his life.
He begins his book on “spiritual living in a secular world” by telling his friend that we are all “the Beloved of God.” I”m not sure his friend believed him. Nevertheless, Nouwen wrote to his friend (and to us)… “When our deepest truth is that we are the Beloved and when our greatest joy and peace come from fully claiming that truth, it follows that this has to become visible and tangible in the ways we eat and drink, talk and love, play and work.” That is, we must bring the knowledge that we are “the Beloved” into everything we think and everything we do (especially when things seem to go wrong in our lives – when the “troubling times” arrive).
While I am not overly fond of the word “beloved”, Father Nouwen’s message is similar to something I learned early in my 12-Step Program. I was taught that we are all “children of God” and this makes us all very special. I was also taught that I could choose my own conception of God. The biblical story presenting God as a person (a male person of course) was likely a useful way for the ancient Hebrews to understand and explain their experiences of the divine. Personifying my experience of the divine as an all-powerful, all-knowing but somewhat erratic dude with a beard just doesn’t work for me.
My own understanding of the divine or “something greater than myself” is better described as a “universal consciousness held together by love” – kinda like The Force in Star Wars. Supernatural Theism, the standard framework for most Judaeo-Christian religions today makes less sense to me than Panentheism, the understanding that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it. In theological speak, God is both transcendent (above and beyond) as well as immanent (within) us all. Panentheism (God is in all things and all things are in God) kind of made sense to me
In any case since nobody knows for sure, I suppose whatever metaphor we want to use to describe “something greater than ourselves” is fine. So, when I read about God, I simply translate the word “God” into an understanding that works for me. I encourage others to do the same to avoid getting hung up on all the connotations and potential confusion that comes along with the word God.
I believe (most of the time) that my “universal-consciousness-held-together-by-love-God” loves me much like a parent loves their child. That is, I am indeed “the Beloved of God.” It is particularly helpful to believe that we are unique, special, precious beings, that we are loved, when we experience suffering and pain. And if we live long enough, we will experience suffering and pain.
Having found a God of my own understanding through a 12-Step Program more than 20 years ago, my sense of the spirit has broadened and deepened over time through regular prayer, meditation and spiritual readings. When my wife of 46 years was diagnosed with a terminal disease however, that sense of the spirit was severely tested. I had a choice to fall into a tailspin of sadness, anger and despair, or to face the pain and open myself to God’s love. I found that choosing to believe that I am a Child of God gives me a sense of gratitude and joy, even while at the same time experiencing deep sadness.
So I pray, I meditate, I read spiritual books, and I ask for help from “something greater than myself.” I would not wish “troubling times” on anyone, but when they come along I know I am better off with a God in my life. Nouwen helps me remember that we live in this material world for a short time, and while here our work is to learn to recognize who we truly are – eternal beings – “the Beloved of God.” Nouwen writes “life is a God-given opportunity to become who we are, to affirm our own true spiritual nature, claim our truth, but most of all, to say ‘Yes’ to the One who calls us the Beloved.” When I remember that I am a Child of God, I find that I can get up in the morning and do whatever needs to be done even under the most difficult circumstances. When life gets difficult, having a God in our lives is damned useful.
Nouwen writes “the deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it.” Of course, nobody in their right mind would go looking for opportunities to suffer. Suffering sucks. But when it arrives, Children of God may walk through the suffering – together.
While nothing makes the need for a God in my life quite as apparent as suffering, my own experience of God has not been limited only to times of desperation and pain. I pray daily, meditate when I can, and read spiritual books well, religiously. When I am immersed in spiritual authors like Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton or Ilia Delio for example, my conscious contact with God is reinforced.
When my wife calls me for help throughout the day, or I’m waiting 10 more seconds for the microwave to finish heating my dinner, I take it as an opportunity to pray. My “microwave prayer” is from the 14th century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, which advises me to look up and say quietly… “I lift up my heart to you God, in a humble impulse of love.” This brief statement is like a reset button – reconnecting me with my God.
There are many ways we may experience God in our lives. Deepak Chopra wrote “that everyday life, in fact, is littered with clues and hints of spiritual experience. These passing moments take on a flavor everyone can identify with, even the most convinced atheist.” His list includes when you feel…
- Safe and protected
- As if you belong
- As if your life is embedded in a larger design
- As if your body is light and action is effortless
- Upheld by unseen forces unusually fortunate or lucky
- Touched by fate
- Infused with light, or actually able to see a faint light around someone else
- Held in the presence of the divine
- Spoken to by our soul
- Certain that a deep wish or dream is coming true
- At ease with death and dying *
If we are awake and aware, we can experience God in the good times and bad. I realize that this may not make any sense to someone who has never experienced the sense of love and peace that may come along with a faith in “something greater than ourselves.” In fact, Henri Nouwen concluded that his book written for active young people living in a secular world was probably not useful for them. Perhaps they had no reason to “bother with God.” My own story is different. For me, faith “helps, no… not just helps … its everything.”