In my book God Moments: Unexpected Encounters in the Ordinary, I hope to offer you a way to open your heart to God’s presence in your everyday life. You know those moments where a flock of birds stops you in your tracks, or a kind word from a friend makes your day, or when a baby smiles at you from across a restaurant? Those are God moments. They’re encounters with the divine and they point us to a deeper reality: that God wishes to have a relationship with you. Through your experiences and relationships—both good and bad—God takes on flesh and is made real.
This week I will be sharing an excerpt from my book on prayer. For many of us, prayer begins on our knees saying prayers before bed or saying grace before meals. It took me a while to realise that prayer was ultimately a relationship with God, and it could occur anywhere. But before we pray, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves how we imagine God. Who is God to us? This week’s excerpt explains why this is important.
God Moments: Unexpected Encounters in the Ordinary is available here.
When I was a Jesuit, I had the privilege to make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a full thirty-day retreat of deep prayer and intimate relationship-building with the person of Jesus. Ignatius designed the Exercises for regular people to help open the door to spiritual conversion. As we meditate on our human sinfulness and frailty through the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ during the four parts or “weeks” of the retreat, we are deeply immersed in the loving goodness of a God who chose to become human.
But Ignatius wants to ensure that those making the thirty-day Exercises are ready for such an experience. How can you dive right into an intimate relationship with Jesus if God is a distant bookkeeper in the clouds? How can you truly hear Jesus ask you, “What do you want me to do for you?” if you feel guilty about asking God for something? Ignatius wants to ensure that retreatants truly know the intimate love God has for them before they allow their prayer to go any deeper. Our childhood doesn’t prepare us for this much. “Jesus loves you” is what we hear, but God remains distant and abstract. As I was growing up, I was more caught up on the assumption that God was mainly concerned with keeping track of my sins, rather than with loving me beyond comprehension. And my religious educators weren’t always great at changing this mind-set. This is what it’s like for many adults. Jesus remains a figure so out of touch with our time and experience. When we see God as one who can’t relate to us, how can we trust that God cares about the little details of our life?
The truth is, when we see the extraordinary detail of creation and the complexity of it all, we can believe that the Creator took the same care in creating us—including our gifts and talents. I believe God wishes to be intimately involved with each of us and cares so much about our lives that having a personal relationship with us is so important. Even if our prayer is as simple as praying the Rosary or partaking in the sacraments, it still is about fostering a personal relationship with God. Pope Francis so beautifully understands that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—a sign that God wishes to have a personal relationship with us— is the very reason for prayer and devotion. He says: “Genuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture. For this reason they entail a personal relationship, not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints. These devotions are fleshy, they have a face.”
Prayer takes on skin! It is a means for personal encounter, as personal as sitting with a friend at a coffee shop and pouring out your heart. Such a relationship is not vague, but fleshy!
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Yes Andy, as a child and even when growing up God was a remote, unapproachable figure sitting in a glorious temple above the clouds . Indeed one of the hymns we children were taught was “There’s a home for little children above the bright blue sky.” Heaven was up there not down here on earth. We had a vision of St Peter sitting at the pearly gates with a ledger on his desk that listed all our sins in one column and our good deeds in the other. Depending on the balance between the two you either went to Heaven or Hell. The somewhat archaic language of the services in the Book of Common Prayer did not foster the idea of a loving God near at hand. Prayer was formulaic and not personal at all. It took some time to get out of the old ways and to realise that Emmanuel meant God with us, God within us, God all around us.