At a recent meeting of former volunteers in the Prison Ministry, it was my turn to do a talk. (By the way, prisons are no longer open to volunteers; in fact many are still not allowing family visits.) The topic assigned by the leader of the group was: Has my perception of God changed during the Pandemic?
Here’s what I had to say: My perspective of God has not changed. To me, to quote St. Bonaventure “God is the intelligible being whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.” And perhaps qualified by another great quote: “If it’s understandable, it’s not God”. And of course God is Love. And by that I mean, that there is a purity in God; that purity has the effect that the further we get from God, the more ok we can think we are or at least that’s what our egos tell us. The closer we get to God, it’s like a light shining into a dusty room, the more we are aware of our frailties.
So what do I have to say; what’s changed for me this last year?
It is how I relate to God or at least how I should be relating to God. I have become more aware that I really want “my will to be done” while at the same time trying to figure out how to manage God. What do I mean by this? It’s really an awareness that in my prayer and other aspects of my life, I continue to want to have my own agenda, be in control, while at the same time hoping for a deeper relationship with God. But that means I’m pulling in two opposite directions at the same time. It’s my sense that the opposite of Love is not hate, it’s control. So you can’t really have a deep relationship with God, if you want Control. (I don’t think even God is in control because we are loved by God, but that doesn't mean His will won’t be done.) Much of my spiritual practice, such as it is, has been more like an exercise program where one is trying to lose weight or get fit. Basically doing something to get something. What I need to do, and in a half-baked way have been trying to do, is to pray out of desire for oneness with God rather than trying to “win” God over. But I continue to struggle: hugely!
In John’s gospel, when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about being born again, He skipped over an important point: you can’t be born again if you first don’t die; die to the self that keeps you from God. The more you can let go and not be dominated by your ego, the better your chances of a relationship with God. Ruth Burrows the Carmelite sister puts it well:
“There would be something incongruous in a person saying that they desire God but never depriving themselves of anything and having everything when they want”
This is difficult when you (me) have a natural tendency to focus on our own needs, and moreover, when we live in a society that encourages you to have what you want if you can figure out how to get it. The quote from Oscar Wilde really resonates with me: “I can resist anything but temptation”.
So what am I doing? I’m showing up. Like parenting, friendship or anything really important in life, it’s about showing up. Trying to show up for prayer. Trying to be present to those around me knowing that they are actually God in my day to day life.
Praying for the strength to be not so self-centered. Realizing that I shouldn’t expect to feel anything in my prayer. That God speaks to us far below the level of our consciousness, and that if we do feel good in our prayer, it’s likely our imagination. There is no “good prayer”. There is only praying and not praying.
And of course, trying to keep front and center at all times Matthew 25. (I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you welcomed me, sick and you cared for me and so on) Because it has to be so much more than just prayer. You’ll notice that Jesus didn’t really emphasize the 10 commandments (people killing, stealing, coveting wives, etc.) Jesus wanted us to move beyond what might have made sense 1000+ years before; that not doing evil doesn’t mean you’re doing good. He really put the emphasis on active Love and didn’t put qualifiers on that Love. For example, He didn’t say I was sick (and because I had health insurance……) I was a stranger (that conveniently looked like you and had your values……).
Jesus called us to move beyond our comfort zones, and hence gave us a clear roadmap for our lives. Prayer, love for our neighbor, and to do these of course, we need some discipline (from which discipleship is derived). To set aside our priorities and preferences; to let go of our egos and deprive ourselves a little, so that we can indeed, like Jesus told Nicodemus, be born again.