In addition to the ways of desiring God that I spoke about in my article in this week's issue, “Get Closer,” here are several other common experiences. Many have had these experiences—without being aware that they may be ways of hearing God's voice in our lives.
Also in the rather loose category of "longing" are more intense experiences. Sometimes we feel an almost "mystical" sense of longing for God, or a connection to God, which can be triggered by unexpected circumstances.
"Mysticism" is often dismissed as a privileged experience for only the super-holy. But mysticism is not confined to the lives of the saints. Nor does each mystical experience have to replicate exactly what the saints describe in their writings.
In her superb book Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, says bluntly that mysticism is not simply the province of the saints. "For what is the mystical life but God coming to do what we cannot do; God touching the depths of our being where man is reduced to his basic element?" Karl Rahner, the 20th-century German Jesuit theologian, spoke of "everyday mysticism."
What does it mean to have a "mystical" experience?
One definition is that a mystical experience is one in which you feel filled with God's presence in an intense and unmistakable way. Or you feel "lifted up" from the normal way of seeing things. Or you are simply overwhelmed with the sense of God in a way that seems to transcend your own understanding.
Needless to say, these experiences are hard to put into words. It's the same as trying to describe the first time you fell in love, or held your newborn child in your arms, or saw the ocean for the first time. But just because they are difficult to explain doesn't mean that they're not real, or authentic.
St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, once described experiencing the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christian faith) as three keys that play one musical chord, distinct but unified. Sometimes people describe finding themselves close to tears, unable to contain the love or gratitude that they feel. Recently, one young man described to me an experience of feeling almost as if he was a crystal vase and God's love was like water about to overflow the top of the glass.
While they are not commonplace, mystical experiences are not as rare as most would believe. Ruth Burrows writes that they are "not the privileged way of the few."
Such moments pop up with surprising frequency not only in the lives of everyday believers but also in modern literature. In his book Surprised by Joy, the British writer C.S. Lewis describes an experience he had when he was a boy:
As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's "enormous bliss" of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to "enormous") comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? ... [B]efore I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.
That's a good description of this desire for more. I don't know what a currant bush looks like, but I know what that desire feels like. It may be difficult to identify exactly what you want, but at heart, you long for the fulfillment of all your desires, which is God.
This is closely aligned with the feeling of "awe," which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified as a key way to meet God. "Awe ... is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. ... Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple."
In my own life I have encountered these feelings a few times. Let me tell about one.
When I was young, I used to ride my bike to school in the mornings, and back home every afternoon. Sometimes I would ride to school with a boisterous group of friends from the neighborhood. We would start off early in the morning, carefully lining up all our bikes in front of a neighbor's house, each jockeying for the lead position.
But some mornings I would ride to school by myself. There were few things I enjoyed more than sailing downhill through our neighborhood, down the clean sidewalks, past the newish late-1950s houses, beneath the leafy trees, under the orange morning sun, the wind blowing past my ears.
Closer to our school was a small concrete path that ran between two houses in our neighborhood: the school lay at the far end of the path, behind what seemed a vast tract of land. At the end of the path was a set of six steps, which meant that I had to dismount and push my big blue Schwinn up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs lay one of my favorite places in the world, the memory of which, though I am writing this over 40 years later, uplifts me. It was a broad meadow, bordered on the left by tall oak trees and on the right by baseball fields. And every time of the year it was beautiful.
On cold fall mornings, clad in my corduroy jacket, I would pedal my bike over the bumpy dirt path through a meadow of crunchy brown leaves, desiccated grasses, and dried milkweed powdered in frost. In the winter, when I would not ride but walk to school, the field was often an open landscape of silent snow that rose wetly over my galoshes as my breath formed in cottony clouds before me.
But in the springtime, the little meadow exploded with life. It felt as if I were biking though one of the science experiments we did in school. Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies, the black-eyed Susans. Crickets hid in the grasses and old leaves. Bees hummed among the Queen Anne's lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons. Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch. The air was fresh and the field was alive with creation.
One spring morning, when I was 10 or 11, I stopped to catch my breath in the middle of the field. The bike's metal basket, packed with my schoolbooks and homework, swung violently to one side, and I almost lost my homework to the grasshoppers. Standing astride my bike, I could see so much going on around me -- so much color, so much activity, so much life.
Looking toward the school on the brow of the hill I felt an overwhelming happiness. I felt so happy to be alive. And I felt a fantastic longing: to both possess and be a part of what was around me. I can still see myself standing in this meadow, surrounded by creation, more clearly than any other memory from childhood.
In such uncommon longings, hidden in plain sight in our everyday lives, does God call to us.
Desires to Follow
Desires to follow God are more explicit than a simple desire for the transcendent. It is not a desire for "I know not what," as St. John of the Cross put it, but for "I know exactly what." And you may be able to identify it as the desire for God.
At the beginning of his classic manual on prayer, The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century Spanish mystic and founder of the Jesuit Order, invites believers to meditate on the gifts that God has given you, and then on your own sins and failings.
This is not as formulaic as it sounds. After spending a good deal of time thinking about blessings in their lives, people often feel, in a sense, "unworthy" of what they have received. Not that they're bad people. "By no means," as St. Paul would say.
Rather, many people naturally find themselves asking, "What have I done to deserve all this?"
At this point in a retreat, your faults often come to the fore. As Bill Creed, a Jesuit spiritual director, once told me, "In the bright sunshine of God's love, your shadows begin to emerge."
This leads to the realization that you are, as Jesuits say, a "loved sinner," someone imperfect but loved by God. Typically, this prompts gratitude, which leads to a desire to respond in thanksgiving. You may feel so overwhelmed by God's love for you, even in your "imperfect" state, that you want to say, "Thank you! What can I do in return?"
For Christians this often takes the form of a desire to follow Jesus Christ. The response to the urge comes in later on in The Spiritual Exercises, where Ignatius presents a series of meditations on the life of Christ, taken from the Gospels. The desire here is more explicit than one for "I know not what." It is for a particular way of life, that is, following Christ.
But you don't have to be in the middle of a guided retreat for this kind of desire to manifest itself.
You may be reading something about religion or spirituality and think, "This is what I've always wanted, to follow this path."
You may be sitting in a church service, hear about Jesus and say, "Why don't I follow him?"
You may remember the way you felt about God as a child and think, "What would happen if I returned to that path?"
Your desires are more formed in these cases. And you are able to identify your desires as following a specific path, or following God. This is another way that God calls us.
Desires for Holiness
An attraction to examples of holiness is another sign of the desire for God. This can be triggered in at least two ways: first, learning about holy people in the past; and second, meeting holy people today.
In the first case, one example may be that of, once again, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Formerly a vain courtier and soldier, Ignatius was seriously injured in a battle in 1521 and was carried back to his family's castle in Loyola, Spain. His life, he felt, was more or less over, his dreams of success as shattered as his body. During his painful recuperation from surgery, he asked for some reading material, preferably tales of derring-do and chivalry. To his dismay, all that could be found in the house were stories of the saints and a life of Christ. He took them up only grudgingly.
Then a strange thing happened. While reading the lives of the saints, he began to be attracted to the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, the great apostle of the poor, and St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. Ignatius started to think, in essence, "Hey, I could do something like that." Ignatius's overweening vanity was attracted to their great deeds, but a more authentic part of himself was attracted to their holiness.
This is one way that God can call you to -- through a heartfelt attraction to holy men and women and a real desire to emulate their lives. Through a call to holiness.
But holiness resides not only in canonized saints like St. Ignatius, but also in the holy ones who walk among us -- that includes the holy father who takes care of his young children, the holy daughter who cares for her aging parents, and the holy mother who works hard for her family. Nor does holiness mean perfection: the saints were always flawed, limited, human. Holiness always makes its home in humanity.
We can be attracted to models of holiness both past and present. Learning about past examples of holiness and meeting holy people today often makes us want to be like them. Holiness in other people is naturally attractive, since it is one way that God attracts us to himself. Experiencing the attractiveness of sanctity today also enables us to understand why Jesus of Nazareth attracted crowds of people everywhere he went.
Holiness in others draws to the holy parts of ourselves. "Deep calls to deep," as Psalm 42 says.
This is something of what the novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, had in mind when she wrote in an article, "What I might call personal holiness is in fact openness to the perception of the holy, in existence itself and above all in one another."
In all these ways does our innate desire for God call to us. A call which comes from God and leads to God.