How can I find God?

Stress warning: Content includes suicidal thoughts.

What would you say if a friend with no religious affiliation asked you the simple question: How can I find God?

This is the scenario posed to the young and the old, the famous and the not-famous and those of a variety of religious preferences who contribute their voices to the book “How can I find God? The Famous and Not-So-Famous Consider the Quintessential Question,” edited by Father James Martin, S.J.

The answers vary, as does the life experience of those who Martin questions. But a few themes do stand out, including the consideration that God is found in the people around us, the invisible love of God made visible, and in our own life experiences. The book also begs a poignant question: are we finding God or being found by God? Joan Chittister says, “No one can help a fish to find the ocean. The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.” She is proclaiming that God is all around us, already finding us, already in our grasp.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it more directly: “What do I do now that God has found me? … Such a God is not easily found because we cannot find that which as near to us as our next breath and as far from us as the silence that surrounds all language.” God, I know, has already found me, but may also remain elusive as mystery.

Maybe that’s because seeking and finding always go together. As Huston Smith says, “Finding God is not like finding a mislaid object, which ends the search.” Gregory of Nyssa put this point definitively: “To seek God is to find him; to find God is to seek him.”

I love these answers! They make me seek God even more. God has already found me and I wake up to that reality. I cannot find God like I find my lost hairbrush, because the mystery of God cannot be contained, and in the finding I discover more seeking. God is in the daily reality of my own life, in my particulars and in yours.

How would you answer this basic question: How can I find God?

I find God in my daily experiences and in the people around me, but I especially find God in suffering. Maybe suffering is the moment when I stop pretending everything is okay, become more honest and vulnerable and allow God to find me.

When I was 20, everything stopped making sense. I don’t remember the immediate event that caused it but I was curled up on the bed and I started to scream. I screamed so long that they called the college campus security to check on me. As I was screaming, I had a little conversation with God.

Me: God, I don’t think I can go on any longer. I think I need to die.

God: That way out is cheating. It’s not really an option.

Me: Then what can I do?

And then all the words stopped and I had a vision. I saw lava flowing freely. Then I saw lava crusted over. Like a video I had seen of a volcano exploding underwater, the fiery, red-hot river turned quickly to a black crust when it hit the cold water. The vision became an immediate knowing, the deepest truth I have ever known in my life. There is a place or time where God’s love flows endlessly. Here on Earth, that love gets blocked and crusted over. We are here on Earth to learn the not-so-simple lesson of how to love. This learning comes with the assurance that God’s love is holding us even through such pain.

Photo by Ben Klea on Unsplash

That truth has stayed with me ever since. When I get lost and discouraged, when my lava-love gets crusted over, I know God’s love is stronger, holding me ‘till I can get found again. The people who love me help me to see God, especially when I cannot do it on my own.

Once, when I was in a deep depression, a sister in my community threw a lifeline to me. Knowing that I was having a hard time loving myself or feeling love of any kind, she said, “Let us love you until you are able to do it yourself again.” She and my other sisters, my family and my friends loved me back to life. They became the face of God to me.

I think that Allison Janik, a seventh grader, says its best: “If you talk to babies and they don’t talk back, you still know they love you. I think that’s how it is with God.” That’s how it is with God: an endless love-like a river of lava, even when you can’t hear or feel that love. Like the fish in the ocean, God is all around us.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.

The frailty of my faith (or, How losing my daughter in the park gave me a glimpse of my own hypocrisy)

I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …

It’s so cliché, but so damn true.

This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.

My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.

… and she was gone.

 

Image courtesy of www.freeimages.com
Image courtesy of www.freeimages.com

I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.

But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.

I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.

I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.

I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.

I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?

My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.

This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.

And then we found her.

A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.

She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.

I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.

I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.”  The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.

By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.

Except I’m not.

Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.

In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?

The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?

If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?

I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.

But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?

I seriously doubt it.

And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.