What’s your first memory of God? When did you first experience his presence?
Mine goes back to when I was a little kid. I looked for God everywhere like looking for Waldo in one of those Where’s Waldo books. But it wasn’t Waldo I was trying to find—it was God. It was fun as a kid looking for the Creator, an adventure.
I looked for him in the trees, in the birds, in the sunshine. And I talked to him like he was my best friend. I’d pretend Jesus was a superhero sitting on my shoulder. He and I would run outdoors, play, and explore the world together climbing maple trees and building forts. I loved hanging out with my best friend God, along with my other buddies.
At the end of the day after kneeling to say my prayers, I’d take a quick peek underneath the bed, thinking maybe God was right there just beyond the brown comforter that skirted the floor, hoping he was saying his prayers with me. I sometimes imagined he winked back at me from the dust-covered floor beneath my bed. And then I’d scoop him into my arms, pull back my sheets and comforter, and tuck him in with me right next to Curious George and Raggedy Andy. I think God liked hanging out with me. I know I felt safe there in my bed as I fell asleep on his shoulder.
Sometimes I’d get into trouble talking to my best friend God, and his son Jesus. Like the time I was in church when I was five. I was playing with my mom’s rosary during Mass and thought Jesus looked sad hanging there on the cross at the end of the rosary beads. So I decided to cheer him up by giving him a spin in the air.
Hang on Jesus we’re going for a ride! I shouted out loud in the middle of the priest’s homily as I twirled the blue metal rosary round and round about six inches above my head. The spanking I got when we arrived at home after Mass stung a bit, but I figured it was worth it, making Jesus happy and all.
As I grew older, however, and began learning intellectually about God, it seemed like eventually I lost him somewhere. I don’t know when and where exactly, but he started living outside of me instead of living on my shoulder like my best friend.
The older I became, the more I got stuck trying to intellectualize my way to God instead of experiencing him. All the dogma and doctrine I learned about God through catechism class and the other stuff I picked up as I matured seemed to get stuck in my head.
I know we need to learn that intellectual stuff about God so we can better understand ourselves and him, but my adult brain gets confused sometimes with all that theory and I just want to experience God again like when I was a kid—directly, trusting him and myself again. I want to touch and feel God’s hands, know that he’s real. I want to feel he’s connected to my story and I’m connected to his. I want to feel sure that Jesus and I are hanging out; that we’re on this ride of life together.
Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing, writes that our western cultural has tried to reason its way to God. And by doing so, we’ve reduced him to a series of theological theories. We try and stuff him into a couple of concepts or memorized bible verses so we can put him into our box.
But God, she says, is much larger than our intellect. God is a relationship of love between the Creator, each other, and us. According to Bourgeault, God has given us three receptors connected through our heart with which we are invited to experience God: the mind, our body, and our emotions. When we use all three of our sensors operating together, we connect with the Divine in a real and experiential way. Bourgeault writes:
Our souls have been gifted with a three-centered knowing—intellectual center, emotional center, and movement center—all active, working, and cooperating together to connect us with God.
This kind of “experiential knowing” allows our mind, emotions, and body to work together so we can fully experience life. For example, when we watch the sunrise our emotions flood with wonder and awe as we stare at its beauty. Our skin feels the warmth of the sun’s rays nurturing our body with vitamin D. And our mind recognizes the gift this amazing light gives to us each day.
I got to thinking as I read about this three-hearted way of knowing that maybe it describes in adult terms the childlike simplicity I experienced in my youth. Maybe when I was climbing trees, twirling rosaries, and tucking Jesus into bed with me, I was living the three-hearted way.
My emotions were filled with joy and laughter as I climbed through the trees with God. I felt comfort and security as I lay my head on the pillow next to him each night.
My body sensed his physical presence as the energy of his love resonated through my limbs as we laughed and played together. As I swung Jesus around on the rosary I felt his touch on my heart like a gentle breeze smiling at me gracefully within my chest.
And I allowed my mind with its youthful imaginings to give life to the awe and mystery of God’s presence. I was free from the adult trap of over-thinking, so my mind was open to imagination and enjoying God’s real presence in my life.
Perhaps that’s what’s been missing in my experience of God as an adult. I’ve forgotten how to feel God’s presence through my emotions and body. I stopped using my imagination to connect with him. I forgot the language of God is experiential not intellectual.
So more and more, I’ve been trying to take a few moments each day to sit in the silence and get in touch with my emotions by feeling them, naming them, and then talking with God about them. As I do, a calming presence cascades over my body. The inner tension wanes. My jaw relaxes. I listen to my breathing. Then, my mind imagines and affirms that this experience is in fact the presence of God. As a result, my heart opens. I feel a sense of flow, a sense of being connected with the Divine.
I’ve tried to continue this daily practice of sitting in the Quiet over the last few years, simply observing, feeling my mind, body, and emotions. Slowly, I’m beginning to understand that this three-hearted way of knowing God is a key to deepening my relationship with him and with myself. I’m finding a deeper sense of knowing him without having to fully understand. It feels like God and I are on this ride of life again. Together.
And when I finish my Quiet time, get ready for the day, and jump in the car on my way to work, there’s sometimes a familiar voice silently singing in my heart, “Hang on Jesus we’re going for a ride!”
brian j plachta
I never got that kiss with Teresa. But as I reflect on that long-ago night, I realize Sister Carmella shared two pieces of wisdom I’ll never forget: to leave room for Jesus and the healing power of a smile.