Growing up, I wasn’t very religious.
Sure, I was baptized (as a Catholic), received my First Holy Communion, was confirmed, and even spent a few years going to Sunday School learning about the Catholic faith.
But, frankly, that was about it as far as my religious education went. I didn’t go to a Catholic elementary school, high school or college. So my religious understanding was, for many years, frozen at what I knew at age 10 or 11.
My parents were good people, but, like many Americans, they weren’t given to the intense Catholicism that I’ve since come into contact with among friends and their families. So, for example, while my family went to Mass on (most) Sundays, we rarely talked about God, never prayed together, never attended daily Mass, and said grace only on big occasions like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
My own relationship to God was like a relationship to a Cosmic Gumball Machine. I would put in as many prayers as I could, turn the knob and wait for something good to come out. Like most people, my prayer was mainly about asking for things: Let me get an A on this test. Let me get a home run in Little League. Let me get into this college or that college.
There’s nothing wrong with asking God for help. That’s natural. But if you compare it to any other relationship, it’s rather one-sided. Imagine having a friend, and all you did was ask for something from him or her. Imagine if that was all your friendship was about: asking for things. That’s somewhat lopsided.
That kind of relationship lasted throughout my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.
Without knowing what I really wanted to do, I decided to study business in college. So I ended up getting accepted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, which delighted me, mainly because of Wharton’s reputation.
But no one ever asked me the question everyone needs to be asked at a young age:
I enjoyed college, worked hard, and played hard too. After graduation I took a job with General Electric in New York City. It was the early 80s, the time of the “yuppie,” and I was having lots of fun. Big bank accounts, nice suits, lots of clubs. In a few years I took a job with GE’s financial services unit in Connecticut.
Gradually, though, I started to feel like I was in the wrong place. Business was a real vocation for most of my friends, but not for me.
But I was trapped: what else was I supposed to do? What else could I do?
One night, after a miserable day at work, I turned on the television and saw a documentary about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I knew nothing about Thomas Merton, the Trappists, or religious orders for that matter. How could I?
The documentary captivated me. It was about Merton’s leaving “the world” and joining a Trappist monastery in the hills of Kentucky. There was something about the look on Merton’s face, the black-and-white photos of the old monastery, and simply the overriding sense of peace in his life, that called out to me. Powerfully. It was almost like a romantic pull. It seemed so beautiful. So much so that I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
So I tracked down, bought and read his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. And that got me started on the path to the Jesuit order.
But that story is not as important as something else I want to tell you. Which is this: On my first retreat, I was asked about my relationship with God, and I hadn’t a clue what my retreat director meant.
I didn’t understand what it meant to be in a “relationship with God.” It seemed ridiculous. I mean, I asked for things in prayer and I either got them or didn’t.
My retreat director, patient and understanding like the good ones are, and ready to meet me where I was, like God always is, asked me a simple question: “Who is God for you?”
That day I stretched out on the lawn in front of the retreat house, and thought about that question. At our next meeting the following day I presented my list of theological answers. Like it was a quiz. God is: 1) The creator. 2) All powerful. 3) All loving.
I went back outside and at some point over the next day, I had the strangest thought: Jesus is a friend. I didn’t know where that came from. And it seemed a bit odd.
I was worried about thinking of him as a friend because I’d never heard anything like that before. But it felt good to think about it. I settled back on the grass and started to think about how nice it would be to have Jesus as a friend. What it would be like to be with him. To talk with him. For him to talk to me. It filled me with a sense of joy.
The next day I sheepishly confessed to my retreat director what I’d thought about. He said, “I think you’re beginning to pray.”
Over the next few days, and then over the next two years, I learned God wants to be in a relationship with us. And the kind of insight that I had that day on the retreat house lawn was one kind of way that God has of breaking through to us.
God’s communication with us happens in all sorts of ways: desires, emotions, feelings, memories, insights, and all the things that happen in prayer and quiet moments. But also through the events and people in our daily lives: through relationships, work, nature, music and on and on. How else would God communicate with us if not through our minds and hearts and through the world? Interiorly and exteriorly?
And in those moments God calls to us. What does that mean?
You know that desire you have to be a better person? The desire to be more loving, more free, more compassionate, more whatever? I’m sure most of us feel it.
That’s God calling you to be a better person. Likewise, the desire you have for a particular vocation in life, career, job, a way of life, is also God’s way of calling you. How else would God call you? Being called is not about seeing visions or hearing voices. It’s simply paying attention to your deepest desires.
Second, the desire to find God comes from God. That’s how God draws us closer to God. The one you seek is seeking you. And your desire for God is God’s call.
That’s a lot to take in. But, trust me, it’s true. Where do you think the restlessness, the dissatisfaction, the desire for more, comes from? It’s from God. Calling out to you.
When I was thinking about entering the Jesuits, a line from Saint Augustine leapt out at me: “Our hearts are restless, God, until they rest in you.”
Don’t you agree?
James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, editor at large at America magazine, and author of many books including a new novel The Abbey. His other books include Jesus: A Pilgrimage and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.