Gerald May is the author of a wonderful book titled, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. May seeks to expound for contemporary spiritual seekers the spirituality of the great Christian mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Here is what he says about our “sense” of God:
“I remember having an almost continual sense of God’s presence as a very small child. The feeling receded as I grew older and other things occupied my attention. Later in life, when I embarked on my intentional ‘spiritual journey,’ I realized how much I had missed that feeling of continual companionship. I sought to recover in in prayer and meditation, and prayed for it to return. I experienced the Holy [God, the Divine, the Really Real, the Sacred, the living Christ, use whatever term you prefer] through other people, through nature, in many other mediated ways. [This is how we most often experience God, namely, through some sort of mediation. When we experience God through the story of Jesus, we experience God through a mediator.] But what I longed for was that old nonmediated, immediate sense of direct, palpable relationship. I searched and prayed for it for nearly twenty-five years. Then, when I was very sick as a result of cancer chemotherapy, it came back to me. And since then, that sense of presence has never left me. I can feel it anywhere, anytime. All I have to do is turn my attention toward it. I love it and surely would hate to lose it. It’s the answer to a very long prayer. But I know it is not God. It is only a sense of God. I don’t think I make an idol of it, so I don’t imagine it will need to be taken away. If at some point I do lose it again, I hope I will be given the wisdom to continue to trust God in the absence of any sense of God.”
Do you hear what he is saying? One’s sense of God is not God. These senses, feelings, experiences of God vary with the ebb and flow of life, but God is always Love, God is always present, and we are always in union with God, regardless to what degree we experience or sense this union. This deeper awareness that goes beyond feelings, beyond the sense of God, is faith. It is trust beyond feelings, beyond experience. It is a gift. It cannot be manufactured or magically conjured up. But we can ask for it and be open to it.
May explains why we do not have more experiences of God than we do. It is because God is both too close and too far. The theological words here are immanence and transcendence. On the one hand, we are at one with God. God is too intimate to be an object separate from one’s self. This is why when we are most in touch with our true selves we are in touch with God, because our nature is fused with the Divine. The writer of 2 Peter talks about our being partakers of the divine nature. God is so close, we cannot distinguish God from ourselves. On the other hand, God is beyond our capacity to comprehend and so too ultimate to be an object we can grasp or hold on to.
So, for most of our waking lives we can only really experience the things of God, like beauty, generosity, compassion, gratitude, honesty, vulnerability, humility, integrity, all of which are facets of love.
This is why that when we open ourselves to love, when we love well, we are most open to experiences of God. 1 John 4:7-8 puts it this way: “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”