Culture at the Crossroads
God the ever-greater one: Stop wrestling
They do this by offering an invitation to see the world in a new way: by dislocating ourselves from the center of it.
Mary Karr describes her process of coming to understand this dislocation in her poignant memoir Lit. She had no belief in God and led a self-destructive lifestyle until a mentor held her accountable for recovery. She demanded that Mary begin to pray, regardless of what she thought she was doing. Get on your knees, she told her. And in spite of herself, Mary did. As the practice started to become habitual, internalizing the prayer Lord make me an instrument of your peace, she begins to observe something.
As I slow down inside, the world's metronome seems to speed up, for without keen, self-centered focus on your own inward suffering, clock hands spin. Days get windstormed off the calendar. Rather than thinking about spiritual practices, arguing them out in my head, I almost automatically try them. That, I suppose, is surrender.
It is no surprise that the 12-step phenomenon borrows this most fundamental insight from the spiritual tradition of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: that prayer is not fundamentally about the way you think, but about the desires that lead you to act. And you transform your desires not by thinking about them, but rather by identifying the good and acting toward it, even against your current feelings and judgments. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, had a Jesuit spiritual director named Fr. Ed Dowling, whose guidance was rooted in the Ignatian tradition of finding God in all things and finding the roots of our deepest desires in the love of God. Ignatius was the author of The Spiritual Exercises, probably the most widely-used guide for retreats around the world. And what is central to the Exercises is that they are about transforming desire not by sheer will power or clever thinking, but rather by the use of imagination and action.
So if you wrestle with the idea of God, stop wrestling. Instead, go love someone. Drop your cynicism; fast from snark; hold a child's hand; embrace your grandmother tenderly; tell someone what he or she means to you; compliment your father. Choose one action a day that dislocates you from the center of your universe. Perhaps you might even try a starter prayer: "I don't believe in you, but I'm willing to be wrong."
The fruit of Mary Karr's wrestling was enough humility to begin to distrust her past judgments about God, such that she began to be surprised by God. And these surprises lead to what is, in the end, the most fundamental form of what Christians call "revelation." Recounting her reading passages from a Bible her grandmother had given her mother in the 1920's, Karr describes seeing that her mother had underlined the two passages that Karr's own spiritual director had suggested she use in prayer that very week.
As miracles go, it may not even seem like one. But it feels as if God once guided my mother's small hand, circa 1920-something, to make to notes I'd very much need to find seventy years later-a message that I could be made new, that I am-have always been-loved.
Her insight, her revelation, is that she is loved, that her life is pregnant with meaning because she has been created for something.
How small that is, with which we wrestle, what wrestles with us, how immense.
Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.