Everyone searches. Not everyone knows why; not everyone understands what to look for; not everyone recognizes who they seek. Some are on a spiritual quest for the divine and they know it; others do not.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
7 January 2016
Everyone searches. Not everyone knows why; not everyone understands what to look for; not everyone recognizes who they seek. Some are on a spiritual quest for the divine and they know it; others do not. Some fail to discern who alone is capable of satiating their thirst and thus wrongly seek to quench it with creatures, poisons and pain. Still others are indifferent to the search itself; so long as they feel satisfied along the way, they remain blindly convinced of progress. Nevertheless, everyone searches.
“For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being” (Is 66:2).
Obvious to some while hidden to others, the human person is a God seeker. The desire for the divine Other is indelibly written on the human heart, a mark inscribed in the depths of our being by the God of love, in order that we may ever thirst to be united with him and thus one day share in his own blessed life. Your urge is for your Creator whose desire is to grant you the fullness of life, and whose wish is that you not forget such a wondrous destiny and turn away from it.
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, excerpt from No. 1)
Each person is unique, which means people seek God in a multitude of ways. Sometimes, as mentioned above, without even knowing it. Additionally, because God unceasingly draws us toward himself, it is possible to encounter him in varied ways and places: through people, families and children, through suffering, tragedy, nature, music and science and philosophy and so forth. We may find him in the sunrise, the depths of night or the dead of winter. Any way we encounter God is profitable so long as it results in an openness to him rather than rejection. With the right perspective, we see that all created things point to God because his hand is responsible for their existence. The spiritual person sees a reflection of God in all creation, discerns him as the primary cause of every good thing, and senses his presence everywhere.
You and I were made for God. It is impossible to be fulfilled without him. If it is true that God alone is the answer to curing my thirst and he alone is capable of fully completing, filling and satisfying my restless heart, is it not also true that my search for God should be of primary importance? Does it not become crucial? A matter of life and death? If the fullness of life and happiness is dependent upon union with God, then God must become the constant and primary desire of my heart. Therefore it follows that I should energetically, diligently and with ardor engage in the search for God, and I should do so in a reasonable, prudent and logical way.
Which brings this question: are some ways better than others? Is there perhaps one best starting point? Can we find a particular common and most effective path to reaching God? Further, since God is truth, should we not be highly concerned with what is true? To come to know, live by, and embrace what is really true and real? Given that there will always be variances in the search for God, and that he relates to us personally as well as collectively, is it nevertheless possible that there is a particular direction we should sail across the sea of life that will establish us correctly and with some greater measure of security upon the horizon of our eternal destiny?
It is common today to encounter people who take a careless, reckless, even heedless approach to encountering God and in getting to know who he really is. They apparently sail off in whatever direction the prevailing wind pushes them. It is as if only temporal, earthly life is real. Nearly every interest is placed above God. Nearly everything mundane and profane captures the attention. It is as if God is nonexistent. The term that describes this situation is practical atheism. The reasonable and prudent man will quickly recognize this error for what it is, see its danger and futility, and redirect his focus appropriately. Creation itself shouts its Maker’s signature. There is more to reality than is visibly apparent, much more.
There is another error that is on the rise especially among younger Americans and others in the West. Namely, the imposed tension between spirituality and religion, as if the two are incompatible. Many of us are familiar with this phenomenon. Those who adhere to it often refer to themselves as the “spiritual but not religious”; others know them as the “unaffiliated.” The phenomenon is colored by the idea that the truly spiritual person has no need of religion, especially the “organized” flavor, and thus religion is incorrectly viewed as something limiting, an intrusive guest harmful to spirituality. In principle, it leads to behaving as if “I can have God my way” because the subjective viewpoint is elevated above what God has objectively revealed about himself. Rather than believing God in truth, personal ideas are formed about him which are accepted as or assumed to be true. The personal God is plied into a personalized god. This leads to the notion that it is possible for God to be merely what someone thinks he is. It makes God into a human projection, something we perhaps want him to be, something imposed on him from without, but which might have little or nothing to do with who God really is. However, God is not a product of the human mind. Nor is God some bigger version of ourselves. Nor can his essence and divine attributes be shaped into what we would wish them to be.
It is not hard to understand the catalyst behind the growing popularity of the unaffiliated group. Given the spread of relativism, religious indifferentism, the New Age movement, individualism, and the rapid secularization of America, people often view a subjectively based spirituality as the entirely normal thing to do. Among college students, for example, it is common to find a majority who say they believe in God or some “higher power” but who do not think “organized religion” is something worthy of investigation or relevant to their lives. In fact, it is something to be actively shunned. Cultural influence, then, has more than a little to do with how people view spirituality, religion, faith, and their journey toward God.
What is common to all of this, is an overemphasis placed on subjective feelings, intuition and understanding, while historical and objective faith tradition is ignored or perhaps altogether dismissed. For the Christian and Jew alike, that type of method is totally foreign to the biblical worldview, as well as to the faith history of these peoples.
Although it is good that the unaffiliated are seeking God, their method is flawed. The fact is, God has entered into human history. God has reached out to humankind, spoken, acted, not once or even a million times but all throughout the course of human history. This divine intervention originated at the very dawn of time, as is indicated by the book of Genesis in Sacred Scripture, with the creation of the first two human persons as male and female in the Edenic Paradise.
God has revealed himself in history. This means God’s revelation is deeply rooted in human history, which makes the history of God’s people of faith important. We learn who God really is by discovering and meditating on his deeds and words, which run from the dawn of time to the fullness of time when he sent his Son into the world as the God-man: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Incarnation (the Word-made-flesh-event) is the point upon which all of human history hinges and upon which the fullness of divine revelation is received. God has said everything in his Son.
Stated simply, if we want to know who God really is, we ought to listen to what he has said about himself and attempt to understand what meaning his historical deeds have in our lives. If we want to experience God to the fullest, we have to pay attention to his self-disclosure and especially give ourselves over in faith to his Son, Jesus Christ, who gave his life on the cross for our sake.
Let’s take a very brief historical look at what God has said and done. Historically, there are a number of examples of God gathering the people Israel to himself and making a covenant with them. If you are asking why God would choose those particular people, the simple answer is that he had to start somewhere! Another answer is that his Son would assume human flesh and be born a Jew. But let’s look at a piece of history: in the Book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses and reminds him that he appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob and established a covenant with them (Ex 6:3). He instructed Moses to tell the people Israel, long enslaved by the Egyptians, that he would deliver them from their bondage, saying: “I am the Lord . . . and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:6-7). The point is, God gathered the people Israel to himself, established a covenantal bond with them, teaching them and revealing more and more of his divine plan of salvation to them over time, all the while preparing them to receive in the fullness of time his Son, the Messiah, Savior of the world (cf. 1 Jn 4:14 among many others). The entire story of the Old Testament can be summed up as the story of God gathering a people to himself and preparing them for the arrival of his Son.
Which brings us to the heart of the Christian story: that God became man! That Jesus Christ really lived and died and was resurrected. It is a unique story not found in any other religion, and is grounded in history, unlike any other religion. Our family of faith, the body of Christ, witnessed the deeds and words of Christ, the surrounding events, and figures, his life and passion and death as well as the resurrected Jesus. For example, it is a matter of history that Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from AD 26–36. He served under Emperor Tiberius, and is best known for ordering the crucifixion of Jesus. The Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus also wrote of Jesus. The crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are actual historical events. The resurrected Jesus was witnessed by hundreds of people.
I want to return to what I said above: if we want to know God, we need to listen to his words and try to understand the meaning of his deeds in history. Further, if we want to know God as fully as possible, we need to look to his Son, Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of God’s revelation because he is God in the flesh. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).
When Pilate questioned Jesus about his kingship, Jesus answered: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37).
Which brings us to this question: how do you listen to Christ’s voice right now? There can be no other answer but prayer and faith in him and the safe harbor of the Church God himself willed to exist as a city of truth, “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). I am here speaking not of simply any Christian community. I am speaking of the Catholic (universal) Church dating back to the apostles and to Christ himself. It is the divinely founded and Spirit-guided Church who speaks with Christ’s voice.
Consider God’s love and that he is Truth Itself. Does it seem plausible that the Son of God would become man, enter into public ministry, one of teaching and demonstration, poverty, and service, love and forgiveness, and then die a horribly violent death on a cross, be resurrected and ascend into the heavenly realm and leave humankind with nothing but uncertainty? The apostles perplexed and looking at the sky as he vanished from their sight? And that is it? Remember, there was no New Testament at that time. It had not yet been written. Not a single word. What would happen to the teaching of Jesus, given man’s propensity to muddle things, his darkness of intellect and weakened will? It would be lost. And with it the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus and even precisely who Jesus is.
It stands to reason that since God is love and truth he would communicate his love and truth to his children—not obscurely as something hidden away and undiscoverable but openly as something readily accessible and understandable. Is not that one aspect of love, a sharing in what is real and true? And would God not want us to know what is really true and what is really real about him? Also, not only about him, but about otherworldly realities such as heaven, purgatory and hell? In order to transmit this truth with certainty and free of error, God would establish an infallible (infallible: the ability to teach without error) institution to do so. In absence of such a city of truth, God’s divine revelation would become subject to human whim, misunderstanding, manipulation, and corruption.
Jesus established this infallible Church, his one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church on St. Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).
That anyone should want to know God while yet ignoring the Spirit-guided Church instituted by Christ is no different than a man who insists he is a neurosurgeon while yet ignoring the entire history of medicine. That type of man, one who shouts, “I am a surgeon!” without the background and education providing the proper credentials which are necessary to operate in the field, would be declared not merely unstable but deemed insane.
Of course, the virtue of faith is necessary in order to turn toward God and listen and accept and believe and follow. Faith points our internal compass of life and belief toward God and his word. The beauty of God is that he freely bestows the virtue of faith on those who ask it of him in prayer. Yet faith does not supply every answer. We must freely accept the gift of faith and then respond to it and act upon it. The virtue of faith moves us to thirst for what is true, do the work necessary to access and lay hold of what is true, and then live by that same truth. We must do our part, prudently exercise right reason, and enter into God’s plan in accordance with what he has revealed in history. This plan is the Church, a convocation of men and women in Christ Jesus as one body.
Christians of the first centuries said, “The world was created for the sake of the Church.” God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the “convocation” of men in Christ, and this “convocation” is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things, and God permitted such painful upheavals as the angels’ fall and man’s sin only as occasions and means for displaying all the power of his arm and the whole measure of the love he wanted to give the world: Just as God’s will is creation and is called “the world,” so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called “the Church.” (CCC 760)
Pray to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the gift of faith. Then act on that faith. Enter into history. Seek God and truth. Become a member of Christ’s body, the Church, and embrace God’s plan of salvation: eternal communion and the fullness of life with him:
He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC excerpt No. 1)
History; the Son of God; the Church; truth; union with God. The direction in which you should set sail toward the horizon of an authentically spiritual life is Christ and your secure ship is his Church. In this way, you sail into an authentic spirituality as you worship God in spirit and truth, immersed in the heart of the Church and the true Christian religion. It’s about more, not less. It’s about not a human endeavor but the divine plan for humanity. It’s about your happiness and the fullness of life. It’s about experiencing God!
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.