By Kathy Berken
Many people I have worked with over the years in spiritual direction share with me their struggle in experiencing God. “I want to be able to feel God’s presence.” Or, “I just don’t know if God is really here.”
This frustration is not just for the average Catholic in the pew. Sometimes, the people you might think have this God thing all figured out, don’t. Despite this lack, I think many continue in their ministerial work because they like the people and they feel it is their vocation.
It is common for people who have few if any God experiences to assume that they are in the minority and lack the right tools or don’t have the gifts to get there. They believe they aren’t praying correctly or often enough and they begin to doubt God’s very existence.
Is there anything we can do to have authentic experiences of God, to feel as if we are in God’s presence, to know that God is truly with us and is very real? Yes, there is, so start by describing your personal image or idea about God. Not what you think God should be, but who/what you think God is. Your notion of God may be very different from what you once learned or what you think others believe. Your image of God might be Jesus, the Son of God who walked the earth over 2,000 years ago. Your image may be about God as Creator, a force in the universe that makes everything and keeps things going, sort of the “Star Wars” notion of The Force. Maybe you believe that God as the Holy Spirit exists everywhere as a knowing, conscious being that infuses all of creation with love. Or, perhaps God, to you, is completely different from any of these.
Now ask yourself, “What is my ultimate objective and desire for a God experience? Specifically, what do I want to feel, know or sense?” Many people want a deep, human experience of God. If this is you, we’ll use your five senses to achieve your intention. Start with your eyes. Pay close attention to all of the things you see that give you a feeling of peacefulness, joy, happiness, love or whatever emotion you have associated with the God experience you desire.
For example, if you see someone do a random act of kindness that gives you a happy feeling or you see a magnificent sunset, then try this exercise. Mentally record what you just saw, describe the emotion you felt in words, note specifically where in your body you felt it, and finally say, “I am in the presence of God.” Repeat this as often as possible every day.
What you are training yourself to do is connect common events with an emotion and the belief that this is truly God alive in the world. Your brain takes in the experience and you consciously connect that mental exercise to an emotion and you link that to the presence of God.
Next, move to your sense of hearing. Whenever you hear a beautiful piece of music, a stirring poetic reading, waves crashing on the shore, a profound homily or a child laughing, take note of it. Do the same four steps as before. Again, repeat this as often as possible.
Then, move to your other three senses: touch, smell and taste. Each time you touch, smell or taste something that gives you a positive feeling, repeat the same exercise. Mentally record it, describe the feeling in words, note where you felt it, and say, “I am in the presence of God.” Keep a journal, if that helps.
Last of all, don’t give up! It takes conscious effort and time to achieve your goal, but at some point you will simply experience something and know without question that you are in the presence of God.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)