THERE IS knowing about God (intellectual) and then there is knowing God (experiential). This blog will be mostly about the latter, and particularly about knowing God through prayer. I had intended to call the blog “Knowing God,” but that seemed rather presumptuous. None of us, this side of the grave, will be able to do more than to keep getting to know God a little better all the time; in Eternity, we shall truly know Him just as we are known by Him now, for then “we shall see Him as He is.” Until then, we just keep learning. So, I’m calling this undertaking “Learning God.”
To get started, I’d like to mention a few things about myself and the way I first became acquainted with God. One of the things I want to talk about on this blog is the way we recognize God operating in our lives, a story we need to be able to read with understanding. (On my other blog, The Compleat Catholic Reader, I discuss the way we can find God in other kinds of stories.) I also want to talk about some of the great works of spiritual literature, particularly those that have been a part of my personal story.
Let me say up front that I do not claim to be a credentialed expert in prayer — I have no certifications or formal training to teach about the life of prayer or to give spiritual direction. However, I have spent most of my life (the better part of the past fifty years, anyway) getting to know God through prayer and action, as well as learning from others more expert than myself. I guess you could say I have spent (and will continue to spend) my earthly life learning God, one way or another.
My Introduction to God
FOR ME, learning anything about God was not easy at first. I grew up in what my mother preferred to describe as an “agnostic” household, meaning that we weren’t atheists, but we didn’t go to church. I think “heathen” might have been a more accurate term, at least for us kids, because we knew virtually nothing about God, to believe or disbelieve. This created a fair amount of social discomfort for us, since I grew up in the South at a time when it was rare (in fact, downright shameful) to be un-churched.
My father never had the slightest interest in religion, and was happy to let my mother handle such matters. When I asked her why we never went to church the way other people did, she just said, “We don’t do that.” End of story. I found out later that, when I was very small, she had attended a revival at a local Baptist church because she had been told the preacher was really worth hearing. It turns out that he was the “fire and brimstone” sort, who clashed badly with her own belief that God is non-judgmental. After that, experience she did not darken the door of a church again for many years after that, although we kids were occasionally allowed to attend church when invited by neighbors. Once or twice, but not often enough to “be indoctrinated.”
Despite the fact that my family did not attend church or talk about God, we did have a Bible. It was a keepsake from my mother’s childhood. Her family did not attend church, but when she was thirteen she started singing in the choir at her best friend Barb’s Lutheran church and, I believe, also attended confirmation classes with her, too. No one suspected that my mother had not even been baptized and had no intention of being confirmed, so she was given a Bible along with all the other children in the class. It was a red-letter King James edition, white, with a soft leatherette cover that had a zipper around the edge, and it sat on the lower shelf of an end table in our living room, zipped shut. Sometimes, when my mother asked me to dust the living room, I would unzip the Bible, finger the soft, gilt-edged pages and look at the luridly-colored pictures of people in strange robes. When I was a bit older and knew how to read, I would sometimes try to read a bit of it, but the odd names and the old-fashioned English confounded my efforts.
When I was about six years old, some Baptist neighbors invited me and my brothers to attend Vacation Bible school with their boys. With a fourth baby at home, my mother welcomed this opportunity to get a week’s free child care, so off we went. What I remember about that experience, aside from the excellent snacks (Nehi sodas in any flavor we wanted!) were the songs we learned: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” No fire or brimstone necessary to induce little children to follow Christ, apparently. But an indelible lesson was imparted: Jesus loves me. He sounded like someone I would like to get to know.
I got a chance to learn a little more about this Jesus person a few months later. After school had started (first grade for me), we got to know some other neighbors, a Catholic family who lived across the street. The eldest girl, Donna, was my age and had also just started school. She was burbling over with things to tell me — about her teachers (nuns) and about what the nuns taught her. I remember the two of us sitting under her house (pier and beam construction was common in those days — sitting in the dirt underneath the house was a frequent pastime of my childhood) as she told me about sin (black marks on your soul) and forgiveness (erasing the black marks).
But what I remember most vividly was the tour Donna gave me of their house: the big family Bible sitting open on the coffee table in their living room, the picture in the hallway of Jesus praying at night in a garden, a beautiful string of beads that belonged to her mother (“rosary,” although I couldn’t see what it had to do with roses), and a crucifix that hung in her parents’ bedroom — also Jesus, but nailed to a cross. I seem to remember Donna telling me that Jesus was a man, but also God. I wasn’t sure exactly how that worked, but so many facts of life were a mystery to me at that age, so I believed her. However, when I returned home and told my mother that Donna’s family had a picture of God, she said that I must be mistaken — God is invisible and no one knows what He looks like.
Sin, redemption. Jesus, God, and love. They were all connected somehow, but it would be years before I would figure out how, because my family remained allergic to religion, and my continuing brushes with the Protestant faith (Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian) did little to enlighten me. So, for what seems like a long time, I had to be content with knowing this about God: Jesus is God and He loves me. Little did I realize that this is the essence of the Christian faith.