Some people are fortunate enough to be overtaken by an experience they call God that is so clear and self-authenticating that no amount of argument to the contrary can really undermine that experience. Having once had the felt experience of God, they have both a yardstick and a lodestone for their slow, stumbling realisation that this experience they had once-upon-a-time is the true reality of every moment.
Others struggle to have a sense of God’s presence. I suspect this is particularly true of those brought up in intellectual, teaching- and study-based religious traditions that focus on learning about God but which don’t open the door to a formation in how to be with God. In conversation about God and their own experience, people from these traditions tend to ask the question, “Is it sound?” or “Does this fit with what I have been told scripture teaches?”
In truth, when seeking a direct experience of God, the important questions are more along the lines of, “Does this pique my interest or intrigue?” or “Does this lift my spirits and make my heart sing?”
People who write deeply about these things from the apophatic position, from John of the Cross to Denys Turner, will assert that we don’t have a direct experience of God.
God remains to be named when we have named all that can be named. ‘Of God himself’, John [of the Cross] told us, ‘nothing could be said that would be like him.’
Iain Matthew: The Impact of God, 96
Ignatius of Loyola doesn’t ask us if we feel close to or distant from God. He never asks, “Where is God in all this?”—that ungainly question much beloved of spiritual directors—for he asserts that we can find “God in all things”. Rather, he invites us into prayer, into relationship, and then asks us to reflect on experiences he calls ‘spiritual consolation’ and ‘desolation’. That is to say, he asks us to reflect upon when we feel ourselves more trusting of God, more loving towards God, and when that love and trust is diminished and undermined.
We do not experience God. We experience our response to God.
Where God is a God who reveals and gives, to believe and love is to encounter him.
Iain Matthew: The Impact of God, 102
So, here’s an experiment that can lead to the experience of standing in the presence of God. Meister Eckhart is alleged to have said:
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.
- What you are grateful for?
- think of today and think of times in the past
- think of big events, and think of the ordinary day-to-day matters, like being able to walk or breathe or look at the sky
- write a gratitude list
- select one or two and allow the feeling of thankfulness to grow
- [Ignatius calls this remembering and feeling ‘repetition’]
- What is this feeling of gratitude like?
- where do you feel it in your body?
- what is the physical sensation of gratitude?
- allow this feeling to settle and inhabit you
- [Ignatius calls this the ‘prayer (or application) of the senses’]
- Communicate this thanks to God in some way that makes sense to you.
- [Ignatius calls this communication ’colloquy’]
If you want one exercise of prayer, there is none better than that of taking a few minutes each and every day to make a list of what you are grateful for and then to extend and express that gratitude to God. Do not expect to ‘hear anything back’. The experience of the blossoming of your heart in thanks for your little life is the return message.
Gratitude is the experience of God.
3 thoughts on “How to experience God”
Hi Julian I’m a friend of Annette’s from a long time ago. I found this article really thoughtful and I reflected on a ex flatmate who was so distressed because she had not experienced the “Holy Spirit” in the way I and others had…she came from a Brethren background and was really struggling. As a younger Christian I struggled as to how to help her. I liked the exercise you described and I found it presented a helpful way to experience God however I struggle with the one way side of it. I think grattitude as described as helpful…but my God is real in the everyday and touches is where we are at. He would respond. Does your God?
Thanks for your comments, Marianne.
My first thought is that there is no ‘my God’ and ‘your God’. There is only God. I am sure you didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.
My second thought is that God may respond to me in one way and to you in another. So your experience of the reality of God in the everyday may be different from the experience of others.
When I say, “do not expect to ‘hear anything back’,” the emphasis is on the word ‘expect’. Of course God responds to us. Indeed, you are one of God’s responses. My point is that the feeling of gratitude is a response from God and, as Meister Eckhart says, that is enough.