Two weekends ago, the vestry had a one-night retreat. To prepare for the retreat, we were given a timeline onto which we were to draw two separate lines illustrating our life's journey thus far. One line was for specific events and relationships, indicating times when things were going well and not so well. The other line was for our relationship with God; the line was supposed to go up when we felt close to God, down when we felt alienated from God. By drawing both lines on one timeline, we could examine how our relationship with God changed as life circumstances changed. I learned three important things about my faith journey by doing this simple exercise.
1. Mine is not an emotional faith.
At first, I was stymied by drawing the second (relationship with God) line. When have I felt close to God? Well, never. I read the question as being about my emotions, as asking me to note times when I felt a palpable sense of joy and intimacy because of my relationship with God. And I couldn't think of any such times. I just don't experience my faith as an emotional thing, in terms of how I feel about God. I sometimes feel joy, gratitude, or sadness when I'm singing a hymn or reading a scripture. But while I am emotionally engaged with certain means of living out my faith—with worship, reading, or praying with others—I've never had the experience of feeling close to God. So how was I supposed to figure out when in my life I have felt particularly close to God, if I've never felt particularly close to God?
2. I am close to God when I am responding to God's call.
I realized that, even if I can't pinpoint times when I was overwhelmed with love for God or joy in God's presence, I could remember times when I felt engaged with and by God, when I felt that my life was in harmony with God in some way. These times have come, by and large, when I've been doing something in response to a call from God. When I had each of my three babies, for example, and when I was writing my book, and any time that I get into a good writing "groove"—at those times, I have felt confident that 1) God called me to motherhood and to writing, and 2) I'm doing the best I can to respond to that call. While I haven't necessarily felt flooded with joy or gratitude or peace in those moments (particularly when, say, my epidural didn't work completely during my third child's c-section birth, or when finding the right words to say what I want to say feels impossible—excruciating experiences, both, though in different ways), I have felt confident that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. So even if I'm not feeling "close to God" in an emotional sense, I am feeling "close to God" in the sense of being "in cooperation with" God.
3. Struggles bring me closer to God.
The other interesting pattern I noticed on my timeline was that, during my hardest struggles in my adult life, I have not felt distant from God. Instead, just as with those moments when I've been sure that I'm responding to God's call, I have felt especially engaged with God during times of struggle. This sense of deeper engagement during crisis does not come because I am comforted by God's care for me. Rather, a sense of deeper engagement comes because my prayers in those times are desperate things, even angry things. I think of the moments just after I learned that Leah (six weeks old at the time) inherited my bone disorder. I clutched her fiercely, giving God an ultimatum—"You had damn well better take care of her." I think of the summer that she was sidelined by multiple fractures after a scooter accident, when I was too sad and exhausted to pray anything more than, "Hold us up, God. Get us through." Back in December, as I rode in an ambulance with a few broken ribs and partially collapsed lung, I had the Jesus prayer (Jesus Christ son of God, have mercy on me a sinner...) running through my head.
Sometimes I have wondered if my faith is good enough, because I don't feel the sense of well-being and joy that some people claim to feel in their relationship with God. But reflecting on these three things I've learned, I seem some precedents in scripture. What did Jesus say when he called the first disciples? He didn't say, "Love me," or "Take comfort in me," or "Be joyful when you are with me." Jesus said, "Follow me." I feel closest to God when I am most sure that I am following God's lead, responding to God's call. And the psalms are not prettied-up prayers but heartfelt, in-the-moment expressions of the psalmist's reactions to what is happening, good and bad, in his life. Praise and joy inhabit many psalms, but so do rage and desperation. My angry, clutching prayers in the face of my daughter's pain would be right at home with the psalms.
I know Christians who experience God in an intimate, emotional way. I don't, but I can still look back at my life and name moments that I felt particularly close to God—close because my intentions reflected God's intentions for me (as far as I can tell), or close because I was stripped bare of pretension by life's pain and therefore capable of absolute honesty with God.
For the rest of the time—most of the time—when I'm not propelled by a sure sense of vocation or stirred up by pain, I am grateful for liturgy and sacrament and ancient prayers, such as the psalms and the Book of Common Prayer. These fundamental tools equip me with words and actions to engage with God when I don't know how to engage—or even if I want to.
When in your life have you felt close to God, and in what ways? What do those times reveal about your relationship with God?
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.