When someone asks me about my personal relationship to God, my first spontaneous reply is a question: What do you mean by God? For decades, I have been speaking about religion with people all over the world, and I have learned one thing from this experience: the word God ought to be used with utmost caution if we want to avoid misunderstandings.
On the other hand, I find far-reaching agreement among human beings, once we reach that mystical core from which all religious traditions spring. Even those who cannot identify themselves with any organized religion are often deeply rooted in mystical experiences.
This is where I find my own reference point for the meaning of the term God. It needs to be anchored in that mystical awareness upon which all humans agree before they start talking about it.
In my best, my most alive moments—in my mystical moments, if you want—I have a profound sense of belonging. At those moments, I am aware of being truly at home in this universe. I know that I am not an orphan here. There is no longer any doubt in my mind that I belong to this Earth household, in which each member belongs to all others—bugs to beavers, black-eyed Susans to black holes, quarks to quails, lightning to fireflies, humans to hyenas and humus.
To say “yes” to this limitless mutual belonging is love. When I speak of God, I mean this kind of love, this great “yes” to belonging. I experience this love at one and the same time as God’s “yes” to all that exists (and to me personally) and as my own little “yes” to it all. In saying this “yes” I realize God’s very life and love within myself.
But there is more to this “yes” of love than a sense of belonging. There is always also a deep longing. Who has not experienced in love both the longing and the belonging? Paradoxically, these two heighten each other’s intensity. The more intimately we belong, the more we long to belong ever more fully. Longing adds a dynamic aspect to our “yes” of love. The fervor of our longing becomes the expression and the very measure of our belonging. Nothing is static here. Everything is in motion with a dynamism that is, moreover, deeply personal.
Where love is genuine, belonging is always mutual. The beloved belongs to the lover, as the lover belongs to the beloved. I belong to this universe and to the divine “Yes” that is its source, and this belonging is also mutual. This is why I can say “my God”—not in a possessive sense, but in the sense of a loving relatedness.
Now, if my deepest belonging is mutual, could my most fervent longing be mutual, too? It must be so.
Staggering though it is, what I experience as my longing for God is God’s longing for me. One cannot have a personal relationship with an impersonal force. True, I must not project on God the limitations of a person; yet, the Divine Source must have all the perfections of personhood. Where else would I have gotten them?
It makes sense, then, to speak of a personal relationship with God. We are aware of this—dimly at least—in moments in which we are most wakeful, most alive, most truly human. And we can cultivate this relationship by cultivating wakefulness, by living our human life to the full.
The Bible expresses these insights in the words, “God speaks.” Having been brought up in the biblical tradition, I am comfortable with its language, though I would be reluctant to impose it on anyone else. What matters is that we come to a shared understanding of what this, or any other, language wants to express. “God speaks” is one way of pointing toward my personal relationship with the Divine Source. This relationship can be understood as a dialogue. God speaks, and I am able to answer.
Wake Up Our Senses
But how does God speak? Through everything there is. Everything, every person, every situation, is ultimately Word. It tells me something and challenges me to respond. Each moment with all that it contains spells out the great “yes” in a new and unique way. By making my response, moment by moment, word by word, I myself am becoming the Word that God speaks in me and to me and through me.
This is why wakefulness is so preeminent a task. How can I give a full response to this present moment unless I am alert to its message? And how can I be alert unless all my senses are wide awake? God’s inexhaustible poetry comes to me in five languages: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. All the rest is interpretation—literary criticism, as it were, not the poetry itself. Poetry resists translation.
It can be fully experienced only in its original language. This is all the more true of the divine poetry of sensuousness. How then could I make sense of life if not through my senses?
When and to what do your senses respond most readily? If I ask myself this question, I think immediately of working in the garden. The hermitage where I am privileged to live for the better part of each year has a small garden. For fragrance, I grow jasmine, pineapple mint, sage, thyme, and eight different kinds of lavender. What abundance of delightful smells on so small a patch of ground! And what variety of sounds: spring rain, autumn wind, all year round the birds—mourning dove, blue jay, and wren; the hawk’s sharp cry at noon and the owl’s hooting at nightfall—the sound the yard-broom makes on gravel, wind chimes, and the creaking garden gate.
Who could translate the taste of strawberry or fig into words? What an infinite array of things to touch, from the wet grass under my bare feet in the morning, to the sun-warmed boulders against which I lean when the evening turns cool. My eyes go back and forth between the near and the far: the golden metallic beetle lost among rose petals; the immense expanse of the Pacific, rising from below the cliff on which this hermitage is perched to the far-off horizon where sea and sky meet in mist.
Yes, I admit it. To have a place of solitude like this is an inestimable gift. It makes it easy to let the heart expand, to let the senses wake up, one by one, to come alive with fresh vitality. Yet, whatever our circumstances, we need to somehow set aside a time and a place for this kind of experience. It is a necessity in everyone’s life, not a luxury. What comes alive in those moments is more than eyes or ears; our heart listens and rises to respond. Until I attune my senses, my heart remains dull, sleepy, half dead. In the measure to which my heart wakes up, I hear the challenge to rise to my responsibility.
We tend to overlook the close connection between responsiveness and responsibility, between sensuousness and social challenge. Outside and inside are of one piece. As we learn to really look with our eyes, we begin to look with our heart also. We begin to face what we might prefer to overlook, begin to see what is going on in this world of ours. As we learn to listen with our ears, our heart begins to hear the cry of the oppressed.
We might begin to smell that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” We might sit down at table and taste the sweet and salty tears of the exploited which we import together with coffee and bananas. To be in touch with one’s body is to be in touch with the world—that includes the Two-Thirds World and all other areas with which our dull hearts are conveniently out of touch. No wonder that those in power, those interested in maintaining the status quo, look askance at anything that helps people come to their senses.
In my travels I notice how easy it is to lose attentiveness. Oversaturation of our senses tends to dim our alertness. A deluge of sense impressions tends to distract the heart from single-minded attention. This gives me a new appreciation for the hermitage, a fresh understanding of what solitude is all about. The hermit—the hermit in each of us—does not run away from the world, but seeks that Still Point within, where the heartbeat of the world can be heard. All of us—each in a different measure—have need of solitude, because we need to cultivate mindfulness.
The Practice of Gratefulness
How shall we do this in practice? Is there a method for cultivating mindfulness? Yes, there are many methods. The one I have chosen is gratefulness. Gratefulness can be practiced, cultivated, learned. And as we grow in gratefulness, we grow in mindfulness.
Before I open my eyes in the morning, I remind myself that I have eyes to see, while millions of my brothers and sisters are blind—most of them on account of conditions that could be improved if our human family would come to its senses and spend its resources reasonably, equitably. If I open my eyes with this thought, chances are that I will be more grateful for the gift of sight and more alert to the needs of those who lack that gift. Before I turn off the light in the evening, I jot down in my pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been grateful. I have done this for years, and the supply still seems inexhaustible.
Gratefulness brings joy to my life. How could I find joy in what I take for granted? So I stop “taking for granted,” and there is no end to the surprises I find. A grateful attitude is a creative one, because, in the final analysis, opportunity is the gift within the gift of every given moment. Mostly this means opportunities to see and hear and smell and touch and taste with pleasure. But once I am in the habit of availing myself of opportunities, I will do so even in unpleasant situations creatively. But most importantly, gratefulness strengthens that sense of belonging which I mentioned at the very beginning.
There is no closer bond than the one which gratefulness celebrates, the bond between giver and thanksgiver. Everything is gift. Grateful living is a celebration of the universal give-and-take of life, a limitless “yes” to belonging. Can our world survive without it? Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: to say an unconditional “yes” to the mutual belonging of all beings will make this a more joyful world. This is the reason why Yes is my favorite synonym for God.
Brother David Steindl-Rast has been a Benedictine monk, since 1953, of Mount Saviour Monastery, in New York. He has written numerous books and articles, produced videos and audios, and is well known for his TED talk on gratefulness. This article is an excerpt from his new book, The Way of Silence: Embracing the Sacred in Daily Life (Franciscan Media).