WHILE BEING A 24-year-old college graduate is not easy, it can be especially difficult if you experienced the sort of complete and profound transformation as I did while attending college. In 1997 I was 19. I had my life planned perfectly. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and what values were going to get me there. Above all, I had a very nice, neat, cozy understanding of God and God's role in the world.
Then I started my freshman year. For the first time this nice, neat, cozy perspective I embraced so dearly was put to the test. I was exposed to God in the rawest of forms, a God who could be found amidst pain and suffering, amidst the misery of those on the margins of society. My life took a radical turn. Through the mixture of service activities and academics I was exposed to at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, those fundamental building blocks of my life proved to be overly simplistic and single-minded; they gradually began to crumble. And even though I was eventually to learn otherwise, I began losing sight of God amidst all this confusion and suffering. God seemed to be disappearing from the picture.
Four years and many experiences later, I had begun to develop a new lens through which to view the world. In my relationship with God, however, I was still standing on very shaky ground. I had few doubts that this relationship existed, but like so many other relationships in my life, I neglected it. I did not put any effort into building and sustaining this relationship for what I thought was a quite justifiable reason: I was so busy living out my faith every day through the many service activities in which I had gotten involved that I did not need to take time to pray.
After so many years of neglect, I did not even know what prayer meant anymore. Above all, as with many other young justice-oriented people, I had lost the ability to identify with what I viewed to be an overly bureaucratic and hierarchical Church.
Then, one December day, Fr. Bruce Bidinger, SJ, campus ministry director at Saint Joseph's, asked me if I would be interested in participating in a six-day Ignatian silent retreat. At first, I did not know what to say. All I knew was that a serious disconnect had begun to grow between my experiences and my faith. I still possessed a rather immature and distant understanding of Catholicism -- an understanding based on the rituals and dogma of the faith but not on the faith itself.
Over the previous few years I had fallen away from the Church because this limited understanding had more and more proven itself to be inadequate, especially given the very real and concrete faith I was experiencing every day in my learning about the poor and marginalized -- the "crucified peoples" of this world. I sensed these six days of silence could be the impetus for me to begin bridging this gap. I accepted the offer.
The retreat was held at the former Jesuit novitiate in rural Wernersville, Pennsylvania. I had been living in Philadelphia for five years and had not noticed how consumed I had been by an urban environment. At Wernersville I wandered sprawling hills and meandered farm roads, a beautiful setting that prepared a space in which God could work.
In the early part of the retreat I was guided to pray and meditate on the concept of God approaching me as I approach God. I tried doing so, but I immediately began judging the quality and effectiveness of my prayer. I was plagued with uncertainty; I began to fear that I was setting myself up for disaster. I was shutting myself off from encountering God by approaching prayer with a right/wrong mentality, paralyzed from taking any action at all.
As I thought about it, I realized that it was something more than just my desire to be right that was keeping me from moving forward in my relationship with God. I began to realize how unwilling I was to get my hands dirty in this relationship, how hesitant I could be to move forward in my efforts to experience God. After all, I had tried before and messed up, and now I was scared to mess up again.
Like so many young people who come to realize how little they know about the world and how much more they have to learn, I found it easy to stand on the sidelines and critique others' relationships with God, but I was unwilling to grapple with my own. Thus, I discovered the need to reopen myself to God and to allow myself to be vulnerable in God's presence.
Over the retreat's six days I found myself repeatedly asking God to help keep me open, fertile ground in which God could work, especially at those moments when I felt myself shutting myself off. God aided me in pushing past my normal limits of openness, and existing in this difficult space allowed me to venture towards an unprecedented experience of my faith.
In fact, it is remarkable how much God works in these difficult places. During the second day of the retreat, we prayed over Jesus' call on his disciples to consider the lilies of the field and how, like humankind, these lilies have no control over where they grow but do have the ability to respond to their environment. I was infuriated by the idea that I have no control over my surroundings. I had viewed this ability to respond to one's environment to be some form of ultimate control. It obviously is not. In the end, I was left pondering the questions of "How much of me is mine? How much can and should I give to God?"
I like to understand before I believe. I want faith informed by reason and not the other way around. Thus, I was pushed beyond my comfort zones once again a few more days into the retreat when I was guided to ask for the grace of an interior knowledge of our Lord. Asking for such knowledge--not found in books or classrooms--begged what had become yet another pressing question in my life: Where do I experience God most fully?
I could no longer answer this question by simply quoting the Ignatian phrase "finding God in all things" and then explaining how I find God in a gentle ocean breeze or in little puppies in Appalachia. I wanted an authentic answer over which I could take ownership, an answer that was true to what I myself had so far experienced, an answer that bore witness to God's presence in the world for me. I had been yearning for a long time to understand on a deeper level where I witnessed God in my life, and thus, I started with the only thing I could call my own: my experiences.
I started to remember precise moments, individual experiences in the past in which I had been in tune with a power beyond this world, beyond my comprehension. I sensed this heart knowledge by my lack of feeling anything right in what I was doing (despite many valiant efforts) and in my quick realization of the transformative power of service. I see it now in the radically changed vision I have of the world. This vision required no external stimuli at all. It grew from within. I did not earn it. It was given freely, and it provided me with a sense of meaning and purpose.
I had been guided through this transformation by this knowledge of the heart. It compelled me to believe and to take action on this belief before I understood it. The force I experienced moved me in a direction that, at the time, I could not fully understand, but which has now taken me to an experience of the force itself--God.
At the time I did not understand what was compelling me, but it could not have been my surroundings because I had not been surrounded by anyone or anything that could have moved me in the ways I had been moved. It is almost as if Jesus walked right up to me and told me to follow him, and I dropped everything and did as he commanded, even though it did not make any sense at the time, even though everyone told me I was crazy, even though I was the biggest sinner on the block.
At the time, nothing could have predicted this would happen, but looking back and reflecting upon my journey, I saw a path leading from one level of existence to another--a path that proves to me that God had a specific plan in mind, and I had only to trust in this heart knowledge and be willing to get my hands dirty.
This ability to identify with the followers of Christ was so powerful that it allowed me to look past the issues I had with the institutional Church and see the foundation on which the Church and all its dogma and ritual is built. I was able to identify with it--to come through my own experiences to see what so many others have seen through the ages, thereby affirming and valuing my own journey in unity with the collective journey of the Church.
After five years of roaming through what seemed to be a dense, scary forest, I felt that I had discovered a clearing and met many other people celebrating a similar discovery.
And I learned that God expects me to rejoice with these people, share a meal with them, swap some good stories, and then venture with them back out into the forest.