…. I hear people talking about being close to God. I have to say I don’t know what they are talking about. I never felt close to God, never had any feelings at all about God. I was bored stiff by religion classes in school, and everyone else was bored too, including the teacher. There was a very religious old woman in our street, but everyone thought she was a bit peculiar. My parents always took us to Mass, but beyond that they never talked about religion. Strange to say, my son’s girlfriend says she's very interested in it, and that she feels close to God. I asked her what that's like, and she said You must know, everyone knows. I don’t, but now I'm curious, if only to be able to talk to her. She's a very nice girl, very well liked by all the family, and my son thinks the world of her. Can you give me some clue, so that I won’t drive her away! Con H.
Thanks for your letter. I'm glad to see that that girl is not only good for your son, but for you too. Late or early, we come to God – or, if we are being very guarded about it, ‘the God-question’.
Have you come across these lines by Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744):
Know then thyself; presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Pope was a Catholic (yes!) but didn’t get a chance to be bored stiff by religion classes, because of the Test Acts against Catholics, repealed only in 1828. Like you and many another, I was bored stiff too. It was what we expected and what we got. We weren't presuming to scan God; we were just wishing that God wasn’t scanning us.
But now, all grown up and elderly, we feel entitled to scan the God-question. Or… on Pope’s advice, should we just study human existence instead?
Was that ever a fair distinction? Is it God ORus? Are we in competition for our attention? Here’s what an Englishwoman said about that. Julian of Norwich was a 14th-century mystic. “I saw most surely,” she wrote, “that it is quicker for us and easier to come to the knowledge of God than it is to know our own soul. For our soul is so deeply grounded in God and so endlessly treasured, that we cannot come to knowledge of it until we first have knowledge of God, who is the Creator to whom it is united.”
We can't know ourselves without knowing something of God, she says. And then she added a thought that might surprise many today. “Whether we are moved to know God or our soul, either motion is good and true.” (Here’s how that looked in an earlier form of English: Whither and we be sterid to knowen God or our soule, they arn both good and trew.) It doesn’t matter whether you begin to study God or yourself: they are the one study. “God is closer to us than our own soul,” she added, “for God is the foundation on which our soul stands.”
This puts away the idea that God is distant from us. It would be impossible to study a distant God. Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, said when he returned, “I saw no God up there!” No one was surprised. There was a song in circulation some years ago, called ‘From a distance’. The tune was lovely, but the lyrics were the worst theology imaginable! “God is watching us from a distance….” No! there’s no distance between God and anything. To talk about distance is to talk about spatial separation, and only material objects occupy space. God could not be distant from us. “God is in all things,” the Christian saints and mystics have been telling us through the ages, with monotonous regularity.
From a distance you don’t get a good view of anything; at any rate, you miss all the detail.
From a distance we all have enough
And no one is in need,
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
No hungry mouths to feed.
From a distance you look like my friend
Even though we are at war….
A very false picture, you have to admit. False about God, and callously false about us.
If it is hard to see God, it is not because God is far away, but because God is so near – “nearer to us than we are to ourselves,” St Augustine said; “closer to us than our own soul,” said Julian. A Sufi mystic gave this advice on distinguishing real from false teachers: “If he says God is far away, this is because he himself is far from God; but if he says God is near, count him most worthy.” Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Lk 17:20-21).
Coming home is always an emotional experience, however subtle. I remember the wonder of it, after being an inmate in a boarding school. Coming home spiritually is equally, or even more, emotional. When the Jews of old returned from the Babylonian exile, to rediscover their heritage and rebuild the Temple, Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform and read their Scriptures to a people who had forgotten them. He read, translating as he read, for they had even forgotten their own language. He read from early morning till noon, and he said to them, “’Do not weep’…. for the people were all in tears as they listened” (Nehemiah 8).
That was different from a religion class. Unless we have realised that God is not an alien, or an enemy, or a begrudger; unless we have come in some way – wise or otherwise – to the awareness that “God is love” (1John 4:8, 16), God will always be remote, detached, unemotional, and unnecessary.
“Show us the Father,” Philip said to Jesus (John 14:8). Show us God, put on a show, we will sit back and watch. Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” God is in plain view all this time. How can you say, ‘Show us God’?
When we look out through Christian eyes, we see God everywhere, and we don’t need to explain or prove anything.
And what about your future daughter-in-law (we hope), Con? Just listen to her with your heart, hiding nothing, and love her. That's enough.