We Often Meet God Where We Don’t Want To Be by James Martin
All the passages below are taken from James Martin’s book “My Life with the Saints,” published in 2006.
Almost ten years after the novitiate, I began theology studies, the final part of preparation for ordination, at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After so many years of training, I was looking forward to studies and imagined myself happily immersed in Scripture, moral theology, systematic theology, and church history.
The first few months in school were just what I had hoped for: talented professors teaching fascinating courses to classes full of energetic students. Since I was enjoying studies so much, I began considering the possibility of continuing on for a PhD, possibly in Scripture. I envisioned myself sitting comfortably at a desk, a cup of coffee beside me and classical music playing on the radio, surrounded by stacks of books in Hebrew and Greek, Bible commentaries, and writings from the church fathers—totally immersed in the word of God. How life-giving that prospect seemed!
But after a few months, I began to experience pain in my hands and wrists. I ascribed it to typing too much and cut back on my time on the computer. Still, the pain continued.
My friends offered well-meaning advice: stop typing so much, stop working so hard, start stretching, get more exercise, rest more. Though I tried to follow their advice, the pain grew worse: it woke me at night, made simple tasks difficult, and finally prevented me from typing or writing at all.
Since all this came at the beginning of what was supposed to be an extended time in studies, I grew worried. How could I be a student if I couldn’t type or take notes?
My regular doctor sent me to a variety of specialists. Between theology classes, I visited a dozen physicians in Boston: neurologists, rheumatologists, orthopedists, even hand specialists (I hadn’t even known there was such a thing). I underwent a number of medical tests: MRIs, X-rays, and an electromagnetic test—a miserable procedure in which a machine shot electrical currents through my wrists. In the end, the tests only increased the pain. (“Who’s your doctor, Doctor Mengele?” asked one of my housemates.) I visited chiropractors (It’s your neck, said one doctor), massage therapists (You’re too tense, said another), and even acupuncturists (Try it, said another; it couldn’t hurt). No one seemed able to provide a clear diagnosis.
Over the next few months, the situation grew worse. In our New Testament class one day, we read the story of the woman with the hemorrhage who sought healing from Jesus: After twelve years of “enduring much under many physicians,” and spending all of her money, she “was no better, but rather grew worse.” I wondered if I’d have to wait that long for healing.
It wasn’t a life-threatening illness, but it was a trying experience that stopped me from doing what I was supposed to be doing. The discomfort also made it hard to relax and increased my fear about the future. On top of this, I was embarrassed: I prided myself on being a good student. Though I prayed about it constantly, I had no idea what it all meant. Where was God in all of this?
More to the point, what was I supposed to do? Accept my limitations, quit studies, and forget about ordination? Or accept my limitations and just soldier on? My struggle involved not only the pain and the frustration of not being able to complete my work, but also the confusion about not knowing how to respond.
Eventually I decided to push on with studies. Fortunately, my professors were understanding; all of them offered to let me take my exams orally. And my friends got into the habit of loaning me their notes. But I continued to struggle with understanding the meaning of the roadblocks that this mysterious illness presented.
During my second year of studies I took a class called “Suffering and Salvation.” (“You should get extra credit!” said a friend.) In the course, we discussed the various explanations in Scripture of the question, “Why do we suffer?” We read in the Old Testament the psalms of lament, the book of Job, and passages in the book of Isaiah about the “suffering servant,” and we read excerpts in the New Testament about the suffering and passion of Jesus and meditated on the meaning of the “cross” in St. Paul’s writings. We also studied the history of explanations for suffering found in Scripture: suffering is a punishment for one’s sins, suffering is a sort of purification, suffering enables us to participate in the life of Christ, suffering is part of the human condition in an imperfect world, suffering enables us to “fill up” what was lacking in Christ’s suffering, and so on.
But none of these explanations rang true for me, or they rang true only in part.
We also read the writings of numerous theologians. The most helpful of these was Dorothee Soelle. In her book Suffering, she describes a Christian approach that moves through three stages. First, one accepts the “reality” of suffering. Second, one “dies to self,” letting go of the part of oneself that wants to control the future or deny the suffering. Finally, one experiences a new receptiveness to God that replaces the former “love of self.”
Using the insights of the German mystic Meister Eckhart, Soelle offers an approach that concentrates more on the love of God than on the affliction, while not denying the reality of the suffering. “The strength of this position,” she writes, “is its relationship to reality, even to wretched conditions.” Her way is not one of stoicism or mere toleration, but of affirming that suffering is part of the great yes to life as a whole.
In other words, an acceptance of suffering (not welcoming it, but accepting its reality) can open us up to experiencing God in a new way.
But while Dorothee Soelle’s idea made sense intellectually, it made little sense experientially. How was my experience of suffering, limited as it was, enabling me to encounter God in a new way? It certainly didn’t feel as if I was experiencing any great “receptiveness.” When I thought about the physical pain, all I felt was anger.
“I don’t want this cross!” I told my spiritual director at the time, who reminded me that a cross would hardly be a cross if I wanted it.
Though the pain never completely subsided, it lessened, and I was able to complete my studies. A combination of physical therapy, massage, and exercise helped me manage the pain and enabled me to type for a half hour a day. Still, I had to abandon my desire to do further studies, as well as my hope of studying Scripture and getting a PhD. Even as I resisted this reality, I knew that it was somehow part of the “dying to self” that Dorothee Soelle spoke of. But at the graduation Mass, as I sat with my friends and celebrated the end of three years of theology, I wondered what the purpose of all of that heartache was.
Only later would I begin to understand the meaning of this part of my life and how it fit into my life as a Christian.
After ordination I was sent to America magazine to work as in associate editor. As it had during my theology studies, the pain in my hands would flare up every few months and I would be plunged into a temporary slough of despond. During a week when I felt particularly low and the discomfort was especially noticeable, I met with my spiritual director, named Jeff, a Jesuit priest who lived in the Nativity Parish on the Lower East Side, where I had worked as a novice.
Before we even sat down in the cluttered parlor of the rectory, I told Jeff how angry I was over having spent the past six years dealing with this situation: the attention it required (daily stretching, swimming, exercise) and the way it sapped my emotional energy and made me overly focused on self; how frustrated I was at being unable to write as much as I wanted to, how others had it easier than I did, how unfair it was. And so on.
My own psalm of lament lasted for a long while, and rather than feeling unburdened I felt myself moving into despair.
Jeff listened to my complaining and fell silent for a few seconds.
Finally he asked, “Is God anywhere in this?”
“No!” I snapped. “Not at all.”
How I hated that question! Over the past few years I had failed to see how God could be in any of this.
Then, almost despite myself, I began to talk about not so much where I had found God as what the experience had meant in my life.
“Well, I guess,” I said, “the pain makes me more grateful for what I write. I know that anything I write is thanks to God’s grace and the gift of health, even if it’s temporary. And the pain makes me more careful about what I write, since I’m limited in my ability to write.”
“Maybe I’m more patient, too. I can’t do everything at once. I have to take things one day at a time. I’m also less likely to get a swelled head about my writing, since I can’t plan any great projects or tell anyone about all the wonderful things I’m going to write—since I don’t know if I’ll even be able to type the next day. And I’m probably more aware of other people’s physical limitations—like people in wheelchairs and people on crutches and those with disabilities—than I was before.”
“Anything else?” said Jeff.
“I’m more conscious of my reliance on God, too,” I said, “since I know I can’t do anything on my own. I guess I’m less likely to forget that everything depends on God. I guess the pain makes me a more compassionate person.”
Though it was all true, I could hardly believe what I had said.
Jeff smiled. `But God isn’t anywhere in this?”
I laughed. Suddenly, it was so obvious! God was in the midst of the suffering. I suppose I had “died to self” more than I had realized. While I knew that God hadn’t caused the suffering to make me receptive to those things, my openness seemed an outgrowth of my experience during the past few years. Dorothee Soelle’s insights finally made sense. Was it possible that the suffering was helping make me a better Christian, a better disciple?
“By the way,” Jeff said, “didn’t you pray for humility as a novice, during your long retreat?”
“Sure,” I said. Asking for that grace is an essential part of the Spiritual Exercises.
“Well, this is a kind of humility,” he said, “the humility that comes with knowing that you’re powerless to change things, and discovering your reliance on God nonetheless.”
“It’s not the kind of humility I wanted,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I wanted the kind of humility that when others saw me they would say, “Wow, he is so humble! What a great guy!”
“I wanted a humility I could be proud of!” I said.
Jeff’s insight helped me find God in the midst of that small but lengthy trial. For one thing, I wouldn’t have encountered God in this way were I not forced to face those difficulties. When things are going smoothly, we tend to forget our essential dependence on God. At least I do. It’s a subtle form of pride: I can take care of everything, things are humming along, life is sweet—why do I need God? It’s usually when our defenses are lowered (usually against our will) and we find ourselves more vulnerable that we appreciate our reliance on God. In the face of life’s problems, we remember that we are “contingent” beings, to use a philosophical term. We are dependent on God’s mercy for our very life.
That’s why humility is central to the spiritual life. For it is when we are where we don’t want to be that we often meet God.
Most of us are so accustomed to going it on our own that we overlook our ultimate dependence on God. This is a key weakness of our affluent culture. We feel so self-sufficient that we are rarely reminded of our reliance on God, except during times of suffering—in the face of illness or death, for example. In his wonderful little book called Poverty of Spirit, Johannes Baptist Metz, the German theologian, writes: “All too easily we live alienated from the truth of our being. The threatening nothingness of our poor infinity and infinite poverty drives us here and there among the distractions of everyday cares.” Not only are we distracted from our innate spiritual poverty by our wealth and self-sufficiency, but we also actively ignore it, because to admit it would upend our world and force upon us a radical reorientation.
The materially poor, on the other hand, are more likely to be reminded of their inherent reliance on God because of the tenuousness of their lives. A few years after the novitiate, while working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi, I noticed how often the refugees spoke about God in their daily conversations. “Thank God!” they would say, in the face of both large and small events. One poor Rwandese woman who ran a small business sponsored by the Jesuits spoke about her troubles one day. Despite a run of hard luck, she kept exclaiming, “God is good!”
“Why is God so good?” I finally asked.
She laughed and recounted in great detail all the small events that had happened to her that day, until I agreed that God was indeed good. Many people who are poor have a greater appreciation of God’s presence because they have a greater appreciation of their reliance on God. God is close to the poor because the poor are close to God.
I have also found that God meets us especially in those parts of ourselves that we would rather have go away. And here I’m not talking about the parts of our personalities that are drawn to sin, but the parts of ourselves that embarrass us, frustrate us, or even shame us—the parts that we wish to conceal from the world and that we spend so much time trying to hide. But it is here that we find ourselves most vulnerable and therefore most open to God. Many of my friends who are gay men and women, for example, say that one of the primary ways they have discovered God is by accepting that God loves them as they are. “For I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the psalmist says. And the very place that they had formerly rejected as unlovable becomes the locus for God’s saving activity in their lives. “The stone that the builders rejected,” as Psalm 118 says, “has become the cornerstone.”
Something like a serious illness, a family crisis, or a crushing disappointment also can help us recognize our dependence on God. Around Thanksgiving a few years ago, my father was diagnosed with the lung cancer that would take his life in nine short months. Though raised a Catholic and educated by priests, brothers, and sisters during grammar school and high school, my father was never very religious. When my sister and I were small, he occasionally drove us to our parish church on Sundays and sat in the car reading the newspaper. It became a running joke in our family. “I’ve been to Mass plenty of times,” he would say. “When you’re old enough, you can skip Mass, too.”
Over the next few months after his diagnosis, however, as his physical condition deteriorated and he moved from chemotherapy to radiation to being bedridden at home to hospice care to a nursing home and finally to death, he grew more interested in talking about God—even with me, with whom he had never discussed religion. My father sought out those with whom he felt he needed to reconcile; he thought and talked about the people he hoped to meet in heaven; he treasured holy cards that friends sent him; and he asked for the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick before his death.
He grew especially close to a former theology teacher of mine, a woman religious named Janice. She had met my parents at my diaconate ordination in Boston four years before my father’s illness, and they became fast friends. Sr. Janice was a generous and loving woman as well as the first sister my parents had ever known well. My father, in particular, seemed remarkably at ease with her, and whenever her name came up in conversation, he would always say, “She’s a great lady.” Occasionally I would first hear family news not from my sister or brother-in-law or cousins, but from Janice.
When my father got sick, Janice telephoned and wrote him frequently and, a few weeks before his death, made the long trip from Boston to Philadelphia to see him in his hospital room. They spent an hour together talking, and after I thanked her I told her that it seemed that my father was getting more religious.
“Yes,” Janice said, “dying is about becoming more human.”
I knew what she meant. When I told some people that my father was becoming more religious, they smiled politely, as if to say, “Well, it’s all just a crutch isn’t it? A last resort?” But I knew that he was becoming more himself, more aware of his dependence on God, more naturally religious, more human. And I like to think that when he died, he became fully united with God, fully himself, the person he was meant to be.
In Poverty of Spirit, Metz writes, “When the mask falls and the core of our being is revealed, it soon becomes obvious that we are religious by nature, that religion is the secret dowry of our being.” This is what happened with my father as he moved toward the end of his life. And if we are open to it, this is what happens to us as we move through our own lives.
St. Peter’s limitations were precisely what led him to be closer to Jesus. Certainly Peter had many talents that enabled him to be a good disciple. He seems to have been forthright, confident, hardworking, and, in the end, a friend to Jesus.
But Peter was not perfect, and a perfect man might never have been willing to set down his nets and follow Jesus. (“Hey, I have my fishing business, things are going great for me, I have everything I need, so why should I follow you?”) A perfect man would never have denied Jesus and therefore would never have understood the human desire for forgiveness. A perfect man would never have argued with the other disciples and therefore would never have understood the need for reconciliation. A perfect man would never have realized how desperately he really needed Jesus, and would never have understood how this truth is the basis of all discipleship.
Peter was as imperfect as the rest of the disciples, but in his humility he recognized his ultimate dependence on God. For this reason he is, at least for me, the most human of the saints and one of the most lovable.
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus chose Peter not despite his imperfections but because of them. Peter’s knowledge of his own limits led him to understand his reliance on God. It also enabled him to appreciate the love that Jesus had for him, as well as to celebrate the fact that God can work through anyone, no matter how human. And that’s not such a bad message to carry to the ends of the earth.
I still have trouble with my hands, and I’m still unable to type more than a half hour a day. But now when the pain flares up, I remember what I learned during theology studies and my meeting with Jeff. And I think of St. Peter, too—how his own poverty of spirit led him to follow Christ. How he serves as a model for everyone who struggles with human frailties and limitations. How courageous he was in his discipleship, and how much Jesus loved, trusted, and forgave him. How even his severest limitations were ultimately put to good use by God. And, most of all, how glad I am that I took his name on vow day. [240-251]