Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Knowing God

This talk was given by Rachel Johnston during Morning Prayers at Memorial Church on Monday, April 14. Rachel is a senior at Harvard and a steadfast member of the Chaplaincy community.

A reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3:
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

God found me at Harvard. I say this with a great deal of hesitancy and humility, because reason tells me that that’s not really God’s M.O.: He is everywhere and in everything, after all, and therefore doesn't need to play much hide and seek. But it seems unfair to say “I found God at Harvard” because that implies a certain amount of willingness on my part, and let’s be honest—I tried really hard to avoid God. A staunch atheist during my last two years of high school, I approached the subject of God in college from a purely academic and ethnographic standpoint: I studied how other people conceived of God because it made for a fascinating scholarly pursuit. I wasn't really after the mysteries of the universe, here.

But the perspective of the distanced observer that I clung to quickly revealed a void in my life. I felt absent from my studies and from my social life, and it was out of the depths of that void God called to me. As a medievalist who studies early Christian mystics, I am normally quick to distinguish between physical and mental manifestations of God’s voice—but this was both. While I didn't hear God with my ears, I felt a physical ache—a breathless, constant physical pain akin to heartache—that pulled me to prayer, of all things.  

Last Wednesday night, the Episcopal priest Rev. Steven White shared with the Episcopal Chaplaincy his story of saying no to God’s call. He has said, “Never say no to a call from God. You can say yes, or you can say maybe, but you never say no.” I think I must have instinctively understood that I shouldn't say no, because even though the idea of prayer felt foreign and downright silly, I started to pray anyway. In an effort to mitigate my perceived awkwardness of talking to God, I wrote my first prayers. A few months into my freshman year, a few months after trying to ignore or cover up the ache that drew me to God, I sighed and I faced the ache. I wrote, “God, I want to know you. I want to understand you. Help me know you.”

Out of my pain and wrestling came a desire to know God that defied all reason. Brother Geoffrey from the Episcopal monastery down the street recognizes that this is not an unusual manifestation of God’s love; after all, before Paul was writing down his own desire to know God, he was Saul, being struck blind by God on his way to Damascus to persecute Jesus’ followers. Brother Geoffrey writes, “…our truest selves…become real to us as we struggle to make sense of our own lives. The revelation comes through the struggle. It seems that God likes to struggle with us, and it is often through the struggle that we become who we most truly are, that we come to recognize God and recognize that God’s name is love.”

During Holy Week, we are plunged into the remembrance and recognition of Jesus’ suffering. I wonder if we might take the time this week to dig into that, to sink into the struggle and pain in the Bible and in our own lives, instead of only looking ahead toward what we know will be the glorious renewal of Jesus’ resurrection, because we might see God’s love that much clearer, and experience it that much more strongly, if we first understand the depths of the pain and struggle out of which it has risen.

Let us pray: “Almighty God, whose Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son, Amen.”

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