By Claire McGrath
I have always believed that a strong relationship with God is central to my existence. Even though I am flawed, inconsistent, often distracted, and get led astray, I know that everything in my life builds upon this relationship. I also know that this relationship is deeply personal, and that there is a big difference between knowing God and knowing about God. I go to a Catholic university, which has required me to take several theology classes, but if I do not take what I learn in these classes to heart and allow it to affect my life, then theology has about as much of an effect on my relationship with God as any history class. Our relationship with God is a heart-to-heart one, and although the guidance of other people is often essential in our path to relationship with God, only you can take that essential last step, choosing to close the gap between you and God, because God desires to connect with our innermost selves, including the parts of ourselves that others do not understand or that we choose to hide.
To be in true relationship with God, you have to know him, know his heart, and hear his voice. Relationship requires trust, and you cannot trust someone that you do not know. So how exactly do you get to know God? This is a question that I have personally grappled with, and I would guess that others have too. It’s not easy to get to know someone who we can’t sit down next to and have a face to face conversation with. Of course, we experience God directly in a multitude of ways—through the Eucharist, through scripture, through the words and actions of others, and more. Nevertheless, this can be difficult to understand sometimes—we are human, after all! I personally tend to get distracted during Mass, or misunderstand scripture, and as much as I’d like to say that I easily see God in every person I encounter, sometimes that isn’t the case. I can work on all of these things constantly in order to strengthen my relationship with God. I think there is also, however, one more essential way to get to know God that we tend to ignore.
Over the past year, I realized that I had focused all of my energy looking outward to search for God. Conceptually, I believed in the existence of God in all people, but I never actually applied that to myself. When I began to recognize the presence of God within myself, the way that I viewed myself and God changed completely. Have you ever spent an hour searching your house for a lost item, only to find that it was in your pocket the whole time? I think that’s how it works with our search for God sometimes. We spend a lot of time searching for God everywhere except within our own selves. As we explore the world around us, growing in knowledge and wisdom, sometimes we forget to apply what we’ve learned to ourselves. As we encounter the world, we recognize God’s presence in every person…but we forget that he dwells within us as well. If we get to know our true selves, we will get to know God.
Of course, we are complex beings, layered with flaws and concealing areas of inner darkness. Yet, as it says in one of my favorite books (which I have referenced a few times before!) Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Greg Boyle, “Out of the wreck of our disfigured, misshapen selves, so darkened by shame and disgrace, indeed the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves.” At our very core, underneath the layers of shame and guilt and disgrace, we are made of light, of goodness, and of God. Want to get to know God in a concrete way? Get to know yourself—not the self that you put on for others, or the self that others want you to be—your true, authentic self. If you want insight into the workings of an artist’s mind, you look at his artwork. If you desire to understand a writer, you read her writing. To comprehend a musician, listen to her music. We can learn a lot about people by looking at what they have created. If we want to know God, we have to look at what he has created. To do this, we have to take a good, long look at our very selves.
As I learned to see the good in myself, I learned to recognize the good in God. My deepest desires and passions have given me glimpses of God’s own desires and passions. Realizing what brings me pain and what brings me joy has allowed me to understand what brings God himself joy and suffering. As I begin to see myself as a beautiful work of art, I begin to comprehend the great care and love that God, the artist, used to create me.