By Father Miles O’Brien Riley.
Since God, like Love, is a mystery, let me begin with a short story:
Once upon a time, many years ago, a little fish was born. His mother told him about the magnificent ocean he would one day discover. Naturally, the little fish longed to find the ocean. So, when he was big enough and strong enough, he set out on his life’s journey, his pilgrimage to find the ocean. The little fish swam and he swam, and looked everywhere – but he couldn’t find the ocean anywhere…
Then one day the little fish ran into a great big fish and thought to himself: “He’s a big fish, he’s lived a long time, he’ll know how to find the ocean…”
“Good Morning, Big Fish!”
“Good morning, Little Fish”
“Excuse me, Big Fish, could you please direct me to the ocean?”
“Little Fish, this IS the ocean—you’re in it!”
“O, no, Big Fish, this is only water…..”
So the big fish swam away sadly, saying to himself: “How do you tell a little fish about the mystery of the ocean?”
How do we explain the mystery of God or of Love?
This is it – you’re in it!
The God who is Love is everywhere. Some get it, see it, experience it—but some don’t. Let me suggest a few God moments of the millions all around us by talking about five transcendent, supernatural mystical moments you may have experienced:
Since I am an old Catholic priest (and we can’t even get permission to go steady!) I have experienced the miracle of birth only as a hospital chaplain and an uncle to my six younger brothers and sisters and their families (who call me “Uncle MiMi” because they cannot handle the “l” and the “s” in “miles.”) But all you parents and godparents tell me that the experience of birth is absolutely transcendent, supernatural, beyond words to capture and describe.
One mother put it this way: “I was blessed with great parents, a wonderful family, amazing friends, and an incredible husband but I did not know unconditional love until the birth of my first child. I held that baby in my arms and was overcome by an avalanche of love! And all I could think was: I hope God loves us as much as I love this child!”
Now I know that most Americans resist talking about death: half the people who die each year don’t even have wills! (Many superstitious think if they have a will, God will say: “No, take her—the one with the will!”) Doubleday published my book Set Your House In Order in 1980 to help folks discuss their wishes and plan their funerals. After two printings, they returned the book saying: “America is not ready yet to talk about death!”
Our culture is not in denial—we are in avoidance! We want someone else—doctor, lawyer, clergy, mortician, funeral director, cemetery director—to handle the messy business of dying. Still, when we embrace the mystery of death, it can be a God moment. I will never forget the young woman who told me about her grandmother who was living with them.
“Everyone said that grandma was going to be all right but I feared that she might be dying and I wanted to say goodbye. So, one night, after everyone had gone to bed, I tiptoed into Grandma’s room and said: ‘I’m just afraid you might be dying and I wanted to tell you how much I love you!’ Grandma reached out and hugged me and drew me to her and replied: ‘Finally, someone has told the truth—and now I can tell the truth!’ She held me in her arms all night and shared her whole life with me… The sun came up and she was still telling me her hopes and dreams and precious memories!”
When dying is openly embraced, it can be a God moment.
St. John is clear: “Where there is love, there is God; and where there is God, there is Love.” God IS Love. So, if you are blessed to know and feel real love, you have known and felt God. Of course, this kind of absolute, selfless love is rare, but it is possible. I have felt it in my family and have seen it in a very few marriages and occasionally in amazing labor of love and lives of service to the poor and needy and emarginated and, of course, in the holy heroism of parenthood!
I suppose it is no surprise that millions of Americans find their religion, their spirituality, and their mystical God moments in the 12 Step programs. Overeaters Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Shopaholics Anonymous, those addicted to pornography or self-mutilation or pedophilia….we are such an addictive society!
The various 12-Step programs are a dramatic blessing. You attend a meeting, identify yourself by your name and compulsion and are accepted. Unconditionally! No questions asked! And everyone present knows exactly what you are going through—and that, maybe, you have hit bottom. And they accept and affirm your brokenness, your weakness, and your humanness. And that no-strings-attached and no cover-up-excuses acceptance often works miracles—along with the support of your group and your partner and your god as you understand god to be. There are other forms of healing, of course, but the 12-step groups are among the very best.
Have you ever experienced that sense of connectedness with nature or other people, asunset or a beautiful piece of music? The first time it happened to me really powerfully I was in Washington, D.C. studying the intimate connection between sex and spirituality. One night I had a dream that I was 8 months pregnant—not a woman, just myself but so pregnant that I was banging into doors and furniture.
The next morning I called my spiritual director in Palo Alto to describe the dream. She responded: “Not a surprise! We are all called to be pregnant—with God!” The next morning, as I walked around the university campus, I suddenly experienced a connection of my hand with the branch of a tree. As soon as I felt one with the branch, I also experienced oneness with the path and the grass and the squirrel that darted across and the butterfly that fluttered past… And that sense of oneness with all that is alive continued for almost an hour. For me a mystical experience and truly a wonderful and rare God moment!
So, please do not be like the Little Fish who missed the magic… Open wide your eyes, your mind, your heart and your spirit… This is it! You’re in it!
Photo Credit: Max Elman