Arts and Culture

An Experience in Prayer

Faith & Thought

I cannot recall whether a special experience I had took place while I was praying or while I was preparing a homily about prayer. The experience was a vivid insight into a truth that I already knew.

The insight was that God wanted an intimate loving relationship with me more than I wanted an intimate loving relationship with God. The more I thought about this truth, the more amazing it seemed. In fact, it amazes me even as I am writing this column.

The same God Who holds the universe in existence, Who is creating the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets has an infinite desire to have a love relationship with Robert Lauder. That may be the most profound truth about me, and it is a truth about every human being.

How can I be certain that God wants a love relationship with every human being more than any human being wants a love relationship with God? The reason I am certain is that God is God and we are sinful, frail and finite. 

Teaching philosophy at St. John’s University has led me to read the writings of many atheists. Though that may seem strange to those who have not had the opportunity to read thinkers such as Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and  Sartre, I have found many of them are correct in the idea of God they are attacking.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think that many atheists had become not only atheists but anti-theists because the idea of God they had led in one way or another to denying the dignity of the human person. Many of the atheists I have studied came to believe that some ideas about God were so erroneous that they led to the dehumanization of persons.

Because of this image of God, some atheists became militant in attacking what they took to be a terrible image of God. The famous statement by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900) that God was dead did not mean that Nietzsche thought that there was a God who died. Nietzsche was an atheist and did not believe that God ever existed. He believed that the idea of God, an idea that once inspired people and influenced culture, art, religion, government, philosophy and theology had lost its capacity to influence, to challenge, to instruct and to inspire.

Nietzsche thought that even people who attended church services regularly had lost faith in God, even though those people may not have realized that their idea of God was dehumanizing and no longer inspiring them. Because God is radical mystery, those of us who believe can always allow our image of God to improve.

I hesitate to ask regular readers of this column to engage in a kind of experiment. Does what I find an inspiring insight — namely that God wants a loving relationship with us more than we want a loving relationship with God — touch people as deeply as it seems to have touched me?

For about 20 minutes every day, I engage in centering prayer. For those 20 minutes, I try to focus on some truth about God and allow God to communicate with me. At least for the immediate future, I plan to make the truth that God wants a love relationship with me more than I want a love relationship with God to be a kind of horizon against which I reflect on God. By including that insight as part of my centering prayer, I may be allowing God to enter more deeply into my life.   

When Bishop Joseph McEntegart asked me almost 60 years ago to leave the diocese for three years to study and obtain a doctorate in philosophy so that I might teach philosophy at a four-year college seminary that he was planning to build, some of my classmates were sorry that the bishop did not send me to study theology rather than philosophy. If at that time the bishop had offered me a choice, I would have chosen theology.

Looking back now, I think it was providential that I obtained my degree in philosophy. The philosophy degree opened doors and led me to wonderful growth experiences that might not have happened if my degree were in theology. I believe that even the study of famous, influential atheists deepened my understanding of God.

I probably will eventually discuss with my spiritual adviser my experience of an insight into God’s wish to have a love relationship with God. Whatever caused it, whether it be my subconscious or the Holy Spirit, or perhaps both, I see it as part of God’s providential presence in my life. I hope I never lose gratitude for that presence. None of us should.

Father Lauder presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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