Where is God in This? | Reconstructing Judaism

Where is God in This?

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“I’ve hit a wall,” a spiritual direction client recently said to me. “I want to discern God’s presence more frequently.”

I’ll call him Fred. In all aspects of his life, Fred likes to achieve as much as he can. As soon as he masters one skill, he’s ready to move onto another one. A spiritual director listens contemplatively to a seeker, attending to the movement of the spirit, shining light on moments when the holy can be discerned. Discernment is the goal: seeing the holy, which is hidden to most of us most of the time. I have been meeting with Fred in spiritual direction for over three years, and I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve as a vessel building Fred’s connection with the divine.

When meeting with him, Fred confessed the following: “I have a powerful gratitude practice. I am thankful for my blessings. I notice them. I don’t take them for granted. When I am in pain, I engage in self-compassion and can feel God’s comforting embrace. I am filled with equanimity, believing that I am not and need not be in control of everything. I do the best I can and don’t get angry judging other people. I don’t want to be greedy, but for most of my day, I’m still not aware of God’s presence in my life. How do I bring God in?”

It struck me that the obstruction here might be Fred’s formulation of the question.

“Try thinking about it differently,” I offered. “You don’t have to bring God in as an extra ingredient. Think of God as already here, as always present. The process of discerning God’s presence is about learning to see what is already there, already everywhere. The Hasidic rebbes explained that we should stop looking for God in each thing and instead see that everything in the universe is in God.

I thought about some of the experiences that Fred has described over the years.

One question at a time, I asked him:  “When you spend hours that you can’t spare helping your sister manage her finances, where does your loving impulse come from? Why don’t you choose to send her to someone else? What makes you take care of your grandchildren so much and why do you enjoy it? When you hiked on the Appalachian trail, why did you enjoy helping your friend when he pulled a muscle? Why do you wash the dishes after dinner?”

We went through many such questions. After a while, Fred came to see that God is not only present when he invites God in. God is present even when he is unaware of God’s presence, present at every moment, there to be acknowledged and connected with as he goes through the mundane details of his life. That is the purpose of the traditional Jewish practice of reciting daily one hundred blessings that thank and praise God. Fred’s days can be as God-infused as he wants them to be.

Is this true or is it just what I choose to believe? As with all questions of faith, there is no proof. God’s presence is no more or less demonstrable than God’s absence. One viewpoint is no more rational or scientific than another.

What is “obvious” depends on the culture in which one lives. In other centuries, it was completely obvious to everyone that the world was God-inhabited. In secular twenty-first century Western culture, though, God seems to be absent from all spaces except places of worship, from all times except when we are worshipping or performing sacred rituals. The practice of discernment, cultivated in the discipline of Spiritual Direction, seeks to expand the number of places and multiply the moments when we see and feel the sacred dimension of our lives.

It’s not about how I can bring God into this moment, as if God were not already here. It’s rather about gradually lifting the veil from my eyes and seeing a glorious reality that has been there all along.

We should not be asking, “Where is God in this?” but rather “How am I in God?”

RRC: Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality; Director, Jewish Spiritual Direction Program; Director, eVolve: Groundbreaking Conversations; Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism;

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