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Our Complex Minds and Our Everyday Life with God

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Our Complex Minds and Our Everyday Life with God
-Fr. Michael Greene

“How’s it going with you?” “What are you up to?” “What’s that all about?”—Most of us get asked these questions pretty much every day. What’s the answer? Well, we usually answer with simple dismissive phrases like, “fine,” “nothin’,” or “dunno.” But in every case, a more
truthful answer would sound like: “You know, I’m really not sure.” Each of us has an understanding of who we are and what we’re doing, but we are far from understanding everything. There are lots of thoughts and motivations and emotions that we live through that we don’t and
can’t fully comprehend with our conscious minds. Maybe you meet someone and you don’t like them, and you just can’t put your finger on a good reason; maybe you go to a concert, and the music is so exhilarating that you feel spectacular for a day or two; maybe you put down a
crossword puzzle you’re making no headway on only to pick it up the next morning to breeze right through it. What makes that difference? No one really knows.

Our minds are layered and complex. A good example is to think of learning something new, like a language, or a musical instrument, or to drive a car. At the beginning, you have to focus and concentrate on every step: with a new language, you have to map your sentences out before you try to say them; with music every movement of your fingers requires concentration; with driving, you grind gears and kill engines dozens of times before getting it. Eventually, though, the actions become automatic, and you don’t have to think about them so much. Some deeper layer of the mind seems to take over and ‘do’ those things that used to take so much focus. After a long time driving, every once in a while you realize you’ve just driven the last 20 miles sort of automatically, while your mind was miles away. A good musician can focus on tone quality and nuance because things like fingering and rhythm are automatic; just as there comes a time in a foreign country when you don’t have to worry about where the preposition goes, you just say what’s on your mind and the people around you understand.

There are all kinds of hidden layers that are constantly at work in our minds. They can seriously affect what we’re doing, like when you suddenly get crabby and irritable for no apparent reason. Family members and close friends can often sense things about us without anything being said, and they usually act accordingly, instead of waiting for us to articulate what is going on upstairs. We love and care for one another without needing to ask for it, or explain it. The love, and the responsibility that we share, just lives down there in one of our deeper layers.

We tend to forget all of that when we pray, or think about our relationship with God. We think that when we’re praying we should feel something, or our consciousness should change. Our relationship with God is more like one with a family member or close friend. The reward in prayer comes in that day-in, day-out communication, that speaks to our deeper layers, that doesn’t require huge amounts of concentration and focus, that comes when we are faithful and persevere in our relationship with God. Some people pray as if there’s a need to squeeze every drop of experience out of every second, so prayer and relationship with God are stressful things. What would your family relationships be like if you felt like that? They’d probably be stressful. Some people pray only when they are anxious or something has gone wrong, so prayer and relationship with God are fraught with negative connotations. What would your relationship with family and friends be like if you only talked with them about the things that had gone wrong? They’d probably be pretty negative. If we can relax about our relationship with God, and live in it daily, then fear and negativity tend not to be the dominant characteristics, it becomes more real, more human. God, in fact, seems to work best on our hidden layers, rather than with dazzling signs or rigorous discipline that demand our full focus and attention.

If that’s true of the way we speak to God, which is through prayer, then it is true of the way we hear God, which is through scripture and our worship together. There are a lot of words. They usually seem like too many. Our minds can’t take all the words in, especially Bible readings and sermons. But if we think that worship is something that we need to have complete focus on at all times, well, we’re still learning it. The reward in worship comes from letting some of our deeper layers do the work, letting God speak to our whole selves, not just our conscious minds. One of the most important ways to experience liturgy and Bible readings is simply to let them wash over us. When we let that happen, we find, over time, that we are steeped in the mind of God—as one of my spiritual fathers put it: “we are marinated in Divine Love.” The reason we gather together daily for prayer and weekly for our Sunday Eucharist is so that the Word and Spirit that God gives to us as gifts can soak into our very bones.

If any of this is to happen, then there are bound to be times when we ‘don’t feel like it,’ or it all seems complicated, or tedious, or unnecessary. Musicians know that playing like a virtuoso means lots of scales and repetition; athletes know that touchdowns and home-runs are backed up by lots of laps and calisthenics; diagramming sentences is part of learning a language; studying the rules of the road is more a part of learning to drive than seeing if you can hit 100 mph in a new car. We can’t leave out parts of our prayer and worship, we can’t omit the parts of the Bible that we don’t happen to agree with at the moment—all of it is part of this process of immersing ourselves into the life of God that we have been called to share.

Talking to God and listening to God should be like any other normal, everyday experience. We don’t need to keep feeling some ‘special something’—that just isn’t natural. But if we just let it be part of our day-to-day life, then it affects us and touches us in deeper and more profound ways than we can imagine. God prefers to be hidden, rather than to be showy, and He works in ways that we cannot see, in ways that we wouldn’t expect. We simply need to carry on in faith—the rest is up to God. Jump in and soak it up!