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Eight Steps to Finding God

In John Paul the Great, author Peggy Noonan describes a friend who asked the question, "How do you find God?" Noonan replied with the following:

Finding God is not hard, because he wants to be found. But keeping God can be hard. He wants to be kept, of course, but for most of us, finding him and keeping him is the difference between falling in love and staying in love. The latter involves a decision that is held to. Here is a path to finding him and keeping him.

One: Get yourself in trouble. Let life make you miserable. This shouldn't be hard. "A bad night in a bad inn," Teresa of Avila is said to have described our earthly life; and every smart, happy, well-adjusted adult you know would probably admit that that's just about right. So get low, gnash your teeth, cry aloud, rend your garments, refuse to get out of bed. Be in crisis.

Trouble is good. "Man's extremity is God's opportunity," as American evangelicals say. But before they said it, Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, said it: "None get to God but through trouble." For most of us, the world with all its dazzlement has to turn pretty flat and pretty dry before we want God. But God seems to turn it flat just at the moment when he knows we're ready. So embrace your ill fortune as a blessing. (If you haven't been blessed with a crisis, I'm not sure what to tell you beyond pray for one. You may have to just hang around enjoying the dazzlements until he's ready to lower the boom. But he will, in his time and not yours, if that's the only way he can get your attention. Because not only are you looking for him, but he's been looking for you.)

Two: Once you're so low you're actually on your knees, review the situation. You could start by admitting what you've long sensed and avoided knowing: that many of the joys and delights of the world are fleeting, and some are fraudulent, and that even though those who know you best would never think this, you happen to have noticed lately that you have a rather black heart. Don't let this be demoralizing: everyone has a black heart. As a brilliant (and agnostic) publisher recently remarked to me in a conversation about why war occurs, "Because there's something wrong with us." There is. It's inspiring how much good people actually do considering who and what we are.

Three: You're miserable and convicted and still on your knees. Address the God whose existence you doubt. Ask for his help. Ask for his forgiveness. Ask for his mercy. Ask to know him. Or ask a saint to get you to him. (All saints have had dark nights.) Evangelical Protestants sometimes use words like these: "Lord, this hasn't worked with my being in charge, so I give my life to you. I believe in you. Help me to believe in you. I ask you to be in charge of my life." I think those are great words. They are not a prescription for passivity. They are an acknowledgment of reality and a pledge of obedience, which can be quite arduous. Belief ain't for the sissies.

One evangelical friend uses the image of a throne. Either God is on the throne of your life, or you are. You don't belong on it. He's the king. You're the servant. He's the Father. You're his child. Let him sit there. Every time you, in your pride and stupidity, try to claw your way back into control, remember the throne, and offer the seat to the gentleman who is older and wiser than you.

Four: Pray. A priest to whom I'd gone once for guidance told me that prayer is just conversation with your Father in heaven, and like any good conversation with an intimate, it should be honest, trusting, uncensored. Tell him anything—what kind of day you had, a triumph, a temptation, something that's nagging at you. Ask for his blessing for an endeavor. Give thanks. Share a frustration.

Prayer, in my experience is hard, easier to think about than do. In one way, I pray a lot, all day, in a continual conversation. But concentrated prayer is hard. People who know tell me to make time in the morning or evening, a half hour or so. To read the Bible and engage in sustained and concentrated prayer. I know they're right. I'll tell you something I started to do a few years ago that is connected to this and has made an enormous difference for me. I started reading the New Testament and asking God that I be allowed to know that what I was reading actually happened, that it was all true. During this time, the Acts of the Apostles came alive for me, and after that every thing else did, too.

Five: Get yourself some friends who will support you and help you. Go to church and find out if there's someone there—a priest or layperson—who helps converts, for if you're looking for God, you're having a conversion experience. If your local priest is busy, and chances are he is, find out what's available to believers at your church—daily prayer meetings, for instance—and go. And talk to people. Ask about retreats—two or three days away, usually in a religious setting—with people who want to enliven their spiritual life. It's hard to go on a retreat, and yet I've never heard anyone regretting it. I've never heard a person say, "I wish I hadn't gone to that retreat."

Six: See if you can find and get into a Bible study group to learn more about what you believe in, or a prayer group.

Seven: Read—for knowledge and to enliven the spirit. Books that were important to me: Thomas Merton's memoir on his conversion, The Seven Storey Mountain; Saints for Sinners by Alban Goodier; To Know Christ Jesus by Frank Sheed; My Utmost for His Highest, the book of daily devotionals by Oswald Chambers that evangelicals read. In fact, just about any born-again Protestant book is good. They are wonderful for their personal sense of redemption and their excitement about Christ. Don't fuss with doctrinal complexities if you're sophisticated enough to see them—I wasn't as a rule—as doctrinal disputes are not your problem right now, and anyway, God will heal them all in time. "The issue becomes the icon," the chaplain of the U.S. Senate once told me. He meant: Love Jesus and leave the commentary to others.

Eight: If you never get very excited by your conversion but just plod through, good for you—you'll get your joys. If you start out with excitement and it flattens or lessens—and it probably will—pray for ardor, ask for your old thirst, and keep plugging. It's the most important thing in your life. And remember, every time you fall or fall away, ask for help. You'll get it.

—Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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