How Can We Experience God?
By Dean Nelson
June 14, 2010
Throughout civilization, people have looked for ways to engage the sacred and holy. Christians go to church no matter how boring it is, Hindus plunge into the Ganges River no matter how foul it is, Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca no matter how far and crowded it is. “So it is that monks kneel and chant, that Jews eat a Passover meal, that Polynesians dance, and Quakers sit still,” writes Joseph Martos in Doors to the Sacred. “In themselves they are just locations, activities, things. … In this case they are all sacraments, symbols of something else which is mysterious and hidden, sacred and holy."
Confession is one of seven ancient sacraments that organized Christianity has recognized for thousands of years. Along with Vocation, Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Extreme Unction (Anointing, or Last Rites) and the Eucharist, they have been celebrated as means by which we experience the presence and grace of God. They’re usually conducted during formal occasions, dispensed by religious officials to the rest of us non-professionals.
I’ve been thinking about them differently, these days. I believe that relegating these holy days and moments to strictly organized religious settings is a missed opportunity. The sacrament of Confession, for instance, doesn’t have to take place in a booth with a priest behind a screen, or in an emotional crisis. The grace of God can be experienced just as easily on a trampoline in a friend’s back yard.
In the movie Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers, actors John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play a couple who discover they are going to have a baby, and they go across the country to find the perfect environment in which to have and raise this child. They seek the perfect location as well as the perfect set of friends and extended family to create this web. It’s funny, sad, occasionally grotesque, mostly sweet (like most of what Eggers writes) and pulls back the veneer on “happy couples” who seem to have it all together. But there is one scene in particular that sticks with me. Rudolph is within weeks of having this baby, and the couple has not yet found what they have been searching for. Everyone disappoints them, including their families. Eventually they sense that what the baby needs is not a set of perfect circumstances as much as committed parents. In this scene they are stretched out on a friend’s backyard trampoline in the middle of the night, and they make promises to each other.
Burt (played by Krasinski): Do you promise to let our daughter be fat or skinny or any weight at all? Because we want her to be happy, no matter what. Being obsessed with weight is just too cliché for our daughter.
Verona (played by Rudolph): Yes, I do. Do you promise, when she talks, you'll listen? Like, really listen, especially when she's scared? And that her fights will be your fights?
Burt: I do. And do you promise that if I die some embarrassing and boring death that you're gonna tell our daughter that her father was killed by Russian soldiers in this intense hand-to-hand combat in an attempt to save the lives of 850 Chechnyan orphans?
It was a poignant moment in their relationship because it was so confessional. It confessed to their fears about the future, about each other, about their being responsible for this coming child. And as the camera pulled straight up into the sky, the confession was both personal and cosmic.
I know that not everyone thinks “confession” when they see that scene. But the dialogue came from the deepest place in the characters—it revealed the true content of their hearts. That’s what confession does. It reveals to another what has been previously hidden. And once it is brought out into the open to a loving listener, it leads to healing.
Haven’t we all been part of conversations where they somehow take on a deeper dimension, even though it’s just people talking? It’s as if we tapped into something much bigger than ourselves. And haven’t we all had meals with friends or family where there was another level to that experience, and we didn’t want to leave the table because of that additional Presence? I’ve had Communion moments at picnic tables, restaurants, kitchens and the beach.
As we become aware of that additional dimension, those moments take on the quality of the holy. They’re thin spaces where the distance between this world and a bigger unseen world seems to briefly disappear. You don’t have to be a person of a particular faith to sense that there is more going on in this world than just the activities we experience with our senses. But seeing the events of a day through the prism of confession, holy orders, baptism and the others gives us lenses to see those events for what else they are.
And it’s not just for characters in movies. When I taught my kids how to ride a bicycle, running alongside the bike, holding on to the seat, then holding on less tightly, still running, then letting go altogether, I remember raising my fists in the air in triumph as my son, then my daughter, rode away without me. I cheered at their achievement, but had tears running down my cheeks. In a sense, I was grieving the fact that they were leaving the life we knew (where my wife and I were responsible for their transportation), and heading into the unknown. That’s the sacrament of Last Rites, too—experiencing something Transcendent as we leave one world for a bigger one. Our conversations, meals, jobs, transitions, point us to something bigger than ourselves. Or at least they can. Seeing them as sacraments helps move us from the known to the unknown world.
If spirituality is about paying attention, and I think it is, then the question is, What are we paying attention to?
Whether we see the sacred and holy in everyday life is not a matter of whether it exists. Wearing the lens of the sacraments can show us it has been there all along, hiding in plain sight.
Dean Nelson is the founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. His recent book is God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World. His website is DeanNelson.net. He has done articles for RELEVANT on Anne Lamott and Eugene Peterson.