Communicating with God

A woman gazing up in the fog - Communicating with God in nature

Does God Communicate?

Her parents talk to God. Her partner feel God’s presence. They all say that the Holy Spirit guides them.

Yet God has never spoken to her. That doesn’t mean she stopped believing in God. She believes. How could she not when she has been taught since infancy that this Christian God was real, that he created the universe, walked through a perfect garden with Adam and Eve, and blessed the faithful. This woman tried so hard to be faithful. She did not feel blessed.

What was wrong with her? Had God forsaken her because of some terrible thing she had done, something she could not remember? She was so unhappy, her life so miserable. Why couldn’t she hear God’s voice? Why was her God silent?

Some people told her about mystical moments that connected them with a force of love and grace beyond description. This might come in the form of a coincidence that defies explanation, a vision of light or angels, a warning, a sense of God’s presence, a comfort, prayers answered, tragedies avoided, a certainty that, though there would be hardship, in the end, all would be well.

She never felt anything like that. Why not?

Not everyone has such experiences. Some people live their entire lives without a single flicker of divine presence, and they’re fine with that. Maybe they don’t believe in God, or maybe their belief doesn’t depend on answered prayers or mystical guidance. Others, like the woman I met with, feel bereft. When they see family and friends living contented, God-filled lives, they wonder what they’re missing. They, too, want to communicate with, to be touched by, to enjoy, a loving relationship with the holy.

Longing for God

Many of our culture’s sacred myths describe a time when humans and gods spoke to one another, as if they longed for an intimate relationship with the holy. In the Hebrew Bible, Adam and Eve talked to God the way we might speak to an uncle. Greek gods once consorted with humans. The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, while searching for immortality, was warned by the goddess Shiduri that his quest would end in failure. [1]

There is a story from the Central Australian Aborigines that tell of a time when the Great Spirit spoke to the people. Long ago, the Great Spirit talked directly to the people. Every morning, when the sun began to climb above the hills, the people would gather beneath the great gum tree to listen to his words. Though they couldn’t see the Great Spirit, what he told them was helpful, so they got up each morning to see what he had to say. After a while, though, the people grew tired of rising so early. Besides, they couldn’t see who was talking. It was pretty spooky, listening to a disembodied voice.

So they stopped going to the tree, and they stopped listening. Instead, they slept in.

This disappointed the Great Spirit, but still, he loved his people, so he sent a wise man, Narroondarie, to gather the people together so he could show them a sign. The people gathered. As they sat waiting, a great tongue of fire streamed down from the heavens and struck the gum tree, splitting it in two. The people gasped, the tree clapped back together, becoming whole.

Communicating with God

Then Narroondarie told the people to return to their hunting and their partying, and the people did. They were content and happy. For a while. With time, though, they came to miss talking to the Great Spirit, and they asked Narroondarie to ask him to talk to them again, but Narroondarie said the Great Spirit would never talk to them again.

They tried to get Naboolea, who lives in the Milky Way, to intercede for them, and they asked their dead ancestors to help, but no one could do anything. The Great Spirit no longer spoke directly to the people, and the people despaired. They cut themselves with sharp stones and painted their bodies white. They grieved.

Seeing their distress, the Great Spirit sent the wise Wy-Young-Gurrie to explain to the people how they might at last hear the voice of the Great Spirit. Wy-Young-Gurrie brought the people back to the gum tree to remind them of the tongue of fire they had seen. What did the people think that was? It was the tongue of the Great Spirit, and his tongue now lived in everything that existed. All the people had to do was to listen. If they were still and silent, they would hear the Great Spirit in the water, the birds, the colors of morning and of rain, the wind, the sweetness of berries, the bitterness of the herb. They just had to listen.

So the people sat quietly beneath the tree, and they listened, and they heard, and they tried to understand. [2]

A woman gazing up in the fog - Communicating with God in nature
Photo by Jakob Owens

Process Theology

The aborigines believe that the Great Spirit lives in everything. Process theologians believe something similar. Process theology is the belief that god co-creates with humans, evolving as the universe evolves. One teaching of this theology is that God and the creation are one. This oneness shows itself less as god being in everything, than as everything being in God. Either way, we and God are one.

In both the aboriginal and the process worldviews, we are also individual and separate. That means we are one and not-one. That’s why we can communicate with God. Our connection with God means we can perceive the divine, while our separateness makes interaction possible. How do we sense this divine communication? The sacred is present in nature, in our emotions and thoughts, and in the care we give to one another.

In her book about process theology, Carol P. Christ tells a story of a time when she was feeling sad and lonely. When she went to bed that night, she cried. Her dog, distressed by her tears, climbed up beside her and licked her face. The animal was trying to comfort her. Though the dog did not understand what Christ was crying about, she knew her friend was unhappy. She understood suffering, and she cared.

According to Christ, this is God talking to us. When we show compassion to one another, God is there. Maybe we don’t feel God’s presence, but God feels us. Even with process theology, it seems, there are some things we must take on faith. God is there, whether we feel her or not.

Sharing Our Suffering

Not everyone wants to communicate with God. Some people are too angry. Maybe something horrible happened to them. Maybe they got desperately sick or were raped or lost a child to death. When terrible things happen, it’s not unusual for us to blame God. After all, many religions teach us that God is in charge. We wonder why God lets so many awful things happen.

For a long time, Christ felt such anger. She thought of the people who had died in the Holocaust, of the many women, children, and people of color who are tormented and murdered every day. One night, she dumped all her anger out on God, spilling her thoughts, her feelings. When she had finished and was silent, she heard a voice that was not her voice speak in her head. It said these words: “In God is a woman like yourself. She shares your suffering.” [3]

This god is not a god of liberation. She does not reign over us. Nor does she have “dominion,” give orders, strike down the innocent along with the evil. This god doesn’t strike down anyone. That is not the power she claims. A process god claims a power with us, one of co-creation, of building a world together. God is with us always, because nothing could occur if we both weren’t involved. We are so close that God feels all we feel and suffers alongside us. She will never abandon us.

God Never Abandons Us

This is true even after we die. I am not saying that we definitely have a consciousness after death. I can’t imagine how that consciousness would work, but just because I don’t understand something doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Life after death, one in which we know we exist, might be possible. Even a process god could allow for that.

The other day, I was talking with a middle-aged man who had been sick for thirty years. Finally, he’d reached the point where his body couldn’t go on. Doctors had nothing to offer him. Soon, he would die.

As you might imagine, he had a lot of feelings about this. He felt guilty, wondering if he’d done something to hasten his decline. When he thought of leaving his pets and his children, he cried. He felt resentful and sad about having to give up his life. As a Christian, he believed in heaven, so he figured he shouldn’t be afraid, but he was. He was not sure that he would go to paradise when he died.

“I’ve done a lot of bad things,” he told me.

It’s a common regret. When they’re close to dying, people often say such things. Generally, I acknowledge that they did something wrong. That matters, after all, and I’ve found that when we honor a person’s sense of responsibility, they feel better. They may find their way to undoing at least a bit of the harm they caused.

God’s Sadness

With this man, however, I had no urge to invite accountability or encourage the making of amends. Instead, an immense sadness welled up inside me. I’m not convinced that sadness was mine, but it was strong, and I felt tears come to my eyes. More than anything else, I longed for this man to see how precious he was, to realize there was forgiveness enough in the universe for all things. At that moment, I didn’t care about his crimes. All I cared about was that he was so blinded by the faith he’d been taught that he couldn’t see that God accepted him utterly and would never turn him away. I felt compelled to help him see it, too.

It mystifies me, sometimes, how anyone can think that hell is a place we go to suffer when we die. Who could worship a god who would throw a soul away forever? You think we need punishment? Maybe, though I’m not convinced punishment does much to make the world – or the afterlife – a better place. I suspect punishment often makes things worse.

That may be why I appreciate the suffering Goddess that Christ speaks of, because a god who experiences our pain also understands what we need. Such a god can help heal our wounds if we but listen. That’s why I hoped the dying gentleman could feel at least some of the acceptance and forgiveness I experienced as I sat by his bed. The God that moved within me didn’t want us to fear death. Certainly, she didn’t want us to fear punishment. All she wanted was for that man to feel loved.

Communicating without Words

Without words, God communicated with me. In my awkward way, I tried to pass along God’s love to that man. Maybe he felt it, and maybe he didn’t. Regardless, I was changed.

That connection with spirit is a form of communication. No words, no thoughts, just a longing, like a wish to be seen, as if God were begging us to look at her. See me, God was saying. See me for who I am, not for the fantasies you create about me.

How can we not be changed when we experience that?

As Christ tells us, God suffers with us. My experience tells me that God wishes that we believed that. God invites us to trust her intimately and completely. She doesn’t promise to rescue us, but rather to be with us in our pain. God has no power to change what is. Maybe she creates with us, but that means she also depends on us. Yet she can help us get through whatever we must face. A process god is a relational god. Thus, she can communicate with us.

Some people hear God in the rustlings of the leaves and the crying of the crows, in the silence of the mountains and the roar of the town. Maybe we see God in clasped hands and empty ones. No matter how lonely we feel, we are not alone. God is within and without. She is always talking, singing, dancing, inviting, encouraging, crying, laughing. Listen. Can you hear her in the wind?

Listening to the Great Spirit

I suspect that the woman who was certain God did not talk to her believed this because she had a limited vision of how God speaks. Some people do hear God as a voice in their heads or a knowing in their hearts. Though I suspect not all knowings come from God, some probably do, and some people experience this kind of direct communication.

But there are other ways to know the sacred.

For instance, when I spoke to that man who was afraid of hell, I felt a presence that might have been of God, but I heard no words, felt no knowings. Although I sensed a truth beyond truth, mostly I just experienced emotions. Love and sadness filled me. Nothing more. Even so, this was a communication, something shown to me, and something I tried to pass on to the patient. Did that love touch him? I don’t know. If not, then hopefully someone else will be able to reach him in that way.

We can communicate with God by listening to the voice of the Great Spirit that resides in nature. If we are blessed to have experienced sacred moments of transcendence, we know this is another way to communicate with the divine. Prayer, meditation, silence are other ways to allow God in.

Yet if process theologians are correct, and God is a god of co-creation, then perhaps the most important way we communicate with her is by communicating with one another. If she lives in us, and if we live in her, then when we talk, no matter to what or whom, we are talking to God. If we acted as if that were true, then everything really would be holy.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See, for instance, Ashton, John and Tom Whyte, The Quest for Paradise, New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  2. See Fahs, Sylvia Lyon, and “Voice of the Great Spirit,” Old Tales for a New Day, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980, 24-28 or Unaipon, David, “Voice of the Great Spirit,” Working with Indigenous Australians, http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info/content/Resources_2_Readings_8B.html, accessed 6/26/21.
  3. Christ, Carol P., She Who Changes, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 89.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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