Understanding spiritual needs

How do we search for God?

It is easy to misunderstand what that means. We are forever searching for God, though mostly without knowing it. Usually, we think of our search for God as a conscious religious search, as something we do out of a spiritual side of ourselves.

We tend to think of things this way: I have my normal life with its pursuits and, if I am so inclined, on the side, I might have a spiritual or religious pursuit wherein I try through prayer, reflection, and religious practices to get to know God. This can be a misunderstanding of God’s ways. Our normal search for meaning, fulfillment, and even for pleasure, is in fact our search for God.

What do we naturally search for in life? By nature, we search for meaning, love, a soulmate, friendship, emotional connection, sexual fulfillment, significance, recognition, knowledge, creativity, play, humour, and pleasure. However, we tend not to see these pursuits as searching for God. In pursuing these things, we rarely, if ever, see them in any conscious way as our way of searching for God. In our minds, we are simply looking for happiness, meaning, fulfillment, and pleasure, and our search for God is something we need to do in another way, more consciously through explicit religious practices.

Well, we are not the first people to think like that. It has always been this way. For instance, St. Augustine struggled with exactly this, until one day he realised something. 

A searcher by temperament, Augustine spent the first thirty-four years of his life pursuing the things of this world: learning, meaning, love, sex, and a prestigious career. However, even before his conversion, there was a desire in him for God and the spiritual. Like us, he saw that as a separate desire from what he was yearning for in the world. Only after his conversion did he realize something. Here is how he famously expressed it:

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. … You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.”

This is an honest admission that he lived a good number of years not loving God; but it is also an admission that, during those years, he had massively misunderstood something and that misunderstanding lay at the root of his failure. What was that misunderstanding?

Reading his confession we tend to focus on the first part of it, namely, on his realisation that God was inside of him all the while, but that he was not inside of himself. This is a perennial struggle for us too. Less obvious in this confession and something that is also a perennial struggle for us, is his recognition that for all those years while he was searching for life in the world, a search he generally understood as having nothing to do with God, he was actually searching for God. 

Ronald Rolheiser
Our Unconscious Search for God

Further reading

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