Talk to God by talking to friends

Years ago a friend and I were making a long train journey together. In the course of the day our conversation drifted into profound topics. We talked about spirituality, faith, boredom, mediocrity. "I find it difficult to pray", my friend confided to me. "I wish talking to God was as easy as talking to someone like you."

"Thanks", I told her. "But I'll tell you something even more amazing. While talking to me you were actually also talking to God".

She laughed. "Ah! You're pretending to be God!"

"You know I'm not", I said. "I may be conceited, but not to that extent! All the same, I am serious. When people like us discuss spiritual things, God is very much part of it. He listens and speaks in both of us."

There is a marvellous story in the Gospels about the risen Christ appearing to two disciples who were on their way to Emmaus. As they were walking along, a stranger joined them. Soon they were involved in a deep and lively discussion about Jesus' death in Jerusalem and how it agreed with Old Testament prophecies.

When they arrived at Emmaus where the two disciples were going to stay for the night, the stranger prepared to take leave. "Stay with us", they said to him. "It's late. You may not easily find lodgings elsewhere". He agreed. And when they had supper together, the stranger took a loaf of bread, gave thanks and broke the bread. The scales then fell from the disciples' eyes and they recognised that he was Jesus, the Risen Christ.

Christ disappeared before their eyes. Then they realised that they had actually been talking to Christ all day without having been aware of it. "Didn't our hearts burn when he talked to us on the road?", they said to each other. See: Luke 24,13-35.

The story is purposely narrated in the Gospel to make us understand that God is often present in our encounters and discussions when we talk about the religious, ultimate questions of life.

This does not mean that God takes the disguise of some stranger (as we might read from the Emmaus story), but that God is present in and through the people we are talking to. As Christ said: "Where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there I am in your midst". See: Matthew 18,20.

Human mediation

The simple fact is that God understands our human need to relate to him in a human way. That was the whole reason of his incarnation, his living among us in a human individual, Jesus Christ. It is also the reason why our friends and companions do at times represent God in their dealings with us.

According to our Christian belief, some people may be specially called upon to speak on God's behalf in specific circumstances. They are known as prophets. Priests and ministers represent God by preaching his word and administering the sacraments. But speaking for God is not a monopoly. All sensitive and responsible people do at times mediate God. "Who hears you, hears me", then applies to them too. See: Luke 10,16.

God speaks to us through others

One obvious implication of what we have seen is that we should be open to the possibility of God trying to tell us something through another person.

Suppose we have had an interesting conversation with someone we trust, in the course of which we touched on profound spiritual truths. I may often feel depressed, for instance, and my friend, who is a convinced Christian, has spoken about the unique worth of every single individual in the eyes of God. What she said struck a cord in me. Could something like that really apply to myself? I wonder.

When I reflect on it afterwards I may, with good reason, feel that it was not just my friend who spoke, but that God too was in the discussion. God was trying to tell me something through her. Instead of it being just her words, it was God who told me: "Of course, you too are a unique and lovable person. You mean a lot to Me. Yes, you!"

The same may happen when I am reading a book about spiritual matters. I may always have imagined God to be a stern and demanding Father, who watches me at every step to see if he can find fault. By what the author says it may suddenly dawn on me that that is not what God is like at all. The image of God as a loving, caring and tolerant mother is so much more appropriate, I realise.

Can a mother forget her own baby and not love the child she gave birth to? Even if a mother should reject her child, I will never reject you. I have written your name on the palms of my hand!

From Isaiah 49,15-16.

The mystic Juliana of Norwich even called Christ our mother, "in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come!"; Revelations of Divine Love, New York 1978, p. 292. On the importance of female imagery of God for women, read also K.FISCHER, Women at the Well, London 1989, pp. 75-92.

Having this new insight is just the first step. The second is to recognise that God himself/herself is addressing me directly through this passage. It is as if God, as a loving parent, says to me: "Hey, my child. Why do you hang on to those wrong impressions you have of me? Come close to me. I want to embrace you. I want to make you feel happy in my love. Why don't we make a new start?"

Of course, we should not be carried away in all this. We should not begin to think that God is sending us thousands of messages through everything people tell us or through every page we read.

In particular, I recommend two safeguards. The first one is that the person who talks to us, or the author whose book we read, should be a sensible person. God does not normally speak through bigots, fanatics or people who are emotionally unbalanced.

Secondly, listen to your heart. If God is speaking to you, he/she will touch you interiorly. His message will resonate in you. Like the disciples of Emmaus you will be saying: "Didn't my heart burn when so-and-so was speaking to me? " Deep down you will know: this is more than just a human being talking to me.

Our speaking to God

Another consequence of human mediation is that, when we feel we would like to talk something over with God, we might decide to put the matter to some friend whose judgment we trust.I know from my own experience as a priest how many people are helped by a frank discussion about some question that bothers them.

  • "When I pray, I hardly say a word. Is God happy about that?"
  • "I lecture in physics and have said goodbye to many traditional concepts of God. Am I wrong?"
  • "I can see the point of religion, but I'm put off by the official Church."
  • "Does God really back me up when I follow the honest assessment of my own conscience?"

In many cases people are intensely relieved when they can discuss their thoughts and feelings openly, and know that somehowthey were actually speaking to God and receiving his/her mediated answer. And speaking to a human person about matters that concern our relationship to God does not stand in the way of our speaking to God directly. It prepares us for it. It flows from personal prayer. It makes our prayer complete.

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The text in this lesson is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

The video clips are from Journey to the Centre of Love (scriptwriter & executive producer John Wijngaards) which was awarded the GRAND PRIX by the Tenth International Catholic Film Festival held in Warsaw (18-23 May 1995). It also received the prestigious Chris Award at the International Film Festival, Columbus Ohio, in 1997.