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‘As my body grows older, my spirit becomes younger’


I am now 73 years old. I have discovered that every decade of my life has been happier and more peaceful than the last. Each decade has brought with it greater intimacy with a God of mercy and love and a greater trust in God’s love for me. As my body grows older, my spirit becomes younger. I know this is a gift from God for which I am grateful. As the years have gone by, my prayer life has undergone a radical change, from a prayer of the head, a prayer of words, concepts and thought processes, to a prayer of the heart. God has given me the grace to be continuously aware of a longing in my heart for a greater intimacy with God. My awareness of God is based on what I am deprived of, what I need and don’t have, what I am yearning for, what I have a hunger and thirst for and have not yet achieved.

Privation is a paradoxical concept. Philosophers define privation as “the absence of that which ought to be.” Privation, then, is an experience of absence in presence or presence in absence. To experience God as privation, then, necessarily means that I have already had an experience of God’s presence. I like to compare it to a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. If I see it, I will know it because there is only one piece that will fit into that empty space. In St. Augustine’s words, “You made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts will never rest until they rest in You.”

My personal knowledge of God has little to do with any intellectual definition. All the great mystics saw our efforts to capture God with thoughts and concepts as self-defeating. They recommended in prayer that we should empty our minds of thoughts and concepts and enter the “cloud of unknowing.”

My knowledge of God, then, comes from the hunger and thirst in myself. In the words of Psalm 63:1:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

My prayer life consists of being in touch with that hunger and thirst, not letting anything fill it in or block it off, or hide it from me. Rather, I strive to be in touch with that hunger and thirst, to consecrate it by converting it intentionally into prayer and identifying with it. My prayer life, then, is very simple. I spend a lot of time just being in touch with that longing, being open to it, and waiting. I continually ask God to come and meet that deep deprivation within me. I am like a desert waiting for the rain to come and soak in. As a result, my prayer is continuous.

I set aside time to enter into myself, empty out all thoughts and rest in the presence of God and experience the longing for that presence. I also spend some time every day “praying” the New York Times, formulating a prayer appropriate to every headline and article. In this way, I strive to let my prayer reach out to the whole world.

At a recent Easter vigil, the liturgy at sundown on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, I heard this passage from the Psalms: “As a deer longs for the flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (42:1). Suddenly, I was in touch with a profound longing for union with God, a longing that was at the same time painful and pleasurable, and I began to cry. I am grateful to God for that moment and see it as a great grace. Since that time, I am consciously aware that what I want is intimacy with God, and I will not settle for anything less. I am aware that being in touch with that longing is already a kind of awareness of God through privation. This awareness is God’s gift and promise. All other touches of intimacy in my life -- intimacies of family, friendships and my intimacy with my lover, Charlie -- are foretastes of that ultimate intimacy. But the only intimacy that can meet my needs and fill my heart is the intimacy with God. I particularly love the words of St. Augustine’s prayer in his Confessions.

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. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and now I long for your peace.

The great spiritual leaders of the past have always taught that God in fact nurtured our growth in capacity and potential for a passionate intimate relationship with God. My own experience of spiritual development finds its closest description in the understanding of spiritual growth in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory describes beautifully the step-by-step nature of spiritual growth. He says that God always waits on our freedom. Our first serious yes! to God enables divine love to begin to act within us. Our inner space -- as a result of that yes! -- is then ready to receive something of God. God fills that space as fully as we are able to accept. At the same time, this filling enlarges the space, and we long for more. Thus, the lover of God is always filled to his or her capacity and always longs for more of God. Yet the longing does not bring frustration because there is a fullness. According to St. Gregory, this process goes on beyond death into eternity because God is infinite and we are always a finite capacity open to further growth in our identity with an infinite God. For all eternity, we continue to grow deeper and deeper in union with a God who is infinite and, therefore, can never be exhausted.

The most difficult spiritual struggle for me is the endeavor to center myself in God and the love of God versus the ravenous hunger in my ego to make itself the center of my universe. I am aware of a very real danger: that if God gives me even a taste of the joy of God’s presence and love, my ego could go completely out of control. I am likely to start searching to experience God’s love as an ego fix, trying to use God as an object for my own ego satisfaction and my own feelings of superiority and specialness. Of course, God will not let God’s self be used in this way. In God’s goodness, God allows my spirit to be plunged into a “dark night of the soul,” until I am ready to experience God’s love in such a way that it only contributes to the “greater glory of God.”

I understand well the Sufi prayer: “Give me the pain of your love, O Lord and not the joy. Give the joy to others, but give me the pain!” The pain of God’s love is the longing for that love from a sense of deprivation. That pain purifies me and makes me ready to experience the positive joy of God’s presence. So in moments of dark night, I make an act of trust that through this emptiness and privation God is purifying me and making me ready to share in God’s joy.

John McNeill was a Jesuit for nearly 40 years before being expelled from the Society of Jesus in 1987 for his views on gay and lesbian sexuality. Since 1975 he has been a practicing psychotherapist and a frequent lecturer on spirituality and gay and lesbian issues. This excerpt is from Chapter 30, “My Spiritual Life” from Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey, published in 1998 by Westminster John Knox Press.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000