Some years ago I was having a beer with a close friend of mine at Croxley’s Ale House, a dimly lit local Long Island bar known for having 50 different brews on tap. I was worrying out loud about the fact that I worry too much.
In response, my friend Eric, a devout Christian who was contemplating converting to Catholicism, suggested that I go on a spiritual retreat. I considered the notion. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about spending a weekend cooped up in a monastery surrounded by people I did not know and I told my friend so.
But Eric kept pushing and spoke to me about his past experiences, all of which were positive. So, after we enjoyed a couple of rounds together, he had persuaded me to give it a shot.
Three weeks later, I found myself at a rather musty old mansion run by an order of Jesuits. Forty other men and I assembled in a brightly lit room known as the solarium, where three walls of floor-to-ceiling windows permitted cascades of natural sunlight to stream into the area.
The average age of the men present was somewhere between 55 and 60. At the time, I was 26. Being a shy person by nature, I sat alone in the back of the room and waited for the leader of the retreat, a priest whom I didn’t know, to welcome us and deliver his opening remarks.
After some time, an elderly priest shuffled into the room. He was white-haired, tall but hunched over, and seemingly quite frail.
Really? I thought to myself. This is our retreat leader? This poor guy can barely stand up. He probably can’t even speak. Not nice thoughts, but I had come to this place to be inspired! I wanted to be motivated!
After what Eric had told me I had assumed that our retreat leader would be some kind of jacked-up, over-caffeinated Tony Robbins type combined with Jesus. I remember scoping out the exit and considering whether anyone would notice if I bolted. And yet, I stayed.
It seemed like it took the priest 10 minutes to traverse 20 feet of floor. When he made it to the podium, he just stood there looking down at the papers he was shuffling in front of him. The priest pulled a clean, white handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed it across his mouth.
I noticed that his hand was shaking, as if he might be suffering from early Parkinson’s disease. He did not make eye contact with anyone in the audience. Then, after another long minute or so of just standing there, he took a deep breath, straightened up — he seemed to grow 12 inches right in front of our eyes — and bellowed in such a loud voice that I nearly fell over in my chair, “HOW BIG IS YOUR GOD?”
The priest was no longer shaking, but I was. The solarium, once dull, had become vibrant and alive.
“HOW BIG IS YOUR GOD?” the priest repeated. “IS GOD A SMALL, PETTY GOD WHO GETS MAD AND HOLDS GRUDGES? OR IS GOD A GOD WHO IS THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE, A GOD WHO ACTS BIGGER THAN THE WAY WE DO EVERY DAY? IS GOD A GOD OF VENGEANCE OR IS GOD A FORGIVING GOD? WELL? HOW BIG IS GOD? HUH? HOW BIG IS GOD? IS GOD A HUMAN GOD OR A GODLY GOD?”
Now, I have to explain that at this point the priest wasn’t actually yelling. His voice, however, rang out with the timbre of a giant church bell, and I felt as if I were sitting directly under the steeple. Everything seemed to be vibrating. I felt something stir within me. I’m pretty sure that all of us in the solarium were feeling something similar.
What was once a quiet place filled with a bunch of sleepy old men now was a room full of something I can only describe as sacred fire.
The priest suggested we meditate on these questions for the remainder of the day and spend our time in devotion to God. With that, he dismissed us. We stood and the other men made their way out of the room.
Many were speaking excitedly to one another, as if their tongues had just been blessed. I thought about the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles. After Christ’s death, Jesus’ followers retreated to a “large, furnished upper room” (Luke 22:12).
There they encountered the Holy Spirit, who blessed them with tongues of fire that seemed to hover above their heads. Then, as indeed now, a small multitude of men were “amazed and astonished” (Acts 2:7).
Afterward, the apostles were able to go forth and perform miracles. Was this solarium, then, a modern day upper room? I felt a quickening of the flame that had been lit inside me.
I walked up to the podium, where the priest stood shuffling his papers. I noticed that his hands were once again shaking and he seemed to have returned to the same stooped, shrunken size he had been before he rang the bells of our awakening. I asked him a question: “How do I get closer to God?”
“By loving God. By praising, revering, and serving God. Focus on God’s presence in your life,” he replied.
“But how do you do that? When I think about God I don’t feel anything most of the time — just nervous,” I confessed.
“Love God,” he said. “If God is too out of reach, then become devoted to part of God, to his sacred heart, maybe. Become devoted to something in the name of God. Care about something. Adore something for God. I don’t mean make something an idol, but love something for God the way God loves you.”
“Even though I just argued that our God should be a big God, sometimes God can be too big. If this is how you feel, then try some simple acts of devotion. Pray the Rosary, talk to a saint, read the Bible, meditate on a word, read a holy card. Offer it all up to God.”
He looked me in the eyes and once again seemed to grow in stature. “Go pray,” he repeated.
Something in me shifted. “I will,” I said, and then I went off to my room to do just that.
And I haven’t stopped since. Every day I ask myself the same question: How big is my God? It is my prayer in the morning. It is my prayer at night.
I ask you to pray with me now. How big is your God? Well, how big? Email me at [email protected] and let me know.
Gary Jansen is the author of “MicroShifts: Transforming Your Life One Step at a Time” and “Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross.”
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