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“Ask a Priest: What Is God Made Of? Does He Hear Our Prayers?”
Q: I am discerning to be a Trappist nun. I’ve been invited to do a retreat at a Trappist monastery and I am most thrilled. The problem is, though, God is something I feel to be true in my heart. I have trouble, intellectually, wrapping my head around the existence of God, but I feel it to be true in my heart. So, my question here is: What is God made out of? How does he influence us? How does he hear our prayers? Is he some kind of person somewhere hearing us or is he some sort of abstract being? Is the universe all part of God’s grand design? See, when I was younger I had the image of God of being an old man with a long gray beard, which I suppose is typical for children. As I got older it became more abstract but I resisted the concept of God being energy since the Bible says that is sinful. So is God some sort of being, somewhere, with large ears that can hear us? For many years now I have thought of God as something abstract, I think because I read Freud and wanted to avoid the concept of God being my father. But, the problem with the abstract concept is that then I think God might be energy or something. I mean, you can’t just do things via thought or will unless it is energy. So, somehow, God designed existence and the angels and demons and everything. It’s just: I’ve had some incredible mystical experiences and I feel God to be real in my heart and the idea of being a nun sounds incredible to me. I’m just having trouble wrapping my head around it intellectually. Do you have any books I could read about this? Thank you for your time. –S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It is wonderful to hear that you are seriously considering monastic life. Monastic life, by human standards, doesn’t make much sense — which is why it is one of the great signs of the mystery of God and how he works in the hearts of some of his beloved children.
I use that word “children” deliberately. We should think of God (at least the first Person of the Trinity) as Father. Forget about Freud. The one who revealed God as a Father was Jesus himself. And Jesus is a lot more credible than Freud.
To your big questions: Who is God? What is God? How does he influence us? Answers to those questions have filled books. Permit me a succinct answer here.
God is pure spirit, with no beginning, no end. He is uncreated; always has been, always will be. Philosophically we could say he is Uncreated Being, the Unmoved Mover, the First Principle of everything. Those terms are accurate, as far as they go, but they make God seem abstract, as you say.
A warmer way of thinking of the Almighty is to say that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love implies a Lover and a Loved and something that binds them. This is a way we can think of the Trinity.
God as spirit has intellect and will. What does he do with his intellect? He thinks a Thought. What does he think about? He thinks about something perfect: God. His thought is so perfect, an image of himself, that it is a Person: the Son.
The Son and Father look at each other, and the love that binds them is so perfect that it, too, is a Person: the Holy Spirit.
Put another way, for two Persons of the Trinity to be united, something has to unite them. This something can’t be greater than them, because nothing is greater than God. And it can’t be anything less than them, because then it wouldn’t capable of uniting them. The answer, then, is that this love is God: the Holy Spirit.
Yet there is only one God. The three Persons are, in theological terms, subsistent relations “within” God. Three Persons, one God.
Don’t worry if you can’t get your mind around this. No one really can. It is the core mystery of our faith. Even in eternity we won’t ever fully grasp the mystery of God. That is why eternity won’t be dull; we’ll be busy learning more about God.
This wonderful God wanted to share with love with others; hence, he created us. And to give us a glimpse of his greatness he created the universe around us.
God influences us through the inspirations he sends. We might have an idea to do a good deed for someone or to pray for someone who is suffering. These can all be inspirations – gentle nudgings in our heart – that come from God. He also influences us through our conscience, that inner voice that tells us to avoid evil and to do good.
The Almighty also influences us in the sense that he embeds in us a deep longing for him. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord,” wrote St. Augustine, “and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” It is not surprising that we can feel God is there, even when we can’t grasp him intellectually.
Then, too, since God is everywhere and knows everything, he certainly knows when we are praying to him.
That is a short answer, from the intellectual side. Crucial is the relational side — your relation with God and how you will respond to him. This is the work of a lifetime.
Suffice it to say that it would help you to try to see yourself as a daughter loved deeply by God. He loved you so much that he sent his Son to suffer and die on a cross for your redemption. That, too, is a mystery that you could spend a lifetime contemplating.
For more materials you might consider the course by Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., on The One and Triune God.
Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., has some interesting insights in this article, and in his book Contemplating the Trinity. For even weightier reading, see Father Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., The Christian Trinity in History (St. Bede’s, 1981).
Another suggestion would be Frank Sheed’s Knowing God.
I hope some of this helps. And I wish you the best on your journey of discernment.
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