Nothing is more vital in spiritual discernment than to know that God communicates, and to know how God communicates.
Father John Powell, S.J., shared his insight that God communicates with us through five “ports of entry,” those means being the mind, emotion, imagination, memory, and will. I have explored his concept with dozens of groups in The Adventure of Living Prayer, a retreat model sponsored by The Upper Room and developed by Maxie Dunnam and myself.
I wrote the five “ports of entry” on a chalkboard and asked participants to tell their group-of-three about an experience with God, and name the port of entry which God used to communicate. I was always impressed with how quickly they could identify their experience.
After their discussion I called for votes “by precincts” around the room when each person designated his or her port of entry. I have done this with more than 50 groups, and a pattern became predictable. Typically, “emotion” was first; “mind” was usually second but sometimes third; “will” was usually third but sometimes second; and “memory” and “imagination” always competed for fourth and fifth places. I have never found an exception to this pattern, no matter how large or small the group.
Emotion was always first. When I asked the group what this tells us, the immediate and invariably apologetic conclusion was that it reveals we are emotional people (spoken as a downer!). I was saddened that many of the participants were ashamed of their human emotional nature. They assumed that to be emotional is to be weak, and the “worst case” of emotion they could imagine was religious emotion. They also assumed that emotion in religion connotes sadness, guilt, or remorse. They seldom talked of emotion in religion as joy and celebration.
Here are four additional beliefs that surfaced:
1) Emotion is caused by religious excess.
2) If you open yourself to emotions, you may not know how to handle the situation.
3) An emotional response indicates that one has lost control.
4) The person and/or their group might be embarrassed by “an emotional outburst.”
The church must address these negative attitudes about emotion in religion. Head-religion and heart-religion cannot flourish without each other. Separately, they only reproduce themselves while together they enhance Christian maturity.
My next question to the group was, “why does imagination get so few votes?” I began to answer my rhetorical question by telling my own story, and I could see nods of agreement all around the room.
As a child, I was told not to use my imagination. As a first or second grader, I was scolded for daydreaming instead of doing my work. Letting one’s mind wander was a no-no. I was told that if my mind wandered, I could soon be fantasizing, and that fantasy was dangerous: “you could go off the deep end if you are not careful.” They reminded me that I had work to do if I wanted to learn how to be productive. How many times was I told that an “idle mind is the devil’s workshop”? (At six and seven, I had no idea what they were talking about.)
My high school curriculum was no help. It offered only a smattering of poetry and no art. Throughout my high school years, great literature was never held up as a source of “food” for one’s imagination.
Later, the “Protestant work-ethic” kicked in, and there was no turning back.
Imagine my shock when at 40, I visited Disney Land (back then). I walked through the park with childlike intrigue. Everything was fascinating and colorful and creative. Everywhere I looked I saw sheer fantasy. It was wonderful! I loved it! Everyone loved it!
That day I made a discovery: all those people were wrong. Fantasy is good. It is creative imagination at work.
And creative imagination is a gift from God!
When we considered memory as a port of entry through which God communicates, many were puzzled. We thought of memory as our ability to recall dates, facts, telephone numbers, and names. But substantive memories, the good memories that nourish and sustain us, give us a sense of our history with and without God.
Professor Henri Nouwen described healing, guiding, and sustaining memories. My classmates were most keenly interested in healing memories because many of us had memories of negative experiences that had never been healed.
Professor Nouwen also wrote about “celebrating our hurts.” That was a new thought for most of the group. “What is there to celebrate? I am trying to forget a hurt and move on.”
But celebrating one’s hurts seemed to be a valid point. We celebrate a hurt by giving it prominence in our memory. Our memory has no power over us. Only when the hurt is remembered and offered to God can the hurt be healed.
God communicates with us through our good memories. They put us in touch again with the care and providence and grace of God. God also communicates with us through our bad memories when we place them into God’s care and grace.
The will is also a port of entry. It is probably the easiest of the five to understand. All of us have experienced either the presence or absence of strength of will. Father Powell referred to people in AA who find strength in their wills to do something that in themselves they had not been able to do.
During a week when I paid attention to persons around me, I witnessed dramatic effects of God’s communication through the will:
-A blind woman in her mid-twenties received her college diploma.
-Someone sitting behind me commented as a man walked forward to get his college diploma, “that man with the wooden leg is my 57-year-old daddy.”
-“I don’t want to put the tests off. Whatever is wrong, we need to know, so it can be treated.”
-“I love my car and I hate like anything to give it up, but I know it is only right that I do.”
In each case, strength of will made the difference. We know that God has communicated with us when we do that which is beyond our natural strength.
The mind is one of the strongest gifts we have going for us in spiritual discernment. To be able to think and reason is to use logic, assemble and assimilate data, make choices, and act out of “what comes to mind.” None of these is a contradiction or violation of spiritual discernment. On the contrary, we could not properly discern without our mental faculties.
God’s ways, for the most part, are not shrouded in mystery. They are usually reasonable, logical, simple and obvious. When I read the commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” I can grasp it with my mind.
Our world is full of innumerable examples that are far less dramatic. When I want to know God’s will on such matters, I simply use my mind. When my mind is influenced by the Holy Spirit, it is a reliable discerner of God’s will. I don’t need a theology book or a prayer group to help me discern whether God want me to abuse drugs.
Usually at some point during a discussion of the ports of entry someone will question whether the list of five is complete. “How about Scripture or the witness of a Christian friend? Doesn’t God speak to us in those ways?”
I distinguish between a source and our perception. The Bible is a source of God’s witness. But the Bible may sit on the table, unopened and unread. It is the same with the Christian witness of a friend. One’s Christian witness may have been given in word and deed on numerous occasions, yet it can remain unheeded-never really heard!
Only when one makes use of the Bible, or heeds a Christian witness, do they move through a port of entry into one’s consciousness.
Because of the story of a friend, I choose to add a sixth port of entry:
A professor friend described a personal experience that strongly suggests that our bodies are channels through which God communicates. He was an effective teacher. He received affirmation in his work. The university moved him into a coveted, tenured faculty position within six months, when for others it took five years. His ample salary also affirmed the quality of his work.
Everything was great, except that every morning when he went to work he became nauseated-really sick! A medical checkup did not reveal a cause. After nine months of daily nausea at work, his wife asked, “is it possible that God is trying to speak to you through your body and you are not listening? Maybe this is not what you are supposed to be doing with your life.”
In due time, he left the university and began a year’s sabbatical in residence with his family at Pendle Hill, the Quaker Retreat Center near Philadelphia. He stayed at Pendle Hill as a leader for ten years at a sizable reduction in salary compared to the university. He never again experienced daily nausea. His body was a port of entry.
In the midst of these ports of entry, to discern God’s will, two basic understandings must be fixed in one’s prayer life and personal theology: first, God is good! If you don’t hold that basic conviction, why would you want to know God’s will? Second, communication with God is possible!
If you wish to be intentional about developing your capacity for discerning God’s will, the best way is to be open to, and utilize, all of the ports of entry that are available for God to communicate with you. We have considered the question of how God communicates with us. Let me raise a quantitative question. Let’s now ask, not how, but how much or how little God communicates with us?
We can never calculate this for sure, but we can surmize some things because of what we know about the nature of God. We know that God’s grace is given freely and abundantly. We experience weather, air, and the seasons. These simple reminders suggest that we never have to question God’s constancy.
Ironically, God does not always have to be “speaking” or “broadcasting” in order to be communicating. Nor is communication from God stopped if I am not attentive. The very possibility of our presence to each other is the beginning of communication. And God is constantly calling for the full realization of that possiblity. God’s constancy in relationship-even constancy in availability for relationship-is in itself a powerful form of communication. In a deep, deep sense, that communication goes on constantly. It is like my relationship with Rosalie. We have a deep relationship of communication in part because of our availabilityfor a deep relationship.
How much God communicates with me is a wonderful thought that opens marvelous images of totality and consistency that reflect God’s nature.
How little I communicate with God is a terrible question because it confronts me precisely at the point of a weakness. The answer to that question judges me because of my inability to receive what God is saying when I refuse to “have ears to hear.” A major factor determining how little I communicate with God is the closed or underdeveloped Ports of Entry in my consciousness.
How much God communicates with me by being constantly available to me is a matter of everlasting grace on God’s part.