This book could have many titles: The Story of Soul, The Seven Story Mountain, The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Dark Night of the Soul or The Interior Castle. What it shares in common with these books is the sacred story of an individual in search of God. How it differs makes it exquisitely relevant for today. It is not written by a priest, a religious but by a husband, a father, a pediatrician, a person whose life is filled, like most of us, with family and work responsibilities and concerns.
John initiated his writing when, in 1998, he had a relapse of testicular cancer. He, with his wife, Anne, had two young children aged 5 and 2. Death was a real possibility and John wanted to leave his children some knowledge of his life. John did not die but was encouraged to continue writing by a wise spiritual director both as a means of self-discovery and deepening his relationship with God. The reader journals with John over 20 years as he struggles to find God, to follow God’s will, to overcome his faults and flaws, and to integrate into his interior life with God his exterior life of recurring illness, keen disappointments, and the constant demands of family and professional responsibilities. John’s transparency and honesty in relating his pilgrimage to God with its stumbles and falls, warm experiences of God’s love, and continual ups and downs, twists and turns will provide encouragement to anyone who is also on this same journey. John’s journey underscores how one’s movement toward God is never a straight ascent to the heights.
Some of the most significant aspects of the book describe John’s growth in prayer beginning with oral prayers, to more meditative and then contemplative prayer, from 5 minutes of prayer to 15 minutes to an hour to wanting to pray always, yet at times wanting not to pray at all. He identifies resources that have helped him on his prayer journey that also may assist the reader. In Part 2 of the book, John touchingly describes incidents when his prayer with Scripture allowed Jesus to intimately communicate with him. In Ignatian spirituality it is described as “putting oneself in the scene” and John’s retelling of his Scriptural prayer reveals how the Word of God uniquely touches each of us in our particular circumstance and enables us to discover a compassionate God near and caring for us no matter where we find ourselves.
Several times John relates profound moments when “God’s love flows through him” and it may make those who long for such moments envious. Yet, God, as John emphasizes, desires each of us to experience our self as a beloved son or daughter. However, anyone who has attempted to make this journey can testify these moments do not last. We descend from the mountain and find ourselves again seeming distant from God, caught in our own vices, and feeling discouraged. What we learn from John’s writing is that it is always God who takes the initiative and can surprise us at any time. It does not depend on us or what we do.
Having had the privilege of accompanying many others on their own spiritual journey, as I read this book, I often wanted to suggest to John that he foster more compassion toward himself, be kinder and gentler and less condemnatory. Though John acknowledges that any good he may do is always a gift of God at times he is tempted, like all on this journey, to think if he were better, humbler, more dependent on God he could feel God’s love flowing thought him more constantly. Yet the truth is God often seems absent in the holiest of lives. The great spiritual writers tell us that God is never absent but just gone deeper and draws us to travel to that deeper place and abide in Divine Love ever more profoundly. Certainly, John’s writing is a witness to this.
I loved reading this book. It details in the context of an ordinary man’s life, the extraordinary presence and intimate Love of God found, lost, and found again and again. From John’s perspective it is he finding God. From God’s perspective it is the Good Shepherd determined to find the lost sheep over and over again and holding him close to God’s Heart carry him home. Anyone who desires to begin the journey of finding God or who is already on the journey of finding and losing and finding again will find hope, courage, and encouragement to persevere. This book underscores the intimate love of God for each of us and God’s great desire to communicate that love to everyone, absolutely no exceptions.
Submitted by Marcella Clancy, CSJ
Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph