I was raised in a home where religion played a pivotal role in our lives, providing purpose, meaning and a sense of belonging. The focus was heavily on rules and rituals, which meant I developed a prescriptive faith, but had no concept of a personal relationship with God. As a child, God seemed distant, easy to anger and disapproving of fun and even laughter. This meant I grew to live in fear of Him and viewed prayer as nothing more than an obligatory chore.
The years passed and I became an adult, leaving the refuge of my parents’ home for the enticing temptations of undergraduate life. Although I still subscribed to a religion, it was a formality and God remained conspicuously absent from my life. I spent my undergraduate years struggling with a degree in Chemistry, as I became better acquainted with the nightlife on offer. Like most young people, I struggled to find my place in the world and eventually graduated to become a teacher.
However, my tenure as a teacher was short lived. I quickly realised I was unsuited to the profession and found it difficult to cope with the lack of discipline in schools. The thought of spending the rest of my working life in an environment resembling riot control, filled me with dread and I began to comfort eat to ease my despair. Throughout this turbulent period, faith played no part in my life and it was my father who rushed to my rescue, financing a much welcome return to university.
This time, I chose a more marketable subject and embarked on a postgraduate degree in Information Systems and Technology. I worked harder than I’d worked in my entire life and graduated with a distinction, paving my entry into the corporate world. Here, I was exposed to the ruthless machinations of the career ladder and made early mistakes, before becoming a leader in my field and managing projects worth millions. I was professionally fulfilled, even though personal fulfilment remained elusive.
Life continued with its perpetual cycle of highs and lows, but God remained a stranger. I watched enviously as my sisters deepened their faith and found greater meaning and purpose in their lives. I wanted to share their passion, but felt an imposter because God continued to be (to me) the detached and overbearing figure of our childhood. I longed for the unshakeable belief which permeated from my sisters, but couldn’t reconcile my beliefs with their refreshing perspective and remained immutable.
It was ten years later, after a sequence of events outside my control, that I suddenly found myself living alone. As I mourned the loss of my companion, I took solace in the silence and solitude of the home we’d once shared. This was a very difficult time and my home became a sanctuary, where I found the emptiness strangely comforting after a hard day at work. It became my refuge, where I retreated from the world and quietly nurtured my soul in the safety of solitude.
It was on one such evening, as I stood in front of my bookcase looking for an engaging read, that I noticed Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsh. I realised one of my sisters had left it behind and surprised myself by picking it up and flicking through it. For some inexplicable reason, I was drawn to it and settled down to read.
As I read, I realised the teachings of my childhood were so deeply ingrained that I had difficulty accepting a God who loved me unconditionally and who had no expectations of me. I was intrigued by the notion that God wanted me to know Him through my personal experience, as opposed to relying on the experiences of others (no matter how well meaning). This was a radical departure from my beliefs, but my curiosity was sufficiently piqued for me to explore further. I began to read voraciously and my family encouraged my fledging faith through debate and discussion. I spent a great deal of time alone, reflecting and taking long walks. As my faith evolved, I began to marvel at the beauty of nature, where just a glimpse of the night sky or a winter sunrise stirred my soul because they were tangible encounters with God. I settled into a period of contentment and realised that even though I still lived alone, I was no longer lonely.
I began to find new meaning in scripture, music and poetry. Haunting classics like Gabriel Faure’s Pavane and Michael Nyman’s Outside Looking In expressed the yearning of my soul, to draw closer to God and know Him deeply. I found rich meaning in the Psalms, especially Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd), which was to become a talisman in difficult times. I could relate to Jelaluddin Rumi’s poetry which expressed the ecstasy at the core of his relationship with God, but it was Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, which came closest to capturing the conversion taking place in my own heart.
As my faith deepened, I noticed changes in myself. I stopped measuring success or failure through benchmarks set by society and recognised how much of life was an illusion. When I needed clarity on a situation,I turned to God rather than friends and family. Where once I’d been impatient, I became compassionate and understanding. If relationships became fraught, I stopped blaming others and confronted my own failings. I began to actively look for opportunities to help others and felt a connection to everyone, including strangers. I became an optimist and looked for the best in people, including myself. I began each day with a prayer, asking God to help me be a better person and when I fell short, as I often did, I persevered and started all over again the next day. Ultimately, I became a kinder, happier and more loving person.
This transformation took years to unfold and by the time it was complete, I was a different person. I’m now in my fifties and marvel at the synchronicity of events, which led me to God. Although I did hunger for God, I didn’t know Him and therefore didn’t trust Him. God knew this and used a low point in my life to draw me in. As I lived alone at that time,I had plenty of opportunity to explore my beliefs and forge a bond, which has only strengthened over time. I realised that previous attempts to explore my faith had failed because I’d searched for God in my mind (intellect), when He was to be found in my heart. There are times when I wish I had been blessed with this transformation in my twenties, but my relationship with God has taught me that everything has its own special timing.
My life has changed immeasurably since I began my spiritual odyssey, all those years ago. I no longer live alone and have a family, who have brought me great personal fulfilment. I have a career in renaissance and still derive great satisfaction from my work. I’m financially comfortable and have never been in better health. Yet despite so many blessings, the greatest joy in my life is my relationship with God. Circumstances can change unexpectedly; I’ve seen marriages falter once children fly the nest and careers disappear overnight, which took decades to build. I know I’m not immune to changing fortunes and accept the uncertainty of life, but my foundations are no longer built on work, relationships, family, or even financial security. The source of my joy is firmly rooted in my relationship with God and has transcended all other sacred bonds, including those between spouses, siblings and even parents and their children.
In western culture, great value is placed on romantic love as being the foundation on which to build a life. In eastern culture, the emphasis is on familial love and a focus on community. I can relate to both, but it’s my relationship with God, which has brought me greatest happiness. God is both my Father and my friend. He loves me irrespective of success or failure. He has no hidden agenda and no expectations of me, other than my joy and fulfilment. He delights in my company and loves me for who I am, rather than who He hoped I’d be. He trumpets my achievements with a father’s pride and soothes my hurts with the gentleness of a lioness with her cub. He comforts me in troubled times and propels me forward towards dreams, which would otherwise be unthinkable.
God is the one true constant in my life and I am deeply humbled by His presence and love, which continues to manifest itself in innumerable ways. I know that even if I were to lose all I value and cherish in this temporal world, I will never lose God. And as long as I have God, I know I will always know happiness.
God is the greatest love of my life.