Recently I’ve been struck by a verse in chapter seventeen of John’s Gospel. Jesus is with his apostles during the last supper, offering a long prayer, and at one point he says to his Heavenly Father, “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). Knowing God is eternal life.
The biblical definition of “know” means something far beyond an intellectual understanding. In the bible, knowing someone meant having a deeply personal and intimate relationship with them. The verb “know” was even used as a sexual euphemism. When the angel announced the conception of Jesus, Mary said, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34).
Only recently have I come to truly know God. I’m a cradle Catholic raised by pretty devout parents. I could maybe count on one hand the times I remember missing a Sunday Mass growing up. I received all my sacraments. I did all the Catholic things. However, it wasn’t until the summer after I graduated high school that my family’s faith really became my own. Jesus showed up for me in a big way during Confession on a youth retreat. This event changed the trajectory of my life, and I ended up studying theology at a Catholic college so that I could help others experience God like I had.
However, as I moved into young adulthood and studied my Catholic faith in earnest, I confused knowing God with learning about him. I equated growing in my faith with studying theology and managing my sin. I was in Confession. A lot. I would regularly bug the local parish priest after weekday Mass to hear my Confession because I was sure my habitual sin was mortal. These two things, intellectual learning and managing sin, consumed so much of my relationship with God, that after he healed me of that habitual sin and I graduated college, I remember thinking to myself, “What next? How do I grow in my faith now?” Several years went by like that. I managed to remain Catholic. In fact, I was working in a parish as a lay minister. Life was pretty easy. Faith was pretty easy. There was nothing to wake me up to realize how much I really didn’t know God.
A few things happened within the course of several years that opened my heart to truly knowing the Lord. Perhaps one of the most significant occurred during the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016. I read Pope Francis’s book, The Name of God is Mercy,” and I was captivated. I read that book three times over the course of that year. The God who the pope described in that book was much different than the God I believed in. I believed in a king who I had to chase down, who would bestow his grace on me only when I followed his rules. The pope talked about a Father who chased after his children. At this point I began to really “know” who God is.
In its chapter about “The Fall,” the Catechism says that the first man, “tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart” and subsequently “disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397). The Catechism goes on to explain that all sin follows that same pattern. The original temptation was a lie about who God is. The original sin was a failure to trust in God’s goodness. In Eden, man allowed himself to forget who he knew God to be. Jesus came to remind him.
The Catechism lists four reasons why God became man. One of those reasons is so that “we might know God’s love” (CCC 458). More than anything else, Jesus reveals that God loves us like a father loves his children. He commands us to pray to “our Father” (Matthew 6:9). He invites us to use our experience of fatherly love to understand God’s love for us (Matthew 7:11). He tells us that God is like a father who forgives his prodigal son before the boy can even finish his apology (Luke 15:21-22). Jesus reveals to us a God who chases us down, who loves us while we are still sinners, who will humiliate himself to the point of death in order to save us.
During this time of great fear and uncertainty, when many of us are now separated from the sacraments — the main source of our spiritual comfort — let’s not forget what we know about God. Even though we cannot receive the Eucharist, if we open our hearts, God will still come chasing after us. His grace is not bound by his sacraments, and a virus cannot stop a Father’s love for his children. During this time in the desert, may Jesus dispel the temptation to doubt God’s goodness. May the Holy Spirit give us the eyes of faith, that we may see God as he truly is. May the Father soften our hearts, that we may know Him more than we ever have before.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.