An Interview with Fr Greg Cleveland

In Awakening Love: An Ignatian Retreat with the Song of Songs, Fr. Greg Cleveland, OMV breaks open some of the most intimate words in sacred scripture. Using the Song of Songs, he provides us with beautiful insights, reflections and prayer exercises that help us to delve deeper into our relationship with the Lord and to open ourselves up to God’s ever-present grace. We wanted to know more about Fr Greg’s way of inviting people to discover in prayer God’s deepest desires for them, so we asked him a few questions.

Thank you for taking this time, Father! So let’s dive right in. How can people experience God?

God is always present to us and trying to communicate himself to us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.  It reminds me of the story of a farmer once attended a conference on Christian life. The group was asked to consider a moment in life when they had an experience of self-transcendence. The farmer became very interested when he recounted that during the harvest he would stand in a field of wheat and hold a grain of new wheat in his hand. This experience was overwhelming and moved him to tears; but he never told anyone as he didn’t think they would understand. As the farmer continued, he came to realize that up until now he had never connected this profound experience of the harvest with his faith as a Christian.

God was blessing that farmer, providing for him in his work, and giving him the joy of the harvest, though the farmer did not realize it. The more we are open and attentive, the more we will realize God’s presence and receive his gifts. The experience of God touches our whole person, our mind, our emotions, even our physical bodies. We need to reflect more on the ways we really experience God in our ordinary lives in order to come to greater conscious awareness of his presence within and around us.

It sounds like personal reflection and being open to God reaching to us is the key. Is that correct?

God can communicate himself to us in so many ways. He reveals himself through creation which reveals the beauty and power of the Creator. In persons, places and events he is present to us. He cleanses and nurtures us with his very life in the sacraments. In prayer God manifests himself to us in a special way through our faculties—especially the most spiritual faculties of the human person – in our memory, intellect and will. As we experience God through these faculties, we move from God “out there” to God within our very being. We meditate on God’s word and come to understanding of his truth and conviction in living in his love. Faith is not merely intellectual assent, but the experience of the living God in a covenant of love. In prayer we open our hearts to God’s action and he moves us in the free use of our faculties, making us alive in his grace.

So where do we start?

Let’s begin with the faculty of memory. Our memories are the storehouses of our life experiences and give us a sense of identity. We have an entire history of our relationship with God in these experiences. As we pray with the scriptures, God touches our memories and brings us to awareness of our participation in the mysteries of the life of Christ. For instance, as I pray upon the episode of Christ’s baptism, I may recall my own baptism and incorporation into Christ and how his abiding presence has awakened a sense of my own call as a son of God the Father.

I then apply the faculty of the intellect to ponder the mystery. I might think about John the Baptist and his humility, feeling unworthy to baptize Jesus. I think of Jesus’ humility in identifying with sinners though he was without sin. I allow these thoughts to penetrate my own proud heart, moving me to desire humility and a share in the grace of Christ’s baptism.

Now I am moving through the memory and intellect toward acts of the will. Aware of the presence of the Holy Trinity in Christ’s baptism, I am moved to desire greater union. I make acts of faith, hope and love with my will. I choose to accept the grace of my own baptism and to follow Christ more closely in his humility and desire to serve. Touched by God’s grace, I feel alive in body, soul and spirit.

Notice how the memory, intellect and will always work together in harmony. In exercising these faculties, we are in the image of the Holy Trinity. In prayer and by grace, we experience the love of the holy Trinity in and through these spiritual faculties. We really do experience God, especially in prayer.

What are some practical steps we can take?

Prayer is the greatest adventure of the heart. There are a few things I’d suggest. You can even look at them as bullet points:

  • Realize prayer is a priority. I’m never too busy for prayer. I need God more than the air I breathe or the food I eat. Carve out quality and quantity time for prayer – begin with a manageable amount of time and gradually increase it.
  • Develop a method of praying with Sacred Scripture. You cannot do better than praying with the Word of God. We need to structure our prayer to ponder the scriptures and apply them to our lives. St. Ignatius offers various methods that help us open our hearts to God.
  • Pay attention to movements in my heart. God addresses himself to us in prayer and elicits a response on our part. I may be moved to positive feelings of love, joy or gratitude –- negative feelings of fear or resistance. I notice my reactions and express them to the Lord.
  • Experience conversion of heart. The Lord comes to cast his healing light into the dark recesses of my heart, moving me to repentance or change of heart. This is a joyful, liberating experience that removes obstacles to the Lord’s presence.
  • Become sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As I live in the Lord’s abiding presence through prayer, I notice his invitation to imitate him and follow him more closely. My heart is more easily moved by the Spirit to be Christ-like in specific situations.
  • Be reflective about God’s presence in my day. Take some time to reflect back on your day to notice how God has been living and active in your life. Look for the blessings with gratitude and fill in the negatives with his mercy. Move forward with a hope, trusting in God’s help and providence.

Prayer is less about what we accomplish than what God is doing within us.  We live in a culture that values achievement above everything else.  We feel we must accomplish something in order to feel useful, and we base our self-worth on our achievements.  But in prayer we simply receive, enjoying reality and the holy Trinity of persons.

A seasoned and skilled retreat director, Fr Greg Cleveland helps people tap into their deepest desires as they learn to journey intimately with the Lord. Currently executive director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver, Colorado, where he offers spiritual direction and retreats while teaching training programs in these ministries, Fr. Greg Cleveland is the author of Awakening Love: An Ignatian Retreat with the Song of Songs. “Writing with insight, passion, and pastoral verve, Fr. Cleveland shows us how to respond to God’s gift with total self-giving that is both appropriate and supremely joyful” (Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., Editor-in-Chief, Magnificat).