Gary Jansen is the Director of Image Catholic Books and the author of a new book, Life Everlasting: Catholic Devotions and Mysteries for the Everyday Seeker. He is also the author of The 15-Minute Prayer Solution and Station to Station.
Today, Jared Zimmerer sits down with Gary to discuss his new book and the ins and outs of devotion, conversion, and the struggles of living a sincere interior life.
Jared: Your book is a veritable journey through the interior life and many of the struggles we face as followers of Christ. Can you tell us a little bit about your own personal journey of conversion?
I’ve been Catholic for most of my life, but my conversion is ongoing. Some days I feel close to Christ. Other times I feel so very distant. I have an ebb and flow relationship with God, but I do think I’m moving closer to the shore. There are moments when I see a great light or a spot of land in the distance and a figure waving me on to keep swimming. There are times when I feel like I’m alone and drowning, but then something raises me up. Sometimes I feel like I have great strength, and other days I feel like I’m the weakest person in the world. That’s why I think spiritual practice is so very important. It creates stability that bolsters you no matter what you’re experiencing. It’s why I wrote Life Everlasting. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling the way I do about God and I wanted to share some practical ways to help people cultivate a strong faith and interior life to help in their day-to-day. I write about how these practices have worked for me—real world application—so this book is probably my most personal to date.
Jared: At one point early in the work, you discuss the reality of those of us who live some sort of spirituality, yet still feel empty and lost. What advice might you offer to our readers who feel this way?
Gary: You know when you feel stressed or empty or you have this deep longing for…something? I’m becoming more and more convinced that those experiences are the voice of God talking to us. I can’t fully understand the language yet, but consider this: What if that spiritual anxiety we sometimes feel is really something positive? What do I mean? Think about the times when you feel physically hungry. Your body is talking to you. It’s saying feed me. I think a lot of the angst and confusion and emptiness we can often feel is God saying, “Hey, you need to be fed. Something is missing. It’s not drugs or a relationship or money. It’s me. I’m here to fill that hunger.” So I would advise that you practice something I call heartfulness. Mindfulness is all the rage now, but most of us don’t put enough attention on our hearts and what we are really feeling. The deep stuff. Remember, Mary didn’t ponder in her head Gabriel’s words about her becoming the mother of Jesus. No, she pondered them in her heart. We don’t see images of the Sacred Brain of Jesus in Catholic iconography, do we? No, we see images of the Sacred Heart. Pay attention to the heart. When it aches, that’s God talking to you. When you are elated, that’s God too. Both experiences are saying, “I’m here because you are hungry; I’m here to feed you.” That’s what the Eucharist is all about: Jesus saying, “Let me feed you.”
Jared: One of your chapters, echoing the words of Christ, focuses in on the necessity of a childlike trust and attitude toward our relationship with God. Could you extrapolate on that quality and offer a few practical ways in which we can act accordingly?
Gary: When my son was in kindergarten we took a walk in the woods late one afternoon. We were having such a good time that we didn’t realize how late it was getting. Soon it was dark and my son started to get scared. He gently put his hand in mine and said, “Daddy, I’m afraid. Don’t let go of my hand.” Well, I was never going to leave my son behind and in that moment I realized that God never leaves me either. Man, I still remember the moment so vividly.
My son had unknowingly reminded me of maybe the greatest prayer we could ever pray to our Father in heaven: “Abba, Daddy, stay with me.” I think that we need to surrender our ego and realize that, just like a child, we too need God’s help all the time. Of course there are things we can and should do for ourselves, but we need to go back to those times when we were completely dependent on our parents and invoke it in our prayer. How can you do this? By being dramatic in your prayers. I don’t mean being dramatic in front of others, but being dramatic quietly, in your prayers, the way you were dramatic with your parents when you were a kid. Remember how excited you were when you learned about a new dinosaur or put a toy tiara on your head and felt like a princess? Act like that. Many of us are too grown up in our prayers. We need to go to our Daddy with the excitement we had as children when our parents came home from work. “Guess what happened in school today! Look what I drew!” Imagine if you walked into Church with that kind of excitement!
Jared: You write about the necessity of the connection between the mind and the heart. Oftentimes we can overly intellectualize the faith, and particularly prayer, or we can find ourselves overly sentimentalizing it. What might you offer as a way to find that fine balance between the two and how does that balance affect our interior life?
Gary: That’s a great question and the answer is one of the reasons I wrote Life Everlasting. For me the key is to develop a daily interior spiritual practice through the art of devotion. This doesn’t replace going to Mass or experiencing the sacraments; it’s an add-on that can do wonders to keep you in balance. Set aside five, ten, or fifteen minutes a day to focus on a devotion like the Most Holy Name of Jesus. That’s an easy one—you just keep repeating the name of Jesus over and over to yourself—but it’s transformative. The name of the Prince of Peace really does bring peace! There’s nothing magical going on here. It’s very practical. If you have anxious or angry thoughts or feelings, isn’t it better to replace them with the name of Jesus? Another approach to establishing better balance between the mind and heart is to focus not on adding a lot to our lives to grow closer to God but rather taking stuff away. Devotions and daily spiritual practice help us clear out stuff we don’t need in our lives so we can instead build a beautiful living room for God in our hearts.
Jared: You are certainly a big fan of consistently looking to the saints for guidance and intercession. How have you experienced this incredible aspect of the spiritual life, and who might be your favorite saint and why?
Gary: I love super-heroes so I often look at the saints as the Church’s Justice League and Avengers! Seriously, if you look beyond the hagiography of the saints and you acknowledge that the saints weren’t perfect, they nonetheless knew how to provide a beautiful home for God in their hearts and minds. I mean, think if we could do that—live in a way where we’re like, “Hey God, you relax, I got this.” The saints give me hope that we can get to that place in our lives. In terms of my favorite saint, can I list three? First is Mary; she’s a saint, right? She’s the original super-model, the Wonder Woman of the faith; she’s the model for how we can live a super God-oriented life. Then there’s St. Ignatius, whose advice to seek God in all things is something that I think about every day. And finally there is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She loved flowers and Jesus with all her heart.