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Mystery of Love

 

Forty years ago I left the Marriage Encounter weekend with two deep desires. The first desire was to grow my relationship with my wife. The weekend had taught me the need for communication to nourish our marriage and the techniques to do so. The second desire was to pursue a greater love of God, for on that weekend I had experienced God as Love at the center of reality and my life. From the convergence of those two desires, an intuition took root: If I could grasp the nature of marital love, that insight would guide me to greater love of God.

What moved my deep-seated intuition 40 years ago to today’s insight was reading “Will and Spirit” by Dr. Gerald G. May. The author was an expert in both human psychology and in spirituality. His analysis of both these subjects prompted me to make two discoveries. One, that the manifestations of love for both marital and divine love are basically the SAME; and two, that the manifestations are in reality a PROCESS—a transformative one at that.

As human beings, we have a mysterious, fundamental human longing for unconditional love. It manifests itself in different ways. In both marital and divine love, we experience narcissistic love, erotic love, compassionate love and agapic love.

Narcissistic Love. Hardly a true form of love, narcissistic love manifests itself in marital love when we are self-centered. Or when we seek to bolster our self-image. Or when we are more interested in receiving than in giving, more focused on self-preservation and aggrandizement than on the welfare of our spouse.

That is its manifestation in marital love. But can our love of God be narcissistic? Yes, when we adopt a coping strategy in our relationship with God. When we look to God only as the One who saves us from the problems and sufferings of life. This kind of mentality is hardly spirituality. Yet, religious institutions encourage it. The good news is that there is a redeeming quality in narcissistic love.

Erotic Love. As our empowering life force, erotic love is pleasure, is passion, is sexual that moves us to union with our spouse—and to the fullness of human life. In his book, The Holy Longing, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser says that we are born with fire in our bellies—eros—that drives us to love, beauty and creativity, or to destructiveness. Ultimately, it is what we do with that energy that matters.

What about our love of God? Can it be erotic? Should it be erotic? As erotic beings, we can’t love our spouses in one way and God in a different way. We have one mind-heart set for love. NOT a secular set to love our spouse, and a spiritual set to love God. Ultimately, spirituality seeks union with God—and with others. We must bring our erotic energy to bear on our spiritual life—in our prayer life and in our relations with others. Otherwise, our spiritual life will dry up.

The primary example of our need for erotic love is in our Eucharistic Celebrations. Jesus revolutionized public worship by creating a Love Meal intended to form the Beloved Community. Indeed, Jesus’ Love Meal is either an erotic experience or it is an experience that doesn’t nourish our relationship with God or our sisters and brothers. Unfortunately, the Church has turned Jesus’ Love Meal into a church service. We must make it happen for ourselves.

When does erotic love lead us astray? When we adopt a strategy of seeking emotional highs or irrational exuberance in our relationships with God and others. When we look at spiritual experiences as escapes from reality or allow the so-called “spiritual” to blind us to the problems and sufferings of others. Or when we are selective in our choices of persons to whom we relate.

Compassionate Love. In marital love, compassionate love is a committed, noncontrived giving of time, energy, attention and wealth to further the welfare and improve the life of our spouse. It flourishes when we have moved beyond the phase of seeing our spouse as the “intimate enemy” who must be controlled or manipulated to conform to our personalities. That breakthrough leads us to compassionate love of our spouse.

A similar breakthrough in our relationship with God opens us up when we have gone beyond strictly a need mentality or an escapist mentality. We must even eliminate a happiness mentality which conditions our relationship with God based on the proposition: if one lives one’s life correctly one will be happy. Not so. We experience negative feelings which rise from our human condition. Further, life provides us with many painful situations.

Like the marital life, the spiritual life requires us to experience purgation of those mentalities that prevent growth in love, hope and faith in God. The good news is that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, is an aggressive Lover who enlightens us and consoles us on our spiritual journey. Compassionate love of God blossoms in us when we discover that the Spirit of Love is at work in our lives and we foster that relationship.

Agapic Love. The previous manifestations of love—narcissistic, erotic, compassionate—are all conditional forms of love. Circumstances and personal whim can influence them. To a degree, our wills can control them. Self-serving motivations can enter into their expressions. But agapic love is ultimate, unconditional love. As such, it suffers from none of these defects. The only choice humans have in relation to agapic love, Dr. May writes, is whether or not to recognize its presence. We can neither magnify nor destroy it. That suggests to me that agapic love is pure gift, the gift of the Spirit of Love.

In both our marital and divine relationships, we can and should be open to reach the heights of agapic love. Dr. May gives us an insight into agapic love by contrasting it with erotic love. He states: “The world falls away in the ecstasy of erotic love. The ecstasy of agapic love is characterized by an awesome joining with all the rest of the world, becoming a part of it. In an erotic ‘high,’ the world disappears in love. In the spiritual ‘high,’ the world appears in love.” When marital love or divine love has brought us to moments of loving all beings and creation, we know that the Spirit has gifted us with agapic love.

Love’s Process. The above analysis suggests that manifestations of both human and divine love are basically the SAME. It also suggests a new perception of this mysterious phenomenon called “love.” First, the various manifestations of love are not stages at which we arrive at and must spend time. Ideally, love is a PROCESS—a flow from the narcissistic to the erotic, to the compassionate and to the agapic (if we are gifted). Second, seen in this light, love becomes our commitment to our spouse and God to surrender to love’s WHOLE process. That commitment and intentionality are our deepest expressions of marital and divine love.

We may begin with narcissistic love for both our spouse and God but we must strive for deeper love. What we can’t allow ourselves to do is to get “stuck” at any point in the love process. For example, we can’t allow ourselves to remain at the narcissistic, for that would be destructive of both human and divine relationships. Both our human and divine loves manifest the sensational—the highs of life. But we can’t allow ourselves to get stuck there. That would only block growth in our relationships. Further, couples must be capable of transcending their own relationships to reach out to others: that is the way the Spirit of Love operates—inviting us to compassionate and agapic love.

Love’s Transforming Power. Plutarch, the first-century Roman historian, recognized love’s process in his marriage and its transformative power. In his “Dialogues of Love,” he wrote: “Physical pleasure with a spouse is the seed of friendship and the participation in great mysteries. Though the physical pleasure is brief, from it grows day by day respect and grace, affection and faithfulness.”

Likewise, in the spiritual life the Spirit’s gifts of consolations (emotional highs) are joyful experiences on our spiritual journey to greater love, hope and faith. But the joy is not an end in itself. The gifts of consolations are invitations to transformation and spiritual growth.

What is the secret to love’s transforming power? Love generates psychic fire that is the agent of transformation—the fire of the Spirit of Love. However, that psychic fire is inflamed in committed unions. Committed unions—marital and divine loves—are the crucibles of love. Given that environment, love melts down our alienation from God, others and our spouses. That is why our divine union, such as in the Eucharist, and marital union are potentially so powerfully transformative.

Love’s Prelude. Since marital love and divine love are so similar, we can draw insights from either one and apply it to the other. From my pursuit of a deeper spiritual life, I have learned that it is what I do BEFORE a spiritual exercise that is most important. Here is what the spiritual life has taught me about love’s prelude for marital love and how I have applied it

One, we must approach both marital and divine union—conscious of their inherent mystery. As mystery, we are powerless to be the masters of our own experiences and must rely on the Spirit of Love. Before prayer or Eucharistic Celebrations, I remind myself that I have been programmed for relationship with an Infinite Being, an Infinite Lover, but I am powerless to live such a relationship without the Spirit’s help. Before marital union, I remind myself that my capacity to love is so deep within me that I am powerless to awaken it without the Spirit’s gift. Mystery, and the wonder that mystery evokes, helps prepare me for both divine and marital union.

Second, recognizing the mystery we are engaging in and our powerlessness in both divine and marital love helps us to experience self-emptying. We must strip ourselves of our masks (clothes are part of our masks), behind which we hide to enhance our false self. We must experience psychic nakedness. Then, we can put ourselves at the disposal of the beloved (human and divine), gifting ourselves, yielding ourselves, surrendering ourselves to the beloved’s invitation to union. We surrender into union.

Third, focusing on the transformative nature of both marital and divine love opens us up further to the mystery of our engagement. It is kind of like the leap of faith. We know that we are entering into a mysterious encounter and we believe that it will be transformative—how we don’t know. For divine union, I know from experience that making transformation of a personal defect my goal at Eucharistic Celebrations opens me up to the Spirit’s action and deepens my potential for union. For marital union, being aware of this union as being mysteriously transformative, helps us to experience more deeply our powerlessness and psychic nakedness that invite the Spirit of Love to gift us with unitive and agapic experiences.

Love’s Mystery. Love’s mystery begins with ourselves. Fr. Teilhard de Chardin has written that we are not human beings living a spiritual life. Rather, we are spiritual beings living a human life. Love’s mystery begins with our mysterious human nature.

This wisdom has been ignored when we have probed the mystery of marital love. Too much emphasis has been placed on biology and pop psychology to reveal the nature of marital love. Perhaps too the Church has taken possession of our understanding of divine love. As the result, for too long marital love and divine love have been isolated from one another. In reality, they enlighten and energize one another.

The Spirit of Love has used Dr. May’s book, Will and Spirit, to enable me to bring marital love and divine love together. My intuition 40 years ago was right. Grasping the nature of marital love guides us to greater love of God. But what has surprised me is how pursuit of a deeper love of God has revealed insights into marital love and has in fact reinforced that experience.

In the final analysis, the mystery of love is the mystery of the Spirit of Love. The Spirit pervades all of our life. The Spirit is the agent of all human creativity, all human inspirations, all human love’s aspirations.

When we attempt to relate to God, we find his infinity beyond our reach. The Spirit of Love makes encounter possible. Likewise, when we attempt to express marital love, we find our capacity to love is beyond our reach. The Spirit of Love makes it possible. Sure signs of the Spirit’s action can be seen when our marital and divine loves are transformative and transcending—driving us to go beyond our loves to love all beings and all creation. Indeed, the mystery of love is the mystery of the Spirit of Love.

New Spiritual Landscape

The article, Holy Eros, proposed a whole new spirituality based on our understanding that eros is an intrinsic characteristic of human psychology and healthy spirituality. In doing so, the article was implicitly calling for a whole new spiritual landscape: With a new life vision. With a new mode of encountering God, others and created reality. And with new spiritual dynamics.

It should also be noted that the proposed spirituality is rooted in the nature of the human person. The person becomes the point of departure. In the hierarchy of knowledge with Revelation at the top and human knowledge at the bottom, we are proposing a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down one.

If it has taken the Church, focused on Revelation, 2000 years to discover the nature of the human person, this fact suggests the wrong starting point was taken with very sad consequences: The potential for human beings to achieve deeper spirituality has been limited, and God’s action in their lives has been limited.

By redirecting the point of departure, we are not suggesting that we ignore Revelation, but rather that we relate it to the nature of the human person. We are asserting that truly knowing the psychology of the person helps us to understand Jesus better, helps us to understand God better, and helps us to encounter the reality of the spiritual more deeply. Taken together, the human reveals the divine and the divine reveals the human!

New Life Vision.  With the person as the point of departure, let us ask ourselves what are the elements that we see on our new spiritual landscape? They are the same elements that comprise a person’s life vision. In his book, Fully Human, Fully Alive, Fr. John Powell, SJ defines a life vision as a person’s set of attitudes: attitudes toward self, God, others, reality, life.

Now we are proposing that we embrace a whole new spiritual landscape based on a life vision that positions eros as the cornerstone of each of our attitudes. Understand that if we change our attitudes, we change our life vision. Changing our life vision changes our values and the way we live life. The result is a new spiritual landscape. Let’s keep our model of our new spiritual landscape simple for greater clarity:

  • Self—We see ourselves as erotic beings driven by a passionate, sexual, pleasant life force that empowers our relating, our loving, our thinking, our creating.
  • God—Seeing ourselves as erotic beings, we see God as Infinite Eros, Infinite Lover, permeating all creation in communion with us and all creation.
  • Others—We see others like ourselves as erotic beings, with whom we desire to relate in spiritual communion.
  • Reality—We see eros driving us to spiritual union with and greater appreciation for creation, divine and human (nature, art, music, literature, dance, theater).
  • Life—We see life as a challenge for us to awaken our eros and channel it, awakening that energy to live vibrant, full lives, and containing it lest it destroys us. That calls for the practice of compassion, described later.

Take some time to reflect on this proposed new life vision and the resulting new spiritual landscape. Pray over it. Get comfortable with it.

New Mode of Encounter. Given our new spiritual landscape, how do we relate to God, self, others, reality? In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber revealed the basic attitudes that affect our encounters with reality. He described one mode of encounter as an I-It attitude that positions us outside a relationship, so that we can analyze, judge and make decisions about the object of our encounter. That is our usual mode of encounter. We tend to relate to people, even to God as objects. The other mode of encounter is the I-Thou attitude that disposes us to relationship. Here we treat all—God, others, creation—as subjects actively radiating out to us their positive vibrations.

The I-Thou attitude is the basis for the proposed mode of encounter for the person living with the new spiritual landscape. This is the attitude that the practice of compassion makes possible. It consists in being fully present to God, others, reality, with a caring heart and an attentive mind. In our practice of compassion, we gift ourselves, we surrender ourselves, we yield ourselves to God, others, reality to receive their presence and their giftedness. This practice is a contemplative approach to life. It calls for a disciplined, centered way of living—to the extent that it is humanly possible.

The Spirit uses our erotic nature and our practice of compassion to gift us with an array of joyful, fruitful experiences: spiritual union with God, others and creation; living in the present moment; heightened awareness and perception; and thankfulness for the gifts of creation (divine and human). The Spirit’s gifts may not always be available to us, but it is always worth praying for and striving for.

It is our eros at work within us that drives us to union with reality and to make our practice of compassion become a way of life—The Compassionate Life.

New Spiritual Dynamics. Living The Compassionate Life and embracing the new spiritual landscape sets the stage for a new spiritual dynamics in our relationships with creation, with others and with God.

First, take creation, human and divine. When we can compassionately encounter human creation such as art, music, dance, etc., our erotic selves drive us to experience spiritual union with them. It is as if human creations enter into our interior life. We experience the dynamics of the original creators and of the live performers. The result? Our aesthetic appreciation and pleasure are greatly enhanced.

As for divine creation, here too we experience a new spiritual dynamics. When we can compassionately embrace nature, we experience an erotic desire for union with God’s erotic life force that drives trees skyward, that thrusts their branches out in exquisite symmetry. We experience trees, bushes, flowers from the inside out. We are brought into God’s cosmic presence within his creations and we experience oneness with God and oneness with creation. A walk outdoors can be encounter with the eros of God. But remember, no interior dialogues, just yielding to beauty, being present to Presence.

Second, take others. Driven by raw eros we seek our own fulfillment. However, our practice of compassion toward others enables us to be safely erotic in our self-giving to them. For a brief, joyful time, we are emptied of our ego’s control so that we can be open to the presence and giftedness of others. We experience a new spiritual dynamics of positive vibrations flowing between us and others. For example, if our raw eros drives us to be judgmental of some one, we find that we cannot act that way when we consciously practice compassion toward that person. For we cannot give ourselves to the other as gift and at the same time pass judgment on the other.

Third, and most importantly, our new spiritual landscape produces new spiritual dynamics in our relationship with God. Erotic selves relating to the erotic God! Perhaps we can best see this dynamic relationship if we perceive God as Compassion.

The contemplative, centered nature of the practice of compassion sets this practice at the height of human action and interaction. So, taking our cue from the psychology of the human person, let us apply to God our concept of compassion, realizing that no concept can encompass God’s nature. That said, we see God as infinitely present in all and to all creation, with infinite love and infinite attention, ever gifting us and his creation. God is Infinite Eros, Infinite Lover, in communion with us and all creation.

So, on our new spiritual landscape we have our erotic selves interacting with God who is Eros, and an erotic God interacting with us. That is the new spiritual dynamics of the spiritual life. In that dynamic relationship God both awakens our eros and contains our eros. We are used to asking God to contain our eros. In the Our Father we pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Now, the new spiritual dynamics prompts us to pray to God to awaken our eros.

We see God as Eros at the center of our personhood radiating out love beams through our minds, hearts and wills to awaken our eros to see all—people, ourselves, creation, events—through the eyes of love. Our erotic response: we attempt to stay connected with and centered in the source of Divine Eros within us.

We see God as Eros awakening our eros by inviting us to break out of our comfort zones and to take risks at greater love. Our erotic response: we seek signs of Divine Eros in our deep, positive feelings and desires, for these are the prompts of Divine Eros inviting us to Divine Dialogue and greater love. And we strive to yield to these divine invitations.

We see God as Eros taking charge and awakening our eros to move us beyond our normal responses to people and events to carry on Jesus’ ongoing incarnation. Our erotic response: we attempt to unite with this divine burst of energy to be channels of energy to awaken others’ faith, hope and love.

Our new spiritual landscape enriches us with a new spirituality, a new life vision, a new encounter mode, a new spiritual dynamics in our encounters with God, others and creation.

Holy Eros

Could it be that the saints and mystics encountered Jesus as Eros? The Holy Spirit as Eros? God as Eros? The spiritual life as an erotic affair? I think so, despite the fact that the Church’s toxic spirituality had denigrated eros almost from its inception.

What has been the effect of such negative spirituality? It has impacted the spirituality of married couples in particular, but also all seeking a spiritual life. For it has pitted soul against body, hiding the glory of our embodied personhood: we are incarnate spirit, a being who is body, soul and spirit. Further, it has fostered unhealthy spiritualities.

History of Eros. Ironically enough, the pagan, first-century author Plutarch appreciated the connection between eros and marital spirituality. In his “Dialogues of Love,” he wrote: “Physical pleasure with a spouse is the seed of friendship and the participation in great mysteries. Though the physical pleasure is brief, from it grows day by day respect and grace, affection and faithfulness.”

Contrast Plutarch’s insight with the Church’s long insistence that reproduction was the saving element in marriage. I believe that when the Church resolves its discomfort with eros in marital relationships, it will bless eros for all spiritualities. The result? A second Pentecost will dawn. The good news is that 2000 years later the Church is beginning to discover eros as an intrinsic characteristic of human psychology and healthy spirituality.

In his first encyclical letter, God Is Love, Pope Benedict XV1 rehabilitates the word “eros:” “…it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love—eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.” Also, he states that God’s love “may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.”

Where does all this take us? I will propose a new, bold spirituality that will empower us to live a deeply spiritual, fully human life—based on a spirituality of eros. For starters, let us define spirituality as a theology of God, a psychology of human beings, and a methodology for bringing human beings into an ever deeper relationship with God.

Psychology of Eros. First, let us look at eros in human psychology. For the human being, eros is pleasure, is passion, is sexual, is our empowering life force. It is the total mind-body response. It embraces the power of our sexuality to empower our relating, our loving, our thinking, our creating.

In their book, Holy Eros, James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, define eros: “Eros is the vital energy that courses through the world, animating every living thing. It is…the energy that stirs humans to be in touch, to reach out and link their lives in lasting ways….Eros is the force that quickens our hearts when we encounter suffering and moves us to help and heal. Sex, curiosity, compassion—Eros moves through our lives in delightful and bewildering ways.”

These definitions of eros sound very positive, but there is a terrible bias against the word itself built over many years. In his book, “Original Blessings,” Matthew Fox writes: “We have a word in our language for passionate celebration, but it has been co-opted by the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry…the reason the pornography industry has priority on the word “erotic” is that our spiritual traditions in the West have lost passion for passion and passion for eros.” Our first task is to regain our comfort with the word.

Eros in Spirituality. Eros is both our richest gift and a problem for us, warns Fr. Ronald Rolheiser in his book, “The Holy Longing.” He says that we are born with fire in our bellies—eros—that drives us to love, beauty and creativity, or to destructiveness. Ultimately, our spirituality is what we do with that energy. He gives three examples.  Eros drove Mother Teresa to heroic accomplishments for God and the poor. Eros drove the rock star Janis Joplin to death at an early age from an overdose of life. And eros drove Princess Diana both to a life of charity as well as to a life of the jet-setter.

Rolheiser concludes: “Spirituality is about finding the proper ways, disciplines, by which to both access that energy and contain it.” So, at the heart of living a spiritual life is a dialectic calling us to entertain opposing ideas and to seek to resolve their conflict. On the one hand, if our spiritual life is not an erotic affair with an Infinite Lover, it is not a spiritual life. It may be a pious or religious way of life, but it is not a spiritual life which seeks deeper union with God.

On the other hand, to access deliberately eros has its challenges. But, ultimately, we must befriend our eros and not look upon our erotic feelings “like potential terrorists threatening to hijack the ship of self and steer it uncontrollably into dangerous waters” in the words of Wilkie Au, spiritual director and writer. What’s the solution?

Spirituality of Eros. We need a bold, new spirituality to resolve this dialectic related to eros. We can’t just focus on embracing eros. We can’t just zero in on containing eros which has been our principal strategy for years. We need a spirituality of eros that gives us a methodology that enables us to access eros in our life experiences, engage it and befriend it, allowing eros to become a natural part of our lives.

Most importantly, such a spirituality must provide us with a theology of God that cultivates a passion for living the spiritual life erotically. Our understanding of the Christian Vision must provide us with a supportive environment for living with eros as a natural part of our lives. Like Jesus’ garment which was one piece, so our methodology and theology must be one piece. At the same time, this spirituality must provide us with a discipline to defend us against the potential excesses of eros. Together these elements comprise the proposed spirituality of eros.

Methodology for Eros. How would one live such a spirituality? The clue is in the articles I have written on the spirituality of compassion. I have shared the various discoveries I have made about that spirituality since I first experienced it in 1988 at the Louvre Museum. This reflection has forced me to make still another discovery—that I have been living a spirituality of eros all these years because the spirituality of compassion is essentially a spirituality of eros.

Recall that the spirituality of compassion directs us to be fully present to the object of our encounter with a caring heart and an attentive mind. Whatever we are encountering, we must gift ourselves to the other to receive its gift. We must yield or surrender ourselves to the other whether it be art, music, dance, nature, other people, God. So it impacts the whole spectrum of our lives. Note: our efforts will not always produce the desired disposition, but God appreciates earnest effort. The rest is up to the Spirit.

At first, I had thought that the practice of compassion was simply a technique for concentrating the full energies of our mind and heart on the object of our encounter. A form of centering our minds and hearts. Then I realized that this practice was the way to spiritual union. Now I discover that it is the way to awaken my eros in order to gift, yield, surrender myself to the object of my encounter. The spirituality of compassion is indeed a spirituality of eros. This practice gives us a methodology to access eros in our life experiences, engage it and befriend it, allowing eros to become a natural part of our lives.

Containing Eros. The practice of compassion also eliminates the surprise of the pornographic in our lives. If we see all of life through the eyes of eros, we weaken its force. When the pornographic is the only source of eros, it has a more powerful effect. It causes us to focus on it and make a monster of it. Further, the fact that the pornographic offends the gestalt—the whole, integrated configuration—of our spirituality of eros makes us uncomfortable with it. We don’t want sensationalism; we want the joy of spirituality. Thus, we are more able to contain its power.

In addition, the above mindset disposes us spontaneously to draw upon the practice of discipline as described in Article 8. Briefly, this virtue has two facets—attentiveness and inattentiveness. We practice attentiveness to the interior landscape of our spirits to determine what directions our heart wishes are driving us. We practice inattentiveness to enable us to watch our compulsive needs wilt away.

Theology of Eros. Thus far, we have said that psychologically the human person is essentially an erotic being, and that the practice of the spirituality of compassion gives us a methodology for both accessing and containing eros. Note also that this spirituality leads us naturally to a theology of eros.

Now let us look at such a theology. For if the human person is an erotic being, then God must be perceived in erotic terms to be relevant. In an interview of Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian and social scientist that appeared in Cross Currents, he states: “…a theology based on epistemology, no matter how fierce, doesn’t move people. We are not constructed in a Cartesian [philosophical] way. We are erotically constructed.” Here is a sketch of a theology of eros:

  • God as Eros—God is a passionate God. God did not want to remain totally Mystery, the Cloud of Unknowing. The Ultimate Source of Being, the Ultimate Source of Beatitude wanted an incarnate union with humankind. God is Eros. Further, this erotic God dwells at the core of our beings, recreating us from the inside out. Also, this erotic God permeates all creation. When we contemplate the incredible beauty of creation, we can only conclude that God is Eros Who wants to win our hearts.
  • Jesus as Eros—When we perceive the life events and words of the historical Jesus as contained in the Risen Christ, we discover the Jesus Process—a power source from which we receive the gifts of the Spirit. Then we can pray: “Risen Christ, set in motion the Jesus Process in our lives and pour into our hearts Jesus’ life energies, the love force that Jesus was and is now in the present moment.” The historical Jesus was Eros 2000 years ago and Jesus is Eros today.
  • Spirit as Eros—It is through the Spirit that the Infinite Lover issues Lover’s invitations, awakening us to the possibilities of love each day, calling us out of our tombs daily to experience new life like Lazarus. As Eros, the Spirit takes initiatives in our lives, stirring the movements of our hearts to inspire us and invite us to greater love, hope and faith.

How ironic! Eros, the life force rejected by the Church for so long has become the cornerstone of a spirituality that empowers us to live a deeply spiritual, fully human life. Further, I can trust a God Who is Eros, for He wants union with me, as I want union with Him. I can trust a God Who is Eros to take me home when my days on earth are completed.

 

Trust and Act

The article, From Fear to Trust, described various ways of growing in the virtue of trust in God. The emphasis was on living the spiritual life passionately. However, we should not overlook the fact that we become ourselves through our actions. That is where our call to evangelization comes in—our call to bring the Christian Vision to those inside and outside the Church. For evangelization is an exercise in trust. A commitment to the work of evangelization is a commitment to growth in trust of God.

Holy Dialectic. What does evangelization have to do with trust in God? There is a dialectic at work here—reasoning that entertains opposing ideas and seeks to resolve their conflict. You’ll catch the dialectic in St. Ignatius’ two-sided principle that should underlie our work of evangelization of others. Fr. Jules Toner, SJ describes it this way: “Trust in God and pray as if everything depended on Him alone (with your actions counting for nothing); and act as if everything depended only on your own efforts.”

On the one hand, to be effective evangelizers we must attribute primacy of importance to God’s action and therefore give primacy of importance to reliance on prayer. On the other hand, we must value our natural gifts and human effort to complete Christ’s mission. You might be thinking that you can’t have it both ways.

Honest Humility. St. Ignatius resolves the opposition of these two ideas with an important distinction. He reminds us that our natural gifts are gifts of our Creator. We owe our every thought, our every feeling, our every act of will to God as our Creator. Now how does this distinction resolve the dialectic? St. Ignatius is telling us that we must practice great humility in our work of evangelization.

Humility is the virtue of understanding and accepting our human condition as well as our total dependence on God’s all-pervading presence and power. The whole spiritualization process of the Spirit growing us in love, hope and faith is grounded on our virtue of humility. And an ever growing trust in God is the fruit of that process.

Divine Empowerment. Further, we must be keenly aware that God acts intimately in our lives and that only God’s action can do anything to bring about His greater glory in ourselves or give our efforts any power to help bring about His Kingdom among people.

In Scripture, we read: (John 15:5) “I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever lives in Me and I in him shall produce a large crop of fruit. Apart from me, you can’t do a thing.” Again in 2 Corinthians 3:5 “…not because we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves. Our only power and success come from God.” The great apostle St. Paul understood very well the source of his strength.

Christian Ministry. Therefore, our Christian ministry to others must begin and be carried on with prayer for God’s help. We must constantly seek to know God’s will in the concrete situation. We must ask ourselves: Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Have we prayed enough for the Spirit’s guidance? Have we prayed enough for those whom we want to evangelize? We must have complete trust in His wisdom to know what are the better goals and better ways to these goals. We must have complete trust in His power to accomplish them. And we must have complete trust that He will work in us and that his gifts to us will flow through us to those whom we want to evangelize. Evangelization is an exercise in trust in God!

“On the other side,” says Father Toner, “we must do all that lies in our power and make every human effort to cooperate with God. For ordinarily God acts through us to achieve His purposes. He acts effectively through our human intelligence, imagination, affections, freedom, initiative, bodily activity.” Therefore, we must summon up all our courage and energy to do Christ’s work.

Creative Tension. Trusting and acting must be kept in creative tension, neither watering down one or the other, but at the same time fully acknowledging our powerlessness and exercising trust in God, and fully employing our efforts and talents. We must grasp both extremes and hold them together in the spiritually healthy and truthful tension of this two-sided principle, neither willing to let go or weaken either side.

Rather than working at odds, our trusting and our acting impact one another. Our growth in trust in God energizes us for action, for we are trusting in a God Who acts through our freedom, intelligence and energy. Our action becomes an expression of our trust in God and thus deepens our trust. And the more we trust, the more we will yield to the Spirit’s invitations to evangelize.

The fruit of living in creative tension creates a newness in us. First, it changes our vision of ourselves and God’s role in our evangelization. We see our actions as coming from God and our achievements as dependent on God’s power. Second, it converts us to become would-be apostles, because we know intuitively that by ourselves we are powerless to live in creative tension. Our situation is very much like the alcoholic who realizes his or her powerlessness to give up drink, and must surrender to a Higher Power. Likewise, we are forced to tap into our Higher Power to trust and act.

From Fear to Trust

The previous article highlighted the growth rhythm of invitation and yielding in all of life, including the spiritual life. A reader responded to this article in an email: “Before anyone will yield there must be trust.” A precious insight! Trust is the underlying disposition needed to yield. Therefore, our potential to grow depends on our capacity to trust. But trust and yielding don’t come easily. What makes it so difficult? And how do we grow in trust?

Fear in Genes. Imagine the dawn of reason for mankind. Primitive people gazing at creation. Seeing their own fragility. Experiencing life’s suffering and dying. I suspect that the first question human beings asked themselves was: “Is reality hostile or can it be trusted.” Right from the start, fear was planted in our genes.

Psychologists tell us that children between the ages of four and six discover that the inner feelings they have of themselves are not “in synch” with the world around them. Reality, which includes the cosmos and God within it, is in some way hostile to them. This early childhood conclusion leads to the formation of defensive, controlling, manipulative personalities that are aggressive toward the world, conforming to the world, or withdrawn from the world.

To break out of the pathology associated with our personality type, we can take a number of approaches. One, we can undergo serious self-discovery to work our way through our personality trap. Two, we can bring to bear on our search for the fullest life the best in Christian spirituality—no dualism that pits body against soul.  Three, we can experience a transforming, psycho-spiritual experience on an encounter retreat.

In the article, Jesus’ Transformation, I shared my personal experience of discovering the pockets of self-hate in my life in the loving environment of an encounter retreat, becoming angry with myself and then breaking out into ecstatic joy. Note the words I used: “At that moment, I knew beyond doubt that love was at the heart of reality, whom I called God; that all creation was lovable; that I was lovable.” I had discovered the answer to the essential question buried in our subconscious: Is reality hostile or can it be trusted? Discovering love at the heart of reality can be the breakthrough experience that puts us on the path to deep trust. But we still have to work at it.

Semantics of Trust. The word “trust” is too important to leave vague. Trust is not simply faith, with which it is often confused. So, let’s first look at the term “faith.” Theologian Paul Tillich tells us that faith is not an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence. Nor should faith be understood as the contents of faith as we recite in the Creed at Mass. But faith is our total commitment to God as the ultimate center of our lives. Tillich describes an act of faith “as an act of a finite being who is grasped and turned to the infinite.”

Now, there is a connection between faith and trust. Trust is the face of faith. Trust is the way people act when they have deep faith. But how do people act when they trust? I believe that Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us a clue. In his discussion of suffering, he writes: “Suffering is never an absolute; it is not an end in itself or even a higher state of godliness than blessing. Both suffering and blessing are fruits of setting ourselves entirely at God’s disposal.”

From Bonhoeffer’s insight, we can draw out an understanding of the virtue of trust. Trust is the capacity to set oneself entirely at God’s disposal—despite our vulnerability. If we shy away from vulnerability, our trust in God will not deepen. We must remember that we are setting ourselves at the disposal of the One Who is Love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred by the Nazis in World War ll.

Centering prayer is a good example of how faith and trust operate in our spiritual life. It is our faith that draws us to centering prayer, our total commitment to God as the ultimate center of our lives—the Mystery who transcends our knowing and is beyond all understanding. But it is our trust in God that enables us in centering prayer to yield ourselves to the unknown, to put ourselves at the disposal of the unknown. In our wordless prayer we experience our total inadequacy to do what we are doing; we don’t know what the results will be; we just do it. It is our trust that turns centering prayer into a love affair with God.

Growth in Trust. The person who loves much will trust much. Living the spiritual life passionately opens us up to growth in the virtue of trust in God. Further, we grow in trust by direct experiences of trusting God:

Once we experience God as the Infinite Lover at the core of our personhood radiating out love beams through our mind, heart and will, we make a practice of connecting with our Center. And we grow in trusting that Center to recreate ourselves from the inside out and empower us to live a life of love.

Once we experience God as Divine Eros inviting us to greater growth and love, we make a practice of being attentive to the Spirit’s invitations and praying to the Spirit for enlightenment. And we grow in trusting the Spirit to guide us on our spiritual journey.

Once we experience God as taking over our lives to carry on Jesus’ ongoing Incarnation, we make a practice of looking for the movements of our hearts that push us beyond ourselves to act out of love for others. And we grow in trusting the Risen Jesus to operate in our lives.

Besides growing in trust of God by the direct experiences noted above, we also learn to trust in God from other realms of our life. For example, our appreciation and thankfulness for the beauty in nature and the arts can move us to greater trust in the One who is the source of all beauty. Another example: married couples risk vulnerability by putting themselves at the disposal of one another. From this experience they can learn to grow in trust of one another, but it can also be the path to greater trust in God.

Message of Trust. In The Jesus Myth, Fr. Andrew Greeley states that the core Christian message is above all a message of trust: “This message speaks to the most fundamental questions a person can ask: Is reality malign or gracious? Jesus replies that it is gracious to the point of insane generosity….The Really Real is generous, forgiving, saving love.”

According to Greeley, Jesus called for a change of life vision based on this new understanding of reality.  Jesus urged us to rejoice in God’s fulfilled promise. Jesus proclaimed that we should be confident, despite suffering, injustice, misery and death; everything would still be all right in the end. Why? Because God is Love and God will triumph. We are called to a conversion from fear to living lives of trust in God. How often do we hear in the Gospels Jesus proclaiming, “Be not afraid!”

Greeley gives us a new understanding of Jesus’ revelation. What I see in   Greeley’s thinking is that Jesus’ revelation contains both a religious and an erotic message. The religious message found in Scripture that God would send a Savior for humankind has been realized in Jesus. The erotic message, hardly ever mentioned, is that the deep, erotic longing of the human heart to trust reality, to be free of fear, has been fulfilled by God through Jesus who knows the human heart.

Preachers have tended to focus on Jesus’ religious message and ignore Jesus’ erotic message, but it is his erotic message that keeps the Christian message fresh and relevant, not just for Jesus’ day, but for all time. In fact, it is the erotic nature of Jesus’ revelation that makes Jesus so unique, so believable. It explains why Jesus’ ministry moved from one of preaching repentance for sin and baptizing to one of preaching that the kingdom was at hand, that a new age of trust had dawned for humankind. To grow in our capacity to trust and yield, we must grasp the core message of the GOOD NEWS and live it.

Trust through Resurrection. Jesus’ crowning message is the message of Resurrection. We are Resurrection people. Therefore, we are people of trust. Trust is the face of our beliefs. We believe that Jesus brought life out of death. We believe what Jesus told us: namely, that we had to undergo death experiences to receive new life. In our lifetime, we suffer many death experiences—the death of our youth, our wholeness, our dreams, our honeymoons. It is precisely in these life events that we are called to practice resurrection; we are called to grow in trust in God. The poet Wendell Berry gave this advice: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts….Practice resurrection. Practice coming alive again.” Resurrection people are a people who trust in God.

Earlier I said that trust was the face of faith. In reality, trust is the fruit of the spiritualization process. Trust is the face of faith, hope and love—the works of the Spirit within us.

Life’s Growth Rhythm

There is a growth rhythm of invitation and yielding in all of life, including the spiritual life. Without realizing it, I experienced this growth rhythm many years ago on a dance floor at a Polish wedding. My secretary had invited me to her wedding. I was watching the intricate polkas being danced. I noticed only women were dancing.

Suddenly her aunt came to our table, pointed at me, and said, “I want to dance with you.” The tone of her voice made it clear that I could not refuse her invitation. Summoning up my courage, I replied: “I’ll dance with you on one condition—that you lead.” She danced me from one end of the floor to the other with great gusto. Miracle of miracles, I totally relaxed, totally yielded myself to her every move on the floor. People on the sidelines were laughing, but for me it was an ecstatic experience! It should also have been the occasion to discover the growth rhythm of invitation and yielding.

Yielding for Holy Encounters.  Many years later Mary C. Richards has drawn my attention to the yielding half of this growth rhythm in her book, Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person. She encourages her pottery student, “not merely use his material to certain ends, but yield up his soul as well as his hands and his intelligence to his love of the clay. Once his soul is yielded up, the transformation of the clay will speak to him as his own.” She is speaking of self-surrender, self-gifting for holy encounters, concepts I have written about in connection with the spirituality of compassion. But her word “yielding” gives us a meaningful, useful nuance.

Perhaps, preoccupation with our moral life, to the exclusion of the rest of living, including our spiritual life, has made us overlook the natural growth rhythm of invitation and yielding. Granted, yielding to the attractions, read invitations, of sin and yielding to our passions has been and always will be our spiritual battleground. We will always need to exercise self-control and self-discipline. But there is more to life than that. Life is a feast. No need to starve.

Yielding’s Paradox. Ms. Richards writes: “To yield means both to lose and to gain. See how the paradox is wisely caught in the words we use. I yield, and my being increases and takes form by having been given up in this way. Love becomes easier and more natural and steadier as over and over again I practice this act of yielding, from the secret center, the quiet will. As I open myself to the presence that faces me, it enters. It is a union. It is communion.”

We see this growth rhythm in Mary’s life. What was the Annunciation but an invitation—to be the mother of God. And she yielded: “Be it done to me according to your word.” And she experienced union, communion with the divine. Mary is the archetype of holiness.  Ms. Richards states: “We are all Mary, virgin and undelivered to whom the announcement has been made, in whom the infant grows.”

Yielding vs. Willpower. In Man Becoming, Theologian Gregory Baum writes: “The growth and development of human life through man’s own efforts is always dependent on and carried by gifts which are received in the community and ultimately come from God himself. The gift-dimension of human life is God’s gift of himself as Holy Spirit.” The gift that the willful person does not perceive. Spirit’s gifts are Spirit’s invitations. Like Mary, our spiritual growth comes from the Spirit’s invitations to us and our yielding to them.

Unfortunately for many years, we have been taught a will-powered dominated ideal of holiness. Baum notes: “The Gospel denounces the willful man, the man who uses will power to bring himself into conformity with a set of rules or the self-image he has chosen for himself.” We might add that the willful person is unlikely to be open to life’s growth rhythm of invitation and yielding, unlikely to be open to the Spirit’s operation.

Yielding Freely. Personal freedom makes the difference in the kind of yielding I am talking about. When I am enslaved by the attractions of sin or the pull of passion, I am not free. At that time we need all the wisdom of traditional ascetical teaching to fight our battles. But it is when I can give myself away freely that yielding becomes a positive growth experience. It is the difference between the act of love and rape. Ms. Richards writes: “Sexuality is a sacrament of the yielding of one center to another, the sacrament of love.”

Our concept of yielding gives us a new concept of prayer. We can say that prayer is the yielding of one’s center to the Divine Love Center at the core of our being and all being. Words are not needed when you are yielding. I have found that the practice of yielding to be helpful in my wordless prayer of centering. In my meditative walks, this practice helps me to connect with the Divine Love Center. Celebrating Mass can be a time for practicing yielding—to God’s presence in Scripture and sermon, to ritual, to community.

Invitation.  However, before there can be yielding, there must be invitation. That’s life’s growth rhythm. But what is the source of invitation? The Infinite Lover at the core of our being.  It is up to us to center down and yield to the source of invitation, yield to the love beams being radiated out through our mind, heart and will, so that we see all through the eyes of love. When we perceive through the eyes of love, everything can become a source of invitation—people, nature, the arts, spiritual reading—inviting us to yield. The sources of invitation have been multiplied many times!

In a Buddhist paper, entitled “Incorporating Meditative Practice into Everyday Life,” the author encourages us to “value each moment of life as an invitation to practice.”  For us, it is the practice of the spiritual life, expecting invitations of the Spirit of Love and yielding to them.

Jesus’ Transformation

In the early 1900’s, the psychologist William James wrote “Variety of Religious Experiences”, the classic study of everyday “mystical” experiences. He recounts the transforming moments in people’s lives when they discovered deeply the presence of the divine in their lives and the impact such peak experiences had on them. They were found to be a relatively common experience among common people. Simply a surprising gift given without any concern for merit or learning.

Might not we suppose that Jesus, being the most human of human beings, must also have experienced such a peak experience that became a transforming moment in his life? I believe so. Therefore, I want to share the transforming moment in my life and attempt to draw parallel insights about Jesus.

In My Life. My transforming experience took place on a weekend retreat. I had brought to the retreat a lot of psychological baggage. On the first morning of the weekend, the presentation dwelt on our “persona”, the masks that we wear to hide our true selves so we can project a public self of self-esteem and confidence. During my meditation on this subject, I saw clearly the pockets of self-hate in my life as if they were on stage.

I became angry with myself that I had allowed so much self-hate to operate in my subconscious. I swore that I would never let that happen again. And suddenly I broke out into ecstatic joy. At that moment, I knew beyond doubt that love was at the heart of reality, Whom I called God, that all creation was lovable, that I was lovable. Instantly, my life vision was transformed—the way I saw myself, God, others, life, creation.

In Jesus’ Life. As Jesus studied the Scriptures to learn about God’s relationship with Israel and, more importantly, to learn about his mission and destiny, what must he have felt when he read the words of the prophet Isaiah 50:60 describing the obedience of the Lord’s servant? “I bared my back to those who beat me. I did not stop them when they insulted me, when they pulled out the hairs of my beard and spit in my face.”

Jesus was no dummy. He realized that those words applied to him and that he would become the suffering servant of God. Might Jesus have wondered to himself: “Is God a God of vengeance? Am I to be the victim of God’s wrath?”

I believe that it was only through deep contemplative prayer inspired by the Holy Spirit that Jesus came to discover God as Compassion Who loved all beings and creation with unconditional love. What the Old Testament did not reveal to Jesus, his contemplative prayer did. It was at that point in Jesus’ life that he must have come to know beyond doubt that God was love, that all creation was lovable, and that he was the beloved Son of God. In that moment, Jesus experienced transformation.

More than ever before, in that special moment Jesus began to enjoy the unique experience of intimate closeness to God—the Abba experience, the experience of God as a compassionate Father. Perhaps too it was at that moment of transformation that Jesus decided to quit the quiet, private life ofNazarethand embark on his public life and divine mission.

Transformation’s Effects. Transforming experiences are empowering, because they are a kind of a death/resurrection experience—moving one from self-hate to self-love, from self-ignorance to self-knowledge, from fear of God to deep faith in God as Jesus experienced.

Transforming experiences are vision changing experiences. When I returned from my transforming experience, I saw people as persons. My attitude toward women changed dramatically. They were persons, not sex objects. I was aware that all persons experience the pain of being human, as I had, and deserved my compassion. Likewise, Jesus too had experienced the pain of being human and his newly acquired solidarity with God created solidarity for him with all persons. The driving force behind his mission would become compassion for others: he would liberate them from all forms of oppression.

Transforming experiences open our eyes to creation. When I returned from my transforming experience, I was moved by a deep eros for creation. I wanted to touch the leaves of trees. I wanted to feel the essences of things, such as trying to feel the essence of water that was real but could not be grasped. I can easily imagine Jesus at night marveling at the moonbeams shimmering on the Sea of Galilee, or being filled with wonder at the mighty olive trees.

This erotic awareness of nature soon became an awareness of the gift dimension of creation and life. Through this discovery of the gift dimension of creation I experienced creation reverberating with God’s presence, love and attention. Creation gave me the gift of God’s presence. I felt that I was surrounded by God’s love in creation. Likewise, from human experience we can deduce that Jesus must have experienced the presence, the beauty and the wisdom of God in creation.

Transformation and Spiritual Life. What is the nature of transforming experiences?  When we discover that Love is at the heart of reality, we discover that Love Center that resides within us at the core of our personhood and Who radiates out the energies of love through the pathways of our minds, hearts and wills, and makes everything lovable to us—we are lovable, others are lovable, creation is lovable.

For a short but ecstatic period of time, I felt driven by my Love Center, Divine Eros. I believe that Jesus experienced this kind of transformation, only he was able to hold onto it and to live fully a life of love. However, I have come to believe that such transforming experiences are not just one-time episodes in our lives to be enjoyed for a brief time.  Rather, they can happen many times and each time they once again disclose to us the  depths of our spiritual reality and set a goal for our spiritual lives.

It is as if each day our love capacity falls to the default position of our self-centeredness, and we must raise ourselves to God-centeredness. Each day, we must recreate ourselves from the inside out; we must connect with our center, our Love Center. Each day we must rediscover our Love Center at the core of our personhoods and let it radiate out through our minds, hearts and wills. Each day we must re-experience our transformation.

 

 

Embracing the Embrace

Often it is difficult to understand the full meaning of our deep spiritual experiences. Simply having such experiences does not exhaust their meaning. We may even need an outsider to explain their significance to us. Such was my experience in discovering a fuller understanding of the practice of compassion.

In the article,  Spirituality of Compassion, I shared my first experience of the practice of compassion which took place at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Staring at the famous painting of the Mona Lisa, I wondered to myself: “Being as exhausted as I am from jet lag, how can I enter into the beauty of this painting?”

No sooner had I asked that question, when I got the answer: “You must be fully present to it with a caring heart and an attentive mind so as to “receive” the presence and beauty of this masterpiece. You must make a gift of yourself to the painting to receive its gift.” It worked! I began to see in the painting what I had not seen before and feel what I had not felt before.

I called this exercise of mind, heart and will the “practice of compassion,” literally feeling deeply with. I have applied this practice to appreciating the arts, such as art, sculpture, music and dance; handling difficult human relationships; enjoying the beauty of nature; and deeply experiencing spiritual practices such as attending Mass and centering prayer. But only recently did I come to understand more fully the inner dynamics of compassionate experiences:

1. Spiritual Union. The practice of compassion is a way to experience spiritual union with God, others, self, nature, the arts. It took my Jewish podiatrist to point that out to me. We had been talking about our travel experiences, and I shared with him my experience at the Louvre Museum. He immediately responded: “Michael Jackson said that at times when he is dancing, he experiences oneness with the divine presence.” My doctor turned to me and said: “You experienced union with, oneness with that painting.”

He had given me a wonderful insight into my joyful experience at the Louvre Museum and into the practice of compassion. In my moments of compassionate living, I had experienced a fuller experience of the object of my focus. But I did not think of it as spiritual union. I looked upon the practice as simply a technique for concentrating the full energies of my mind and heart on the object of my encounter. Now I discovered that it was the way to spiritual union.

2. Total Surrender. Compassionate experiences demand a total investment of our mind, heart and will in the object of our attention. We must be fully engaged. An image that helps me to grasp this dynamic is that of the embrace. In a physical embrace we give ourselves fully as a gift to the other. In a similar manner, we must embrace spiritually whatever it is we wish to encounter compassionately.

Further, compassionate experiences are present-moment experiences. We tend to live in the past or in the future. But to live compassionately, we must enter into the present moment and be fully present. The present moment is the door to spiritual consciousness and spiritual union.

3. Centering Out.  Compassionate experiences involve a “centering out” to the object of our encounter. Admittedly, that is an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms. However, the Spirit works in dialectics and paradoxes.

True, we must first center down within ourselves, before we can center out. We must first connect with our center, the Divine Love Center at the core of our being. The usual procedure is to breathe deeply from our gut, inhaling and exhaling rhythmically, to become fully present to ourselves in a gentle and loving way. We might consider this step as being compassionate to ourselves. We are embracing ourselves.

But the action does not stop there. That exercise prepares us to center out—to another person, the beauty of nature, a work of art, whatever. We then focus compassionately on what we wish to encounter in a gentle and loving way in an effort to experience spiritual union.

Spiritual writers tell us that when we reach the center of our being, we are more intimately at home with ourselves, more intimately united with others, more intimately united with God. Note that experiencing the core of our being becomes a source of dynamic energy that flows out spontaneously beyond the boundaries of ourselves to others. So we center down to center out.

4. Mystical Union. Scripture tells us that God is Compassion. No one can define God. That said, however, if we think of God as Compassion in the sense we are using it here, we open ourselves to a rich experience. Then, God is the Being, Who is infinitely present in all beings and creation, with infinite love and infinite attention. Using our image of the embrace, we further describe God as Compassion Who embraces all beings and creation in a compassionate embrace.

In our practice of centering prayer, I believe there is a danger in isolating God from all that He embraces. The result is a focus on a I-God relationship. That belittles God Who pervades all beings and all creation. To get our arms around God in his totality, we must embrace all that God embraces. So, we center down to center out compassionately to embrace God in his compassionate embrace of all beings and creation, and we attempt to embrace all creation in a compassionate embrace. That is the ultimate meaning of Embracing the Embrace!

In so doing, we enter into mystical union with God Who is Compassion and with all creation. Now our intentionality for our centering prayer has become targeted. We want to center down and out to embrace God compassionately as well as all beings and all creation, as the God of Compassion does.

5. Mystical Gratefulness. In his book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast tells us that gratefulness is the way to a life of fullness. When we make it our basic life attitude, he writes, “our eyes are opened to that surprise character of the world around us,” and we wake up from taking things for granted. “Gratuitousness burst in on us, the gratuitousness of all there is. When this happens, our spontaneous response is surprise.”  And wonder and joy!

One of the fruits of mystical union with the God of Compassion is gratefulness. For example, on a walk when we center down to center out compassionately to embrace God’s embrace of creation through his sustaining presence, love and attention, we see as if for the first time. This mystical union has wakened us up. We see the diversity of trees around us with their diversity of leaves, the play of sunlight penetrating them and the shadows they create, and we sense God’s presence in them. And we know that all is gratuitous, all is surprise, all is gift. And we are on the way to gratefulness, a life of joyful fullness.

We should not be surprised that the practice of compassion should lead us to mystical union and gratefulness. For by its very nature, the practice of compassion is gifting ourselves to God or others or creation—the gift of the Holy Spirit working in us.

Spirituality of Compassion

In the article, Compassion for Others, we gave the word “compassion” a whole new meaning. Here I will share some personal experiences that helped me to discover its special meaning, and its significance for the spiritual life.

Aesthetic Experiences. Some years ago I visited Paris. The highlight of this trip was a visit to the Louvre, the home of Leonardo de Vinci’s Mona Lisa and other masterpieces of art and sculpture. As I stood there gazing at the Mona Lisa, I became deeply aware of my fatigue, jet lag and the limited amount of time I could spare. Suddenly, I got the inspiration to ask myself: “Given my disposition, how can I enter into the beauty of this masterpiece?” In response, a profound inspiration flashed through my mind: “You must be fully present, in a caring and attentive way so as to receive the presence and beauty of this masterpiece.” In other words, I had to give as gift my presence, my mind, my heart, my whole person to this painting in order to receive its gift. It worked!

I called this exercise “compassion”, literally, feeling deeply with. I applied this practice to other forms of art such as sculpture, music, ballet, and, of course, to the beauty of nature. This exercise has greatly enhanced my aesthetic experiences.

Relational Experiences. My practice of compassion to the arts led me to yet another discovery. I have a retarded son who continues to say his childlike evening prayers, even though we have taught him more adult prayers. I found it difficult to stop what I was doing to listen to him. One day, I was inspired to ask myself: “Could my practice of compassion to the arts and nature change my experience with my son if I compassion-ately listened to his childlike prayers?” As I allowed myself to become fully present in a caring and attentive way to my son, I discovered that he had a gift to give me—his simplicity in his relationship to God. Further, I discovered that compassion was the basis of radical love─loving others despite their negative qualities and my negative feelings.

Spiritual Experiences. The above experiences led me naturally to apply the practice of compassion to my so-called “spiritual” experiences. I began to go to Mass early so I could prepare myself through the practice of compassion for celebration. As a result, the Mass ritual and words have become more meaningful. And when I began the exercise of centering prayer, I was greatly helped by my practice of compassion. For now I was being fully present, in a caring and attentive way to the Spirit within me. Here the practice of compassion becomes prayer─without the words. It becomes love of God.

I see a commonality between these three different experiences of compassionate living. First, all three─aesthetic, relational and spiritual─demand that we encounter the other in a peak experience, employing our mind, heart, gut and will. We must experience our full personhood in play. We must be fully engaged with the other.

Second, all three demand that we fully gift ourselves to the other, whether the other be the arts, other people, or God. Self-gift is key.

Third, all three require that the Spirit empower us to offer ourselves as self-gift. For as Theologian Gregory Baum reminds us: “Human existence is so deeply wounded and threatened by sin that the passage from fear to trust, from hostility to love, from ignorance to self-knowledge, from passivity to creativity, from self-centeredness to concern for others, are never purely natural events, determined by our own resources. They are always gifts.” Always begin: “Holy Spirit, enable me to live compassionately.”

The Spirit permeates all of our life and enables us to experience our high points. The spiritual life is all about being present to the Divine Presence. Compassionate living is at the heart of a Spirit-centered spirituality. Make the practice of compassion a habit!

Thinking Outside the Box

If we want to appreciate Christianity, if we want to  deeply encounter Jesus, if we want to live a spiritual life, we must think outside the box. The box being our purely rational minds. In his book, The Naked Now, Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM explains that our minds can prevent us moving “from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience.” In brief, our purely rational minds can box us in from living a truly spiritual life, not to mention a contemplative life.

Fr. Rohr also states emphatically that the Church has compounded the problem by  teaching spiritual realities with an emphasis on the rational mind. He pointed out that the Church “became preoccupied with telling people what to know more than how to know, telling people what to see more than how to see. We ended up seeing Holy Things faintly, trying to understand Great Things with a whittled-down mind, and trying to love God with our own small and divided heart. It has been like trying to view the galaxies with a $5 pair of binoculars.”

Drawing from Fr. Rohr’s book and other sources, I have concluded that there are three basic ways of seeing or perceiving reality. The first is what I call “Willful Living,” our way of seeing everyday reality through our computer-like minds. The second is Willful Blindness, our way of blocking out reality. The third is Willful Seeing, our way of seeing spiritual realities—the goal of Fr. Rohr’s book. First, Willful Living.

Willful Living. Fr. Rohr describes our mind’s binary system, either-or thinking as “good and necessary in the lofty worlds of logic, mechanics, mathematics and science, and in the everyday world of knowing whether to turn left or right to get from point A to point B.” But “it can’t access eternal things,” the realm of our faith and spiritual lives. Our computer-like minds just don’t compute spiritual realities!

According to Fr. Rohr, our religious and spiritual instruction has boxed us in our minds. We need to think outside the box to “access eternal things.” When our computer-like minds ponder spiritual realities, they automatically narrow down our field of vision. For example:

  • When we focus on God only as a transcendent figure facing us from beyond history, an outsider God, we miss the God who dwells within us, an insider God, who from within reveals us to ourselves, calls us to growth and radiates out from within us gifts that enable to see out of the eyes of love, hope and faith.
  • When we focus on Jesus only as a figure of history or a moral teacher, we miss the Risen Jesus who gifts us with his Spirit of Love, who empowers us to carry on Jesus’ on-going Incarnation. The Incarnation is not just a one-time event.
  • When we encounter the mystery of the Spirit of God, our computer-like minds can’t compute mystery. So we simply dismiss this spiritual reality and we miss Divine Eros, Divine Love, at work in our lives as the agent of our holiness. In effect, we close down our spiritual life.
  • When we focus on Scripture as only words to be analyzed, we miss seeing Scripture as the channel of the Spirit’s inspirations and invitations to grow our spiritual lives.
  • When we attend Mass as simply a religious service, we miss the Love Meal Jesus gave us to create the Beloved Community. When we focus only on the Real Presence, we miss the ritual communion of sharing with Jesus the offering of ourselves with Jesus, of being consecrated with Jesus for sacrifice, and of becoming Eucharist with Jesus for sisters and brothers to receive one another in mystical communion. Perceived this way, the Real Presence is the Eucharistic power source that empowers the creation of the Beloved Community.
  • When we focus on creation as simply natural beauty, we miss seeing creation as Divine Revelation of God’s existence, beauty and intelligence.

Further, our purely rational minds cannot tolerate paradox and dialectic. Like God being three persons in One. Like Jesus being human and divine. Like the essential dialectic of the spiritual life of being programmed and committed for a life of relationship with an Infinite Being and at the same time being powerless to live such a relationship on our own. The only resolution of this dialectic is to call upon the Holy Spirit. But our purely rational minds are not designed for mystery, wonder and the spiritual.

In the very act of focusing on reality with our computer-like minds, we activate our Unwillful Blindness to see only a narrow piece of reality. This helps give us clarity. However, the downside is that our minds lock out our unconscious creative resources—our feelings, desires, eros, instincts—where the Spirit operates to move us to transformation. We end up performing the spiritual unspiritually!

Willful Blindness. To make matters worse, our Egos—desirous of control and hating change—team up with our minds to stubbornly block us from seeing spiritual realities, and then we exhibit Willful Blindness. I am indebted to Margaret Heffernan for this concept in her book by that title. She explores why warnings of disasters are ignored, such as nuclear reactor failures, or oil spills or the plunge of the subprime mortgage market. She raises the question: Why do red flags go unnoticed? Or why can’t people think outside the box?

In some cases, it is a matter of greed or self-protection. Think of the Pharisees who witnessed the actions and teachings of Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah and the greatest person who ever walked this earth. They could not accept Jesus. They did not want to upset the Roman occupiers and their position in society. Yet, there was at least one Pharisee, Nicodemus, who could think outside the box.

No doubt, Willful Blindness plays a big role in our spiritual lives. Perhaps we are blind to character traits that harm our relations with others. Or blind to the Spirit’s inspirations and invitations to grow. If searching and a willingness to change are not the hallmarks of our efforts to grow in holiness or spiritual formation, we are probably blind to how stuck we are in old ideas or old ways of doing things. Is this spiritual obstinacy?

We find people who have focused only on the historical Jesus all their lives and are resistant to the thought of the Risen Jesus, the only Jesus we have. If people have not experienced the Holy Spirit in their lives, they show resistance to any new insights about the Spirit. Willful Blindness may be at play here.

For many years I was dissatisfied with attending Mass as a church service: it took  dissatisfaction to move me to the discovery of Jesus’ Love Meal. Fr. Rohr notes that it usually takes experiences of great love or suffering that enable us to see outside the box.

Willful Seeing. Admittedly, there is a paradox in the term, Willful Seeing. At the heart of this experience are a determination and a yielding: “I will not be boxed in by my mind and Ego. I am powerless to access the spiritual. I will surrender to the Spirit.”

Mystics and poets and people committed to the spiritual life yearn for Willful Seeing. They hunger to see the depths of things—God, creation, people. They say we must see with the eyes of our hearts. Or they say we must see with the eyes of love. Or they say we must see with a Third Eye. E.e.cummings writes of revelation: “The eyes of my eyes are opened.”

We arrive at this way of seeing spiritual reality in two movements of the heart:

First, we admit to ourselves the limitations of our computer-like minds—our absolute powerlessness to engage the spiritual world in a meaningful way.

Second, we truly surrender to our unconscious creative resources—our feelings, desires, eros, instincts, our creative resources—through which the Spirit operates to bring us to Willful Seeing. It is helpful to express our surrender in various ways to awaken our hearts. For example: “Holy Spirit, I put myself wholly at your disposal. I gift myself to you. I yield myself to you.” Only by admitting powerlessness and experiencing surrender do we expand our mind’s field and depth of vision. That is the great paradox of Willful Seeing, our capacity to think outside the box.

How do we acquire the capacity for Willful Seeing? First, we have to change our perception of being a person. Yes, our greatest gift is our rational minds. But we have to perceive our minds as being even more powerful when we unleash our inner creative resources to drive our minds to see spiritual realities. Then we become aware of the Spirit’s initiatives in our lives, invitations and inspirations.

Second, we must hunger for Willful Seeing, and make it a goal of our lives and a vital part of our life vision, knowing that it is the only way to live a spiritual life. It is the Spirit’s gift. So let us pray for this gift.

Third, motivated by our goal, we must turn our new perception of being a person into action to seek Willful Seeing.. I recommend the regular practice of centering down. As the term is used, it is a spatial description of this practice. Let me suggest a new understanding of this term based on what we have presented. Centering down is breaking out of the control of our ego/mind. It is the integration of our mind with our body and our unconscious creative resources where the Spirit operates. It is a form of ritual communion in which we act out our desire for communion with the Spirit and ourselves.

Then let us practice centering down before all the areas of our spiritual life such as celebrating Mass, Scripture study, centering prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. Further let us extend our quest for Willful Seeing to other areas of our life that require our hearts for appreciation. Let us center down before all aesthetic experiences such as music, dance and art as well as in our personal relationships. We want to make Willful Seeing a habit. We want to make thinking outside the box a way of life. For a fuller description of the practice of centering down, see the article,  The Essential Practice

Lastly, we will taste the joy of Willful Seeing when we pray as Teihard Chardin prayed: “Lord, grant that I may see, that I may see You, that I may see and feel your presence in all things and animating all things.”