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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.