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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.

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!

Essential Practice

Of all the spiritual practices available to us, the one essential, fundamental practice that should precede all our spiritual activities is that of centering. I am not referring to centering prayer, which is really only an extension of the centering practice. In fact, centering prayer has become the tail wagging the dog. Ask anyone about centering, and they will identify it with centering prayer. By contrast, I am stating that centering is the essential practice of the spiritual life. Why?

Our concept of God has shifted dramatically in the 20th Century, although very quietly. No major announcements have been made. No sermons preached on the subject. However, in his book, Man Becoming, theologian Gregory Baum has stated that our concept of God has moved from an outsider God, a divine being facing us from beyond history, to an insider God who dwells within us.

At the core of our being, God reveals us to ourselves, calls us to growth and gives of himself to us. God’s revelatory presence, self-gift and call operate within each situation and experience of our daily life. This theological shift changes everything. To encounter deeply this insider God, we must center down to the core of our personhood where God’s Spirit dwells. We must connect with our Center!

Another term for the spiritual life is the “interior life,” and rightly so. If we are committed to living the spiritual life, we will practice centering many times during our day to prepare ourselves for spiritual activities—before spiritual reading, before we pray, before we celebrate Mass, before we attempt to encounter God’s presence in the divine gift of creation, before we encounter people. And on and on.

If we are not practicing centering, we may be living pious, faithful, church-going lives, but we are not living the spiritual life—a life of union with our insider God. We must connect with our Center!

Centering. What is centering? Centering is the conscious gathering of our mind, heart and will to surrender our self to the Divine Center within us and within all created reality.

Why is this psychological gathering so necessary? We are wounded people—alienated from God, ourselves, others and creation. Ordinarily, we get stuck in our heads or our hearts. Or we act as automatons, being controlled by habit. Despite even good intentions, there will be times when we will not succeed in pulling ourselves together. Only with the Spirit’s help do we experience our own spiritual unity—if we intentionally collect our faculties to create inner unity.

Centering is the way we form our intention that drives our spiritual activities. It helps us to achieve wholeness, inner spiritual union within ourselves. It is by first experiencing this inner spiritual union that we prepare ourselves to experience union with our inner God. Centering, as the term is used here, is not just a technique for concentrating the full energies of our mind and heart. It does that, but it does more than that. It is the way to spiritual union—first with ourselves and then with God.

Centering and Compassion. I have shared with you my discovery of the practice of compassion at the Louvre Museum in Paris. That is the practice of being fully present to the object of our encounter with a caring heart and attentive mind. In other words, we must make a self-gift of ourselves to receive the gift of the other, whether it is the arts, the beauty of creation, other persons or our insider God.

What I now realize is that this practice of compassion is actually the practice of centering, helping us to form our intention for spiritual union. For example, to                                  prepare ourselves for union with God, we must be fully present to the Divine Presence within us with a caring heart and attentive mind. We must gift ourselves, we must surrender ourselves to our insider God. That is the practice of compassion and the practice of centering.

Centering and Perceiving. Spiritual writers and poets voice the human problem of perceiving the depths of things—God, creation, people. We tend to perceive without perceiving. They say we must see with the eyes of our hearts. Or they say we must see with the eyes of love. E.e.cummings writes of revelation: “The eyes of my eyes are opened.” Teihard Chardin prayed, “Lord, grant that I may see, that I may see You, that I may see and feel You present in all things and animating all things.” Our powers of perception are at their best when we are centered and compassionately united with ourselves and with the object or person or God we are attempting to encounter.

Centering Method. Whatever helps you to fire up your heart, focus your attention and bring you fully present into the present moment is your best method for centering. Remember too that your heart’s desire is your most creative force. No matter what method you use, you must experience ardent desire for spiritual union. Here is how the practice of compassion works for centering:

  1. Become fully present. Enter the present moment—the entrance to inner spiritual unity. As bodied persons, you need to use your body to become fully present to yourself. Our minds may be in the past or future, but our bodies are in the present moment. Take time to become conscious of your breathing. Breathe deeply from the gut, inhaling and exhaling rhythmically for a period of time. Make your body attentive by the way you hold yourself. If that fails, use Sadhana prayer. Fr. Anthony DeMello, SJ popularized this method which uses the body to awaken the mind and heart to being fully present in an energized way. It consists of becoming conscious of your body through the body awareness exercise of ritually experiencing your body parts from head to foot for a period of time. Note: Doing both the breathing exercise described above and the body awareness exercise at the same time enhances the experience.
  2. Seek a caring heart and an attentive mind. Lead with your emotional center to achieve a caring heart and an attentive mind. When you experience strong feelings, they register themselves in your body, either in your stomach or chest.  If you want to enter into total centeredness to encounter God or created reality compassionately, mind and heart, you must consciously enlist your body’s emotional center to generate a caring, attentive attitude. And you will deepen your sense of being fully present in the present moment.
  3. Attempt to experience union. Arouse desire for union with God. Pray that the Risen Christ will pour Jesus’ life energies, present and available here and now, into your heart that you might encounter the Divine Presence within you, as he experienced when he went into the mountains to pray. Express acts of will to encounter God while admitting that your will is powerless to command love, relationship, encounter. For spiritual union is the Spirit’s gift to give or not to give. Give yourself as self-gift to God. Ask the Holy Spirit to connect you with your Divine Love Center. Then begin your spiritual exercise.

Also, it should be noted that centering is essential to the practice of discernment, as described in the article, Divine Dialogue in this Program. The practice of discernment should be viewed as another essential spiritual practice that flows, like the centering practice, from the theology of the insider God. For our insider God carries on dialogue with us through his Spirit taking initiatives within our hearts’ movements, inviting and inspiring us. But why is centering essential for discernment? Because we want to center our mind and heart and will on the issue under discernment for our deepest perceptions and spiritual insights, and that in the presence of our Divine Center.

Further, the practice of centering as described here is valuable for those who practice centering prayer. It could precede centering prayer to prepare oneself psychologically and spiritually for this rich form of prayer.

Learning the practice of centering should be the first step toward a deeper spiritual life. The French have a phrase for it—the point of departure. If you have your right departure point, you will have a good journey and arrive at your destination. Generally, it happens that when people have decided to take their spiritual journey more seriously, they are directed to Bible study. Most likely, that departure point will not bring them to their destination—a deep relationship with their insider God. However, after they have made the practice of centering a habit, Bible study will contribute to their growth in the spiritual life by deepening their relationship with their insider God.

For centering is the essential, fundamental practice of our spiritual lives. And it is the essential, fundamental practice of living the fully human life. It should be the act that precedes all our spiritual and deeply human acts. Let us connect with our own center and our Divine Center!

Compassion for Others

On our Cursillo Weekend we experienced very deeply God’s compassion for us and the Cursillo community’s compassion for us. We encountered a love community who was there for us, and their care, attention and self-gift to us enabled us to encounter the One who is Absolute Love, Presence and Self-gift. Ideally, our gratefulness for this gift of compassion should convert us to a new relationship with others. Indeed, we should want to grow in the virtue of compassion to live lives of compassion to others.

Our Weekend experience gives the word “compassion” a whole new dimension of meaning. Compassion for Cursillistas is being fully present in a caring, attentive way to another so as to receive the presence and giftedness of the other. When we are compassionate, we give the other person our presence, our hearts and our minds. We offer ourselves totally as self-gift with the expectancy that we will discover the giftedness of the other. Since we are totally committed to the other, we suspend judgment of the other. Consequently, we see the other in an entirely different light.

Christ exemplifies for us the virtue of compassion. Christ lived a life of passionate relationship to others, was fully present to those whom he encountered and was totally self-giving to others. What a magnetic presence Christ must have been! How his sense of love and fellowship must have resonated with those who followed Him! He was clearly an enormous love force in their midst.

There are two essential steps to exercise compassion. First, center down by focusing your attention on your body, mind and will in a very gentle and loving way; we might look upon this step as being compassionate to ourselves. This act of self-compassion enables us to reach out to others. Then, focus on the person you wish to encounter in compassion, again in a gentle and loving way until you experience the presence of the other’s spirit. It will take some practice; so make a deliberate practice of being compassionate toward others. Being Christ means being compassionate toward others.

When we live compassion for others to its fullest degree, we become communion to others. As compassion is being spiritually present to others, communion is being physically present to others. In his book, Our Journey Home, Jean Vanier gives us an insight into the meaning of communion. He says that communion is being bodily present to others. Body language—gestures, tone of voice, the look in our eyes, a handshake or a hug—is the fundamental instrument of communion. In the way we look and listen, we can reveal to someone his or her importance and uniqueness.

People are hungering for communion,Vaniersays, though they may not be aware of the term. Compassion brought to the height of communion is the radical love of others that Christ is asking of us. Christ understood the human need of people for communion. On the night before He died, He gave us the Eucharist. Being communion to others helps us appreciate Christ’s being Communion to us.

As other Christs, we are called to love others as Christ did, but it is difficult. It takes practice and education of the heart to accept the unique differences of others. We must learn to accept that they are called to develop their own potentials, and we should be willing to help that process. We must learn to respect their personality types, especially when they are so different from our own. People’s diversity is God’s creativity.

Be compassion, be communion to others. In this way, we are empowered to make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ, whether the person is a candidate for Cursillo or a fellow Cursillista.