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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.

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!