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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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Catch the Vision

 

The Christian Vision is not about a set of dogmas or about a set of pious practices. It is all about a person named Jesus. The Christian Vision is about: (1) Jesus’ life vision, (2) Jesus’ life mission, (3) how he calls us to complete his mission, and (4) how he has empowered us for that mission.

Leave out any one of these four elements and the Christian Vision is incomplete. Omit Jesus’ call to us to complete his mission, and a critical part of the Christian Vision is lost. Ignore the fact that Jesus has empowered us for our task, and we are left with an impoverished Church attempting the impossible.

Ultimately, if the Christian Vision is worth anything, it should move us to a dynamic relationship with Jesus. If it does not, our understanding of the Christian Vision is incomplete or we are rejecting one of its essential elements.

For is not that the fundamental spiritual issue each of us faces? How do we transform a figure who lived 2000 years ago into a present day force in our lives? How do we make Jesus come alive? How do we make Jesus religiously compelling and spiritually transformative for ourselves, today, here and now?

In the end, the Christian Vision reveals that Jesus is not frozen in time 2,000 years ago, but is alive today and is the catalyst of a dynamic spiritualization process in our lives. We can have a dynamic relationship with Jesus because Jesus is a dynamic force. But first let us look at the historical Jesus.

Jesus’ Life Vision. What was Jesus’ life vision?  Let us first define what we mean by life vision. Life visions are all about attitudes, our attitudes toward God, self, others, life and reality. Now a key question is what was Jesus’ attitude toward God? The answer to that question will determine Jesus’ total life vision.

In Jesus Before Christianity, Fr. Albert Nolan, O.P. states: “It is generally agreed that somewhere at the heart of Jesus’ mysterious personality there was a unique experience of intimate closeness to God—the Abba experience…we know that the Abba experience was an experience of God as a compassionate Father.” As a compassionate Father, God loves all persons.

Here is the important insight. Jesus’ solidarity with God created solidarity for him with all humanity. The driving force behind Jesus’ life vision was compassion for others. Jesus’ God-centeredness impacted all the elements of his life vision, because he saw all through God’s eyes.

What Jesus teaches us is that once we enter deeply into solidarity with God, we will become compassionate persons because God is compassion. The move from self-centeredness to God-centeredness is the breakthrough conversion in our life visions, and therefore in our spiritual lives. We see ourselves, others, life, reality in an entirely new light, because we view all through God’s global view rather than through our narrow point of view.

Jesus’ Life Mission. Jesus’ life vision would become his life mission. Fr. Nolan points out, that unlike John the Baptist, Jesus did not feel called to save others by bringing them to a baptism of repentance. Jesus saw his mission as liberating people from every form of suffering—physical, psychological, spiritual, social, and political. Jesus would become God’s compassion incarnate.

Jesus would seek to win over all people through compassion. His one  and only motive for healing people was compassion, not to prove that he was the Messiah. He mixed socially with society’s outcasts, sinners and tax collectors, completely ignoring the scandal he was causing, so that they would know they were accepted by him.  He fought the oppression of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the times, because they imposed a loveless, burdensome religion on the people.

Fr. Albert Nolan writes: “The kingdom in which Jesus wanted his contemporaries to believe was a kingdom of love and service, a kingdom of human brotherhood and sisterhood in which every person is loved and respected because he or she is a person.”

Jesus’ Call. In his radical love for us, God sent Jesus to save all humanity. And Jesus calls us to dream the impossible dream of joining him in his mission to liberate people from every form of suffering—physical, psychological, spiritual, social and political. Jesus wanted all people to experience the fullness of their humanity. We are called to make his mission our life vision and our life mission!

Jesus’ mission is what we call broadly today “social justice”, and is the essential mission for us. Over time, Jesus’ mission has expanded to include many missions, among them Christianizing our environments and teaching catechetics. But in whatever mission we are involved, we are called to manifest Jesus’ compassion, gifting others with our presence and affirming their giftedness. Our compassion toward others opens them to Jesus’ message.

Jesus, Our Brother. Who is it who calls us to complete his mission of saving the whole world? Jesus, our brother. Jesus, though divine, was no make-believe human being. Jesus had to grow in understanding by moving from ignorance to knowledge, from doubt to certainty, from indecisiveness to decision, just as we do. Jesus learned from his Jewish culture as we learn from our culture. Jesus learned from his personal relationships as we do. Jesus learned the way every human learns.

Only when we can sense Jesus’ confusion as to where the Spirit was leading him, can we feel at home with our brother Jesus and be open to his call to mission. So many times we read in the Gospels that Jesus left the crowds behind and went off to pray. What he prayed for was guidance.

Further, Jesus was no solitary man. In pious literature, Jesus is presented as self-sufficient, self-reliant. But the Holy Spirit was his tutor every step of the way. He depended on the Holy Spirit as his mentor and guide, just as we have to do. Truly, Jesus became our brother and embraced our human condition, except for sin. For this reason we can relate to Jesus as brother and friend.  This is the Jesus who calls us to complete his mission.

Jesus, Our Crucified Lover. In time, our brother Jesus became our Crucified Lover. Jesus’ priestly mission came to a shameful, horrific end. How we explain his passion and death can either cloud Jesus’ triumph of love for us and weaken our response to his love, or it can transform us into tremendous lovers of Jesus and committed disciples.

For over a thousand years, theologians have been obsessed with the explanation of penal substitution as the rationale for Jesus’ death: Jesus stepped into our place and experienced for us God’s vindictive justice. Thus, God is a cruel God, even a child abuser. Ultimately, we must conclude that we are dealing with mystery, the mystery of God and evil.

However, Jesus’ love for us is not a mystery.St. Augustineasked: “What is the beauty we see in Christ?…The crucified limbs? The pierced side? Or the love? When we hear that he suffered for us, what do we love? The love is ‘loved.’ He loved us so that we might love him back…”

What St. Augustine is telling us is: Don’t focus narrowly on Jesus’ suffering which he willingly undertook for us: concentrate on Jesus’ love for us. Let us remember that for each of us personally, Jesus in his passion and death took upon himself all of our pains, anxieties, fears, self-hatred, discouragement and all our accumulation of wounds that we bring from our childhood and our childish ways of trying to survive. He did this out of love for each one of us.

It would be helpful to imagine the love life of Jesus as he encountered his agonizing last days. Imagine Jesus going up the mountain with the apostles and being transfigured before setting out on his journey to Jerusalem and certain death. Jesus thinks to himself: “I choose to live for and with those for whom life is one long, desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going… If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others’….We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I have been to the mountaintop….I just want to do God’s will…I have seen the promised land… My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

These are the words of Reverend Martin Luther King who prophesized the end to his life, a life of vision and mission. His words give us only a glimpse into the mind and heart of Jesus, our tremendous lover, the image and mirror of God, the Radical Lover. This is the Jesus who calls us to complete his mission.

Jesus, Our Leader. Jesus assures us: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Fr. Nolan writes:  “Jesus was experienced as the breakthrough in the history of humanity. He transcended everything that had ever been said and done before. He was in every way the ultimate, the last word. He was on a par with God. His word was God’s word. His Spirit was God’s Spirit. His feelings were God’s feelings. What he stood for was exactly the same as what God stood for. No higher estimation was conceivable.”

Jesus in his humanity is the physical revelation of the infinite God who is invisible and beyond our comprehension. If Jesus is forgiving, God is forgiving. If Jesus is compassionate, God is compassionate. Jesus is the image of God, the mirror that reflects God in all his reality. This is the kind of leader we have—a brother, a Crucified Lover and the very image of God. This is the Jesus who calls us to complete his mission. Nor does he do so without giving us the power.

Jesus, Our Empowerer. For too long the Church has ignored the meaning and significance of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not just an historical event. It is not the anti-climax to what took place on Good Friday onCalvary, as it has been treated by the Church.

The Resurrection is all about Jesus’ triumph over death and coming into the power of the risen life, and empowering us. If we minimize the Risen Jesus, we minimize the powers Jesus gave us. We are Resurrection People—full of faith in the power of the Risen Jesus, and thus full of hope. The Risen Jesus is the magnificent power broker. With Jesus we can do all things. Let us look at four power sources that the Resurrection opened up to us:

(1) The Risen Jesus sacramentalized the historical Jesus’ whole lifetime by transforming his life events and words into a power source. It is as if Jesus’ life events rose from the dead with him. Jesus lives here and now with all his life events acting as power sources for us. When we unite ourselves with Jesus’ life events in our prayer life, in our spiritual formation and in our evangelization of others, in our suffering, we are empowered by Jesus because his life events live on as sources of power for us. We only need faith in the Risen Jesus.

(2) The Risen Jesus continues his Incarnation on earth through us by incorporating us as members of his Body. And he empowers us with the same powers that the historical Jesus enjoyed—to bring peace, healing and forgiveness to others. When we employ Jesus’ powers, we manifest the Risen Jesus within us to the world. The challenge for us is to take possession of Jesus’ powers. We have been given the powers. We only need faith in the Risen Jesus.

(3) The Risen Jesus pours out his Spirit on us, constantly empowering us with his Spirit’s powers to bring us to self-discovery and to transformation into Jesus’ ongoing Incarnation within us. The Spirit is our inner guide and mentor. God carries on a Divine Dialogue with us, making known his will and direction for our lives, and it is the Holy Spirit who confirms within us that we have recognized God’s word to us. It is through the Spirit that we gain the courage to complete Jesus’ mission. It is through the Spirit that we grow in the discipline of love to be self-giving persons as Jesus was. We only need faith in the Risen Jesus.

(4) The Risen Jesus sacramentalized Christian community and continues to do so. He promised that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he would be present. Think of Jesus’ disciples hiding in the Upper Room behind closed doors. Imagine the Risen Jesus here and now penetrating our communities, and most importantly, penetrating the closed doors of our minds and hearts, opening us up to his Spirit. Imagine Jesus saying to us: “Peace be with you!” and breathing his Spirit upon us. The Risen Jesus continues to empower us through the Spirit in our Christian communities. We only need faith in the Risen Jesus.

Thus far, we have seen how Jesus’ solidarity with God who is a compassionate Father created solidarity for him with all humanity. His life vision became his life mission. Further, Jesus invites us to live his life vision, the Christian Vision for us, and to commit to his life mission. Lastly, the Risen Jesus has empowered us to complete his mission to the world.

Embracing the Vision. What remains to be answered is: how do we embrace the Christian Vision? Earlier we said, the Christian Vision is all about a person, a person named Jesus. We live the Christian Vision by embracing Jesus as ardently as we can and as often as we can. Does that mean embracing just the historical Jesus? No, it means embracing the total Jesus—the historical Jesus, the Risen Jesus, and the Jesus who gives us his Spirit. How do we embrace Jesus?

(1) Practice Resurrection. When we embrace Jesus’ Resurrection, we embrace Jesus. At every Mass we attend let us rejoice in the rising from the dead of our Crucified Lover who carried our burdens on his cross and celebrate the Risen Jesus coming into his triumph and power—the power he has shared with us. Let us celebrate his ongoing presence among us, his ongoing Incarnation in us, his ongoing transformation of us, his ongoing empowerment of us, his ongoing bringing us into union with all men and women who are the Body of Christ. At the consecration, when the priest holds up the host, let us be aware that we are included in that host as members of Jesus’ Body, and let us offer up ourselves as self-gift to Jesus and to our sisters and brothers.

When we are in Christian community, let us remind ourselves that the Risen Jesus is present in our midst, still gifting us with his peace and the Spirit’s empowerment as on the first Pentecost.

(2) Practice Union with the historical Jesus. When we embrace Jesus’ humanity, we embrace Jesus. Let us be keenly conscious that Jesus’ power goes out from him 2000 years later due to his Resurrection. So let us practice union with our brother Jesus. Let us get in touch with Jesus’ power in everything we do—in our prayer life, in our spiritual formation, in our evangelization of others.

(3) Practice Pentecost. Our dream of joining Jesus in his mission to save the whole world is the impossible dream unless we have a Higher Power. That Higher Power is the Spirit whom the Risen Jesus continually pours out upon us. So let us practice Pentecost. Let the Spirit become our guide and mentor. Let us pray the Come Holy Spirit prayer daily and many times during the day for the courage to act and lead to complete Jesus’ mission, and for the power to love others with a radical love. When we embrace Jesus’ Spirit, we embrace Jesus!

(4) Practice Jesus’ ongoing Incarnation. When we embrace the Risen Jesus’ ongoing Incarnation in us, we embrace Jesus. Let us manifest the Risen Jesus within us. Let us practice being sacraments to others—bringing peace, healing and forgiveness to others as Jesus did. Let us practice being Jesus’ compassion to others by gifting people with our presence and affirming their giftedness. Let us practice being communion to others by being bodily present to others with our gestures, tone of voice and our attention to them. Let us practice being channels of faith and hope to others to awaken faith and hope in them.

Embracing Dynamic Jesus. The Christian Vision understood in all its splendor reveals the answer to the fundamental question: how do we move toward a dynamic relationship with Jesus. The short answer is: embrace the total Jesus revealed at the Resurrection.

For the Risen Jesus transformed Jesus’ life on earth into a power source. Out of this power source, the Risen Jesus gifts us with his Spirit who empowers us to live lives of radical faith, radical hope and radical love. The historical Jesus has become and is the catalyst of a dynamic living process of spiritual empowerment for us by bringing into play all his dimensions—his humanity, his resurrected life, and his Spirit. We can have a dynamic relationship with Jesus because Jesus is dynamic!

 

Growing Faith

Because the gift of faith provides us with our Christian Vision, it is the engine that drives our living the spiritual growth process and our growth in relationship to Christ. One would think that high priority would be given to growing in faith, especially when the business of religion is all about mystery─the mystery of who God is, the mystery of what God has done for us.

Doesn’t just the opposite happen? Faith becomes some kind of a buffer against spiritual mysteries. If some dogma is a matter of faith, we don’t have to think about it seriously. Or worse, we speak about dogmas, as if we fully understand them. This mindset leads us to pray without meaning or heart. The end result is that we tend to take the mystery out of the mysteries in the spiritual life. Yet, in other phases of our lives, mystery is the source of wonder, romance and creativity.

Wonderful Faith. Prayer is a profound act of faith, and grows our faith. However, to bring energy to our spiritual life, we must acknowledge, accept and celebrate mystery in our prayer. We can do this by creating psychic distance between ourselves and dogmas so that we can rejoice in their mystery. For example: “Jesus, You are God incarnate. How incredible! HOW WONDERFUL!” Or, “Spirit of Jesus, You are my Higher Power Who guides and enlightens me. How preposterous! HOW WONDERFUL!”

Rather than ignore or run away from mystery, we must embrace it with all our mind, heart and will. By nature, we are controllers. We want to control everything. Mystery affronts our rationality. By rejoicing in mystery, we are acting against our nature. However, in this way, we unleash wonder, romance and creativity in our spiritual lives.

Reinforced Faith. Our faith gives us our Christian Vision. By raising our awareness of the Christian Vision as life’s ultimacy, we reinforce our faith. Prayer is both an expression of our Christian Vision and a plea for greater faith in that Vision. When we pray: “My God, be the center of my life”, we actualize our faith that God is the center of our lives and we pray for God-centeredness. Our faith is reinforced!

Prayer seeking to see God present in everyday life is an extension of the Christian Vision, and grows our faith. It can be simply expressed: “Lord, help me to believe that my life-events are Spirit-laden, that my crosses are the Spirit’s whispers, and that my deep, positive feelings and desires are the Spirit’s prompts to take action or to change my values. And help me to be open to the Spirit’s presence.”

Further, kerygmatic evangelization, radiating out our faith, hope and love, reinforces our faith in the Christian Vision by  proclaiming the Good News.

Also, we grow our faith by living a life of radical love, for the theological virtues are a dynamic process, each impacting the other. In Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a wise man says of faith: “Love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you will be convinced of the existence of God.”

Superficial Faith. Our level of understanding of what we believe impacts the potential level of our faith. Unfortunately, spiritual truths do not carry labels indicating the appropriate level at which they ought to be considered. For example, one can understand the Incarnation as an historical event and that would be correct, but our understanding would be superficial. At a higher level, one understands the Incarnation as the ongoing process of the Risen Christ living within us. That understanding has the potential to deepen our faith in Christ dramatically, because it helps us to enter more deeply into our relationship with Christ. An inadequate understanding of spiritual truths results in an impoverished view of the Christian Vision, and thus, an impoverished faith.

Leap of Faith

There is incompleteness about us as human beings.St. Augustine captured that thought in his statement: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.” We are driven toward faith by our awareness of the infinite to which we belong, but which we do not own like a possession. Ultimately, faith is God’s gift to us.

Our restlessness impacts us psychologically as human beings. We need a center to our life outside ourselves, around which our thoughts, feelings and desires can navigate. Faith as our total commitment to God, as our life vision, can act as our center. But it takes a leap of our total personhood to embrace this vision because we are embracing Mystery.

The word “faith” has many meanings─some helpful, some not so helpful. A misinterpretation of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence, or worse just an emotion. Nor is faith solely trust in a higher power. Unfortunately, faith is often thought of as the contents of faith, as in the Credo that we recite at Mass. A more  helpful definition sees faith as a power, as in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Now let’s focus on theologian Paul Tillich’s rich definition of faith as the concern in life that claims ultimacy for our life. For it is when we leap from faith as the contents of faith to faith as ultimacy in our lives that we experience the depth of faith.

Ultimate Concern.  Whether we choose our nation, or our success, or our relationship to God as our ultimate concern, the chosen concern demands that we sacrifice all other concerns such as our time, money, recreation, family, maybe even our life. In Deut 6:5, we are given the commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This commandment applies to whatever concern we make our ultimate concern, our god.

What is the difference between true and idolatrous faith? In true faith, our ultimate concern is about the truly ultimate. In idolatrous faith, we elevate finite realities to the rank of ultimacy, to the rank of the divine.

Ultimate concern is the issue that is addressed on Friday of our Cursillo Weekend. We are asked in the Ideal Talk: what is our god? Then we hear the Christian Vision, and we are challenged to worship the true God and commit to the Christian Vision. We are asked for outright conversion to the Christian Vision as our ultimate concern. The human heart seeks the ultimacy of the infinite because that is where our hearts will find rest.

Ultimate Benefits. Tillich describes an act of faith “as an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite.” Thus, faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. As such, faith subjects all our other concerns to itself, giving depth, direction and unity to all our other concerns and with them to our whole personality. Faith then is the integrating center of all the elements of our personhood. Faith unites our bodily, our unconscious, our conscious and our spiritual elements. Faith is the centered movement of the whole personality toward something of ultimate meaning and significance. As such faith is a passionate act because it is a matter of infinite passion.

The disrupting forces of our human condition represent great obstacles for our personal and spiritual life. If we lack a unifying center, we are subject to personal and spiritual disintegration. So we must strengthen our faith through constant conversion and spiritual experiences that awaken our consciousness of our ultimate concern.

Faith makes us lovers and doers. As finite beings, we are aware of our separateness from the infinite. Our separateness requires great courage to overcome our very natural doubt. However, faith presupposes our reunion with the infinite. It is love that drives us toward that reunion. And the immediate expression of love is action.

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!

Resurrection Mindset

As St. Augustine said, “We are Resurrection People.” So, we must have a Resurrection Mindset. In our series of articles on the Resurrection, we have looked at our spirituality through a Resurrection Mindset, seeing all facets of our faith and spiritual practice through the lens of the Resurrection: How the historical Jesus is the dynamic catalyst of the Jesus Process leading us to the Risen Jesus and the Spirit’s powers. How the Resurrection affects our prayer life, how it affects the way we pray the Mass, how it affects our reading the Gospels. How we cope with life’s death experiences. How we view Christian community as the source of Spirit-empowerment.

All these outcomes of the Resurrection flow from Jesus’ death and Resurrection. The great Christian paradox: out of death comes life. Yet, how many practicing Catholics cling exclusively to the historical Jesus? They are happy to draw inspiration and wisdom from the earthy Jesus, but dismiss the “mystical” stuff. They accuse the Church of mythologizing Jesus with its talk of the Risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These people must die to their too great comfort with the historical Jesus in order to grow into the Christian Vision.

Evolutionary Mindset. Now we want to consider how a Resurrection Mindset impacts the process of our spiritual development. Here is what Maryknoll spiritual writer Fr. John Walsh, M.M. says about the necessity of a growth-oriented mindset: “People cannot evolve without an evolutionary mindset. Unfortunately most cultural Christians (those born into the Faith) still live in a static universe.”

Our Resurrection Mindset is just such an evolutionary mindset. It is a process mindset because Jesus is the dynamic process, the catalyst of the Jesus Process, the driver of the Resurrection Process, constantly calling us from death to life.

Let’s further define a Resurrection Mindset. It is comprised of two elements, a lively faith vision, and a realization that only by dying to oneself can we experience new life. First, our faith vision assures us that Jesus is dynamically alive and calls us out of our tombs, as he called Lazarus, to partake more deeply of life. As Resurrection People, we will experience death many times as we move to new life, new periods of growth.

Second, we must constantly ask ourselves: what must I die to in order to move to new life? What attitudes of my life vision require change? My attitude toward God, Jesus, Spirit, ourselves, others, life, reality? Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, we must look upon ourselves as ever evolving to new life, but always needing to die to grow.

Evolving Spirituality. In Evangelization and Justice, Fr. Walsh cites the stages of spiritual maturity. Given a transforming environment, such as a Cursillo Weekend, most active Christians will move out of the traditional stages of absorbing their faith from others and will make a conscious decision to take possession of their faith. But they will have to die to the comfort of letting others think for them. When this happens, they will grow up spiritually.

Unfortunately at this juncture, they will normally adopt one model of Christian living. Their spirituality will be predominantly either head-oriented or heart-oriented; group-oriented or individualistic; action-oriented or contemplative-oriented. But to continue their growth, they must die to what hinders their progress to move to the conflicting polarity. If they are predominately action-oriented, they must become more contemplative-oriented. Likewise, they must grow into the other opposing models, leading eventually to a richly integrated spiritual life. The final stage of growth is when we become Spirit-possessed and allow the Spirit to create prophets and mystics out of us.

Evolving Heart Wishes. What helps us to evolve our spirituality? Fr. Walsh responds that we must surface and expand our basic heart wishes to embrace all the models of Christian living. He enumerates these heart wishes as follows: 1. We want to love. 2. We want to be loved. 3. We want to share our experiences, and we want to enter into the experiences of others. Actually, we hunger for solidarity with God and others. 4. We want to grow our potentialities. We must be keenly aware of our heart wishes and attempt to discern these movements in our everyday lives, for it is the Spirit at work inviting us to come out of our tombs and grow our souls. We will have to sacrifice something to respond. What is it? Ultimately, we come to the realization that only by encountering fully God and our sisters and brothers that we attain our heart wishes.

Evolving Self-discovery. Besides having positive heart wishes, we also experience the shadow side of ourselves. Call them death wishes for they destroy or hinder our spiritual progress. Here too we must surface our feelings and discern our fears, hostilities, passivity, self-centeredness so that we can handle them at a conscious level, rather than allowing them to sabotage our relationships with God and our sisters and brothers.

So, in our spiritual lives we are faced with the challenging conflict of our positive heart wishes and our death wishes. Only Jesus through the Spirit’s powers can enable us to cope with this inner, never-ending conflict. But Jesus will lead us out of the darkness of our ignorance to reveal to us our human condition. The evolution here is one of continuing self-discovery and acceptance of reality, leading us to deeper dependency on the Spirit.

Ultimate Evolution. What is the ultimate evolution in our personal/spiritual development? Fr. Walsh responds: “It is ourselves with our resurrected bodies, alive in a radically changed universe that has become the site of these resurrected bodies…It is only when we pass through the evolutionary transition called death-unto resurrection that we can experience the fullness of evolution without extinguishing our individuality. In fact, just the opposite will happen: Through our ultimate encounter with Christ and others, our own personality will be enhanced beyond our wildest dreams.” We will be swept up into the inner love-life of the Trinity through the risen Christ. Until our personal resurrection, our personality, our true self is incomplete. Only then will our heart wishes be fulfilled in union with God and our sisters and brothers.

With a Resurrection Mindset, we will be sensitive to Jesus’ calling us constantly from death to life throughout our lives and into eternity. All life is Resurrection from the dead into new life!