Seize the Sacred

Church-going can be dangerous for our spiritual lives. If it leads us to believe that sacredness exists only in church buildings, and dedicated clergy performing sacred rituals. For the Jews in Jesus’ time, God’s dwelling place was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Not so for us. The temple, the sacred, exists in all life, in all persons, in all creation and is available to all. The challenge is to be mindful of our own sacredness and that of others, including creation, and the sacredness of our everyday lives. Then, seize the sacred in the present moment.

Temple Within Us. The Risen Jesus has made temples of all of us. This Divine Lover, the Source of all being, exists at the very core of our personhood, radiating love energies through the Holy Spirit to our minds, hearts and wills, so that we will see all through the eyes of love. In the prayer to the Holy Spirit, we pray: “Kindle within us the fire of Your love.” We have as our companion the Holy Spirit, Divine Eros, who showers us with invitations and inspirations. Further, the Risen Jesus carries on his Incarnation within us and lives on through us, gifting us with Jesus’ life energies, love force and powers. There is no question of our sacredness.

However, we must first become deeply aware and confident of our own sacredness or we will never be able to share it. Moreover, we must be confident that our sacredness is accessible, that we can reach down into the Divine Love Center at the core of our being and seize our sacredness so as to share it with others. It is through the practice of centering down that we can gain such confidence. By centering down we learn to connect with our Divine Love Center and unleash the divine love energies within us.                 .

By centering down, I mean practicing being fully present with all our hearts and minds in our encounters with God, people, creation and life experiences. Then seize the sacred in the present moment.

Temple of Others. We can look upon our daily conversations with others as just part of our social relationships. But there is something deeper here. There is a sacredness in all of life including our everyday dialogues. Theologian Gregory Baum points out that the same Word in Scripture that summons, judges, reveals, and provokes decisions is the same Word in human dialogue that reveals to us who we are. Our conversations with others judge us, they summon us to grow, they demand a reply. The Spirit carries on our ongoing redemption in our everyday dialogues with others. However, we must be keenly aware that we are encountering the sacred. Then seize the sacred in the present moment.

Temple of Creation. Fr. William Short, OFM states that God formed the world through the Word. Since the Word is the crowning glory of creation, “God makes light and darkness, trees, stones and fish, all the creatures, according to the Word as model, or blueprint or form.” Each being—living and nonliving—in some way resembles the model who is Christ. All creation was created for Christ and manifests Christ in some way. All creation is sacred.

Again, we must be keenly aware that we are encountering the sacred in creation. Approach creation contemplatively—being fully present with all our hearts and minds. We will find that creation has a gift to give us—the presence, beauty and wisdom of God. So seize the sacred in the present moment.

Temple of Time.  God dwells in the fullness of time. But for us human beings, time is one moment after another. So the Holy Spirit encounters us where we are—in one moment at a time. The Spirit at the core of our being communicates his inspirations and invitations one moment at a time. The Spirit pervades all our moments of time. All moments are sacred. Spiritual writers call this spiritual reality the “sacrament of the present moment.”

A Roman poet wrote: “Carpe diem.” Translated literally, seize the day. More freely, seize the pleasures of the moment. He encouraged his readers to make the most of life, because there is nothing after life. While we disagree with his philosophy, his advice is good for the spiritual life. We find that the opportunity to seize the sacred usually comes in a wink of the eye. It may come simply in the moment when we decide to step outside our pew at Mass and give a lonely person across the aisle our blessing at the Kiss of Peace. We have seized our sacredness to share it with another. We have seized the sacred in the present moment!



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!

Integrating God in Our Lives

God dwells within us. God’s Spirit is our mentor, our guide, our inner force. We know all that. But how do we make this theological truth real and meaningful? How do we more deeply integrate God into our lived experience?

Prayer Approach. We can and should pray daily for greater faith in an indwelling God and his creative work within us.  Such prayer focuses our attention on our spiritual lives and the process of our becoming more fully ourselves through the Spirit.  This kind of prayer sharpens our expectancy for God’s involvement in our lives.

Faith Approach. We can accept that we are dealing with mystery. By nature, we are controllers. We want to control everything. We want to know everything before we act. We need a willingness to embrace mystery. When we invite God more deeply into our spiritual life, we invite mystery into our life. More importantly, we invite romance and creativity into our life. Let us act as if we believe, and we will grow in our belief.

Body-Person Approach. However, if we are going to integrate God more deeply into our spiritual lives, we must integrate God into that part of our lives where we spend the most time–in our bodies, in our life of the senses, in our sexuality. If we integrate God into the so-called spiritual part of our lives, we segregate God to a very small portion of our lives. So, to achieve greater integration, we are not necessarily being called to add more spiritual practices, but to seek the Spirit in our everyday lived experiences.

We are incarnational beings, body persons. And God respects our nature. Our bodiliness becomes the medium through which the Spirit empowers and enlightens us. The Spirit assaults our senses and our feelings through nature, music, art, dance, the true, the beautiful, the oneness of intimacy and the joy of community to awaken our heart wishes for personal and spiritual growth.

Further, our bodies offer a natural spiritual rhythm. For a moment think of a beautiful sunset, a great aria, exciting food. When we consciously become more deeply aware in our listening, in our seeing, in our touching, in our smelling, in our tasting, we enter the present moment. We experience time stopping, we experience a space in our consciousness for encounter. At this point we can idolize the object of our attention. Or we can transcend it and be moved to wonder at the experienced gift, to thanksgiving for the gift, and finally to the presence of the Gift-giver. Catch the rhythm!

If we act as if our senses are gifts of God rather than presuming they are standard operating equipment, we will have begun the movement from attentive awareness to the present moment, to wonder, to gratitude, to the Spirit’s presence. We can further reinforce our intention to live our lives spiritually by committing ourselves with some ejaculation such as: “I vow to look upon all beings with the eyes of compassion.”  In other words, we vow to be fully present in a caring and attentive way toward our own lived experiences—the same vow that Christ asks us to make toward others.

Living with our senses compassionately toward our lived experience enables us to live a life of gratefulness to God. Gratefulness is at the heart of our relationship with God, and therefore at the heart of our spiritual lives. For we possess nothing, not even ourselves. We come before God as people who have been gifted by Him. There is a gift dimension to our lives that surpasses our comprehension. Our senses bring us glimpses.

Wonder of wonders, the spiritual life becomes a life of compassion, awareness, presence, wonder, gratefulness and spiritual union. The self-help books tout their prescriptions for living such a fully human life. But only Christ lived that life. Best of all, He has given us his Spirit to help us attain it.

Openness to Christian Community

At every stage of our developmental growth from childhood to adult, we become ourselves through the others in our lives—our parents, our teachers, our friends, our spouses, our mentors and spiritual guides. Probably we can all look back at some juncture in our lives and say to ourselves: “How I wish I could have been more open to so and so!”

Grace builds on nature. “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am.” And powerfully so. Beware of entering into Christian community: beautiful and won-derful things can happen. Christ’s Spirit operates on us through others. If we are open!

Our Cursillo Weekend was an experience of Spirit-empowerment through Christian community. Despite the fact that we were told that the Weekend was not a retreat, in our heads we thought of it as a retreat. We discovered that it was an encounter with a Spirit-driven community. On our Weekend, we were drawn gradually, almost effortlessly, into the community. Spirit-empowerment came easy.

In some ways our Cursillo Weekend spoiled us. We expect to be overwhelmed by the power of community, and instead find ourselves underwhelmed. The big difference now is that we must consciously and deliberately choose to be open to the Spirit’s presence and power in our community. The need to choose to be open can be better appreciated if we understand our human condition. We must experience inner freedom to be open to the workings of the Spirit in our lives. It is as if we are closed in on ourselves, and we need a miracle to open us up. Christian community is involved in the miracle of inner freedom and empowerment, the gifts of the Spirit.

Openness is being fully present to others to receive their gifts of the Spirit to us. Openness is being willing to change—our attitudes toward God, self, others, life. The Spirit does not operate in complacency. Openness is being willing to take risks, to be vulnerable; perhaps to reveal in group reunion something that we are not comfortable with. Openness is the willingness to do the uncomfortable; for example, to speak in public. Openness is approaching community with the expectancy that you will experience the Spirit’s empowerment.

Openness happens especially when we have experienced inner change. All of a sudden, due to our altered state, we understand what we have not understood before. We perceive what we could not perceive before. Reality has not changed; we have changed. We are looking at reality through another pair of eyes.

What are the obstacles to openness? Mental blocks—she is only a woman or he is only a man. Misperceptions—religion is all about conformity to laws or spirituality is only for New Agers. Willful obstinacy—we don’t want to accept new ideas, new perceptions, new visions because we would have to change present attitudes, and therefore unconsciously we render ourselves incapable of understanding them.

Another obstacle to openness is our attitude toward ourselves. In Gregory Baum’s book, Man Becoming, the author states that if we perceive ourselves as static, unchangeable, complete, we lock out the Spirit from our lives. Each of us is in the process of becoming, and the Spirit is deeply involved in that process.

The Holy Spirit has given Cursillo a special charism—Spirit-empowerment through Christian community. It does not work automatically. We must perceive it as a gift that our Cursillo community can give us. We must hunger for it. We must be open to it.

Openness to the power of community is essential to our own personal spiritual development, and it is essential to the development of a truly Christian community.