Spirit’s Sculpture

StTeresa (2)A picture is worth a thousand words. The great 17th Century artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, did it one dimension better. He did it in stone. Bernini captured the essence of the spiritual life with his sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Here he dramatically depicts the spiritual life as our relationship with the Spirit who aggressively pursues us.

This sculpture is displayed in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Bernini has an angel stand in for the Spirit. An angel with a smile. The angel has penetrated the heart of St. Theresa with an arrow. The arrow is the Spirit’s invitation to growth.  She is in ecstasy. Surrender to the Spirit’s invitations is joyful. Absolute surrender is absolutely joyful!

Steeped in Jesuit spirituality, Bernini would have been aware that the Spirit dialogues with us, not through words but through our feelings. The Spirit uses the gift of consolations (emotional highs) to invite us to greater love, hope and faith. Not only for St. Theresa, but for all of us. We can project ourselves into the dynamic action of this sculpture.

Bernini is unconventional. He avoids the traditional image of the dove for the Spirit. Who can relate to a dove?  So he focuses on the Spirit’s action. Bernini has given us a way to visualize our relationship with the Spirit and fire up our spirituality.

Spirit at Work. Let us visualize the Spirit directing his arrows of invitations to our hearts for greater love, hope and faith. The Spirit’s arrow of faith is the Spirit inviting us to discover his presence where our bodily eyes cannot see him, and through his Word in our hearts to reach an intelligence that no human reasoning can provide, according to Ladislas M. Orsy, SJ.

The Spirit’s arrow of hope invites us to a certainty beyond what we can calculate. In earthly matters, Fr. Orsy states, “When I say ‘I hope’, I express an expectation that some future event will take a favorable turn for me. I may have a burning wish that it should be so, but I have no certainty.” By contrast, with divine hope the Spirit invites us to an awareness that we already possess the Kingdom of God in our hearts. “The final outcome is certain; its time and manifestation have not been revealed.”

The Spirit’s arrow of love invites us to learn the ways of love. Growth in love make us generous givers beyond any human measure. These three virtues are not just individual, unconnected virtues but the components of a dynamic spiritualization process. Faith generates knowledge. Hope provides the energy that love needs for its operation. For the most part, love is the driving force in this process.

Consolation at Work. If your reaction to this sculpture is: “That’s not my spiritual life, a life of ecstasy,” you have missed the point. You have to go beyond the sculpture’s setting to your own spiritual life. Bernini highlights the relationship between the Spirit and the individual soul of every man, every woman. We may never experience ecstasy, but we should be open to and eager for the Spirit’s gift of consolations.

The Spirit is smiling. He has gifts of consolation to give us. Spiritual consolation is experienced on two levels of our consciousness, according to Jules Toner, SJ. One, we experience our love, hope or faith increased in depth or firmness or purity or intensity or effectiveness. Two, we recognize feelings of peace, joy, confidence, exultation and the like—flowing from our spiritual experiences.

Most likely, you have experienced such moments in your spiritual life. You may not have attributed these joyous experiences and feelings to the Spirit, unless you are living a deep relationship with the Spirit. But the Spirit is making it happen.

Note: when we are the source of our consolations, they are not the work of the Spirit. Fr. Toner writes: “…feelings can be to a large extent or even wholly non-spiritual when the subjective ground is not living faith but only sensitivity to poetry, great thoughts, music, the charm of human persons.” Discernment is needed. Our awareness of what is taking place within us can help us convert our experience into a truly spiritual encounter.

Pursuing the Pursuer. Bernini’s sculpture is telling us that the Spirit is an erotic God. The Spirit aggressively pursues us. Each day let us pursue the Pursuer. Not for his consolations. That is the Spirit’s gift to give or not to give. But for deeper relationship with the Spirit.

Daily I recall Bernini’s sculpture in my imagination. I envision the smile of the angel, the face of St. Theresa. And I pray: “Spirit of Love, Divine Eros, direct your arrows toward my heart to awaken it to greater love, hope and faith.”

Real Jesus

So much has been written about Jesus over 2000 years that one is tempted to ask, “Will the real Jesus stand up?” Perhaps the best way to understand Jesus is not through our minds but through our imagination. In literature we read of kings and princes who disguise themselves as nobodies so that they can mingle among ordinary people and find the love of their lives who will love them, not because of their position in life, but truly for themselves.

In some ways, Jesus is like these royal characters. But the big difference is that these fictional personages had deliberately chosen to disguise their identity. For Jesus, there was no make-believe. Jesus had to search for his identity. Jesus had to become a man of radical (extraordinary) faith, hope and love.

Radical Faith. Let us recall that the same Spirit Who brought creation out of chaos was the same One who empowered Mary to conceive Jesus. But the Spirit wasn’t finished with his work of bringing about Jesus. As a truly human person, Jesus was a work in progress. He had to undergo the same developmental process of any human being. He had to develop his body, his mind, human imagination and human feelings. We read in the gospels that Jesus grew in age, wisdom and grace. Much would be hidden from him as he went through this process of growth.

It was the Spirit who led Jesus to develop his innate belief in God’s love for him and in God’s mission for him. Jesus’ evolving faith was an extraordinary power. For Jesus’ faith empowered him to reach an intelligence that no human reasoning could provide. His radical faith would give him a vision of God, himself, others and life as God sees them. But still it was through the “eyes of faith” that Jesus saw his relationship to God and his mission for God.

Radical Hope. Now let us return to the Spirit’s role in the development of Jesus and ask ourselves: What kind of a person did Jesus need to be to accomplish his mission? Remember the purpose of Jesus’ Incarnation: to reveal God’s vision of reality to mankind and to reconcile humanity to God. In one sense, Jesus’ mission was Mission Impossible. Jesus would carry out his mission in a political environment in whichIsrael was an occupied land of theRoman Empire and his people were under the subjugation of Roman officials. In this environment, new ideas were unwelcome, even considered dangerous, that could lead to insurrection against the overpowering might of theRoman Empire.

Again, the Spirit led Jesus to grow his innate power of hope. Jesus’ radical faith gave him God’s vision of reality and his radical hope gave him the certainty that his mission would be accomplished and the energy to fulfill his mission.

Radical Love.  The Spirit set in motion a dynamic, psychological-spiritual growth process in Jesus’ life.  If we reverse the usual order of faith, hope and love to love, hope and faith, we make a rich discovery about Jesus. We discover that these three virtues are not just individual, unconnected virtues but are the components of Jesus’ growth process. We discover too that love is the driving force in the spiritualization process and, more importantly, in Jesus’ life. For it was only through radical love that Jesus could overcome the utter shame and repulsiveness of the Cross.

I believe that Jesus was very much like us in this matter. The logic of reason could not help him understand the mystery of redemption. He knew that it dealt with things like evil and death, life and forgiveness. But he did not understand the mysterious ways of God the Father, whose ways and thoughts are not ours. It was only through the power of love for God and us that brought him to the absolute faith that his death-unto- resurrection would mean salvation for the world. Ultimately, it was Jesus’ radical love that generated his radical hope and radical faith. “Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor: 13, 13.

Jesus has taught us that the spiritualization process is one of radical love, hope and faith. The goal of our spiritual lives must be to allow the Spirit to accomplish this process in us. The means are clearly the Cursillo growth process of holiness, formation and evangelization. Pursuing holiness is pursuing growth in radical faith in the Christian Vision. Pursuing spiritual formation is pursuing growth in radical hope that the Spirit will give us the wisdom to live the Christian Vision. Pursuing a life of evangelization is radical love in action!



Love, Hope & Faith

Did you notice that the usual order of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love has been reversed in the title? Surprisingly, this reversal opens us up to new discoveries. We discover that these three “divine” virtues are not just individual, unconnected virtues but are the components of a dynamic, psychological-spiritual process. We discover too that love is for the most part the driving force in this process. Love is at the very heart of the spiritualization process that leads to strong, living faith in God. Further, we discover that this process is the dynamic growth model for the spiritual life.

These three virtues are important because they comprise the inner dynamics of our relationship to God. They are more than our own virtues; they are the Spirit’s gifts. Fr. Ladislas M. Orsy, SJ says: “God is in possession of our person and He manifests Himself through the vital signs of the living Spirit, gifts welling up in our inner being. He gives the ‘eyes of faith’; He grants the strength of hope; He teaches us the ways of love.” The Spirit drives this dynamic growth process.

Definitions. Let’s begin with Fr. Orsy’s definitions of these “divine virtues.” By faith, we mean that Christ’s Spirit empowers us to discover His presence where our bodily eyes cannot see Him, and through His Word in our hearts to reach an intelligence that no human reasoning can provide. What a wonderful gift of the Spirit!

By hope, we mean that God empowers us with certainty beyond what we can calculate. In earthly matters Fr. Orsy states, “When I say ‘I hope’, I express an expectation that some future event will take a favorable turn for me. I may have a burning wish that it should be so, but I have no certainty.” By contrast, with divine hope the Spirit empowers us with the awareness that we already possess theKingdomofGodin our hearts. “The final outcome is certain; its time and manifestation have not been revealed.”  Allelluia!

When it comes to love, Fr. Orsy dispenses with a definition. Instead, he quotes two directives from St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises: “…The first is that love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words. The second is that love consists in a mutual sharing of goods, for example, the lover gives and shares with the beloved what he or she possesses… and vice versa, the beloved shares with the lover”.

Spiritualization Process. Fr. Orsy continues: “The three virtues form a living and dynamic whole: faith generates knowledge, hope brings certainty, love makes us generous givers beyond any human measure….one cannot exist in its fullness without the others. Faith without hope and love would lead nowhere; love without faith and hope could not even exist….But there is also a difference between faith and the other two virtues. While faith gives vision, hope and love generate action: hope provides the energy that love needs for its operation.”

Thus, we see that these three virtues are components of the spiritualization process. As such, movement in any one of the components will impact the other components. For example, a transforming life experience can change our life vision and give us an infusion of faith, which impacts our capacity to hope and love. But more commonly, it will be love that is the driving force, because God has built into our very nature an erotic hunger that drives us to love of God and others.

While I discovered that love, hope and faith comprised a dynamic process from Fr. Orsy’s analysis, it was the death of a dear friend and a scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that opened my understanding to the primacy of love in the spiritualization process. In his novel, a woman complains to her spiritual director that she has lost her faith in God. He counsels her: “Love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you will be convinced of the existence of God.”

My new understanding: love actualizes our hope and our faith to their ultimate potential. Love is our greatest act of hope. Love is our greatest act of faith—faith that at the heart of reality is Love whom we call God. Now let us see how our dynamic process of love, hope and faith operate on various paths to faith:

For Non-believers. Fr. John Walsh, M.M. has written about his experience inJapan sharing Christianity with a people who had never heard of Christianity. He says that he could not begin with presenting articles of faith. They would have no interest to them. His strategy?  Help them to discover their spiritual hunger. They had to get in touch with their heart wishes to love, to be loved, to grow, to share their experiences with others. Then they had to discover that they could achieve fulfillment of their heart wishes in the Christian God of love and in a loving Christian community. So helping people to surface their desire for love had to come first. Then, and only then, could they be moved into experiencing hope and faith. Ultimately, the spiritualization process is love, hope and faith!

For Indifferent Christians. What is true for a people unfamiliar with Christianity is equally true for Christians who are indifferent to their faith. You can’t sell them on the basis that we have the one, true faith. You can’t sell them based on Scripture. Fr. Walsh states that we must sell these people on a whole new concept of religion: “Religion is encountering God and others through whom we attain our basic heart wishes.” They must first experience the restlessness in their hearts that only the Infinite can satisfy before they can be moved to an appreciation of their Christian faith and a desire for spirituality.  Ultimately, the spiritualization process is love, hope and faith!

For Spiritually Hungry. Most models of spiritual growth require people to pursue holiness by growing in faith, to search for spiritual formation, and to live lives of sharing lovingly their faith with others, known as evangelization. Growth in holiness is usually the initiating force that drives this process. It prompts us to search for ways to deepen our holiness through spiritual formation. The result is that we are driven to evangelization. But the process doesn’t stop there. Our evangelization driven by love grows us in holiness and spiritual formation. Why is this true?

We have to look at the psychology of human action. By action, we mean our willing, choosing and doing by which we become ourselves. We are formed through our actions.  And our actions reflect our vision of life and values. Evangelization is formation through our loving action toward others. Our loving evangelization grows our hope in the capacity of love to fulfill our heart wishes, and grows our faith in God Who is love.  For when we share our faith with others, we evangelize ourselves most of all. Ultimately, the spiritualization process is love, hope and faith!

For Married Couples. The Church has never offered married couples a spirituality, a spiritualization process. For almost 2,000 years the only redeeming value of marriage was the production of children. Ignored have been the psychological-spiritual challenges of married life. Couples challenge one another physically, spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, morally. For the unaware, marriage is indeed a tender trap.

Given these psychological-spiritual challenges, will marriage strengthen couples’ self-centeredness or move them to God-centeredness? Will they be able to befriend their marital alienations? What will be the ultimate goal of their marriage? For example, an intentionality of growth as self-giving persons. Will living a life with a person who is so much like oneself and yet so different from oneself lead to cynicism or to compassion? Compassion in the sense of being fully present to the other with a caring heart and attentive mind. Will it lead to a compassionate life for one another, for others, for God?

Could it be that the reversal of the theological virtues into love, hope and faith offers married couples a fitting life vision for their vocation? I believe so. This spiritualization process produces growth in mutual love which flows out beyond the couple to others in Christian love and compassion. Hope springs forth from growth in mutual love. Hope that will give married couples the energy for a life of love. Hope that transforms their human eros into compassion for others. Love and hope that feed their faith in the power and presence of love which is ultimately God. Ultimately, the spiritualization process is love, hope and faith!

Last Testament. The death of a dear friend inspired this imagined dialogue between a dying woman and an officiating priest. The priest comes to administer the Sacrament of Healing to the dying patient. After he has completed the ritual, the patient asks the priest:

“Are people still talking about love? Are love songs still being written and sung?”

“Of course”, the priest answers.

“Are couples still getting married?” the patient persists. “Are preachers still preaching about love?”

“Yes, why do you ask?” the priest questions.

“Because love matters,” the patient replies. “If love exists, if love is real, God exists and love is forever. And I have a future.”

Ultimately, the spiritualization process is love, hope and faith!