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.

Jesus’ Holy Partnership

The Holy Spirit’s presence and activity in Jesus’ life have not yet received the attention they once claimed in the early Church, according to Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., preacher in the papal household. For example, we tend to look upon Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan as a minor episode in his life and therefore miss the realization that the Spirit was a continuous presence in Jesus’ life. Consequently, we cannot appreciate Jesus in all his fullness. Further, it may also explain why we ignore the presence of the Spirit on our own spiritual journey.

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. Then heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, ‘This is my own dear Son with whom I am pleased.’” Matthew 3:16ff. Fr. Cantalamessa states: “The mystery of the anointing …speaks to us of Jesus who at the incarnation and still more specifically at his baptism was filled with the Holy Spirit by the Father, so that Jesus in turn could fill us with the Holy Spirit since we share in the mystery of Christ’s anointing.”

Significance for Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism something happened that changed dramatically the course of his life. In this transforming moment in Jesus’ life on the River Jordan, the Spirit brought forth the virtues of radical faith, radical hope and radical love that were innate in Jesus at his incarnation. Here Jesus reached a stage in his growth in wisdom and grace that he began to commit to his messianic mission, publicly sharing the Good News with others. His baptism was his epiphany! Jesus’ life spent in Nazareth in obedience to the Father and to Joseph and Mary had been one long apprenticeship for this moment. Jesus experienced the powers necessary for his mission.

What were the immediate effects of the Spirit’s anointing? Jesus became a man passionate about his mission. His radical faith and hope gave him such fervor that his mind and heart worked with a supercharged power. When people came near him, they knew that there was something special about Jesus and responded in exciting ways. People gravitate toward passionate individuals. Jesus’ great confidence gave him power over people. Mt. 7:28ff: “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowd was amazed at the way he taught. He was not like the teachers of law; instead he taught with authority.” We should add: with the authority empowered by the Holy Spirit.

When people approached Jesus to heal them, they could confidently say: “Sir, if you want to, you can heal me.”  Or the woman suffering from the issue of blood, “If I but touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed.” People brought to Jesus many who had demons in them. Jesus drove out the evil spirits with a word. We should add: all through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Significance for Us. A Vatican ll document. Presbyterorum Ordinis, states that the Risen Christ “has made his whole Mystical Body share in the anointing by the Spirit with which he himself has been anointed.” Therefore, one same Spirit flows in Jesus and in us, as the same sap flows in the vine and in the shoots. Sharing in Jesus’ anointing, we also share Jesus’ mission and must bear witness in the world to his work of salvation.

As we read the Gospels, let us bear in mind that Jesus had a holy partner—the Holy Spirit who empowered him to radical faith, radical hope and radical love. It would be well to insert mentally the presence of the Spirit into the Gospel stories of Jesus’ life. Being aware of this partnership helps us to perceive the Spirit’s presence and activity in Jesus’ life and to develop our own personal partnership with the Spirit.

Jesus’ Tutor

In the Conspiracy of God, author John C. Haughey, SJ states that we must pay attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ developing self-understanding: “A Jesus who is imaged as having made it without the Spirit generates a piety in which the Spirit is superfluous for all practical purposes.”

Growth in Understanding. As human beings, we grow in understanding by moving from ignorance to knowledge, from doubt to certainty, from indecisiveness to decision. We work our way through trial and error, analysis and insight. That was the process of our brother Jesus. “The great misfortune of the Christology bequeathed to us is its portrayal of a figure who effortlessly knew; from the beginning of his Incarnation he had nothing to learn, just much to teach,” writes Haughey. “Jesus learned the way every human being learns except that his principal teacher was the Spirit.”

Yes, Jesus’ tutor was the Spirit, the God of Mystery who mysteriously brings human beings to their fullness. The Spirit led Jesus to look upon all creation with a deep sense of mystery. Rather than being a know-it-all, Jesus looked upon all reality with a great sense of mystery and wonder. Paradoxically, embracing mystery helped Jesus, and helps us, grow in understanding and wisdom. Let the Spirit be our tutor!

Growth through Judaism. The Spirit used the same means available to every Jew to teach Jesus. If we demean the faith of the Jewish people, we ignore the fact that Jesus was the product of what the Spirit had been doing inIsrael for centuries. The Spirit taught Jesus by means of the Jewish law, the Prophets and the prayers of the Chosen People that he heard regularly in the synagogue of Nazareth and that he heard at his mother’s knees. Ultimately, it was through his realization that the Jews were the Chosen People that he realized that he was the Chosen One, the new Moses who would save his people.

No doubt, Jesus viewed his Jewish faith with the same worldview he perceived all reality. Rather than getting mired in the details of Jewish Scripture, he experienced profoundly the mystery and the wonder of God entering into the life of the Jewish people to save them, and selecting them as his Chosen People. He did not look at the basics of his Jewish faith as answers that closed the door to further inquiry, but rather as answers that spoke mystery, and as such, that invited continuing and deepening reflection. Is there a lesson here? When we embrace mystery in our faith, we open ourselves to the Spirit.

The Spirit used Mary to bring out Jesus’ worldview of mystery and wonder. She had experienced the mystery and wonder of the divine entering into her life. She pondered the mystery of Jewish Scriptures in her heart and shared them with Jesus.

Growth through Relationships. The Spirit used the relationships that developed between Jesus and others to teach him his identity. Before Jesus could experience the full presence of the Father as Father, Haughey writes, he had to have the capacity for relation-ship. Jesus’ worldview of mystery and wonder affected his attitude toward others and helped him develop his own immense capacity “to be wholly present to others as oneself and fully receptive to the otherness of others…. In time, he perceived that the Other into whose presence he was more and more intimately being led, was his Father….Each true relationship expands one’s capacity to stand in openness to God as wholly Other.”

Haughey’s concept of true relationship is linked to the Cursillo virtue of compassion for others (No. 5 in this series). Its practice expands our capacity to stand in openness to God as wholly Other. Viewing the people in our relationships as mysteries with the Spirit deeply involved in their becoming themselves, we can unleash our compassion for them and at the same time grow in our ability to relate to God, the Mysterious Other.

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.