Through mercy, love, we dwell in God

Trinity Sunday (Year A) June 19 (Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9; Daniel 3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18)

What does God look like? What would it be like to be in God’s presence? The Book of Exodus answers the question in several ways. In some passages, the vision of God is so awesome and terrifying that no one can look upon God and live. Another passage relates that Moses spoke with God face to face as with a friend. In this passage God descends on a cloud, passes before Moses and speaks to him. All of these represent different traditions in ancient Israel that are woven into the narrative of Exodus.

God was very real for ancient people, but God does not have human form; God does not walk through the garden in the cool of the evening. We do not speak face to face with God, at least in this life. But the theological truth of these traditions is clear. In the tradition of ancient storytelling these traditions reveal that God is deeply personal and not an abstract concept. This passage also reveals important characteristics of God: merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. This is the image of God that the Israelites clung to throughout their long history and from which they drew strength. It is the gift that they gave to Christianity. Not only that, it is an image we share with Islam — at the very beginning of the Quran God is described as the merciful and compassionate. It is an image of God to which we should all return constantly and strive to imitate for when we depart from it the results are grim and painful for everyone.

Hearing Christ’s heartbeat

The Last Supper account in John’s Gospel gives us a wonderful mystical image. The evangelist describes the beloved disciple as reclining on the breast of Jesus. What’s contained in this image? A number of things.

First, when you put your head upon someone else’s chest, your ear is just above that person’s heart and you are able to hear his or her heartbeat. Hence, in John’s image, we see the beloved disciple with his ear on Jesus’ heart, hearing Jesus’ heartbeat, and from that perspective looking out into the world. This is John’s ultimate image for discipleship: The ideal disciple is the one who is attuned to Christ’s heartbeat and sees the world with that sound in his or her ear.

Then there is a second level to the image. It is an icon of peace, a child at its mother’s breast, contented, satiated, calm, free of tension, not wanting to be anywhere else. This is an image of primal intimacy, of symbiotic oneness, a connection deeper than romantic love. And for John, it is also a eucharistic image. What we see is how John wants us to imagine ourselves when we are at Eucharist because, ultimately, that is what the Eucharist is, a physical reclining on the breast of Christ. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us, physically, a breast to lean on, to nurture at, to feel safe and secure at, from which to see the world.

Divine light shines within

Pentecost Sunday (Year A) June 12 (Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

What does the Spirit do? The term is tossed around so much in religious circles, usually as a vague appeal to a higher and somewhat ambiguous authority. Over the centuries it has sometimes been misused to justify questionable ideas and practices.

In the New Testament there is a range of images for the work or action of the Spirit. We are all familiar with the image of the Spirit portrayed by Luke in Acts: rather noisy and flashy but very vibrant. It descended on the assembled followers of Jesus on the harvest feast of Pentecost. In the Scriptures the harvest is often used as a metaphor for the final days. It is time to gather in that which belongs to God. For Luke, the Spirit will be the great unifier. Its first function in Acts was to overcome the barrier of language but it does not stop there. All human divisions and separations must give way to the reconciling and transforming power of God’s Spirit. God is One and humanity must be the same.

Our goal should be to be in harmony with God’s will

A group of Christians, of different traditions, was discussing business at a Canadian Council of Churches meeting. I didn’t realize the word “discernment” kept coming up until a guest leaned over to me. She’s fluent in English, but it’s not her first language. “What does ‘discernment’ mean?” she asked. I opened my mouth with a ready answer but an inward pause. It’s simple enough to define, at first blush, but less simple to understand.

And why is it so often so difficult to do? Christian traditions have produced many ways of discernment; it’s an art, a science, a way of the cross, traversed with blood and anguish. It might seem, too, that trying to consult God just makes things tough; don’t our atheistic friends have an easier time of it? How does it differ from decision-making? Does discernment involve faith?

A secular definition of “discern” speaks of coming to see, or otherwise recognize; such as discerning a sail on the horizon. A spiritual definition of discernment might also refer to seeing: learning to see as God sees. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face-to-face,” says St. Paul (1 Cor 13:12); St. Augustine  picks this up, saying faith means knowing now, darkly, what we shall then see directly.

God and violence

God is non-violent. God does not prescribe violence. Violence should never be rationalized in God’s name. That is clear in Christian revelation.

But that immediately poses the question:  What about the violence in Scripture that is attributed to God or to God’s direct orders?

Doesn’t God, in anger, wipe out the entire human race, save for Noah and his family? Doesn’t God ask Abraham to kill Isaac on an altar of sacrifice? Doesn’t Moses have to talk God out of destroying Israel because God is angry?  Didn’t Jesus kick over the tables of the money-changers in anger? What about extremist Islam today, killing thousands of people in God’s name? God, it seems, has prescribed and sanctioned a lot of violence and killing from ancient times right down until today.  How do we explain all the violence attributed to God?

God prepares us for our glorious inheritance

Ascension of the Lord (Year A) June 5 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20)

Angelic figures floating on clouds and playing harps — that is the image of heaven portrayed in many cartoons, stories and works of art. In an ancient worldview it makes perfect sense — God is “up there” in the sky from where He dispatches thunderbolts, rain, sun, plagues and so on. But this view came unravelled with the arrival of modern science and the growth of human knowledge. One of the first Soviet cosmonauts remarked smugly to a believer that he hadn’t seen any God during his trip into space.

But our encounter with the transcendent, God, is not spatial or temporal. It is relational, and relationship begins on Earth through our relationships with one another, with the created world and with the deepest part of our own soul. Jesus is about to reveal this to the assembled disciples. First of all, they want a quick fix: are you going to throw the Romans out and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel now? But He rather brusquely dismisses their concerns, in effect, it is none of their business but God’s, and God has other plans. Their mission is to sit tight and wait for the bestowal of power from on high — the gift of the Holy Spirit.

God is love

Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 29 (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21)

What happens when the Holy Spirit descends on a community? The passage from Acts is very explicit: evil is expelled, people are healed and joy and hope take the place of despair and negativity.

The spread of the faith to Samaria is a concrete example of the universal mission of the Spirit as described in the Pentecost account. There was certainly no love lost between Samaritans and Jews, just as the relationships between various Christian churches today are characterized by negative stereotypes and attitudes. But they responded eagerly not only to Philip’s proclamation but to the dramatic manifestations of the Spirit’s power. Although the community in Jerusalem was delighted with the news of their acceptance of the Good News, there is the curious observation that they had not yet received the Spirit, having been baptized only in the name of the Lord Jesus. In the early decades of the Christian movement the gift of the Spirit was separate from baptism and was conferred by the laying on of hands — on everyone, not just office holders. As the Samaritans eagerly embraced the Good News the apostles called down the Spirit on them and they received its gifts. Great things happen when the Holy Spirit is permitted to be more than a theological term or concept. Allowed to do its work, the Spirit can enliven and enlighten individuals, churches and communities. But if it is regarded with fear and suspicion or kept tightly controlled it is emptied of the power that it bears. More joy, life and spiritual energy would certainly not hurt any religious body.

Why should we sanctify Christ as Lord? Isn’t He sacred or holy enough? But the biblical meaning of “holy” or “to sanctify” is to set something aside and keep it pure and uncontaminated. It is not permitted to become diluted or ambiguous. Sanctification of the Lord in our hearts helps to ensure that faith is kept alive and well regardless of what may come our way. The author of the letter insists that this inner sanctification will also give us a joyful hope that will be noticeable to others. When they ask for the cause of our hope and joy we can tell them of our faith in Jesus — that is the only sort of “preaching” that is convincing in a rather sceptical and cynical world, for all search for reasons to hope. The letter also assures us of the privilege of suffering for our faith but warns of the danger of spiritualizing our own sins and errors. People and institutions cannot wrap themselves in the cloak of religious language of crucifixion and suffering when it is due to their own mistakes, infidelities and shortcomings. In those instances only the language of repentance will do.

How can we know God? How can we communicate with God? How do we know truth? In his usual convoluted manner, the author of the fourth Gospel sums up the answer to these questions with one word: love. Love is what impels the believer to walk in God’s ways, and God’s ways are love — in fact, God is love. Through this bond of love one can receive the spirit of truth, which is a stand-in for Jesus Himself. And this Spirit continues to teach and reveal God to the believer personally. But it is clear that all of this depends on love — if there is no love, there is no revelation or guiding spirit. People tend to look everywhere for God except where God can be found — deep within the individual heart and soul. John’s Jesus invites His faithful followers to enjoy the same relationship that He has with the Father. Through the bonds of love they will abide in Him and by so doing they will experience the interior presence of both Jesus and the Father. In effect, they will be people through whom the divinity shines.

In our own time many experience the absence or disappearance of God and feel a great sense of insecurity and emptiness. John offers a solution: the one who abides in Jesus can never claim to be alone nor can they say that God is distant or absent. God dwells within them in a rich, life-giving and transforming way and they can truly say that they know God.

Seeing the view from the other side of orthodoxy

There are more ways than one in which our belief system can be unbalanced so as to do harm to God and to the Church.

What makes for a healthy, balanced, orthodox faith? The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines orthodoxy as “right belief as contrasted to heresy.” That’s accurate enough, but we tend to think of this in a very one-sided way.

For most people, heresy is conceived of as going too far, as crossing a dogmatic boundary, as stretching Christian truth further than it may be stretched. Orthodoxy, then, means staying within safe perimeters.

This is true in so far as it goes, but it is a one-sided and reductionist understanding of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has a double function: It tells you how far you may go, but it also tells you how far you must go. And it’s the latter part that is often neglected.

Heresies are dangerous, but the danger is two-sided: Faith beliefs that do not respect proper dogmatic boundaries invariably lead to bad religion and to bad moral practice. Real harm occurs. Dogmatic boundaries are important. But, equally important, we don’t do God, faith, religion and the Church a favour when our beliefs are narrow, bigoted, legalistic or intolerant. Atheism is invariably a parasite that feeds off bad theism. Anti-religion is often simply a reaction to bad religion and thus narrowness and intolerance are perhaps more of an enemy to religion than is any transgressed dogmatic boundary.

God, religion and the churches are, I suspect, more hurt by being associated with the narrowness and intolerance of some believers than they are by any theoretical dogmatic heresy. Right truth, proper faith and true fidelity to Jesus Christ demand too that our hearts are open and wide enough to radiate the universal love and compassion that Jesus incarnated. Purity of dogma alone doesn’t make us disciples of Jesus.

Suffice it to say that Jesus is clear about this. Anyone who reads the Gospels and misses Jesus’ repeated warnings about legalism, narrowness and intolerance is reading selectively. Granted, Jesus does warn too about staying within the bounds of proper belief (monotheism and all that this implies) and proper morals (the commandments, love of our enemies, forgiveness), but He stresses too that we can miss the real demands of discipleship by not going far enough in letting ourselves be stretched by His teachings.

True orthodoxy asks us to hold a great tension, between real boundaries beyond which you may not go and real borders and frontiers to which you must go. You may not go too far, but you must also go far enough. And this can be a lonely road. If you carry this tension faithfully, without giving in to either side, you will no doubt find yourself with few allies on either side, that is, too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.

To risk just one example: You see this kind of pained, but more fully Catholic, orthodoxy in a person like Raymond Brown, the renowned biblical scholar, a loyal Roman Catholic thinker who found himself attacked, for opposite reasons, from both sides of the ideological spectrum. He upset liberals because he stopped before they thought that he should and he upset conservatives because he suggested that proper truth and dogma often stretch us beyond some former comfort zones.

And this tension is an innate, healthy disquiet, something we are meant to live daily in our lives rather than something we can resolve once and for all. Indeed the deep root of this tension lies right within the human soul itself: The human soul, as Thomas Aquinas classically put it, has two principles and two functions: The soul is the principle of life, energy and fire inside of us, even as it is equally the principle of integration, unity and glue. The soul keeps us energized and on fire, even as it keeps us from dissipating and falling apart. A healthy soul therefore keeps us within healthy boundaries, to prevent us from disintegrating, even as it keeps us on fire, lest we petrify and become too hardened to fully enter life.

In that sense, the soul itself is a healthy principle of orthodoxy inside us. It keeps us within real limits even as it pushes us towards new frontiers.

We live always in the face of two opposing dangers: disintegration and petrification. To stay healthy we need to know our limits and we also need to know how far we have to stretch ourselves. The conservative instinct warns us about the former. The liberal instinct warns us about the latter. Both instincts are healthy because both dangers are real.

The German poet, Goethe, once wrote: The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers. This is true in our personal lives and it’s true in Christian orthodoxy. There is danger in bad dogma but there is equal danger in not radiating, with sufficient compassion and understanding, God’s universal will for the salvation of all peoples.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site www.ronrolheiser.com.)

The gift that was Henri Nouwen

Fr. Henri Nouwen was perhaps the most popular spiritual writer of the late 20th century and his popularity endures today. More than seven million of his books have been sold world-wide and they have been translated into 30 languages. Fifteen years after his death, all but one of his books remain in print.

Many things account for his popularity, beyond the depth and learning he brought to his writings. He was very instrumental in helping dispel the suspicion that had long existed in Protestant and Evangelical circles towards spirituality, which was identified in the popular mind as something more exclusively Roman Catholic and as something on the fringes of ordinary life. Both his teaching and his writing helped make spirituality something mainstream within Roman Catholicism, within Christianity in general, and within secular society itself. For example, American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has stated that his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, is the book that has had the largest impact on her life.

He wrote as a psychologist and a priest, but his writings also flowed from who he was as a man. And he was a complex man, torn always between the saint inside of him who had given his life to God and the man inside of him who, chronically obsessed with human love and its earthy yearnings, wanted to take his life back. He was fond of quoting Soren Kierkegaard who said that a saint is someone who can “will the one thing,” even as he admitted how much he struggled to do that. He did will to be a saint, but he willed other things as well: “I want to be a saint,” he once wrote, “but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience.” He confessed in his writings how much restlessness this brought into his life and how sometimes he was incapable of being fully in control of his own life.

In the end, he was a saint, but always one in progress. He never fit the pious profile of a saint, even as he was always recognized as a man from God bringing us more than ordinary grace and insight. And the fact that he never hid his weaknesses from his readers helped account for his stunning popularity.

His readers identified with him because he shared so honestly his struggles. He related his weaknesses to his struggles in prayer and, in that, many readers found themselves looking into a mirror. Like many others, when I first read Nouwen, I had a sense of being introduced to myself.

And he worked at his craft, with diligence and deliberation. Nouwen would write and rewrite his books, sometimes five times over, in an effort to make them simpler. What he sought was a language of the heart. Originally trained as a psychologist, his early writings exhibit some of the language of the classroom. However, as he developed as a writer and a mentor of the soul, he began more and more to purge his writings of technical and academic terms and strove to become radically simple, without being simplistic; to carry deep sentiment, without being sentimental; to be self-revealing, without being exhibitionist; to be deeply personal, yet profoundly universal; and to be sensitive to human weakness, even as he strove to challenge to what’s more sublime.

Few writers, religious or secular, have influenced me as deeply as Nouwen. I know better than to try to imitate him, recognizing that what is imitative is never creative and what is creative is never imitative.

Where I do try to emulate him is in his simplicity, in his rewriting things over and over in order try to make them simpler, without being simplistic. Like him, I believe there’s a language of the heart (that each generation has to create anew) that bypasses the divide between academics and the street and which has the power to speak directly to everyone, regardless of background and training. Jesus managed it. Nouwen sought to speak and write with that kind of directness. He didn’t do it perfectly, nobody does, but he did do it more effectively than most. He recognized too that this is a craft that must be worked at, akin to learning language.  

I dedicated my book The Holy Longing to him with this tribute: “He was our generation’s Kierkegaard. He helped us to pray while not knowing how to pray, to rest while feeling restless, to be at peace while tempted, to feel safe while still anxious, to be surrounded by light while still in darkness and to love while still in doubt.”

If you are occasionally tortured by your own complexity, even as your deepest desire is to “will the one thing,” perhaps you can find a mentor and a patron saint in Henri Nouwen. He calls us beyond ourselves, even as he respects how complex and difficult that journey is. He shows us how to move towards God, even as we are still torn by our own earthly attachments.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site www.ronrolheiser.com.)

The voice of God will guard us on our path

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 15 (Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10)

Some of the crowd had been laughing and jeering at Peter and his companions, who seemed to be babbling and very emotional and excited about something. The conclusion of elements in the crowd: they had been in to the wine and were drunk.

Peter quickly disabuses them of this misconception. He explains (in the omitted verses) that this is the pouring out of the Spirit prophesied in Joel and that it signals the arrival of the end days. Things are going to be very different now because all believers were being empowered by the Spirit rather than a chosen few. Peter also relates the story of Jesus — the deeds of power and compassion, the wonders and signs, and His status as the one sent by God. He hurls a barbed accusation at his fellow Jews by recounting the betrayal and execution of Jesus. God reversed their judgment and affirmed the status and teachings of Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Peter drives home the point that Jesus is now enthroned as Lord and Messiah. As the import of his words sink in there is only stunned silence — then the inevitable question: what can we do now? But the gift that Jesus brings is for everyone and the invitation to be baptized is accepted by many that very day.

By embracing the cross we see the Resurrection

One day I was in one of those giant supermarkets. The produce department opened out before me like a football field; within it, a vast bin overflowed with tomatoes. I started picking through them, then realized this activity was a waste of time, as they were all identical, all perfect. Each sphere had a thick, tough pink skin, without dent, spot or mark, all the same size; I knew they’d be relatively tasteless.  

My mind flashed to earlier days, to shelves lined with rows of deep red, thin-skinned tomatoes. These did require selection because some would be bruised or split, sizes varied from tiny to huge, and each was a juicy tasty treat of which its contemporary counterpart offers but a faint memory.

These tomato changes, it occurred to me, are like what’s happening to us: we’re expected to look, smell and feel the same as one another, to have tough skins that never bruise or break, and to be easily gathered, stored and marketed in large quantities. We’ve been standardized; normalized; uniformized.

Uniformizing, toughening people up and making them tasteless aren’t hallmarks of Christianity. At least they oughtn’t to be.