“The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, through indeed he is not far from any one of us.”
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.”
In just over a week from now my godson will make his confirmation. He will receive, according to our teaching, the gift of the Holy Spirit. As we were taught so many years ago when we received this sacrament, this is the mark of our adulthood, of our commitment to live out our faith by the light of the Spirit which we have been given. Yet, with all we are given through the sacraments and the Church, we know that we have never ceased to “seek God, even perhaps grope for God.” As Paul tells the Athenians, we are always seeking God, and at times building sanctuaries with our own hands to our own idols, even though “God is not far from any one of us.” As St. Augustine, we are forever seeking outside what is within.
One of the dangers of “a sacramental system” is that we can misinterpret it as “a system.” We can think that, by the time we have received the sacraments of initiation, we are now in possession of the Spirit, that to signify and realize the Spirit’s presence within us is to know and possess it throughout our lives. Yet, Jesus utters to his disciples a universal truth about human and spiritual formation: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” We would like to know “the truth” of things, but we are only able to bear the truth as it comes to us slowly and partially throughout the course of our lives. We must walk and follow the way that is our life if we are to come to know what it means that “in God we live and move, and have our being.”
When our Fundamental Principles tell us that we are to allow ourselves to be formed “by the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” they are pointing out to us that we are never in possession of the truth but that we come “by little and by little” to recognizing it. Our life is always teaching us; it is always revealing the closeness of God to us, the truth that it is in God’s love that we have life. Yet, the revelation is often quite opaque. There is so much of our experience that seems very different from a manifestation and expression of love.
It is difficult to be a disciple of the way, a student of our own life. We are forever determining ourselves what is of God and what is not, thus creating with our own minds, hearts, and hands intellectual, emotional, and sometimes even physical “sanctuaries” for the gods of our own creation. We know what is good, what is right, what is just, what is acceptable and what is not. We know the experiences we want to foster and retain and those we want to deny and reject.
Last week the city of New Orleans, Louisiana removed several statues commemorating the Confederacy. This was, as we can readily appreciate, a source of great tension and controversy. In a speech well worth reading and pondering, the mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu offered the following:
This is however about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes with violence.
The interpretations we give to the events of history, be they social or personal, are inevitably partial and somewhat distorted. Landrieu, in a somewhat courageous way, tells the people of his city that it is time to face their distortions concerning the meaning of slavery and the Confederacy and from that encounter with the truth find the way to a more peaceful and loving future. Much of our construction of reality, our society’s or our own, is based on self-justification. We interpret experience in ways that support and justify our own limited version of the truth. Life, in its “common, ordinary, unspectacular” aspects is always trying to break into that closed and partial interpretation. We resist this in-breaking because of our attachment to our own way of seeing, our own understanding.
One of the ways that we most resist the work of the Spirit in bringing us to the truth is in our own self-interpretation. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, there is a moment of Divine in-breaking, of what Jan van Ruusbroec would call blic. A voice comes from a cloud and declares: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” This is the message and meaning of the sacraments of initiation. The truth that is given to and manifest in us is that we are the beloved daughters and sons of God. To be honest, however, most of us find it very difficult to hear this as the interpretation of most of our life experiences.
Strangely enough, the increasing affluence that has come to the developed world seems to have come at the price of distancing ourselves more than ever from the fundamental truth of who we are and of who God is. It may be our busy-ness, or perhaps our distance from the natural world, or perhaps the amount of stimulation and distraction with which we live. Whatever it is, it seems that increasingly we as a people find it harder and harder to believe “in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). Our ways of relating to each other seem more and more characterized by force and competition. So much of what we try to be and do seems to us to be lacking.
As my godson is confirmed, I find myself praying, above all else, that he may increasingly discover the truth that he is the beloved of God He, as all of us, will not be exempt from the voices of doubt, fear, and depreciation around and within him. He will have to learn throughout the joyful but also extremely painful experiences of his life that beneath and beyond all else there is love. As much as we would like to implant this in him now in a way he will never forget, he “cannot bear it now.’’ He, as all of us, must, in the words of William Blake, come to “learn to bear the beams of love.” Those beams sometimes seem very strange and harsh to us. At such times, we would like to distort and deny the truth of our lives. Yet, as the Fundamental Principles remind us,
At times you will discover
that God’s ways are not your ways,
and God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.
When this happens,
try to surrender yourself trustingly
into the arms of your Father,
who knows you,
and loves you.
Surrendering ourselves trustingly to God is to “stay with” life, to live ever open to reinterpretation of life and to discovering, often to our surprise, that through it all, even in those places God seemed most absent, we are being led and loved.
. . . though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other, louder voices saying: “Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire. “ Meanwhile, the soft gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard or, at least, unconvincing.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, pp. 33-4