“When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come.”

Luke 11: 2

In The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila, as she reflects on the teaching of prayer in the Our Father, tells her sisters quite simply that “wherever God is, there is heaven.” From this she goes on to speak about the prayer of recollection, of turning from our dispersed state of being in the world to gathering ourselves and focusing our full presence to the God who is within.

The other day as I was speaking with my cousin about the ways in which we are being called in our day and culture to serve the mission of evangelization, he spoke about those young people who when asked their religious affiliation respond “None.” This category that we now speak of as the “Nones” has roughly the same membership in the United States as Evangelicals or Catholics and continues to grow at a much more significant rate than either of the other two. He went on to say that presence and ministry to these young people so far seems still to be characterized by a spirit of proselytizing. His challenge to me was how to accompany these young people who are searching without confining that search by proselytizing from within the limits of our own perspectives.  

In her reflections on the Our Father, St. Teresa takes us into the heart of our faith. Yesterday I mentioned a quote from Marcel Proust that a friend had sent me: “My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.” When we proselytize, we often attempt to communicate the tradition as essentially a moral and dogmatic one. We speak of heaven as a reward for being moral and obedient on earth, with the emphasis on obedience to the teachings of the church. That is, we describe the meaning and destiny of human life as a place of reward: heaven. St. Teresa, on the other hand, says that heaven is not a physical place, for “wherever God is, there is heaven.” Her view is very much in accord with that of Proust. When we pray that God’s Kingdom come, we pray that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. The Kingdom is already here, but, as Teresa reminds us, we are often elsewhere. We can live and act in consonance with our presence to God who is within us, but we cannot act our way into heaven. It is all, at once, much simpler but much more difficult than that. According to St. Teresa what we are to do is to close our eyes “to the vanities of this world in order to see it.”

For Teresa, to live the life to the full that Jesus promises, to realize in our lives now the truth of heaven, not as a place but as a way of seeing, requires that we stay with the Lord who lives in our own souls. She states simply that the God who created and permeates the universe (and a thousand universes) also confines God’s self within the small space of our soul, as in the womb of the Blessed Mother. God, she says, “fashions Himself to our measure.”

To really read and heed the words of the Gospel and of St. Teresa is to experience the kind of cognitive dissonance that has the potential to open us to a new way of seeing. While religious tradition is a great and necessary gift to us as a custodian of the wisdom of the ages, it also, as a human creation, tends to reduce and domesticate the Mystery. Jesus says to the Samaritan Woman:

But a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such as these to worship Him. God is Spirit, and His worshipers must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

John 4:23-4

The Woman has just questioned Jesus about the correct place to worship God. Is it Jerusalem where the Jews worship or the mountain where Samaritans worship? And Jesus responds, it is not a place at all. Rather, it is worshipping and living “in spirit and in truth.”

I suspect that what many of the “Nones” realize is that much of conventional religion seems to be merely external practice. And, here it is important to really heed them, there appears to be little connection between that practice and any real change in character and personality. Perhaps the traditions are helpful in keeping at least many from doing real harm to each other, but one need but look to the manifestations of Christianity in contemporary America to see the lack of correspondence between the beatitudes and the personal, social, and political ways of living of many Christians and the stances of religious institutions. In the early and most flourishing stages of spiritual and religious traditions, they offered a way of being and living that could transform the way we see things, and so the very way we are present in the world. In Christianity, one need, for example, only to read Evagrius and other mothers and fathers of the desert to see not dogma but practice. The early Christians were called the “People of the Way” because they practiced a way of living that led to their personal reformation and transformation.

For quite some time now, the spiritual traditions have ceded this proximate way of formation to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. We currently live in a capitalist, secular, and functional society that lacks, in practice, any real sense of transcendence. Even those of us dedicated to “Christian ministry” live and work primarily, if not exclusively, out of our rational-functional dimension. Young people in this culture are the victims of our cultural degradation. As a result, many of them seek to know how they are “more than” the society tells them they are as consumers and slaves to plutocracy. As they see it, the religious traditions have become servants of the prevailing capitalist and consumerist ideologies. So, they are seeking a new way of seeing outside of those traditions.

Because of this, many of them may well be closer to the God within than many who proclaim themselves believers. To accompany them would, thus, require a willingness to deeply hear them and to learn from them. It is just the opposite of proselytizing. The Christian believer must trust the words of Jesus: “God is Spirit, and His worshipers must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” St. Teresa says that the way to such worship is to close our eyes “to the vanities of this world” so that we might see anew that we are to live our lives as worship attuned to the inspiration of the God who dwells within us. Our vital and our functional dimensions are to become servants of our transcendent dimension, of that place where God lives in us.  

At least some of the “Nones” among us, realize, as did St. Teresa, that many if not most of us are lost. Our persons, those that live in spirit and truth, have become dispersed in the vanities of this world. In Amazing Grace, John Newton wrote: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Newton captures precisely the work of grace in us. When grace truly enters into us, we recognize we were lost, and we do so now in the light of seeing. There is nothing more tragic and desperate in life than being lost and not knowing it, except perhaps knowing it and desperately seeking our destination from the outside.

We are found when we recognize, or perhaps remember, who it is that dwells within us, when we turn our attention, in purity of heart, from all those places that disperse it to the one thing necessary. In a secular and functional culture, we see the one whose attention is within as unrealistic. This is because we have taken as the real the material world we have created along with the false self we use to manage it. We speak much of god, but God is not real to us. It well may be that the only way back to God is to cease to speak of god. It is not our unknowing but our knowing that keeps us lost.

When we meet the “Nones” from the stance of unknowing and yet from a place of contemplative presence to the Mystery of God, we may discover the possibility of evangelizing each other. We may discover that God is not to be worshipped on the mountain or in Jerusalem or in Rome or on Wall Street but in spirit and in truth.

If we took care always to remember what a Guest we have within us, I think it would be impossible for us to abandon ourselves to vanities and things of the world, for we should see how worthless they are by comparison with those which we have within us. What does an animal do beyond satisfying his hunger by seizing whatever attracts him when he sees it? There should surely be a great difference between the brute beasts and ourselves, as we have such a Father. 

Perhaps you will laugh at me and say that this is obvious enough; and you will be right, though it was some time before I came to see it. I knew perfectly well that I had a soul, but I did not understand what that soul merited, or Who dwelt within it, until I closed my eyes to the vanities of this world in order to see it. I think, if I had understood then, as I do now, how this great King really dwells within this little palace of my soul, I should not have left Him alone so often, but should have stayed with Him and never have allowed His dwelling-place to get so dirty. How wonderful it is that He Whose greatness could fill a thousand worlds, and very many more, should confine Himself within so small a space, just as He was pleased to dwell within the womb of His most holy Mother! Being the Lord, He has, of course, perfect freedom, and, as He loves us, He fashions Himself to our measure.

St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chapter 28

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