The useless mystery

Chaplin_-_Modern_Times

Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times is still biting, even eighty-three years after its release. It displays, through effects that were cutting edge at the time along with Chaplin’s inimitable brand of physical comedy, the way in which industrialization, automation, and consumerism had sucked the soul out of the modern worker. What makes Modern Times so enduring is that it is not a political film, despite many accusations to the contrary, which is why Chaplin was willing to poke a little fun at the Communists at the same time. What Chaplin was trying to point out was that the drive to be more efficient was itself the problem. It really did not matter who was holding the reigns.

A contemporary version of Modern Times would likely focus on the accoutrements of the post-information age, social media and smartphones instead of gears and levers, but it would be just as relevant a criticism. Both in the post-industrial age and in the age we live in now, the worth of everything is measured by its usefulness, as defined by an evolving secularist ideology. Science is only good if it helps us to gain some advantage or pleasure previously out of reach. News is only good if it gives us fodder for defeating our political rivals. Education is only good if it enables us to have better careers and make more money. People are themselves only good if they are able to live independently and obtain a certain “quality of life.”

For this reason, religion has become more and more irrelevant in the west over the last hundred years, not because it is not true but because it is not useful. So long as religion makes us happy, or makes us good, or offers us a sense of community, it is acceptable. Sometimes people think that secularism is an attempt to eliminate religion, but this is to misunderstand secularism. If religion does not interfere with its goals, secularism does not care about it one way or the other. In fact, religion can even be good for secularism, if it proves itself useful to its ends. Fr. Alexander Schmemann captured it exactly:

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:-not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it.

The Christian mystery has many facets, but none of them are useful in the way the secularist demands. The mystery of the cross comes the closest to being useful because it justifies us and cleanses us from sin, which the secularized believer can make use of as a kind of fire insurance. Yet, when pressed, the final end of the cross is not useful. The cross frees us from the fear of death and hell, but what does it free us for? To be united with Christ. That is the purpose of the cross, to unite us with Christ now and to have that union grow deeper and more solid when we pass through the veil of death. This does not appeal to the secularist mind, which sees the whole thing at that point as kind of boring. If heaven is a non-stop pleasure palace, filled with ever-increasing delights that cater to our own whims, then perhaps there is something to it. But if all we are going to get out of it is the vague, hard-to-understand notion of union with Jesus, how are we supposed to buy into that?

While the cross ends up useless, the Trinity is absolutely useless. In addition to being abstract, it is also impossible to commodify. Simply put, what do you do with it? God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet one God. Whoopee. Is that supposed to make me sad? Happy? Angry? Does knowing it make me any more likely to be nice? Successful? Fulfilled? What is its cash value? How does it help me promote my brand? Where is my individuality maximized by it? What does it do for my earning potential?

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The doctrine of the Trinity does not do anything. Not only is it useless to the secularist, it is also useless to the modern Church which has largely taken on a secularist mindset. It neither increases the number of butts in pews nor inspires people to “give more sacrificially.” It will not help the capital campaign, or the clergy pension fund, or the messaging around cultural and political “prophetic” stands. At best, it will not hurt these other pursuits if it is mentioned quietly, in passing. At worst, if focused upon too much, it could drive people away who prefer something simpler for the meeting of their spiritual needs.

Finally, as Schmemann points out, there is the useless mystery of worship itself. The world is sacramental. It was created for worship. We are the heart of that worship. As human beings, our primary identity is as priests, entering constantly into the beautiful mystery of the worship of God. That mystery has been obscured by many modern “forms of worship” that focus on the self. Worship can be sold only if it is self-improvement. Go to church to get recharged and become more productive in the week ahead! Yet that sort of “worship” is not actually worship at all. It may be a service. It may very well be religious. In some distant way, we might even be able to call it Christian, to the extent that it continues to be at least not directly heretical in its outward teachings about God. Yet it is not worship. It does not glorify God, focusing the whole of our being on Him in an endless act of praise. Worship, offered only for its own sake, has no place in the secular world. For the secularist, true worship is a crass vulgarity. If it does nothing useful, it can and must be tossed aside.

It is no wonder that vague spiritual practices continue to capture the minds of many in the secularized world who have given up on religion. Yoga and transcendental meditation may be quite diminished by being excised from their natural places within Hinduism and Buddhism, but at least they make the practitioner feel good. They have a purpose. They are useful. Christian prayer is not. The Mass is not. Even Confession is not, in that it does not provide the therapeutic insights more readily available on the analyst’s couch. 

The Christian mystery is useless. But this is precisely why the Christian mystery will ultimately prevail. The world of useful secularism is eventually going to pass away. It will take a long time and do a lot of damage before it disappears, but secularism will eventually fade, as have all the false worldviews that have risen and fallen before it. Because no matter how useful the things we value are today, tomorrow we will come to realize that they have not gained us nearly as much as we had hoped. “Everything is a chasing after wind” says Ecclesiasticus. In the end, when all else falls apart, only the mystery of God will remain: quiet, unassuming, all-encompassing, and ready to embrace us with love.

Ten More Reasons to be Catholic

Being Catholic for me is far more than a matter of religion. I am what they sometimes call a “revert,” which puts me in the rare position of being both a cradle Catholic and a kind of convert. Catholicism for me has all the familiarity of family, but it is not simply a reflex. Being Catholic is something I really had to think about and choose.

Earlier this week, Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman wrote a list of “10 Reasons to Become Catholic.” He notes, via Chesterton, that there are many thousands of reasons he could list, but they all boil down to the truth of the faith. I believe that too. I have written before about my reasons for returning to the Church, the main one being a strong sense of God’s directive to me personally to do so. Guzman wrote about why people should become Catholic, but that got me thinking about why I remain Catholic.

After all, this is not a great moment for Catholic triumphalism. Scandals abound. The abuse crisis and its cover-up is a shocking display of evil, especially if what Guzman says is true that “The greatest obstacle to the advance of evil in the world is the Catholic Church.” Wrap in alongside that the financial scandals just starting to emerge, the crisis of pastoral care created by the priest shortage, and the banality of the liturgy in many places and it is easy to see why many people find the modern Catholic Church more lamentable than hopeful.

Yet here I remain. And it is not simply that I am resigned to it or see it as the best of bad options. I’m jazzed about being Catholic. I think this is the absolute best thing I could be. I’m not trying to bash anyone else by saying that, but for me, there is no place I would rather call home.

So here are ten reasons why it is a joy for me to be Catholic. I have not copied any of Guzman’s, all of which would be on my list too. I am sure I could come up with ten more if I tried. Where truth lives, joy abounds.

A Mystical Faith

In the Catholic faith, we don’t just learn about God. We experience Him. We meet Him in the Sacraments and in the reading of Scripture. We encounter Him in prayer. He is not abstract. He is not distant, off on a cloud somewhere. He is an ever-present part of life. The Catholic faith is filled with tools to help us to know Him. From the Ignatian spiritual exercises or the Carmelite way of perfection to Eastern traditions of iconography and the Jesus Prayer, Catholicism is mystical from top to bottom. And the Church shows us through that mysticism that it is possible to have deep spiritual experiences without sacrificing reason and rationality in the process.

A Healing Faith

We are all carrying wounds around with us, wounds of loneliness, wounds of pride or despair, wounds of sin. The mission of the Catholic Church is the salvation of souls.  That means that the Catholic Church exists to offer us healing for our wounds, a healing that is deep and that ultimately saves us from death itself. Sometimes Christians envision salvation in purely juridical terms – I’m either good or bad, and if I’m bad then I have to go before a judge to pay a penalty, unless someone else intervenes. That kind of understanding has its place within the tradition and can be useful in some ways, but it is not the primary lens through which salvation is meant to be viewed. We are not dying from sin because we have offended an angry God. We are dying from sin because sin is a sickness, a poison that infects us and reaches out into every corner of our lives, regardless of the choices we have made. Indeed, it is that wound that causes us to want to make bad choices in the first place.

But in and through the Church, we receive the medicine that we need. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), through the preaching of the Gospel, through prayer and fasting, through spiritual direction, and in so many other ways, the Lord Jesus Christ works through His Church to heal us and restore us to wholeness.

Catholicism is Weird

Earlier this year, I got to bless a room full of kids with a piece of bone from St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s weird, right? I mean, totally. And what could be better than that?

The weirdness of Catholicism is part of the joy of it. We sing in funny tones. We tell stories about great saints who have done things like levitating or reading people’s minds. We get together to worship what looks to the naked eye like a piece of bread, only we insist it has become something much more. From the perspective of the world, so much of what Catholicism does is super weird and in some cases even super offensive. But in an age in which we trumpet the idea of being non-conformist and yet participate in an endless cycle of boring consumerist trends, Catholicism is one of the few ways in which we can truly escape from the mediocrity.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “In an age that has thrown off all tradition, the only rebellion possible is orthodoxy.” The more we embrace the Catholic faith in all of its strangeness, the more we find ourselves breaking free from the worst that the world has to offer.

The Mother of God

Some Christians worry that Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary somehow obscures the place of Jesus, but my experience has been just the opposite. The more my devotion to Mary has increased, the closer to Jesus I have become. How could it be otherwise? She is His mother, after all, and so all that she says and does points us back to Him. In John 2:1-12, Jesus performs His first miracle by changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Mary is at the heart of this scene, urging Him along, and more importantly urging others to follow His lead, saying, “Do whatever He tells you.” She understands her Son. When I get to know the family and friends of others, it often leads me to have a new appreciation for them. The same is true here. Mary is the one who models for us how to be a disciple.

Mary is also the source of Christ’s humanity, her flesh becoming His. In that sense, we honor her as the arc, the bridge, the means by which God chose to unite Himself with us. In that respect, to fail to venerate her is to fail to fully understand just what He has done for us.

The Church Loves Women

The veneration of Mary also reminds us that the Catholic faith celebrates women. This sometimes surprises people since the common misperception is that the Church does just the opposite. Yet the teaching of the Church is not only that women ought to be treated as equal to men, but that they need to be loved, cherished, and honored for their unique gifts. Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women is a grand example of that. In it, the pope thanks women for the gifts of being daughters and sisters, wives and mothers, and he advocates for things like “equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights,” as well as an end to “sexualized violence.”

The “Me Too” movement has highlighted how women are routinely regarded as mere objects for the satisfaction of men in our society. Women’s stories are not heard. Their humanity is reduced to whatever garners the attention of men. The Catholic faith does the opposite, acknowledging the humanity of women at the deepest level, that women like men are made in the image and likeness of God, that they contribute uniquely to the good of society, and that they deserve love and respect. The message of the Church is not just about women, but it is also for women and from women. Some of the greatest doctors of the Church have been women like St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Therese of Lisieux. In other words, women are not simply something the Church talks about. Women are the Church. Indeed, the Church herself is traditionally referred to as “she” and as our “mother” because she unites us to Jesus as His Bride. “The future is female,” says a popular feminist slogan. To which we might add, “So is the Catholic Church!”

The Church Loves Children

Despite the horrors we have seen perpetrated by some leaders in the Church in recent years, historically the Catholic Church has always taught that the family is sacred and children are great gifts from God. This can be seen in many ways, from the Church’s relentless defense of children in the womb and migrant children, and the Church’s efforts to end human trafficking, to the World Meeting of Families, World Youth Day, and the development of Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions designed specifically to care for children throughout their childhood years. As a father of two children with a severe form of autism, it is particularly gratifying to know that the Church loves my kids and believes they are as worthy of love and respect as any other human being.

Building a Better World

The Catholic social justice tradition is unparalleled in its advocacy for human rights. The entire concept of “human rights” has its origin in the teaching of the Church about the inherent dignity of every human person. My own walk back to the Church was greatly influenced by figures like Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Oscar Romero who fought for the poor and the disenfranchised. The Catholic Church has long advocated for the rights of workers, an end to abortion, an end to capital punishment, the eradication of nuclear arms, and the moral imperative for all of us to work towards healing the planet from pollution and the effects of global warming.

You Can Party With Us

The Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine. / At least I’ve always found it so, / Benedicamus Domino!” Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is famously pictured standing at the top of a mountain smoking a pipe. Is the point that Catholics like to smoke and drink? Well, some of them do. But the point is actually much bigger and better than that. The Catholic faith isn’t afraid of pleasure. In fact, Catholicism deeply celebrates all the good things that give pleasure in this world, such as good wine, good food, gregarious laughter, and so forth. All of these need to be enjoyed within reason. Obviously, there are ways in which pleasure seeking, when it becomes an end in itself, is a destructive force. But taken in moderation, with the understanding that all good pleasures we experience in this world are merely foretastes of the pleasure of knowing God in the next, the Catholic Church acknowledges that pleasure is a good thing and a healthy thing to want in our lives.

Sex is Good

Some people might hear that the Church approves of pleasure and object that this cannot be since the Church does not approve of sex. Those people would be frightfully misinformed! The Church teaches clearly and consistently that sex is good. I have written before about the way in which our world today is unable to acknowledge the greatness of sex. The Church teaches that sex belongs in the context of marriage not because sex is bad but precisely because sex is so good. It reaches its fullest, most beautiful potential within a covenant of grace in which two people who have been bonded to each other for life can afford to be vulnerable and honest with each other, giving the whole of themselves to each other. Pleasure, then, is one of the great goods of sex, not isolated on its own but in conjunction with the entire self-giving that sex involves. As Pope Francis put it to a group of young people in 2015, “It is right to try for a genuine love that knows to give life, that does not search to use the other for its own pleasure. A love that makes sacred the life of the other person: ‘I respect you, I do not want to use you.’”

Knowing Jesus

All of the previous reasons culminate in this one: Being Catholic is to know Jesus. The heart of the Catholic faith is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the good news of what He has done for us and His continued reign over His Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive Jesus directly, in body and spirit. In the Church’s teaching, we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to our hearts. In the living of the Catholic faith, we constantly see Jesus at work in the world. We hear Him crying out to us in the suffering of the poor and the sick. We know His joy and His saving grace in the love of parents and children, husbands and wives, and friends for one another. There is nowhere in my life that I have found greater intimacy with Christ than in the Catholic Church.

Theo-babble

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a frequent employment of a sci-fi trope known as techno-babble. The actors were given highly technical sounding jargon to say in order to talk about how the ship worked or why a particular phenomenon was taking place. Scientists were often hired to help make this jargon sound more realistic, but it was still basically nonsense. The writers would use techno-babble as a way to get out from under a particularly difficult plot. They would give the actors lines like, “Maybe if we [tech] the [tech] then we can [tech] and we just might get out of this one!” The scientific consultants were left to fill in the blanks later with something that sounded plausibly futuristic.

In science fiction, this sort of story-telling technique, while artificial, can actually work if it is used sparingly. When characters speak in complicated jargon, we assume that they are doing something that would be almost impossible for us to understand. We can accept that this is so because we assume that the future will be full of unfamiliar things that yet unknown to us.

We can accept techno-babble in science fiction, but we should not have to accept theo-babble in theology.

Theology means words (logoi) about God (Theos). We cannot know God if He does not reveal Himself to us. True theology, therefore, always comes from God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, a revelation that is made manifest for us in Holy Scripture, the Holy Sacraments, and the tradition and teaching of the Church. We have theology because we have a God who wants us to know Him. He has given us the words with which we can think about Him, speak of Him, and thereby draw closer to Him.

Many Christians today are skeptical of theology though. In parish ministry, I ran across this attitude frequently. In the same strangely incongruent way that people used to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” a self-proclaimed Christian would tell me, “I believe in God but I don’t buy into all that theology nonsense.”

There are likely many causes of this antipathy, but at least part of the motivation is fear. Christians are afraid that if they do not understand what the experts are saying about God, they might not really know God at all.

In the last hundred years, the western Church has become more and more dependent on the academy, which has meant that theology has largely been farmed out to experts. During that same time period, the academy has become more skeptical of revelation and the truth of religious claims. This has resulted in a growing division between those who are theologically educated and those who are not.

Those who have been schooled, either through seminary training or Christian formation programs, in the historical critical reading of Scripture, the various source theories for how the Bible was written, and creative new theologies that find complicated ways of explaining away centuries of moral teaching, have become the brahmin of the ever-progressing, ever-shrinking western Church. Meanwhile, people who pray emotionally and simply, say rosaries every day, and speak about God primarily in personal, relational terms are considered simple folk who can be laughed at, pitied, or ignored. We are living through a new kind of clericalism in which the clergy’s supposed spiritual advantage over the laity comes not from a deeper life of prayer but from a greater access to secret knowledge that the simple folks with their backward faith can never understand.

None of this is to suggest that theology needs to be dumbed-down. Every discipline has its own grammar, and theology is no exception. Theology often deals with rich complexities. Theological language is necessary to talk about those complexities.

Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that the academy is not a proper place for theology. As Jordan Hillebert helpfully explains in a recent article on Covenant, “Christian theology may offer itself as one of a number of rival traditions — opening itself to rational critique but offering in its turn a critical rejoinder to other intellectual traditions. It may be that one’s theology ultimately folds under the pressure of such scrutiny. It might also be the case that theology finds itself capable of resolving certain tensions and contradictions in other traditions in a way that demonstrates its inner coherence and explanatory power.” As part of a whole, theology grounds our educational pursuits in something stable and grounded, God’s revelation, but it does so in a way that allows for a creative synthesis between all the other disciplines, all of which ultimately find their root in God’s design as well.

Theology needs its own language, but that language should not be used to create a barrier to theological reflection to keep out those who are less academic and cerebral in their approach. Padre Pio and Brother Lawrence are as worthy of the title theologian as Karl Rahner and Karl Barth.

Reading the early Church Fathers is a great way to break free from the grip of theo-babble. It is surprising just how accessible the Fathers are, despite the tremendous language and culture gaps that exist between their time and ours. The Fathers were largely preachers and pastors. They did their theology with an eye towards what was happening in their communities, always keeping in mind the need of the people to come to know Christ. This does not mean their works lacked sophistication. I defy anyone to find for me a work of theology more sophisticated than St. Augustine’s City of God. Nevertheless, even read now, their theology still feels fresh and close to the life of the people. Take for instance something like St. John Chrysostom’s sermons on marriage and family life. They are as relevant now as they were when they were written and with only minor adjustments they could be handed to any young couple preparing for the married life even today.

In some ways, the birth of theo-babble can be traced back to the scholastic period (roughly 1100 AD to 1700 AD). It was during this time that theology became an academic rather than purely spiritual pursuit. Critical thought, often in contradistinction to Scriptural reflection, became the dominant mode in many forms of theological exploration. Theological treatises often became long, weighty tomes.

Yet despite these generalized tendencies in the work of the scholastics, there is a genuinely mystical heart to medieval theology. While a St. Anselm or a St. Thomas Aquinas might be difficult to understand without a heavy philosophical background, the heart of their writing is clearly their own lives of prayer and their desire to move the reader, in an ordered way, towards a deeper realization of God through prayerful reflection. In this way, they anticipate great twentieth century theologians like Hans urs Von Balthasar and Vladimir Lossky, writers who require a bit more intellectual heft to read but who deliver as much divine poetry as they do scholastic prose.

Theology is unavoidable. Anyone who has ever said anything about God has engaged in theology. The question is not if we will do theology or not but whether our theology will be true or false, helpful in bringing us deeper into the mystery of God or a blockade that keeps God at arm’s length. Far too often today, what we hear in our churches is theo-babble, offered to obscure the truth rather than reveal it. Leaders in the Church, clerical and lay, have a responsibility to impart good theology to the world. Pastors have a responsibility to offer good theology to those whose souls have been entrusted to them. Parents have a responsibility to raise their children with the kind of theology that will ground them in the truth. Instead of building locked doors with our words, we ought to be giving the people we love words shaped into keys.

At the end of the day, all we have is theology – words about God. That is all that God has given us to know Him with and love Him. It is all that we need. God’s Word became flesh for us, that our flesh might be redeemed in Him. “I have decided to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified,” said Paul (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our words may be made simple because the God who gave them to us is ultimately quite simple, even in the mystery of His unknowable essence. Simple, elegant, and beautiful. God spoke but one Word, and the world bent the knee and tasted the glory.

How to experience the presence of God

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_MagdaleneI get very irritated with the Lord when He does not show up at my beck and call. This is especially true when I have blocked off time out of my busy schedule just for Him.

Years ago, while on retreat at a convent in Boston, I found myself puzzled by God’s absence. During the first two days of the retreat, though I tried to pray many times, I had no sense of God’s presence. The experience was one of utter spiritual emptiness. I would go to Mass, to the praying of the Daily Office with the sisters, and nothing would happen. After a while, I became not only discouraged but angry. It had taken quite a bit of effort to arrange for this time away with just me and the Lord. I was beginning to feel as if I had been stood up.

Then, all of a sudden, on the last evening of the retreat, I felt the Lord’s presence during Compline. It was like a lightning bolt that struck me and just kept on striking. I felt like I was kneeling in the center of a burst of light and life that had hold of me and would not let go. I was so incredibly grateful that God was finally there with me.

There was a Chapel on another floor where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, and I decided that after Compline I would go there and make a holy hour so that I could be with the Lord a little longer. But to my great surprise, the Lord told me not to do this. There were not words exactly, but there was a definite intention given to me. I was oddly and yet definitively aware that God did not want me to go pray in the Chapel. What He wanted was for me to go back to my room, pull out the copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair that I had brought with me, and read it.

Again, I was irritated. God finally decides to show up, and now He’s telling me to go away? But, reluctantly, I obeyed.

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia and it introduces a new character, a girl named Jill Pole. Towards the beginning of the book, there is a scene where Jill finds herself in a strange place and she becomes desperately thirsty. She sees a stream up ahead and she wants to drink from it, but the great lion, Aslan, is sitting next to it. Aslan, of course, is the stand-in for Christ in the Narnia books. But Jill has not met Aslan before. All she knows is that there is a big, scary lion there, and she is afraid.

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink,” says Aslan.

“Will you promise not to do anything to me if I come?” she asks.

“I make no promise,” he replies.

Eventually, she does go and drink, and Aslan sets her on a great adventure. But what struck me then, just as it does now, is that Aslan was completely free. He made no promise to Jill because he was not hers to command, just as the Lord is not mine to command whenever I want Him to recharge my spiritual batteries.

There are twin errors that many Christians make in how they relate to God. The one is to turn the experience of knowing God into a kind of commodified emotional high. God becomes associated with a certain type of feeling, a certain posture of prayer, a certain smell in the air. The way of having God is to recreate these things. But if for some reason we can’t—if the emotions will not come—then we feel as if we have lost God entirely. Or worse, if the emotions come and they begin to tie us to things that are contrary to God’s Word, we can be led astray.

While that sort of thing is a real danger, there is a greater one that lurks particularly in certain forms of confessional Protestantism. It is a form of anti-mystical existentialism that says that God is only knowable through the pages of Scripture. It shows great skepticism and sometimes even contempt for any person who would point to the experience of God as something that is real and tangible, something that includes emotions and encounters with the miraculous. There was a period of a couple of years when I labored under just such a delusion, trying to rid myself of the notion that I could feel the presence of God, resolving myself to a cold, empiricist view of the Holy Spirit’s work. I almost had myself fully trained to ignore signs and wonders.

And then God smacked me upside the head in prayer one day. And I realized that I had been staring at a picture of someone I loved while ignoring the fact that the person in the picture was actually in the room with me.

The reason why both of these things are errors – both emotionalism and anti-mysticism – is because neither one acknowledges the radical, beautiful, indefatigable freedom of God.

There are normative means by which God discloses Himself to all of us – the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments. It is absolutely true that God is present in these things even if we cannot feel or sense Him there. Some of the great saints of the Church, like Saint John of the Cross and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, went through long spells during which they had no active sense of God’s presence and yet continued to be devoted to Our Lord in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Their witness is powerful. But rather than discrediting this notion of God’s freedom, it underlines it. God is the one who chooses how we will experience Him. It is our cooperation, our faith, which allows us a foothold into that experience, but it is God’s free decision which allows us to have the experience in the first place. If He decides that we will come to know Him through dreams and mystical experiences, it will be so. If He decides that we will never have a sure sense of Him outside of the concrete reality of the means of grace, then that is how it will be.

Recently, I have found myself often in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament eagerly asking God to make His presence known to me. To my great astonishment, He has done this more than once lately, flooding me with a palpable sense of His overwhelming love for me. It is wonderful, but it is also painful. I find myself craving this deep communion with God but also frightened by it. In the midst of it, I catch myself thinking, “This is great! This is wonderful! Thank you, Jesus! But there are probably things I should be attending to in the other room.” I get overwhelmed. It gets to be too intense. I start thinking about how I might write about the experience as a way of distancing myself from it. I tell God, “Hold that thought,” because I suddenly remember an email I have to send.

And God’s response to such nonsense is always the same. “Shut up. Be still. Be here.”

This is the paradox of my own sinfulness. I yearn for deep communion with God and yet I find it hard to actually have it. I am thrown off both by God’s absence and by His presence. Yet the truth is that He’s never really absent, even when I cannot feel Him. And if He were to unveil Himself and allow me to realize the fullness of His presence now, it would be far more intense than anything He has already shown me.

All of us are Jill Pole from time to time. We stand at the banks of the river, thirsty for God, yet uncertain how to find that thirst quenched. We think that we need to do something to make it happen. Either we need to stir up the waters ourselves, or else we fear that the great lion of God will swallow us up if we start to wade in too deep. But we don’t have any control over any of that really. We don’t tell God where He goes or how He is to show Himself. He comes and goes as He pleases. After all, He’s not a tame lion.

What we need is to trust in God’s love as much as we thirst for His presence. God will decide how He will make Himself known to us. He is completely free in how He chooses to come to us, but He chooses always to love us, which means that whatever way He makes Himself known, it will neither be too much or too little. We cannot capture the experience of God. Like the manna that fell for the Israelites, whatever experience of God we have today is meant for today. Yet we can learn, slowly, to trust that the Lord will never tire of feeding us.

Painting is “The Penitent Magdalene” by Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635).