Monday, May 4, 2020

Finding God in every moment of our lives – even the dark and sad ones.

In his wonderfully insightful book Into Your Hands, Father Wilfrid Stinissen, a Carmelite priest (I’d even call him a mystic) writes that “There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life”.  We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness but where God is not present.”

Contained in those two lines found in the beginning chapters of his short but pithy gem, Stinissen manages to sum up and describe what I would call one of humankind’s biggest and most common of problems when it comes to living our lives in spiritual awareness of God’s omnipotent presence.  Why does evil happen?  Why do we balk at the very thought of suffering and the experience of affliction in life?  Why are many of us so conditioned to pray for and believe in God’s omnipresence only when we ‘feel’ him, and make 1001 excuses to not pray the moment when he seems distant and by way of conclusion, also then deduce that God is cold?  Why are we so addicted to our positive feelings and emotions when it comes to God?  

Stinissen credits this to what so many of us do so well –  the fact that we flee in order to escape from actually making strides in our spiritual life, because we are often too absorbed by our own narrow and flimsy ideas of God – i.e. how he works, how he ought to work, how he isn’t working, and therefore making assumptions that he isn’t present. I see this in so many well meaning Catholics who often complain and lament that they either don’t pray anymore or find prayer difficult (or even dull, dry, uneventful) simply because they don’t get that warm fuzzy ‘feeling’ anymore when praying or sitting in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament in the Monstrance in an Adoration Room.  By Stinissen’s definition, it does appear that many Catholics may be going to Adoration as a form of escapism and for their own sakes, (not unlike going to a spa for a massage session) rather than to truly adore and worship God for his sake.  If we are there only for a spiritual ‘feel good’ session, Stinissen calls this our ‘banal reality’.  

Yes, I can understand that some who are reading this blog may feel slighted or even offended by the way I have expanded Stinissen’s quote.  But if one is able to get past the ‘being offended’ phase, and touch the reality that I am trying to bring to the surface, there is something deeply positive that can come out of it.  You will be helping your faith to be more robust and solid.  It is my hope that it will not only expose a common weakness that many Catholics have, but in doing so, provide the reader with new eyes to see how this exposure can pave the way to pray with no other expectation than to adore God, and in so doing, reach the point where one is able to fully abandon oneself before God in total surrender.  That is, after all, what the Christian life is ultimately about – surrendering to God’s will and that God’s will be done in and through our lives.

A lot of Catholics (and I’m including Christians who are our separated brethren here) have a very narrow definition of God’s will.  We need to realise that the part of God’s love story in creation and salvation that we have a direct part to play, which is our lives, is only a tiny speck in the entire span of God’s incredible plan of his show of love.  The part that consists of our lives, from birth right to our death, including all that happens in between those two points of time, is what we see.  But it isn’t the entire drama.  There’s a whole lot more that lies outside of our ken that we do not see.

Our faith needs to have us believe that even though the entire plan of God does involve our individual lives, it ultimately isn’t really about us.  We are about God and his plan.  And by saying this, I am not dismissing that our lives don’t matter to him.  Our lives are significant to him because, as scripture tells us, he is aware of each of the strands of hair on our heads.  We are not arbitrary beings like some anonymous ‘extra’ on God’s stage.  Yet, what happens to each of us, how our lives pan out, are intrinsic to God’s will. 

Remember those Rand McNally topographical maps that were used by motorists on road trips back in the day when there were no GPS or smartphones?  We’d navigate our route by always locating the point on the map which tells us where we are at in relation to our destination.  But in relation to the entire map when fully unfolded, where we are is just a dot.  There is an entire part of not just the printed map, but the entire world that we cannot see from a clear perspective.  

Now take this analogy and use it to read into it our spiritual lives.  If we are clear about God’s omnipotence and omniscience (which we should if we are clear about the fundaments of our faith), then our lives need to be seen like that road map.  But more than just that road map.  We need to see it as the entire atlas of the universe.  God is the divine cartographer of our lives.  His will is immutable and is not subject to change even if evil is permitted to appear to have its sway.  The portion of our lives that we see right now isn’t the entire view of God’s will for us, and neither is it the entire view of God’s will for all of creation. It’s just the moment of ‘here and now’. And the ‘here and now’ inevitably also includes parts that are painful, perhaps unsightly, giving us grief, discomfort and even sometimes sorrow and loss.  As well, they would also include those moments of our lives that are joyful, delightful, fulfilling and moments that give us an exhilarating experience of God’s love and goodness.  For us who live in this present time, those dark moments may include our experience of living with coronavirus and all its restrictions and inconveniences.  In short, it is a combination of all (good and bad), and never a fullness of either one of them.  

Our sinful and weak tendency is to only want the good, the delightful and those that give us consolations. And when we encounter moments where we do not, the default is to yearn for those good times to return, or for the dark moments to make their quick exit.  As well, we find ourselves preferring or ‘liking’ those that we understand or those that tell us what we like to know or agree with, and put aside those that puzzle us, confound us, make life a little uncomfortable for us, or displace us in some way.  

I see this happening so often when I see well meaning Catholics forwarding and sharing recorded talks by various speakers and when they add the comment “I like this talk”, it often also means that they like that they agree easily with the speaker’s topic and that the content doesn’t threaten their perception of God and his reality.  The opposite is hardly seen – when the message is really challenging one’s safe perception of how God works, and because it even includes the need to have God needing to allow one to suffer and experience afflictions in life, that this talk is also then just as readily shared and is deemed a ‘good’ talk that one likes. 

Many people have been very bothered by the current coronavirus plague that has caused many lives to be inconvenienced, disrupted and for some, even experiencing loss of lives of loved ones. They long for things to go back to ‘normal’, and it is easy to understand why.  They ask where is God in all this, and is he even concerned that we are experiencing this tragedy?  To be sure, it is a good question.

But if we accept the reality that God is truly omnipresent, we also have to accept that God is not and is never far from us or distant from us in this pandemic or in any sorrow that we may encounter in life.  It’s far too facile to say that we need to pray in such a way that God will somehow come in and change things for the better.  A much better prayer is to pray that we cooperate in all the ways that we can to God’s will which somehow necessarily includes the experience of this suffering that we have in life, and to have the gift of surrender.

Once that is the foundation of our prayer life, we will be able to respond with love, with charity, with kindness and with generosity even when things appear to go sideways.  Otherwise, we may be too busy praying that God ‘take away’ this virus, and miss all the golden opportunities that we are give to see God present when we are given those moments through his grace.

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