It has been on my mind and heart for awhile to speak about Christian spirituality, because what I know I want, and what I believe most Christians want, is a genuine experience of their faith, and genuine sense of connection with God. Every liturgy and every sermon is meant to lead us to that; however, I have found it helpful—through spiritual reading, prayer, and listening to other clergy—to get right down to the most basic elements.
I want to begin with God. The Rev. Ed Kryder, one of my seminary professors, used to say, "One should always begin with God, because that is where everything starts anyway."
The Church believes that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, but in some sense the mystery and doctrine of the Trinity is a hindrance for Christians—and certainly non-Christians—in attempting to relate to God in prayer. Questions emerge, such as "Am I praying to one, or to all three?" And what often happens is that these questions form a brick wall inside of us with a sign that says, "You're not doing it right." Prayer ceases to be an activity of the heart, and becomes a sort of intellectual puzzle.
The other problem is that some of our Church's language conceptually hinders us from intimacy. God is construed in many hymns and stories in the Bible as being outside of us.
In fact, even the Lord's Prayer reinforces this sense of distance when it reads, "Our Father, in heaven," as if to say, not here with us, but far, far removed from us. So that it can feel like a long distance phone call from the days when long distance sounded like long distance!
Yes, our Lord taught us to pray "Our Father in heaven," but if you take the whole of his teaching, Jesus never promoted the idea that God was distant from us. If anything he preached the opposite, like when he said, "The kingdom of heaven is within you." Or when Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Christ Jesus conceptually changed the theology of God's remoteness, as expressed often in the Hebrew scriptures with atoning sacrifices, and God appearing to Moses covered in smoke and fire.
Jesus said, at first "My Father," and then he opened it out to "Our Father." The "who art in heaven" part is there to say that the Father is not constrained to a physical presence, which would be to say "on earth," but that the intimacy of the relationship is not constrained. Let me put it this way, "Our Father who is within you, and within all of us." "Our Father, who is within Christ, and is now also within you, as well."
How, then, did God come into us? Well, first we believe God is within all of his creation, fundamentally. It's like the joke of the man who comes to God and says, "We don't need you anymore as the Creator. We can heal most diseases, and we can clone people, and we can make almost anything we need." So God says, "All right, let's have a contest. You make the form of a human being and I'll make one, too." The man says, "Okay," and reaches down for a clump of clay. And God says, "No…you're going to have to get your own clay."
Every fiber of our being is part of God's creation, so his presence is here at the most fundamental, sub-atomic level. But as a Church we have a symbol of God's entry into us. We plunge people into God. The Church has often construed that Sacrament as an act of cleaning someone, but a fuller understanding is that a person goes down into the water in the name of God, and is raised up from the water as a new creation. It is a rehearsal of the Resurrection of Christ—a proclamation that God has acted to redeem us, and to fully claim us, and infuse us with his presence.
So, God is within. Searching for God is in some sense an absurd idea. God is inside us. We have never known the absence of God, really. We have been born in his presence, plunged into his love, and reborn by his Spirit. So when we say we are searching for God, what we are really saying is that we are searching for a feeling, or an experience, or a sensation that confirms in our emotions that God wishes to be present with us. But God is already fully within us, and within all of the universe.
In fact, every sensation, every emotion, every spiritual experience is already within you. Think about this for a moment. Imagine someone in your life who annoys you. Close your eyes and think about them for a moment. See them doing or saying the things that upset you. Notice that those feelings are beginning to rise. What do we say? "That person makes me feel…angry." Well, it's not that person who is feeling angry. It's you who feels angry. The feeling of annoyance was already in you, it's just that that person has a special way of putting you in touch with those feelings.
You can do this with any other feeling: a person who makes you feel love, a person who arouses you sexually, a person who makes you laugh, a person who makes you feel angry. Jesus taught us to pray for the people in our lives with whom we have trouble, because he wanted us to learn to convert those feelings from hatred to love. The problem you and I have with the other person is not their problem, but ours.
And when we have people in our lives who are hard to love, it becomes even harder to love God, because those two feelings within us are at odds with each other. God wants us to feel love toward him, and toward others, because God wishes us all to be bound together in love. To live by the sword is to die by the sword. To live at peace is to be at peace.
We mourn when someone we love dies, because each person has a unique way of making us feel love. But that feeling is still within us, even when the person we love dies, and some of the feeling can be rekindled through memory. One day, in the Resurrection, we can all be together again, and "be known fully as we are fully known," as St. Paul wrote. But the feeling of God is already within you. So how do we get in touch with it?
This then leads me to talk about the soul. And when I use the word "soul," I mean our truest self, our most authentic, "who-I-am" self. A lot of Christians and people of other religious traditions want to feel God's presence, and don't quite know how to go about it. And as I said, part of that is a conceptual problem of believing that God is somehow remote, distant, aloof, and that we must seek him in the dark, empty room of our mind. At least, that's how it can seem to us sometimes.
The first step is to stop thinking of God as out there, and begin to think of God as in here. Do whatever it takes to convert yourself to this. Put up a note on the mirror in the bathroom. Tie a string around you finger. Whatever it takes. When Moses asked for God's name, God said, "I am who I am." God is pure holy being, and is deeply within you. You have been plunged into God; you are never absent from him. He is your Father within you. He is the Son within you. He is the Spirit within you. God with us. God in us.
The second step is to understand that God is embracing your soul in total, unconditional, self-giving tenderness. Tender love. The kind of love that you really want and need. And the only thing holding you back from getting in touch with it is the surface level self you are operating your life from. It can be called the ego. It can be called the personality, although that is somewhat misleading.
But what I mean is that your soul is back behind your surface level judgments about what's good and bad, happy and sad, all those limitations of thought that you are just a physical body going through life…eating and sleeping, and hating work, and loving play. And when you stop looking so critically at every facet of what's in front of you, you will see the Creation, and the people around you with new eyes. Jesus called it being "born from above" or "born again." You will see the world with your truest self, your soul, which is being held tenderly by God. You are a beloved child of God. That is who you really are.
Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it produces no fruit." The grain of wheat can be understood as the transient, capricious, very-limited appraisal of whatever comes and goes in your life.
We meet someone and think, "I like them," or "I don't like them." We don't know more than a couple seconds of their life, and we've made a decision about them. Yet, they were born, like us. Loved by someone who cared enough to make sure that they lived, like us. They need to eat and drink and sleep, like us. And most importantly, they want and need to be loved, just like us.
You are just like them, and they are just like you; it's just that we've formed an opinion from our most shallow self that keeps our soul from identifying them as a beloved child of God, just like we are.
So sin, you see, is operating more from this surface self, and not from your soul, which is always held in a divine embrace. You and I sin because we cannot perfectly remain true to our God-infused soul. But through the work of Christ on the Cross, and through God's grace, we spend our lives training to renounce that surface self. To let it die.
The less you give in to going through your life making these little judgments about good and bad, happy and sad, angry, aroused, repelled, and the more you let yourself see everyone and everything as created and loved by God, then you will become more like Christ, and the Kingdom of God will come.
Consider the Sacraments. Plunged into God, and then through the reception of his body and blood more and more of us becomes like Christ, who wishes to be known within us, within our bodies, within our deepest being..to give us his tender love. It is a shared meal, because our kinship in Christ demands that we do this together—that we RE-member Christ. That he is for and within all of us.
Look at how life progresses! You begin as child liking this, and hating that. At first everything is good or bad, black or white, happy or sad. And all of our young life is about our appetite for experiences that make us feel certain ways. Wanting to feel, feel, feel… And life over many years slowly grinds away those appetites, and we become less and less attached to particular things. People sometimes say, "I used to think this was so important, but now, I've softened in my old age." Yes! Exactly! But you don't have to grow old to let that happen! You can start early!
You let go of what isn't important, which is the fleeting pleasures and pains of what you have judged to be good or bad, happy or sad. And instead, you accept life as it comes—like when Blessed Mary said, "Let it be with me according to your word," or when our Lord Jesus said, "Father, not my will, but yours."
You let life come, realizing that sometimes you're going to feel happy and sometimes sad; sometimes aroused, and sometimes repelled, but behind it all—within your soul—God is holding you, loving you as a beloved child, until your soul finally turns completely to God. And when your soul turns completely to God you will no longer need a physical body.
It all started and ended back at the Jordan when we were "plunged into God." And over a lifetime of eating and drinking God, and learning about God, we let go more and more of the appetites and attachments that try to pull us away, until we yield fully to the embrace that has always held us.
The same God and Father who said of Jesus, "This is my beloved Son," says the same words to you at every moment of every day in quiet sanctity of your soul. The French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience."
I hope this helps you a little. None of these thoughts are originally mine, and I am a very imperfect example of the ultimate renunciation that Christ calls us to. But part of the beauty and pathos of Christian spirituality is that "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
While we are still at times trapped by our surface level selves, God still "holds our souls in life." God still tenderly gives us the love, the forgiveness, and the healing we need on the path that leads to eternal life.
In the Name of God, who is within us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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