Dick Westley argues today: "Clearly, human love is what matters, there can be no true spirituality without it. A moment's reflection on our lives reveals to us that the way the Holy Spirit works in our lives is precisely through "human" love. Through human love the Spirit breaks the strangle-hold of individualism on our lives and links us to one another. ... By linking us all together, Spirit ultimately links us to God. It is through the work of Spirit in our lives that our isolation ends and we become joined to one another and subsequently to God. That is the central message of Catholicism/Christianity."
Lest We Forget — from last week's commentary:
Reality simply is what it is. We must cope with life's unfolding. After all, we are not novices at coping with life, we have already had enough experience to know how life really works.
Hope and believe as hard as we might, the process of life won't become anything other than what it is. Often the views that we are fed from the pulpit, if taken seriously, make it difficult for us to connect the dots and get it right in life regarding remarriage, assisted dying, gay relationships, people of other faiths, people of no faith, and a host of other issues. Still, we are not beginners at this living thing, we have lived long enough to know how life really works and what is truly good. We have no alternative but to live life as it comes to us, and in that process we come to recognize what's "good" and "godly" — and what isn't. Despite life's ups and downs, we suspect that the parables of Jesus got it right, i.e. the Power behind the unfolding of the universe is really beneficent and affirming of humankind. So, at the deepest level, life is okay just as it is unfolding, and we are okay so long as we continue to grow and remain open to what is deepest in us. The unravelling of "traditional" Christianity far from being a negative is rather a quite appropriate result of the flow of the universe — the flow of Spirit.
Life At The Deepest Level
1. A Secular View
"The Force be with you!" Utter this famous line and there's no mistaking you are talking about Star Wars and the Jedi Knight, Obi-wan Kenobi. (I just love saying that name, Obi-wan Kenobi.) "The Force" is, of course, the energy source behind the Star Wars world of exploding planets and intergalactic wars. But what exactly is it? In the words of Obi wan Kenobi: "The Force is what gives the Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together".
"The Force" can be understood in three ways. It is the very nature and stuff of the universe. It is the authentic essence of all things, especially of human beings. And it is "the way" to lead a truly human life. Obi-wan advises his student: "Luke, be one with the Force, you must learn its ways". So, an important message of Star Wars is that there is a hidden power in the universe which is available to all of us. In the story it is used to blow up an evil empire or control the galaxy. Played out in a world of Jedi knights, a world of Darth Vadar and evil imperial troops, it is the basis of a marvelous hyper tech fairy tale. And yet it so resonates with real life experience, that "The Force be with you!" has become an iconic way of bidding someone "good-bye". "Good-bye" originally meant "God be with you". So, ultimately, the phrase "The Force be with you!" can be viewed as a secular equivalent of prayer. When someone says "The Force be with you!" to us, no matter what their religious orientation, we know exactly what they refer to because we have experienced "The Force" deep within - at the center of our own lives.
2. A Religious View
A faith version of all that is captured beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem God's Grandeur. Here are the operative lines:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It should be noted that Hopkins, in this poem, before he images the Holy Spirit as above the world enfolding it within its "bright wings", speaks of that same Holy Spirit as a "freshness that lives deep down in things". Whether it's Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Holy Spirit" or Obe-Wan Kenobi's "Force" — each speaks of something afoot in human life that endows it with special meaning. But apart from science fiction and religious poetry is there any real-life evidence to indicate that what they say is true? The answer is, of course.
Wonderful things have always happened, often quite unexpectedly. For a period of time a gentle "push" is felt in the population — it gathers momentum — and then suddenly: Slavery is officially ended — Child Labor laws are passed — Women are given the vote — Social Security is enacted. And in our own day we've seen movements for betterment emerge: e.g. the Civil Rights Movement, Women's Liberation, Gay Liberation, the Green Movement, the Movement for Prison Reform, the Movement for the Forgiveness of International Debt, the Anti-War Movement and the Peace Movement. Where did all those things come from?
Some will say they are of completely human making. But when one looks over the landscape it is clear that what is happening is not completely our own. No single individual started those processes. Rather the stimulus began as a deep down primordial urge, an inner push which caused like-minded individuals to emerge and gravitate toward one another. Elements of a common impetus began to coalesce — and often unbeknownst to those who participate — they became part of something bigger than any one of them, or even of all of them together. People are caught up in the "power of life" — truth, honesty, love, justice. Release those things in even tiny quantities and they begin to grow and spread. As long as the process is open, honest, good willed and unimpeded it will keep moving, shifting, adjusting, until it reaches its fulfillment. Unobstructed it will take over and eventually encompass the universe.
On a smaller scale, that same "power of life" is experienced in our everyday lives. Perform a small act of love, and your heart and the heart of another are touched and opened. This opening leads to yet more love. A deliberate good deed triggers a process, it begins to spread and grow. In the ideal, it will take over the world just as Jesus said it would. The goal is to affirm and enhance everyone and everything, all that is good, worthwhile, beautiful and lovable. It is a process geared toward the ultimate unity of everything. It would have already embraced the world, if only we humans hadn't hindered it.
Some people attribute this dynamic to the natural process of human maturing. Others, with faith, recognize it as the work of the Spirit among us and what Jesus meant when he spoke of the "Coming Kindom". Whatever its source, we are caught up in a process that can take us over — the power of life, the power of love. It is at work in the universe at large, and also in human hearts and minds. Like it or not, "The Force" is with us and it will ultimately prevail.
The Way of the World: Domination & Division…
Of course the "push" of Spirit is not the only "push" we experience. There is a man-made, Darth Vadar-like dark energy, which opposes Spirit and is characterized by "domination" and "division". Lets call it "The Way of the World". It is a dynamic of which we can hardly be ignorant because we live right in the middle of it and have been its beneficiaries. More and more people claim that it represents the true "flow of the universe", i.e. the normal unfolding of life, the key to life's meaning. We are urged to be realists, to stop dreaming, to "get with the program". To some degree we have, we could hardly have done otherwise. But having benefited greatly from it, now, as our passing from the scene gets closer and closer, we cannot help but wonder whether there still isn't too much "Way of the World" in us and not enough Spirit. Finally being able to raise that question is one of the benefits of growing older.
We all know how the world works. No matter how hard human beings have tried, we can't seem to keep wealth and power from becoming concentrated in the few. Nor have we been able to prevent that privileged few from using their wealth and power to take unfair economic advantage of the many. Wielding such power and influence economically enables the few to subvert the political processes of a society to their own ends. That means that for all practical purposes the many are politically disenfranchised and economically exploited. That in a nutshell is "The Way of the World", the exact opposite of the Kindom Jesus preached.
The United States began as a noble experiment to actually incarnate the biblical vision of the "Kindom". Our founding documents continue to proclaim that "all are equal" and that the goal of government is to insure "liberty and justice for all". We have lived to see that noble experiment succumb more than ever to "The Way of the World" in our day. Lobbyists and special interest groups control our government. Our politicians no longer tend to the people's business so concentrated on amassing wealth and getting re-elected are they. Our people are distracted by "bread and circuses", read: Blackberry's, text messaging, shopping and computer games — with little interest or commitment to the commonweal. That's not quite accurate — we are told to engage in conspicuous consumption as our patriotic contribution to the saving of the nation. And speaking of "circuses", the drive for pleasure seems out of control these days as Americans are spending billions of dollars for addictive pleasures of every sort. They are ingesting male and female aphrodisiacs in an effort to offset the effects of aging, which are now labelled as dysfunctions. It is soul-wrenching for us to realize that in our old age America has come to look alarmingly like ancient Rome in its decay. How different from the America of the founders, and even of our youth.
However, what is most insidious about "The Way of the World" is the way it isolates individuals leaving us to focus narrowly on just our own lives, thus breaking the ties of relationship and community which are so essential to a truly fulfilled human life. Americans are rugged individualists who would rather "go it alone". But, it is precisely that lack of communal connectedness which has divided us off from our fellows and allowed for the subversion of both the political and economic orders by special interests.
What About Each of Us ? ? ?
Caught up in these competing processes — "The Way of the World" and "The Way of the Spirit" — we have still somehow managed to live a life. Admittedly, that life has had a certain ambiguity about it. There were times when William Wordsworth's words of 1806 could have been our own:
THE WORLD is too much with us; late and soon,
And then there were times when we were certain that Gerard Manley Hopkins had gotten it right:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
As we look back, if there is anything of which we feel we should repent it is those times when we turned away from or hindered Spirit in our lives. As good Christians we thought that our immediate contact point with God was Jesus. As we have seen, we were only able to affirm that Jesus is Lord because of the work of Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit, who is our immediate contact with God, speaks to us in the depths of our own hearts.
That is a real blessing because, thanks to our lived experience, we are not totally blind to the things of the heart. We are equipped with a kind of spiritual radar whereby we discern the presence of the Spirit and home in on what is true, and good, and beautiful.
As we have seen, Treasure #2 of Catholicism is that: people matter and that our life together is really what life is all about. Recall Don Headley's: "We are parts of a great web of relationships where all salvation of the human spirit takes place". Clearly, human love is what matters, there can be no true spirituality without it. A moment's reflection on our lives reveals to us that the way the Holy Spirit works in our lives is precisely through "human" love. Through human love the Spirit breaks the strangle-hold of individualism on our lives and links us to one another. As Headley implies, by linking us all together, Spirit ultimately links us to God. It is through the work of Spirit in our lives that our isolation ends and we become joined to one another and subsequently to God.
That is the central message of Catholicism/Christianity. But that message is a scandal to the Jews, who stress God's awesome holiness and infinite separation from humankind. It seems to be unknown to Islam, who see heaven not as a state of union with God, but a state of sensuous pleasures and fulfillment. (Recall the 40 virgins promised to all the suicide bombers.) And as for the Hindu's — they have no need for union with God because from their perspective the human mind is already divine. Union with God through the Spirit in this life, and directly in the next is Christianity's great bequest to the human race. For Christians the ultimate lot of humankind is our deification or divinization. As St. Athanasius put it: "God became man so that man might become divine".
In touch with the Spirit, we learn the startling lesson that the instrument of such divinization is something as mundane as our love for one another. Once we learn that lesson, we become people of sound spirituality, and are even capable of becoming spiritual guides and companions to others. Other people might just start looking at us as something of an ELDER! The culture delights in talking about senior citizens as "elderly". That is a negative designation, implying decreased abilities and competences.
We should totally reject the term "elderly". We have lived long enough that we are no longer novices at living. We have acquired a certain wisdom about life, a wisdom that would be helpful to those who are younger and less experienced. We should not be surprised then that they might look on us as an ELDER. We may not consider ourselves in that light, but we surely recognize how important ELDERS are to human interaction. Such people are real gifts, they help us to stay grounded and in touch with what is really real. They help us find the right path in the conflict between the world and the Spirit.
An ELDER is someone who exercises a powerful influence in our lives. One who is truly wise and having a certain spiritual attractiveness. Being in touch with Spirit and knowing the central secret of the spiritual life an ELDER discerns the Spirit's trajectory and freely chooses to GO WITH THE FLOW! We should do likewise.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?