The following was written by Anthony Massimini, Ph.D.
We experience God within ourselves and in today’s society and culture. Part 1
Within Ourselves: No one experiences God directly, but indirectly. We experience God in terms of ourselves, others, and the world/universe. Concerning ourselves, this means we have to get to know ourselves as deeply and truthfully as we can. Our true self is not our shallow ego that pushes us, e.g., to “look good,” to “be No. 1,” or to be the first to have the latest gadget, etc. We see and find our true self in our ever-evolving journey toward becoming genuinely fulfilled as the person we truly are. It is to evolve daily, together with others and the world, toward wholeness-in-love.
We are everyday mystics. To be a mystic is to see what is hidden. Our faith opens us to look into ourselves, others and the world/universe and to “see” God, Christ within ourselves, others and the world–i.e., to see what is hidden from atheists and agnostics.
If we look deeply into ourselves, we will see our gifts, talents, possibilities, and opportunities, and we will feel a desire to fulfill them. Even more deeply, we will feel ourselves being called into the future from the future,, i.e., we are being called to transcend our present self and move forward in our lives. We are being called, invited, to go deeply into ourselves where our core energy is, where God waits for us in the pregnant silence of our of who we are and who we can become. And in the creative, healing and self-and world-transforming love of God, we are being called to grow and evolve into our fullest self–to move more lovingly and effectively toward wholeness-in-love.
It is precisely within our gifts and talents, possibilities and opportunities, and within our deep desire to respond to the call to become our fullest and truest self, that we experience the presence and intentions of God within ourselves.
In particular, we experience God’s presence and intentions within ourselves according to:
1. Our Age: For example, children experience God in terms of their parents. Adolescents, in their desire to find their individuality and personality. Young adults, in their search and dreams for a career and life-path. Adults, in their concern for work/profession/civic engagement, and marriage. Seniors, in the wisdom of life experience.
2. Our Gender: Males and females have their unique way of experiencing themselves, the world, and God. Both male and female experiences must be equally respected.
3. Our Race: For example, Hispanics, African-Americans, Whites, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and all others, experience God in their own way. These culturally colored experiences reflect the different aspects of the one, rich human experience. All must be equally respected.
4. Our Personal History: Every life is a journey. The spiritual journey for each one of us is unique. We respect everyone’s uniqueness as we walk our spiritual journeys together toward wholeness-in-love.
5. Our Personality Type: For example, the extrovert, the introvert, the leader, the follower, the caretaker, etc. express different ways of experiencing and expressing the presence and intentions of God.
6. Our Culture: We experience God e.g., in our family and social life, education, politics, economics, science, arts, entertainment, etc. In the mid-20th century, agnostic philosopher, Martin Heidegger noted that if God exists, he is known by his absence. This sad fact is even more poignant today. Today’s hyper-individualized, fast-moving, changing, noisy, shallow greed corrupted culture can drown out our experience of God. We are daily challenged to find the place of quiet within ourselves, the “still point of the turning world,” (T. S. Eliot) where we can see how to respond to God’s presence and intentions by fulfilling our true selves in today’s society and culture.
Imagine a child as being made of energy, and then imagine that energy as light.
Imagine a child that is made of light. Now imagine that there is an even brighter Light shining within the child, entirely filling the child from head to toe. And finally, imagine that at every point where the greater Light is touching the child, that touch is immaculate. Now we have a picture of a child in whom God is present. The Light that is filling the child is the Light of Infinite, Eternal Love.
To complete the picture, imagine the entire world made of light, within which a brighter Light of Love is shining. Stretch your imagination to include the entire universe. And then stretch to see that the Light that is God not only fills the entire universe but extends infinitely beyond the universe.
Let yourself feel some awe and wonder at God’s intimate, loving presence within every person and even the smallest thing that exists, along with God’s intimate presence within the stars and galaxies and all that exists.
As we live in our finite world, with its limitations and temptations, the light that we are can dim somewhat, but it never goes out. And it can always be restored to brightness. God never abandons us and we never become totally corrupt. The light within us is always there to illuminate our way and call us back.
This is one way of seeing what our faith gives us. This way of seeing is the basis for our sense of the faith. It is the start of our ability to “see” God, and to know, understand, interpret and apply God’s revelation and intentions for us, in our everyday lives.
Now let’s get back to the child. Let’s consider ourselves as adults who are responsible to form and nourish the child. As adults, we already know ways to form and nourish children. As people of faith, we will check to see that the ways we form and nourish the child are in full accord with the intentions of God who is dwelling within the child. God’s presence within the child is not some “nice thing” that the child can do without. It is not the “icing on the cake” that we can remove and still have the cake. God’s presence is the essential and necessary basis for the child’s very existence and the child’s life, growth and fulfillment.
Shining within the child, the Light that is God is calling the child to his/her greatest and richest fulfillment, as an image of Eternal, Infinite Love. In today’s evolutionary world, we say that God, who is in eternity, i.e., not/space-not/time, is present within the child now, and is also calling the child from within the child’s future. As adults, we are able to “hear” God’s call to the child and ensure that the child responds as fully as possible, and thereby becomes as fully as possible who God has called the child to become.
Through knowledge and experience we know a great deal about how to raise a child. Our sense of the faith, which is our intuitive instinct concerning God’s existence, presence, truth and intentions, enlightens and strengthens our knowledge and experience, so we can raise the child as successfully as possible. We will, for example, see that the child is properly nourished and cared for; that he/she goes to school and studies well. In general, we will see to it that the child lives in an environment that is ordered, peaceful, just, safe,hopeful, joyful, and loving. We will take special care to nourish the child’s sense of awe and wonder, because these are beautiful emotions to feel toward the world and indeed, the entire universe, and they are the basic emotions that we feel toward God. Every individual decision we make for the child will be the best decision we can make in line with our faith enlightened knowledge and experience.
Now we can switch the example to ourselves and become that child.
Let’s pay attention for a moment to the way many of us were raised in the faith. If you’re old enough and lived in a big city, you will remember growing up on a “Catholic island.” For younger readers, please put up with us for a moment.
Just about everybody on the “island” was of the same ethnic background. Discipline and compliance were in the very air we breathed. Adults were watching everywhere, so if we got into trouble, our mothers knew about it before we got home. The church took care of almost all our needs: Catholic school, Mass and the other sacraments, sports activities, dances and other social events, dating the boy or girl down the street, etc. Adults left the “island” to go to work, and then came back in the evening.
After World War II, many veterans took advantage of the GI Bill, went to college and started on upwardly mobile careers. Catholics began moving off the island and into the greater population. The social bonds that kept much of the faith alive disappeared as Catholics now lived among people of various ethnic backgrounds and religions–and of no religion–neighbors whom they liked and respected.
Their sense of the faith moved into a “dark night.” Old spiritual customs and consolations died. The new experiences should have been the raw material for a new, more individualized sense of the faith that necessitated a deeper understanding of what it meant to be part of a spiritual community that was not socially/physically present on an everyday basis. Now or faith presented itself in a different, less established way, e.g., in our work, our politics, our schools, our regard for women’s rights, for world peace, etc. And many of us began getting spiritually lost in this new world.
The Male-Dominant Problem in Experiencing God
The subjugation of women in society and in the church, along with predominantly male images of God, have weighed heavily on women’s experience of God and their sense of faith. It all started when the male dominant Hebrews imaged a male God as creating the universe. A female-imaged God, e.g., would have birthed forth the universe from her womb. The male God created the dominate Adam, and then took the dependent Eve from Adam’s rib. In the Garden of Eden, Eve seduced Adam into eating a piece of fruit. Eve, the woman, and all women after her, are blamed for the Fall. In the male-dominant, patriarchal culture, blaming the man was unthinkable. Eve became the seducing sinner, and gave that image to all women. (See the page, An Evolution Story, for a contemporary look at the “Fall.”)
To make matters worse, St. Augustine, troubled by having begotten an illegitimate son, later added that original sin was sexual. So Eve, the seducing woman, became the seducing, sexual sinner, giving that image to all women. Eve was offset by the Virgin Mary, the ideal woman. Women then took on both aspects and developed a self-conflicted, Madonna-Whore image, elevated to the highest expectancy by men, while at the same time disrespected by men.
Now, given the evolution of our understanding of humans and human nature, and given the teaching of Vatican II, let’s be clear: women enjoy equal human and baptismal dignity with men. Women are images of God, in their own way, as clearly and fully as men are in their own way. The truth from God is that there is neither Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free; there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28).
Christianity’s loss because of the curse of sexism has been immense. For example, Professor Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School lists a series of views that were put forth by early Christian women. How different would women’s experience of God and sense of faith be today, and how different would the church be if these views had been taken to heart:
–Jesus was seen primarily as a teacher and mediator, rather than a ruler and judge
–People can have direct access to God through receiving the Holy Spirit
–Those who are spiritually advanced freely give their gifts to all, without claim to a fixed, hierarchical ordering of power
–An ethics of freedom and spiritual development is emphasized over an ethics of order and control
–Both women and men could exercise leadership on the basis of spiritual achievement apart from gender status and without conformity to established social gender roles
–Overcoming social injustice and human suffering are seen to be integral to spiritual life.
Race and Our Sense of our Faith
The outline above states that we understand, interpret and apply our sense of the faith, in part at least, according to our race. An outstanding example of this was the Civil Rights movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960’s. This movement expressed the faith of African Americans as applied to the American experience, and also went beyond the particular needs of African-Americans–as immense as they were!–to include and embrace the needs of every American for freedom, fairness, brother-and-sisterhood, and good will. Today’s expression of African-American Liberation Theology carries on the work of freedom from racism. One mark of our faith is that, while it pertains to every individual person and race, it is always universally applicable.
Hispanic-Americans are expressing their sense of the faith in their own way. Elizabeth Johnson, in her outstanding book, Quest for the Living God, mentions the Hispanic-inspired God of the Fiesta, i.e., of the beauty and celebration of our experience of God’s presence in today’s world; and of la lucha, the Hispanics’ struggle to engage in today’s society. She also mentions the Hispanic devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is an expression not only of Mary, but of the Holy Spirit.
Many white Americans are struggling to clarify their sense of the faith today. Sadly, for all too many, fear, prejudice and even hatred are resulting from the rising numbers of non-whites in our society. Also, white Catholics are having trouble discerning the aspects of our faith that are being continually hidden or drowned out by the noise, shallowness, super-competitiveness, etc., that mark today’s culture. This blog is my way of showing that much of this did not have to happen. If Vatican II had been fully implemented, Catholics of all races would have clear and effective ways to sense, understand, interpret and apply our faith in today’s society.
We understand, interpret and apply our faith in accord withour personal life history. Every life is a journey, and every journey is unique. This is one important reason why the church should be an open, collaborative church in which every member contributes his or her own life experience. Our individuality should be respected, and when we make our own individual decisions and act in our own way in particular situations, we should be able to have access to personal guidance and encouragement, along with general rules.
At present, the church is not set up to provide this kind of interaction among us. In fact, the horrifically bad treatment of the sex abuse victims shows that the bishops’ had a callous disregard for people’s personal experience. And the present conflict between the Vatican and American nuns shows how badly church authorities do not know, understand or appreciate, and therefore are prejudging, the individual discernment and actions of some of our most discerning and prophetic Catholics.
Guidance and Counsel is one the the Spiritual Disciplines. We should all have someone with whom we can discuss our personal, spiritual journey. Ideally, that person would be a person of deep spiritual experience and knowledge, but all of us could use our personal sense of the faith and common sense to engage in richly rewarding conversation.
It would be ideal if parishes were set up to provide spiritually mature and knowledgeable people who can guide others in their journeys, and help them become guides themselves. More generally, for example, parents could discuss, in person and/or through email groups, the sacred meaning of raising children; teachers could discuss how to apply their faith in the classroom without imposing their religion on their students; business people could discuss their views of business ethics, etc.
In the absence of an open, collaborative church, we can look to help one another on our spiritual journeys.
God does not reveal doctrines and theological formulas to us. God reveals him/herself to us–his/her life and love. We in turn assent to God’s self-revelation by believing in God and returning our life and love to God.