Spirituality in the 21st Century(The following is authored by Fr. James J. Balija, Th.D. and was to have been presented at a conference late September, 2002.)
IntroductionPeace Be With You! Let me start with a small story.
A beggar had been sitting by the side of the road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by. "Spare some change?" mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his baseball cap. "I have nothing to give you," said the stranger. Then he added, "What's that you are sitting on?" "Nothing," replied the beggar, "Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember." "Ever look inside?" asked the stranger. "What's the point? There's nothing in there." "Have a look inside," insisted the stranger. The beggar managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw the box was filled with gold.1My role today is to be the stranger in the story. Each of us seeks a sense of spirituality in our lives. Like the beggar, we need to begin our search for spirituality within the places we least expect it.
In my abstract I noted that the discussion would focus on the modern day Catholic's search for something to fill the hunger in their lives. Many churches successfully sell religion but how many offer spirituality? Just as the starving may indiscriminately consume whatever is placed before them, we meet those who hunger and are not satisfied by what is sold to them by "religion" or society. We hear certain messages far too often: "Buy the best and you'll be satisfied, become a success and you'll feel fulfilled, rigorously follow particular religious tenants and you'll be saved." Despite all this we seem to still find ourselves unhappy, unfilled and unsaved.
I also used the term Contemporary Catholic to define those for whom the rules, and yes even dogma and doctrine, are secondary to the need to fill a void in their lives. People come to you and me for the sacraments and spirituality that they can't find in their churches of origin. They are looking for something "spiritual" rather than structural. To sate this hunger we need to understand what is being sought and how we might first understand it in our own lives before we can help others.
Finally, you will note that I may seem to periodically avoid using the word God and instead use words like the Eternal Now. I do this because the word God often connotes too many superfluous and meaningless things and at the same time fails to capture the Being which is what we refer to as God. The term the Eternal Now is an attempt to address transcendence without some of the baggage normally found with the word God.
PresenceCarved in Latin over the office door of psychoanalyst Carl Jung were the words, "Bidden or not bidden, God is present." At the beginning of this presentation I asked everyone to be at peace. This wasn't just a cheap trick to get you to be quiet but a reminder to STOP doing and just BE.
Thinking, something we all do, creates an incessant mental noise which prevents us from experiencing that inner stillness of presence. There is a story about a researcher who, trying to find an absolutely quiet environment entered a sensory deprivation chamber. Despite being sealed off from the world he kept hearing sounds he could not explain. Upon exiting the chamber he commented to the attendant that there must be something wrong with the chamber. The attendant simply replied "What you heard was the beating of your heart and the flow of your blood."
Let's stop for a moment and recognize that we are in the presence of the Eternal Now.
(Proceed after some time has elapsed)
I asked everyone to recognize the presence of the Eternal Now.
What did you do or not do during this time?Spirituality arises first from the stillness of presence, of being in the presence of the Eternal Now. It is the opposite of Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am). It is the recognition that God is and I am. Sometimes, we feel very uncomfortable with stillness, we want to be doing something. How many of you turn the TV or radio on the first thing in the morning and/or have it playing in the background all day? We are more comfortable using religious exercises, prayer formulas, and activities to help achieve a sense of presence than just being in that presence. We must first be at peace within ourselves. Like Elijah we must learn to find God in the stillness of Being.
Religion and SpiritualityLet's begin by reviewing, in general, the terms religion and spiritual. One of the challenges we have is to see these terms for what they are commonly considered.
In general, the term religion connotes a dogma, doctrine, ritual (as differentiated from liturgy), a sacred scripture and a mission to save all unbelievers, and an attitude I'm right and if you do not agree with me, you are wrong. If you do not admit you are wrong, you must change either your attitudes to agree with the stated dogma or you will be expelled or terminated. The dictionary defines religion as a personal set or institutional system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. While we are most familiar with Christianity in these terms, they do not exclusively define Christianity, they could be applied to any number of belief systems.
In general, the term spiritual connotes a personal, phenomenological, experience of Presence, known as God, open to all and known to all who listen. A dictionary definition might suggest spiritual as of or relating to, motivated by or consisting of spirit.2
Theologian Fr. Richard McBrien notes in his book Catholicism:
To be 'spiritual' means to know, and to live according to the knowledge, that there is more to life than meets the eye. To be 'spiritual' means, beyond that, to know, and to live according to the knowledge that God is present to us in grace as the principle of personal, interpersonal, social, and even cosmic transformation. To be 'open to the Spirit' is to accept explicitly who we are and who we are always to become, and to direct our lives accordingly, in response to God's grace within us.3A person may have spirituality included with religion while others might find religion as a major obstacle to admitting a true spirituality. The history of religion shows that religion and spirituality can be at odds with each other, the rise of "Old Catholicism" being just one of many examples. The tangible qualities of control, status, power, and prestige of the institutional religion have little to do with the supposed intangible quality of Spirit. In an ideal world, religion and spirituality can be or are opposite sides of the same coin, each side bespeaking the excellence of the whole.
Religious attitudes can tell us about ourselves and help us understand ourselves better. We tend to fall into one or another basic attitudinal groups, those who hold extrinsic religious attitudes and those with intrinsic religious attitudes.
The extrinsically motivated person tends to use religion as a safe way to deal with God and others. If I follow the commandments, attend certain religious services, perform certain religious acts, I'll be OK.
The Intrinsically motivated person tends to experience religion by living out the message and giving of self to others in love. This may be perceived as impious and risks the enmity of others but may lead to the profound religious experience of being present to the Eternal Now.
While each of us probably demonstrates attributes of both groups, we need to be careful that we don't cut ourselves off from the richness of the experience of spirituality, both our own and others. The challenge we have is to become more Intrinsic in our approach to religion and spirituality. How do we see beyond ourselves, our problems, our narrowness to the world beyond us and to our neighbors?
As we progress into the 21st century, we are also faced with expressing and understanding the spiritual in terms of our own century's view of the "universe." In my abstract I suggested that we would attempt to explore spirituality in many areas, including within science, within liturgical expression and the sacraments, within prayer and within everyday life. In the time allotted this is a nearly impossible task but my purpose was to help us begin to sense a process both for ourselves and those whom we serve.
Spirituality Within ScienceIn preparing for this conference, I spent some time reading what secular authors in disciplines outside of religion have to say about the subject. In his book, The Hidden Face of God, nuclear physicist Gerald Schroeder, began his search for spirituality by looking at the box upon which he had been figuratively sitting on for the past 30 years, science. In seeking to reconcile his understanding of science with religious thought, he found the spiritual.
In many ways we are like young children who are fascinated by the many colors we see emanating from light passing through a prism. It has so much beauty and variation we concentrate solely on that, marveling and spending time trying to define it and its properties. What Schroeder does is to focus not on the output of the prism but on the origin of the light and attempts to catch a glimpse of what lay before the prism.
We see spirituality in somewhat the same way, we focus so much on the output that we forget to look to the source, for in that we will be even more awed. Schroeder realizes that everything we see and everything we can see is contained within the Oneness of God, the Eternal Now, the source behind the prism. What he found was not E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) but the exact opposite, out of one, the many.
I cannot do justice to his book in a few words but let me try to give you a sense of his thoughts. As a scientist Schroeder compares what he perceives of the world in science and the perception of the world as presented through scripture. At first, scripture does not seem to reflect what science has begun to learn about creation. Darwinism, the Big Bang Theory, Quantum mechanics and other scientific fact seemed at great odds with what we have believed and felt for thousands of years. He questioned "Are we just deluding ourselves with the concept of the spiritual?"
Rather, what he found was startling to him. He found that his study of science gave glimpses of what he called "the hidden face of God" and that scripture began to validate what his probe into science uncovered. We are all familiar with the opening lines of Genesis, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . . . " We are less familiar with is the translation of the text and perhaps the sense of the text by the Medieval Kabalist Nahimides. In Genesis, both Hebrew and Aramaic use the word "Beresheet." In Hebrew this means "In the beginning of . . . " later translators dropping the participle since it didn't seem to modify any other word. The Aramaic uses the same word but with a different meaning. Rather than "In the beginning" Nahimides translates it as "With Wisdom" God created. This is very much in line with much other Old Testament with how the Wisdom of God is seen in action.
What Schroeder finds for himself as a scientist is evidence of the Eternal Now's Wisdom in creation, His plan of which we are now only just beginning to catch momentary glimpses. For example, in comparing DNA among living creatures he notes that the DNA of most living beings contained all that is needed to create many different kinds of creatures and many types of individual organs. One cell with DNA contains enough instructions to fill 1,000 books of 600 pages each. He speculates, does the DNA know which gene sequence to activate to create a person, a bird, a dog or a fish?
And again, all atoms ever created coalesced at the beginning of time from the Big Bang, creating equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, which negate each other. If this happened along the lines of scientific understanding there would be no matter, but we know from experience alone that there was just a little more matter than anti-matter. How did this happen? He posits that these and other elements of creation could not all be fortuitous accidents. That would be like winning the super ball lottery each and every time it was played. No, he thought there must be some wisdom guiding creation.
We see this understanding of Genesis echoed in the opening of St John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Nothing that was created . . . " For professor Schroeder, Wisdom, the Word and the Spirit of God are not only all around us but within all creation.
This is not pantheism but an understanding that nothing that is, is outside of God, the Eternal Now. God's spirit always beckons us to understand that we are part of His Oneness, the other side of the prism. All that existed at the "beginning" and all that now exists, exists within the presence of the Eternal Now. That is why I noted at the beginning of this exercise that we should recognize ourselves in the Presence of the Eternal Now. We can both be in awe of the Eternal Now and experience the Eternal Now, a sense of the spiritual within science.
Spirituality in Liturgy and SacramentsThe liturgy is a manifestation of and connection to the spiritual unity that is the Eternal Now. "Whenever you do this, do it in memory of me," are words we, as priests, proclaim at every Eucharist. Regardless of our "rite" of celebration, we are called to presence in the Lord and with all of creation.
At the breaking of the bread we take a small portion and place it in the cup. In an earlier age this piece of bread was something remaining from a previous celebration of that or another community, a visible symbol of the interconnectedness of Christian communities, re-presenting ourselves with that community's celebration, being present to one another through Christ. When I get to the breaking of the bread at Mass I ask those attending to remember their communities of origin and, in prayer, unite them spiritually to this celebration. (You might want to try this as a way of conveying another level of spirituality.) This and other ceremonials within the liturgy speak to the spiritual nature of our relationship with the Eternal and one another.
The Eucharist as sacrament is the center, the core of Catholic life. It is where we meet Jesus, are touched by Him and we touch Him. While the Roman Catholic bishops are concerned about the laity's attitude toward the "real presence," it might be better to approach the sacrament from an experiential/ spiritual rather than from an "academic" approach.
We've all heard or used the phrase "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" to reference our personal experience of something. Shakespeare wrote: "A rose, is a rose, is a rose. Would a rose by any other name smell so sweet?" We could replace the word beauty or rose for Eucharist. The Eucharist is and remains what it is regardless of what we speculate about it.
The Eucharist is Food.In the culture of the middleast, meals always signified peace, trust, and a community. By distributing the bread and wine as his flesh and blood, Jesus gave his disciples a share in the power of his death to make atonement and to establish a new Covenant. This too, is a familiar Oriental idea: eating and drinking communicated divine gifts. When Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine, he said: This is My Body. This is My Blood. Drink it, eat it, and you will have eternal life. It was a drastic way to awaken his disciples from forgetfulness that we are alive in the Eternal. When we join as a community to celebrate the Eucharist, we bring life to the community. The miracle happens not because we say the words correctly, but because we eat and drink in mindfulness of the presence of the Eternal Now. Christ presents himself to us just as he is, just as a rose is a rose.
Christ said: "I am the bread of life."(John 35:48) In the words of institution Christ connoted that He was food and not just bread. Food is the principle of life. Because of this, Christ is present in the bread as food, as a principle of life. The presence of Christ in the food signifies that Christ is the principle of life. Christ is present (before us). He is Presence. The Eucharist then becomes a personal encounter with Christ, an occasion in which the participant meets Him and invites Him into his or her very being. To those whose spiritual eyes are open Christ can be seen in the Eucharist as He was seen by the Apostles in Luke 24:30-32.4
As we bring ourselves present to Christ AS HE IS rather than as we would like or imagine him to be, we live and experience His peace as He left us, which is not the peace of the world. In the Eucharist, the Eternal Now is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. In the Eucharist we are call to the presence of the Eternal Now.
The Eucharist is central to Catholic life because it is our thanksgiving song, a re-presenting of Christ's salvific action. The Eucharist re-presents the sacrifice of Christ. Through Christ and the Eucharist we cannot only meet but be more fully awakened to who we are. Thus, we engender Presence as Christ was and is Present.
Spirituality within PrayerThe Apostles asked Jesus "Lord, how should we pray?" This is the same question we ask ourselves as we search for the spiritual connection with the Eternal present. Like the early Christians, like the Monastics, like the mystics, and like the faithful in the pews we search for a way.
"Prayers" are the inadequate verbal and written symbols of what should spring from within our inmost being. When Christ taught his Apostle to pray He used the words "Father in heaven holy is your name." He was verbalizing that which came from the very core of his spiritual being; His prayer to the Father welled-up from the spiritual reservoir within Him. We, too, yearn to communicate with the Eternal Now out of the core of our spiritual being.
Praying and saying prayer are two separate things, again like two sides of the same coin. Saying prayers, unless done without thought, can lead to prayer, being in the presence of the Eternal Now. There are many fine methods to prayer but the one common factor in prayer is being present to the Eternal now. That was one of the reasons I started this presentation with the admonition to recognize the presence of the Almighty, Eternal Now. Prayer is just that, recognizing the presence of the Lord and surrendering ourselves, our illusions and delusions of self, to the presence of the Lord.
You, no doubt, all remember the little acronym we were taught that describes the four types of prayer, ACTS: Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving and Supplication. To that we could add a new acronym, PLUS:
You've probably seen commercials for Christian music albums on TV. In listening to the various video song clips like Celebrate Jesus or I Lift My Soul on High, I was struck by the difference from the hymns I am most used to. Rather than being descriptive of an attribute of the Eternal Now or story, they more closely reflect the intent of the Psalms, praise. One of the more popular songs of a few years ago was a reworking of a secular song and used in the movie Sister Act, namely My God. What struck me the most listening to those who sang them was that something special seemed to come not just from their mouths, but from somewhere deep inside of them. Each video clip shows the singers using their whole bodies as part of their prayer/song experience. Each gives the impression that there is an urgent need to express awe and delight in the manifest love of the Eternal. By doing this, both individuals and communities are transported outside of themselves, out of time into the timelessness of the Eternal. It becomes a momentary sense of rapture.
Elijah tried to describe to his readers where The Eternal could be found. It was not in the great wind or great noises or events but rather it was in the quietness of a gentle breeze. We are so busy talking that we fail to listen to what God has in store for those who believe in. Him. We feel more comfortable using words, symbols and actions to pray because they remind us of the Eternal Now. There is nothing wrong with that but there is much more beyond that. As the opening word of the Rule of St Benedict says "Asculta," Listen my brothers . . . We are called to Listen in prayer. To do that we need to create a stillness and presence in which we can both listen and respond to God, to feel His presence, to allow him to make us whole again. Listening is probably one of the hardest things we can do because there are a thousand and one things to distract us. What we can learn to do is let these thoughts flow over and around us like a rock in a tidal pool and remain a calm spot in the midst of the tempest.
Prayer can also be unity, not only with the divine but with all creation. The scientist who discovered the presence of the Eternal Now in the laboratory discovered that all creation is one with the Oneness of the Eternal Now but not necessarily uniform in design or purpose. Like the light refracting through a prism, there is a Unity of purpose for all creation when we get past the diversity. The Eucharist unites us to Christ, to other communities and to those within our community and makes the word "communion" most appropriate. Unity in prayer looks beyond the differences and concentrates on the commonalities. Unity does not equal uniformity, it appreciates differences realizing that all things and all creatures are a result of the Wisdom of God's presence.
Probably the most difficult form of prayer is surrender. We too often determine to take an active position in whatever we do; we want to be in control. This attitude, unfortunately, falls into our prayer life as well. To succeed in prayer we must learn to abandon our preconceived notions of God, of prayer, and yes even of our very place in the universe. We are called to empty ourselves even as Christ emptied Himself on the cross.
Spirituality within Everyday LifeEach day we meet those who are struggling for something in their lives, they just don't always know what that something is. It's not that we don't know what's important, we just need to be reminded.
In the Buddhist tradition there us a story of a woman who finally became enlightened. When she was asked what the difference was, she described it this way: "Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and hauled water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and hauled water." Spirituality in everyday life is just like that, the externals don't really change, but where we find that our recognition of the presence of the Eternal Now does affect our lives.5
I learned what the sacrament of reconciliation really means from my great-grandmother many years ago. This was in an age in which people dutifully lined up next to the confessional on Saturday afternoons, reciting laundry lists of "sins" for which they were sorry and for which they had a firm commitment to do no more. Before going to the church, this matriarch of the family went from person to person in the household asking for their forgiveness for whatever slight, intended or unintended she may have caused. She was reconciling herself to her limited community, her family. Although she would probably not have articulated it this way it was the spiritual call to be and remain in the presence of the Eternal.
In marriage we tell those around us and ourselves that we have found someone with whom we wish to share our lives, our hopes and all that we have with someone who fills a void in our lives. We commit to the other person that we place our complete trust and love in them, surrendering our hearts into the outstretched hand of someone else realizing that they can crush that precious gift. Again, though most of us would not articulate it in these words, we are responding to the spiritual call to be and remain in the presence of the Eternal Now.
We are constantly called to look beyond our immediate group of family and friends to the greater community. We are forced to confront our biases and see ourselves as we are. In a recent conversation with a police officer he bemoaned the fact that the world seemed to be getting more depraved than it seemed to be only 30-40 years ago. While we are more cognizant of those things around us, I assured him, our world is much better than he thought. It was often difficult to see the beauty of the tree by staring only at its bark.
"But how do we fix this problem?" he persisted. "By taking one small step, one small action each day," I responded. What he failed to realize was that he, and each person, does make a difference in the world when we learn to respect the Presence of the Eternal Now in creation. This does not mean being a patsy for all the nonsense that happens but acting from the Spirit. He became a police officer because he wanted to help his community, by acting in the spirit he is affecting change.
It is too easy to look for simple prescriptions that translate into change. In a recent conversation with some fundamentalist evangelicals it seemed to them that their solution was the only one and did not allow spirit any role. The spiritually oriented person will have very little difficulty speaking about their response to the Presence of the Eternal Now with one another as they share the same experience. It is only when we use religion or society's attitude of "my way is the right way, the only way" that we have grave difficulties speaking.
The spiritually oriented suggest that we awaken to whom we actually are and take responsibility and simply, as the Christian tradition phrases, love God and our neighbor in our enjoyment of presence of the Eternal Now. Again, we need to remember the words of the song "We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love-light of the Lord" and take the time to just sit and let the Lord move into our lives.
Conclusion:The Catholic masters of the spiritual life never seem to tire of repeating the simple theme: "Do what you are doing now, suffer what you are suffering now. Do all this with holiness, nothing need be changed but your hearts. Sanctity consists in willing what happens to us by God's order."
All things are holy, only by misuse can we take the spiritual that exists in all creation and fashion it into something ugly and unworthy of the calling we have. We are all called to holiness, to spirituality to slake our thirst and sate our hunger. Today we are given a blessing and a curse, life or death. Choose life that you may dwell in the Eternal Now.