I came across a quote from American philosopher Thomas Nagel this past Tuesday, and after reading it suddenly exclaimed aloud in my office, “Yes!” My next door co-worker shouted back, “Yes what?” I shouted back, “Long story!” So I decided to write a post to tell the story.
Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it.
What a fantastic insight! It applies to so many aspects of life. I think, for example, of those many special moments I have with my wife, my children, my mom or my friends. So often in the midst of particularly profound, joyful, tragic or playful moments I will step back and think, “I wish I could appreciate more fully the power or beauty of this moment!” But time is fleeting and one’s capacity to grasp the full import of a particular event in time is so limited.
For example, sometimes, especially when I am out in nature away from both city and suburb, I have these “flash” experiences of gratitude well up in me over the great wonder of existence, of creation, of being alive in a world so vast and beautiful and mysterious. But soon I find myself again thrown back into the dullness of my everyday unawareness that all-too-often keeps my heart from fulfilling its desire to fly on High to Him who is the source and goal of all things in order to say: “Thank you!”
The Kingdom Within
I also think of the mystery, grandeur and immensity of the truths of our Faith! I think of their capacious and monumental significance, and of how I live largely asleep to the awe of their dazzling Presence in my life. In particular, though, I stand in the greatest awe of the doctrine of the “indwelling” of the Trinity, i.e. that the eternal God dwells in my body and my soul. How can we possible comprehend this? My body, my flesh and blood and bones, are a naós, a Holy of Holies in which the all-holy, all-glorious, infinite Trinity — before whom the many-eyed Cherubim hide their faces and tremble! — has chosen to abide. Our great God abides in my tiny abode. Crazy!
This should infest every aspect of our lives and even revolutionize the way we think of sin. St. Paul reminds us of this in his stinging indictment of Corinthian Christians who are still having sex with pagan temple prostitutes,
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute? Of course not! Or do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? — 1 Corinthians 6:19
I knew a priest named Fr. William in N. Attleboro, Massachusetts who really “got” the dynamic power of this teaching and offered a vivid witness to it. After he baptized an infant, he would hand the baby back to the mother and then slowly step back, genuflect before the baby and say while still down on his knee,
Behold the temple of the undivided Trinity. Now raise this child knowing s/he is that temple.
This gesture always elicited a “wow moment” in the family and friends present, and an occasional gasp. I know it changed the way I think of the grace of Baptism. In fact, the first time I saw the above image of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, in which she is adoringly gazing at the Trinity dwelling within her, I thought it was the perfect Baptismal image of what Fr. William was doing. It reveals the infinite dignity that every Christian possesses.
Do you not know?
How might a Christian better cultivate an awareness of these, to use Nagel’s words, “something tremendous” realities in our day to day life?
The answer, of course, is by prayer. Especially, I would argue, by daily doing what Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection called the “practice of the Presence of God.” At the heart of this “practice” is the habit of frequently stopping throughout the day, even if only for a few moments, to call to mind one of the many ways in which God is present to us. As we pause, we should pray, “Lord, show me your Face!” Become aware of God present to you as Creator, lovingly sustaining you in existence at every moment; present in the Holy Eucharist; present in your spouse or friend, in a stranger or an enemy; present in your repentance, in suffering or in joy. Or, as I am especially fond of doing, become aware of Him present deep within your soul.
It’s also very fruitful, at the end of each day, to practice an examen in which we can recall the day’s events and ask the Spirit to reveal to us where He revealed to us the Face of God-with-us.
This, I might say, is what “seek and you shall find” means. How much seeking do you do every day? If we don’t “practice” the presence of God consistently, it will be difficult for us to recognize Him when those dark or difficult times come around and we want to see Him. When someone says to me in the midst of a crisis, “Where was God?,” I think, “Did you seek Him out before now?”
When I first began to practice my faith back in 1987, I was struggling with what to “do” after I received the Eucharist. No one had ever told me, and I always felt a bit lost and hazy after receiving. Once I asked the pastor of the parish I attended for help, and he gave me St. Thomas Aquinas’ prayer after Communion, which was a great help:
I thank You, Lord, Almighty Father, Everlasting God, for having been pleased, through no merit of mine, but of Your great mercy alone, to feed me, a sinner, and Your unworthy servant, with the precious Body and Blood of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that this Holy Communion may not be for my judgment and condemnation, but for my pardon and salvation. Let this Holy Communion be to me an armor of faith and a shield of good will, a cleansing of all vices, and a rooting out of all evil desires. May it increase love and patience, humility and obedience, and all virtues. May it be a firm defense against the evil designs of all my visible and invisible enemies, a perfect quieting of all the desires of soul and body. May this Holy Communion bring about a perfect union with You, the one true God, and at last enable me to reach eternal bliss when You will call me. I pray that You bring me, a sinner, to the indescribable Feast where You, with Your Son and the Holy Spirit, are to Your saints true light, full blessedness, everlasting joy, and perfect happiness. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
But it was not until I read St. Teresa of Avila’s description of a vision she had after receiving Communion that my imagination lit up. It totally rocked my world and, for a few days, even made receiving the Host a bit fearful. How could something so epoch, something of such staggering magnitude happen in puny little me? Here’s what she said in one of her Soliloquies,
Once after receiving Communion I was given understanding of how the Father receives within our soul the most holy Body of Christ, and of how I know and have seen that these Divine Persons are present, and how pleasing to the Father this offering of His Son is, because He delights and rejoices with Him here–let us say–on earth. For His humanity is not present with us in the soul, but His divinity is. Thus the humanity is so welcome and pleasing to the Father and bestows on us so many favors.
Come on! Are you kidding? The Father receives the self-offering of the Son “afresh” in me each time I receive? It’s been 26 years since I read that text and I still can’t get over it. Even thinking about it too much causes, as my son calls it, “brain shutdown.”
A last point. I knew a really holy priest in Massachusetts back in 1990 who lived in a nursing home. His name was Fr. Robert Goulet. He was in his 90’s when I met him. We became quick friends and for a whole summer I would go to Mass with him every day at 5:00 a.m. He’d celebrate it in his room with just the two of us there. It was a great privilege for which I will never cease to be grateful. We would talk after Mass about the spiritual life, and he loved to talk about the mystics. One day I remember we were talking about St. Teresa, and he shared with me his favorite story from her writings — her vision of the soul. He said, “Can you imagine if we really believed that this was the way it was? Don’t you know we could never sin! I think we’d die of joy! Maybe that’s why God hides it from us.”
Teresa’s vision was shared publicly by one of her confessors, Fray Diego de Yepes, after her death. I will leave you with this extraordinary image of your soul to ponder. Hopefully it will kindle a bit more your daily wonder over the shocking dignity that is yours in Christ. Be amazed!
This holy Mother had been desirous of obtaining some insight into the beauty of a soul in grace. Just at that time she was commanded to write a treatise on prayer, about which she knew a great deal from experience. On the eve of the festival of the Most Holy Trinity she was thinking what subject she should choose for this treatise, when God, Who disposes all things in due form and order, granted this desire of hers, and gave her a subject. He showed her a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendor, illumining and beautifying them all. The nearer one got to the center, the stronger was the light; outside the palace limits everything was foul, dark and infested with toads, vipers and other venomous creatures.
While she was wondering at this beauty, which by God’s grace can dwell in the human soul, the light suddenly vanished. Although the King of Glory did not leave the mansions, the crystal globe was plunged into darkness, became as black as coal and emitted an insufferable odor, and the venomous creatures outside the palace boundaries were permitted to enter the castle. This was a vision which the holy Mother wished that everyone might see, for it seemed to her that no mortal seeing the beauty and splendor of grace, which sin destroys and changes into such hideousness and misery, could possibly have the temerity to offend God. It was about this vision that she told me on that day, and she spoke so freely both of this and of other things that she realized herself that she had done so and on the next morning remarked to me: ‘How I forgot myself last night! I cannot think how it happened. These desires and this love of mine made me lose all sense of proportion. Please God they may have done me some good!’ I promised her not to repeat what she had said to anyone during her lifetime.