THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Copyright © 2012 by Leon Roger Hunt
Address given by the Most Rev. Leon Roger Hunt, D.D., On 28 October, 2012,
at the Mercy Retreat Center, St. Louis, Missouri, USA,
on the occasion of the 2012 Convocation of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and Sisters, on this joyous occasion in which both ordination and incardination are to be accomplished, let those who are to be dedicated be assured that as they labour and love for the sake of God they will not proceed alone in their spiritual pilgrimage. For although each of us is journeying in unique manner and according to individual measure, we nonetheless journey together, united with one another and with Christ in holy and mystical bond.
If you will allow me, I should like to say a word from my own personal experience. I was ordained to the priesthood in June of the year 1982. The occasion is still very present to me: not only in my memory but as a living reality within the deeper levels of my being, within my soul. It is present as an inner brightness and sense of potential, of spiritual excitement; as a feeling of kinship with the vital impulses of the cosmos; as a recognition of that web of mighty echoes and subtle vibrations which is the fellowship of the Mystical Body of Christ, alive with the flooding power of the Holy Spirit.
But this gift, bestowed in ordination, this perception of the spiritual life, this reception of Holy Light, recounted now as a personal experience, is by no means exclusively mine. It abounds joyously in its reality and in its potential in the Catholic Church. It is a vital current of succession and holiness that dwells in us and in the ambience within which we function and minister.
The Holy Spirit pervades the Catholic Church: the light and fire of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the Church gives impetus and definition to her meaning and ministry: and it is this element -- standing beyond time and anchored in eternity, yet present among us as a truth, moving through us as a living breath -- which is the essential foundation of our validity and viability. And this presence of God, in our hearts and in our fellowship, in our learnings and in our inspirations, is the basis of all other works that we can achieve, or that we may aspire to bring to fulfilment, in this Catholic Church, in the name of Christ and for his sake .
From this basis of validity and viability, a remarkable and wonderful thing becomes apparent.
It is beautifully and succinctly expressed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth sermon of his great and complex work on the Canticle of Canticles. St. Bernard says, ‘None of us, my brethren, will be so presumptuous as to dare to call his soul the spouse of Christ, nevertheless, as we are members of the Church which rightly glories in this title, and in the reality corresponding to the title, we at least may each justly claim a participation in that high prerogative. What we possess all collectively in a complete and perfect manner, without doubt we also possess individually by participation.’
This, truly, is the Life of the Spirit: a life in which we share, in which we possess, absolutely and surely, the values and virtues of Christ’s Church by authentic participation in the current of holiness, by participation, indeed, in the Holy Universal Church.
But with so high a privilege there comes an equally high responsibility. Within this ambience, this mystical and creative matrix, we must strive, each and every one of us, to conform ourselves ever more perfectly to the image of Christ: by following daily in his footsteps; by living, not alone for ourselves but for others, according to his example; and by opening our hearts, minds and souls to the transforming nature of his love and the sanctifying power of his grace.
Etienne Gilson, in his book The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard, says: “The will, clearing itself of cupidity, as reason has just sacrificed self-opinion, now loves the neighbour with the love of compassion, for the love of God. In the measure in which this purification has been brought about, the soul has recovered its lost likeness. It has already re-become such that God is able to recognise Himself in it once more ...... Loving it, or, what comes to the same thing, loving Himself in it, God would now unite it with Himself. That, precisely, is the meaning of the expression St. Bernard so often employs when he says that the soul has now become God’s ‘betrothed’.
Here, of course, a later stage of the transformation is being considered, a stage of commitment rich in the received and bestowed gifts of the spirit, an advanced stage upon the path of the religious life: but a stage, nonetheless, which is truly within the right and potential of all who seek effectively to conform the old self to the image of Christ, who strive faithfully to become ‘a new creation’ in Christ Jesus.
At this juncture, let look at the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews.
‘Brothers and sisters: Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people.’
The fullness of the priesthood, it is clear from this, neither requires nor bestows perfection. But it is certainly apparent that its strength lies in empathy, in compassion and in humility. It is also, by inference, grounded in mercy. But these factors – empathy, compassion, humility and the quality of mercy – are of course relevant to all aspects and degrees of the religious life, whether secular or regular.
Something must here be said, concerning the word ‘mercy’. This should not be limited in meaning to the associations of our word mercy, or to those of the Latin misericors. This quality should be understood as possessing all the richness of the Hebrew word Chesed. No one word in any European language will do. Chesed is a dynamic quality of beneficence, the quality specifically of ‘loving kindness’. This is Chesed as an attribute of God, and is the sense in which it is mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament. But there is a reciprocal human quality: it is the very one which in the Gospels is repeatedly enjoined upon the disciples as the first necessary approach of the human to the Divine. To obey, and to do more than obey: to walk two miles with the man who says “Walk one mile”; that is the action of an intellect which gives its own narrow limitations to be totally immersed, totally buried, in a loyalty which is as immediately associated with Law on the one side as on the other with Love. Not only is irrational instinct to be renounced; even rational hesitation on behalf of self is to be given up. And this is Chesed as “a loyal devotion grounded in love which goes beyond legal obligation and can be depended upon to the uttermost”.
In the Canticle of Canticles, St Bernard speaks of the ointment of Piety, which, together with the ointments of Contrition and Devotion, is a symbol of the religious life. Bernard says: ‘I have called this the unguent of Piety, because it is extracted from the necessities of the poor, the anxieties of the oppressed, the sorrows of the sad, the sins of the guilty, in a word, from all the miseries of the miserable, even of those who are our enemies. These elements appear to be contemptible. Yet the ointment produced from them surpasses in value all aromatic spices. It is a healing ointment, since “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
The ingredients of this ointment of Piety, says Bernard, are gathered by the soul, to be contemplated in the light of religious aspiration; and being thus blended with the unction of loving kindness, they are made into an ointment in the fire of love.
Here, then, in the higher stages of the religious life, there is no question but that this ointment, which is destined for the anointing of Christ’s Mystical Body, and which is to be applied for the needs of all its members – and hereby is intended no benefit of physical unction but rather one of blessing and ministry – is verily compounded by the humble of heart, in love of the neighbour for love of God.’
‘O whosoever thou art that art such, so saturated with the dew of mercy, so abounding in the bowels of piety, so making thyself all things to all, so become to thyself as a “broken vessel” in order to be ready always and everywhere to run to the relief and help of others ...... thou assuredly art the possessor of this third and most precious ointment!’ So speaks St. Bernard to all of us.
This is the light and ensign of the servants of Christ: this love of the neighbour with the love of compassion, for the love of God. This it is, ideally, which is to be realized and fostered in our dedicated lives and in our continuing service and ministry.
But, in the depths of the soul that is participant in the Mystical Body, this fact has its own deeper dimension, its own splendour of reality. This dimension is the mystery of the spiritual evolution of the Christian individual; the process of ‘turning towards God’; the process of participation in God. Some early stages of this spiritual growth can be indicated.
There is, as St. Gregory of Nyssa observes, an initial stage of emergence from darkness, and an entry into light: a transformation of our ideas concerning God, a rejection of inadequate and incorrect assumptions about him. This stage is represented by the condition of Humility. This is the acceptance of Christ as the centre and focus of all things, the recognition that the true and ultimate purpose of life is outside us, is beyond us and lies with God. God is the source and goal of all evolutionary progress; and it is only with God that we can truly achieve in this domain. Without God, without the life of God within us, we are ‘empty vessels’. We are totally dependent on the Grace of God; but reception of this Grace, for which the condition of humility is paramount, enables us to transcend our failings and to triumph over egocentricity.
Now occurs a growing awareness of ‘hidden things’, whereby the soul is guided through the impressions of this world to the world of the invisible and to perception of the values thereof. This is the stage of Asceticism. Here, the soul ‘acquires love’ as it grows in God and is open to the promptings of the Divine nature. Love is truly the paramount virtue in which all other virtues find their place and part. Here, obedience is joyfully given to high ideal and holiness; labours are willingly and dutifully accomplished according to the precepts of Christ, for love of God.
And now the soul enters the ‘inner chamber’ of divine knowledge, leaving outside all things that can only be grasped by reason. Here, there is for her only the invisible, and that which passes beyond rational comprehension. Dionysius the Areopagite calls this condition “a change of heart and of mind, whereby we are empowered to arrive at contemplation of the reality which reveals itself to us as it raises us to God and unites us, each in our own measure, to him.” This is the stage of mystical Prayer, the ‘prayer of the heart’. All our labours, all our service, insofar as these are directed towards God and offered to him, sanctify us. Love of the neighbour with the love of compassion, for love of God, sanctifies us. But prayer, the prayer in which Christ is inevitably central, the perpetual prayer within the heart, enlarges the sanctified soul, fecundates it, and causes it to rejoice in the abundance of the life which fills it. Here it is that the individual cries aloud with all the powers of the soul: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner”. And here it is that humility, asceticism and prayer embrace in the unity of the sacrament which is Christ himself. The sanctified and fecund soul turns towards God with ‘change of heart’, and the experience of God’s Grace is greeted with tears of repentance; but deep joy too is known within the soul, and deeper peace. And in due time these tears of repentance are transformed into tears of love for God. In this love the soul increases her powers, so that she is capable of knowing an interior state of supernal happiness, a state in which she is ready to receive the inestimable gifts of illumination by the Holy Spirit. And with the gifts of illumination, the gifts of Light and Life, and the gift of that fire which is the power of God at work within her, she passes ever higher in her contemplation, and in her attainments soars eternally upward, and inward, in the love of God.
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “The soul that aspires to God, that conceives a good desire for his eternal beauty, constantly experiences an ever new desire for the things that lie ahead of her; and her desire is never satisfied. She rises higher and higher, ever seeking those supernal things that await her.”
God’s energies flow through us, through all of us, always: but the mystery of our spiritual evolution is precisely this: that even as God moves towards us, so must we ever move towards God in heart, mind and soul, in our lives and in our labours, in response to the divine intimations bestowed by him within our inmost being. For in truth the sanctification of our lives is a perpetual process of conversion and becoming, a continual process of positive growth and renewal, the continual revelation of an ever brighter and clearer manifestation of the image and likeness of Christ within us.
It is through Christ, and through the mysteries of Christ, that life comes to all of us in the Mystical Body. But we do not all progress at the same pace towards the heights of attainment indicated by the theologians and the mystics. We worship and we serve. And in our following of the mystical life of humility, asceticism and prayer, and with God’s Grace, we are sanctified: but the pace of our advance does not matter, neither does the stage of the path that we reach in our journeying. The important thing is the pilgrimage itself, a pilgrimage which is blessed by God: the journeying towards the Father of Lights, through Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.