Finding God in all things

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There is, to be sure, a stress within the Biblical tradition that God is radically other: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” (Isaiah 45:15) and “No one shall see [God] and live” (Exodus 33:20). This speaks to the fact that the one who creates the entire universe from nothing cannot be, himself, an item within the universe, one being alongside of others. But at the same time, the Scriptures also attest to God’s omnipresence: “Your Wisdom reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1) and “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; . . . If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-12). This speaks to the fact that God sustains the universe in existence from moment to moment, the way a singer sustains a song.

What is perhaps the defining feature of the spirituality associated with St. Ignatius of Loyola — “finding God in all things” — flows from this second great biblical emphasis. Despite his transcendence, God should not be thought of as distant in any conventional sense of the term, certainly not in the Deist manner. Rather, as Thomas Aquinas taught, God is in all things, “by essence, presence, and power.” And mind you, since God is endowed with intellect, will, and freedom, he is never dumbly present, but always personally and intentionally present, offering something of himself to us. Therefore, the search for God can commence right here, right now, with whatever is at hand.

One of the questions in the old Baltimore Catechism was “where is God?” The correct answer was “everywhere.” Once that truth sinks in, our lives irrevocably change, for now every person, every event, every sorrow, every encounter becomes an opportunity for communion with God. The seventeenth century Jesuit spiritual master, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, expressed the same idea when he said that everything that happens to us is, directly or indirectly, the will of God. Once again, it is impossible to accept the truth of that statement and remain the same person you were before. This always already graced quality of “all things” functions as the starting-point for Ignatius’s spirituality.

Ignatius has been very much on my mind, for I am in Europe filming a documentary on his life and teachings for my Pivotal Players series. On the long flight from Los Angeles to Rome, I had occasion to enact the principle I have just been describing. Ever since I was kid, I have loved maps and so when I find myself on a lengthy plane voyage, I spend a good deal of time with the flight map, which tracks the location of the plane, vis-à-vis landmarks on the ground. I had read and watched some videos for the first part of the flight and then I had slept most of the time we were over the Atlantic, but when I woke, I began studying the map with great interest. We were passing just north of Ireland, and I could clearly see the indications for Dublin, where my mother’s father was born, and for Waterford, where my father’s grandfather was born. I commenced to think about these men, neither of whom I ever met, who bore the Catholic faith that eventually came to my mother and father and finally to me, as a sheer grace.

As the plane continued its journey across the English Channel, northern France came into view on the map, and I saw the great name “Paris.” Suddenly, a slew of memories flooded my mind: my simple room at the Redemptorist House on the Boulevard Montparnasse, Notre Dame, where I used to give tours to English-speaking visitors; the Institut Catholique where I did my doctoral studies; all of my Parisian friends, teachers, and colleagues who accompanied me across those three years; the beauty of Paris on a rainy day. And all of it, I knew, was a grace, sheer gift.

Next, I saw that we were approaching the Alps and so I opened the window screen and looked down on the snow-capped mountains that were gleaming in the sun. How could I not appreciate this view, which untold generations of human beings wouldn’t have even imagined possible, as a splendid gift?

In a word, the simple study of a flight map toward the end of a tedious journey became a rather marvelous occasion of grace. I wonder whether we would find this sort of experience less anomalous if we mused on the fact that God positively wants to share his life with us, wants to communicate with us. Perhaps the problem is that we stubbornly think of God in the Deist manner and relegate him to a place of irrelevant transcendence. Then the spiritual burden is on us, to find some way to climb the holy mountain or sufficiently to impress a demanding moral overlord. What if we accepted the deeply Biblical notion that God is always already busily and passionately searching for us, always already endeavoring to find ways to grace us with his love? What if we blithely accepted the truth that God can be found, as Ignatius taught, in all things?

Featured Photo by Nicolas Cool on Unsplash

COMING UP: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

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A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.