In the last chapter I said that the whole of the universe, while intrinsically valuable in itself and beautiful all in its own right, is also and always a gift for me. There is therefore not meant to be any conflict whatsoever between my response to the word of objective reality, on the one hand, and the deepest desires and inclinations of my heart, on the other. These two go together. They are a match made in heaven. Indeed, it is only in the light of my natural inclinations, and in the light of the orientation of my mind, will, and affectivity towards truth, goodness, and beauty, that I can be touched and moved by the word of reality at all. Thus the essence of the universe outside of me and the essence of my own being are in ceaseless communication and correspondence with each other, since both have come from the same creative love and wisdom of God. John Paul speaks of this quite well:
[T]he concept of “giving” cannot refer to nothing. It indicates the one who gives and the one who receives the gift, as well as the relation established between them. Now, this relation emerges in the creation account at the very moment of the creation of man. This relation is shown above all by the expression, “God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him” (Gen 1:27). In the account of the creation of the visible world, giving has meaning only in relation to man. In the whole work of creation, it is only about him that one can say, a gift has been granted: the visible world has been created “for him.” The biblical creation account offers us sufficient reasons for such an understanding and interpretation: creation is a gift, because man appears in it, who, as the “image of God,” is able to understand the very meaning of the gift in the call from nothing to existence. He is also able to respond to the Creator with the language of this understanding. When one interprets the creation account precisely with this language, one can deduce from it that creation constitutes the fundamental and original gift: man appears in creation as the one who has received the world as a gift, and, vice versa, one can also say that the world has received man as a gift. (TOB 13:4)
Yes, the whole universe is a gift of God’s personal love ceaselessly given, not only to humanity as a whole, but also to each and every individual person. This “giving” each each reality to the receptive human heart is realized both on the level of the innate nature of each created being, which in its essence is marked by the nature of gift, by the dimension of God’s own ever-loving generosity, as well as on the level of God’s direct presence to each person in the singular moment in which they find themselves. In the first case, we can acknowledge that the whole universe has been constituted by God as a sacrament, and remains so always—a sacrament that corresponds, as we will see more deeply in the following reflections, with the very primal sacramentality of the human body itself. As John Paul explains:[A] primordial sacrament is constituted, understood as a sign that efficaciously transmits in the visible world the mystery hidden in God from eternity. And this is the mystery of Truth and Love, the mystery of divine life, in which man really participates. In the history of man, it is original innocence that begins this participation and is also the source of original happiness. The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, inasmuch as he is a “body,” through his “visible” masculinity and femininity. The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.
In man, created in the image of God, the very sacramentality of creation, the sacramentality of the world, was thus in some way revealed. In fact, through his bodiliness, his masculinity and femininity, man becomes a visible sign of the economy of Truth and Love, which has its source in God himself and was revealed already in the mystery of creation. … [T]ogether with man, holiness has entered the visible world, the world created for him. The sacrament of the world, the sacrament of man in the world, comes forth from the divine source of holiness and is instituted, at the same time, for holiness. Original innocence, connected with the spousal meaning of the body, is holiness itself, which permits man to express himself deeply with his own body, precisely through the sincere gift of self [Gaudium et spes, 24:3]. Consciousness of the gift conditions in this case “the sacramentality of the body”: in his body as man or woman, man senses himself as a subject of holiness. (TOB 19:4-5)
After reflecting on all of this, we can go a step further and can affirm a truth even deeper than we have reflected upon in the last chapter. In other words, I tried to make clear how every created reality speaks a kind of “word” of meaning and beauty from God, each in its own way and according to its own degree of fullness in the hierarchy of being. But we can go a step even further—a step opened up only to the eyes of faith, hope, and love—and acknowledge that every single moment of my existence in all of its circumstances is a direct gift of God’s love to me. If the Trinity truly gives me the gift of my existence anew at every instant by knowing and loving me, by sustaining me with the light of his own loving gaze, then there is no moment, however insignificant, that is not a sacrament of his presence and his grace.
It is true that he does not directly cause or will everything that happens in my life, as he respects human freedom and also the interior order of the universe itself, as he has fashioned it. He confirms this order unceasingly, and he sustains its integrity as it participates, in diverse ways, in his own tender wisdom and generosity. But this also means that he allows human infidelity, as he allowed the first sin, and the negative effects it brings about in the suffering, disorder, and disharmony that this unleashes in creation. Now our universe is caught in the heart of a great war between God’s saving love and the destructive envy of the spirits of evil, a drama of immense proportions, passing throughout the stages of history until the final victory of good over evil, life over death, beauty over ugliness, intimacy over isolation that awaits the whole creation at the end of time. And all of God’s efforts during history are ordered above all to drawing human persons to consent to the gift of redeeming love, to incorporate them into his own life through Christ, and to save them eternally for their everlasting destiny in the innermost heart of the Trinity.
All of this drama means that there is evil at work in the world, physical evil and suffering, but above all moral evil (which God never directly wills, but always abhors). And yet this presence of evil does not negate the presence of God, but rather highlight its importance, highlights the importance of God’s abiding fidelity to his original covenant, which entails also his fidelity to the very order of the universe as he has originally fashioned it. It also entails his fidelity in the mysteries of salvation, above all the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, through which he has inaugurated the transforming presence of the new creation already now in the midst of the old. This newness is insinuating itself, little by little and with utter humility, into the midst of time and space, making all things new until they find their definitive newness at the end of time. All of the suffering and evil in the world, therefore, does not destroy the world’s fundamental goodness, beauty, and order, even if it is wounded. And it does not in any way hinder God’s loving providence for each one of his children.
But to live this, to see this, to experience this, calls for profound faith from the depths of the human heart. Only such faith—joined inseparably to hope and to love, in the total surrender of the trusting human person into the sheltering embrace of God—can allow the world to unseal anew its authentic meaning, in the places of beauty and goodness as well as in the midst of places of pain and suffering. This is the source of true joy for every child of God: “I am with you always” (Mt 28:20). Yes, “God works all things for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Indeed, to the degree that our faith in God is truly profound, total, and unconditional, we tap into the very loving intentions of God for the universe, and gain the ability to share in his own affirming gaze on all that he has made, and ceaselessly sustains with his eyes of tenderness. This is the significance of the words of G.K. Chesterton about God’s ceaseless childlike delight before his own creation, in which he never grows tired of creating what he has already created, never grows tired of beholding what he already knows through and through. And by faith, hope, and love, we share in this same awe-filled wonder and praise-filled gratitude:
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again;” and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.i
This quote helps us to make contact with the further reality of which I wanted to speak. By God’s grace and his abiding presence, the fabric of intimacy is already being rewoven in the midst of time and space, as God’s healing grace gradually works to make all things right. Therefore, while it is true that our human capacity cannot encompass the whole of God’s mysterious historical plan (or even a part of it), we can make contact with the very mystery of eternity in the midst of time and space.
God is eternal. This means that he exists outside of the flow of time and the limits of space, while also containing them entirely within himself. He is in relationship with all of time, and time is in relationship with him. Every moment of time is in relationship to him, as he is present to every moment of time. And, in fact, he is present simultaneously—from the fullness of his “Eternal Now”—to each singular moment of history as well as to history in its fullness, from the first instant of creation to the everlasting consummation of all things in his own embrace. This means also that he is present to me, utterly and completely, with undivided attention. “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Mt 10:30). God knows everything about me at every instant of my existence simultaneously, and in this he also knows where, in my experience, I am in this very historical instant. And he presents himself to me in this instant in his tenderness and compassion, seeking to communicate his love and presence to me.
To be open to this presence of God, to welcome it, and to surrender to it in response, is the very inner form of the dispositions of faith, hope, and love. They allow my time to be irradiated by the light of eternity, my space to be filled with the presence of infinity. For through the reciprocal bond of love and communication established between God and the human heart, eternity intersects with time, the divine touches humanity, the Trinity and creation are espoused. This need not be a vivid experience of God in the terms used by many mystics to explain their encounter with the Trinity—though God may wish to lead us to such a place as well. Rather, the inner operation of faith, hope, and love does not depend upon experience even as it illumines and transfigures all of experience. It permeates every moment—whether in joy or suffering, light or darkness—with the peace and restfulness of trusting faith, with the ardent desire and heart’s-dilation of hope, with the radical acceptance and reciprocal surrender of love. And precisely in this way a circulation of communication (in the mutual gift of self) is established between God and the human person, a communication that brings about communion, that brings about intimacy.
This is what constitutes relationship with God, both in this life and in the next: my participation in the inner circulation of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the intimacy that they share. And I can live it, I am invited to live it, already now in each moment of my temporal life, until this intimacy finds its everlasting consummation in the joy of heaven and the new creation. And even if this bond of intimacy is forged fundamentally in the core of my heart—in the space of my inmost “I” in communion with the “Thou” and “We” of the Trinity—it also irradiates all of my faculties, my body, and my experience, in its own mysterious way. This means that it also unseals and illumines the meaning and beauty of each moment of life in the provident plan of God; it opens up my capacity to respond to the word of values in the deepest possible way, and also to let my desires be harmonized with the desires of God so as to find their authentic expression.
Here a co-operation is established between God and myself, a union and intimacy in both being and act that need not be directly tangible in order to be real, but depends instead upon the living presence of faith, hope, and love within me. And yet, in the ways that God intends in each given moment, this faith, hope, and love, this communication, becomes present in the contours of experience, drawing me thus ever deeper into communion with the One who so lovingly communicates himself to me. And in this union I do not lose my freedom, nor the unique contours of my being and personality, but rather experience them fulfilled within the sheltering embrace of God and in the harmony of the symphony of love that we sing together. Here is the discovery of true happiness, and the fulfillment of human existence: in the ceaseless living of the reality of love and intimacy.
+ + +
i. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter IV, “The Ethics of Elfland.”