We see throughout humanity, and in all levels of society, a profound poverty that is crying out for God and his love—a poverty that is rooted in the depths of each unique human heart created for God and at rest in him alone. When we look deeply at our contemporary world, we realize that the problem we are facing is above all a problem of “homelessness.” This refers not primarily to a physical homelessness, but to a profound loss of one’s place in the world, a sense of “not belonging,” of being alone, isolated, and misunderstood. This problem becomes clear when we look at the disintegration of marriage and the family, at the dislocation of so many people from their homelands, at the loss of a sense of tradition and the value of the past. It is also seen in the epidemic of relativism, which no longer admits an objective, all-enveloping truth that holds all of us together within itself and serves as a meeting-place where we can encounter and dialogue with one another.
But where does the root of this problem lie? Ultimately, it lies in a loss of the “sense of God,” of the awareness and conviction of the mystery of the sacred that enfolds all of reality while permeating it. The experience of the sacred, of a holy and ineffable mystery, lies indeed at the foundation of the life of each one of us. This is because the first and most fundamental experience is one of Love. As an infant being held in the arms of our mother or father, we experience a deep and radical love, an act of utter generosity that stands at the very origin of our existence. Further, it is only through this love that comes to us from the outside that we truly awaken to our own personal individuality in its fullness: in looking into the eyes of our mother, who smiles upon us, there comes a moment of profound recognition in which we spontaneously smile back. In this moment we have an intuition of the very nature of our existence, and of Being itself (the capital “B” is deliberate). We become aware of: You… Me… and the Love that unites us.
This awareness of the other who looks upon me with love, who shelters me in love, and of myself who is a gift from the other’s love and is cradled within it: this is the most fundamental human experience. It is also a kind of sanctuary that God has preserved in the midst of creation in which we can glimpse the true meaning of reality, the “heartbeat” of all that is: it is Love. Love is the inner truth of all that exists, of every being within creation, because it stands at the origin of all being as its Source, as well as its Goal. Yes, the true mystery of Being is a mystery of Love and Communion. Further, this experience and this intuition awakens in the child—even if he or she does not have an explicit awareness of this—a belief in the existence of God. This original experience is an experience of what is called the “numinous,” which Rudolf Otto (d. 1937) says is the foundation of all religion. In our terminology, the numinous is synonymous with the “sacred.” Otto argued:
[I]ndividuals, regardless of culture and formal religion, have a fundamental and irreducible sense of the holy, what he termed “the numinous experience.” … [T]his transcultural feeling about the divine mystery includes elements of creatureliness, tremendum, fascination, energy, sacredness, and awe whose origin comes from a source outside of us. That source is at once beautiful and almost terrifying, close to us and yet completely other, present to us and yet outside our control. This divine other is at once desirable, fascinating, mysterious, immense, and both within us and outside of us. (Robert Spitzer, Finding True Happiness, 46)
But here we see that our most basic experience of the sacred, is an experience of pure, boundless, and gratuitous Love. Yes, it is the experience of an all-embracing communion from which our own personal mystery emerges, and within which it always remains sheltered. We do not feel the need to defend our individuality, to shelter and protect it against the threat of another, of the community. Rather, we feel that it is sheltered precisely by and within the context of communion, and that here it blossoms and grows to maturity. In other words, we feel at home. We feel at home because we feel utterly accepted, sheltered, loved, and cared for by another—and in the face of this other we sense the presence of the Other who is Absolute Love and who cradles the world within his embrace.
Through this intuition of Love, of being-at-home within Being, the child grows and develops in freedom, as her life blossoms on contact with the realities that surround her on every side. She responds spontaneously and joyfully to the Beauty, Goodness, and Truth of the world around her, and her heart immediately goes out to that “Something,” that Someone who lies beyond and yet within every created thing. Further, her sense of confidence and trust allows her to abide in a spirit of playfulness, a spirit of restful joy in which she receives every moment of her life as a gift, and joyfully allows it to unfold as a gift of gratitude in return.
If the parents shelter and foster this experience, and this fundamental intuition of God and his love, the child will grow quite spontaneously into faith and love for God. This radical receptivity of the child to the Good News of Christ and the Church is why Jesus said to his disciples: “Unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” If the parents manifest authentic love to their child, and also begin to educate them in the teachings and the practice of the faith, the child will find that such mysteries correspond deeply with her own inmost intuitions and desires. That God would become Man so that we can see him and touch him—this is not something complex and confusing for a child, but spontaneously makes sense, however “unexpected” it might be. (After all, is not everything unexpected for the child at first?) Even that this God would hide himself in a piece of bread so as to remain close to us, to enter into into our bodies and to live inside us—for a child this is profoundly intelligible. That there is a Church which is a world-wide family into which we are adopted, not in order to neglect the importance of our primary family, but to shelter it in a security, love, and intimacy that covers the face of the earth and reaches out to heaven—is not the boundless openness of the child already oriented toward such a discovery? Finally, that God is himself a Community of Persons in eternal relationship of Love—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not this the utmost fulfillment of the child’s intuition in the arms of her mother, of this intuition of “You, Me, and the Love uniting us?”
The original experience of the sacred and of Love provides the basis for our openness to the mysteries of the Gospel, and these mysteries correspond with an “open space” in the depths of our hearts—however transcendent and, as we said, unexpected they may be in themselves. But why then is the sharing of the Gospel so often unsuccessful, and why is our world plagued by a painful “homelessness,” which has at its heart a loss of the sense of the sacred, of God, and therefore also of the true beauty, goodness, and truth of reality?
We can only attribute this to the mystery of evil—mysterium iniquitatis—that is so clearly revealed to us in the pages of Scripture, and which we witness every day of our lives in its numerous manifestations. When the growing child experiences neglect or abuse by her parents or other persons whom she trusts—or even interprets experiences as betrayals of trust—does this not attack her most fundamental intuition of Love? Is not her boundless openness and trust fractured and now shot through with fear and the need to protect and defend herself? Instead of remaining completely open in trusting acceptance and the reciprocal gift of herself to the other, she now feels the need to close in upon herself, to protect herself. Yes, and this fundamental insecurity manifests itself in the tendency to try to create from within herself what can truly only be received as a gift from the outside.
On the other hand, this tendency to turn away from enveloping Love, to close in upon oneself, and to seek to fashion within oneself true life and freedom, comes not only from without, but also from within the child. This is because each one of us, from the first moment of our conception, bears not only the image and likeness of God, but also the wound of original sin. This wound carries in itself the incipient tendency to grasp for pleasure, possession, and power without reference to the other—to close in upon oneself in isolation. Thus, basically, we see two realities that are at war with one another in the child’s heart, and in the heart of each one of us: the original experience of Love and Communion, and the original rupture that leads to a lack of trust and to isolation.
But we should recognize that the experience of Love, the truth of Love, lies deeper than does the rupture of sin and evil. Though our nature is broken, and our experience of love in this world always leaves something to be desired, we have nonetheless been created directly by the Love of God. We bear in our inmost being his “fingerprint,” as it were, and this fact of our flowing from the creative hand of God is our most basic awareness—even beyond our conscious thought. It is like the “horizon” within which all of our other thoughts, aspiration, and desires unfold. This fingerprint of God in our inmost being is, we could say, the “memory beyond all memories” or the memory at the origin of all memories.
However fractured our existence and our experience become after this, this sanctuary of God’s touch and presence remains alive deep within our hearts. God is always near to us, even when we are not near to him, when we close ourselves off from living relationship with him. We remain in his image and his likeness—a person created for loving relationship, inherently open to receive and reciprocate the gift of love. Even when we resist, reject, or deny this truth, it continues to remain a force in our everyday life, and indeed in our every desire and fear.
We cannot help but yearn for love and intimacy. This is our deepest desire, the most profound need of our hearts—and we are seeking it in all that we seek, however wrong we may be about where it can be found. Even our fears conceal within themselves a hidden desire for this. For example: The very fear of being unloved conceals the desire for love. The very fear of vulnerability hides the desire for vulnerability. The very fear of sharing oneself with another conceals precisely the desire to share oneself with someone who will understand, accept, and unconditionally love you in your unique mystery. And the fear of giving oneself away, of belong to another, conceals, mysteriously, the desire to truly become a gift to another, to commit oneself lovingly to another.
There are only two things which can definitively cut us off from this movement toward love, toward communion. The first is despair, the refusal to continue searching, to continue desiring, to continue reaching out beyond oneself. The refusal to desire, the choice to cut off all desire—this is what leads the heart to collapse in upon itself. we have said, our very ability to desire—and to trust that our desires correspond with an actual possible fulfillment that awaits us—depends upon the fact that we come forth from the hands of Love. We would not desire if we were not first awakened to life by a prior gift; this first gift paves the possibility of and openness to every future gift. The second thing which can cut us off from love is, not despair, but the refusal to open oneself to the other, to the only space in which desire can find its fulfillment. In other words, it is the refusal to be dependent, the refusal to receive. This is the most tragic possibility of sin, in its deepest sense: the willing rejection of the possibility of receiving the gift that alone can bring us life. We refuse to be offered a gift, and prefer to be autonomous, independent—and alone—rather than to rely on receiving from another.
In saying this, we realize the broken state that our world is in, and why our culture is suffering from an epidemic of anxiety, depression, and suicide. We have, precisely, lost our fundamental trust in the beauty, goodness, and truth of reality—in the Love that envelops and inundates all things—and therefore we see no hope that our inmost desires can find fulfillment. We no longer see this world as a home, nor even as a place of preparation for our final home in the next life. For so many persons, there are no longer even seeds of hope strewn across their path. For them, life is fundamentally meaningless, and the only meaning there is in life is that which is created from within the self, from one’s own will. But when the will reveals its weakness and insufficiency, when it falters before the face of life, then the only option left is despair…or repentance which turns back to the Source of Life that lies outside of oneself, and yet holds one, hiddenly, within its embrace.
After these reflections on the “wound” that lies at the heart of our contemporary world, we can begin to see with vivid clarity the answer—the most pressing reality that can address the anguished cry of so many hearts in our world. It is to again open the way to the awareness of God and his infinite Love, the God who transcends creation in his majesty and yet also cradles us gently within himself, irradiating all things with his mysterious presence. It is to again make contact with the reality of the sacred, and to place the sacred as first in our lives, our existence, our relationships. And here the sacred is not a vague and amorphous feeling of “something-or-other” but a profound contact with the Being who lies at the very ground of our existence and of the existence of all things. It is a contact with the Being (capital “B”) that communicates reality and existence to every being (small “b”), and who upholds them by this ceaseless communication. Yes, it is to make contact with Love, with Being-as-Love, which we first felt as children in the arms of our parents, and indeed in the touch of God’s creating hand: that our life is a gift from the love of Another, to be received in gratitude and trust, and given back unreservedly in reciprocal love.
Here we understand very clearly that the heart of the Church’s life and mission is precisely her intimacy with God, her profound union with the Holy Trinity. At the heart of the Church’s life and identity is not external productivity, political activism, or even just the missionary impulse, but prayer and adoration. It is the union of the Bridegroom-God and his beloved Bride, of which Saint Paul speaks: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. … This is a great mystery, and I mean in referent to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:25-27, 32).
In prayer, in the silence and solitude of intimacy with God, in the humble and awe-filled love of worship and adoration, the Church reveals who she truly is. And we find ourselves, each one of us, sheltered within this space of the Bride’s communion with her Bridegroom. We find ourselves, too, to be beloved, to be sheltered, desired, accepted, and embraced. And thus we can allow ourselves to be taken up into communion with the One who is the Desire of every heart, and in whom alone our restless hearts are at rest. We can allow ourselves to be inserted into the very inner mystery of God’s own divine life, this most sacred Reality for which we have been made: the love and communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What is the point of all of these reflections on the primacy of love and intimacy? It seems to us that it is necessary to “dig deep” in this way in order to really see things in the proper perspective. Our postmodern world has really become blind to the mystery of the sacred, and has lost its awareness that this sacred mystery is a mystery of infinite Love. Either the supernatural is seen as an impersonal force, perhaps to be dabbled in through magic or other new age techniques, or it is simply written off entirely as a figment of the human imagination. Our culture itself, indeed, is self-defined in many ways as a post-Christian culture, a culture that has tried Christianity and now left it by the wayside, moving on to other things. But the words of G.K. Chesterton are pertinent here: “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it is rather that Christianity has been found difficult, and therefore left untried.”
These sense of mystery, even when it is rejected outright, will continue to “haunt” us throughout our lives—for our restless hearts will continually reach out toward it. We may deny entirely the existence of the sacred, of anything beyond the material world that we see, but if we remain at all in living contact with the real world, we will be continually confronted with the sacred. Whether it is in the breathtaking beauty of a sunset, or in the smile of a child, or in the abyss of sorrow welling up in the human heart that allows itself to acknowledge its sin and loneliness, or in the marvels of science—in all of these and so many more ways, the mystery of the sacred continually comes to meet us. And as we have said, ultimately the mystery of the sacred is a mystery of Love. We all intuit this, we all sense this, but this intuition is so often submerged under many doubts and fears. Nonetheless, this universal intuition, for example, allowed the Apache warrior Geronimo, with no contact with the Gospel, to say: “There is one God looking down on us all. We are all the children of one God.”
The human heart will never cease to cry out for the sacred mystery of Love, just as from this sacred mystery it has come in the beginning. But in order for us, broken and lost as we are, to truly rediscover this fractured experience, in order for us truly to make contact with Love again, we must rely on receiving a gift from the outside. This is the meaning of the Gospel. The Gospel is all about God’s initiative in drawing near to us in order to reveal himself to us—to reveal himself to us as perfect and infinite Love—and to enter into an intimate relationship with us. In doing this, it answers the deepest longings of the human heart, while also surpassing infinitely our wildest expectations, or even what we thought possible. Only in hindsight, when we look back on human life in the radiant glow from the face of Christ, do we recognize that this, more than anything else, fits. It fulfills in a way that only God can fulfill, a way that is utterly transcendent and yet also intimately close.
This leads us full circle to speak again about the contemplative life. We have seen that our homeless world has lost the ability to sense God’s presence and his mystery, that it is in a “crisis of God” where so many hearts cry out with Nietzsche: “God is dead, and we have killed him,” not with his triumphant flourishes but with sadness and despair. So often the words of Scripture, the profound truths of faith, fall on deaf ears. It almost seems that the Gospel has lost its power, its ability to awaken awe and surprise. But this is not true. It is only necessary to root ourselves into the depths of God’s holiness, into the Ocean of his Love, so that the proclamation of the Good News—whether in word, action, or witness—will radiate again with its own inherent light.
The most important thing for us to do, therefore, is to immerse ourselves again into the living stream of the Church’s life, teaching, and tradition (into her life of prayer and adoration!) so as to plunge into the sacred mystery of God and his Love. Only if this prayerful intimacy with God lies at the heart of our existence, and inundates every moment of our lives, can the Church’s mission truly prove effective in answering the problems faced by the people of our day. Robert Cardinal Sarah, with a deep prophetic insight, has spoken much about this. Let us only quote one place, which is relevant to what we have been reflecting on.
Contrary to what we may think, the greatest difficulty of men is not in believing what the Church teaches at the moral level; the most difficult thing for the postmodern world is to believe in God and in his only Son. This is why Benedict XVI defends the thesis of the “crisis of God.” The absence of God from our lives is more and more tragic. The [Second Vatican] Council’s intention—not the “spirit” of those who misinterpret it—was to give back to God all his primacy. This is why the Council Fathers wished for a deepening of the faith, which was losing its savor in the ever-changing society of the postwar era. In this sense, the problem of the Council remains entirely unsolved in some regions of the world where the absence of God has unceasingly widened.
I wonder sometimes whether even we clerics are really living in the presence of God…Can we speak about the “Treason of the Intellectuals”? My reflection may seem severe, but I could mention many examples of priests who seem to forget that their life is centered solely on God. They devote only a little time to him during the day because they are swamped in what I would call the “heresy of activism.” How can we not be deeply moved, then, by the final message of Benedict XVI? Here is a pope who, like Jesus in the Garden of Olives, after praying for a long time and trying to discern God’s will, decides to renounce the “office and authority of Peter.” He retires into solitude, silent adoration, so as to pass the rest of his earthly life as a monk, in permanent face-to-face meeting and intimate union with God. He stays close to the Cross. (Robert Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing, 100-101)
What beautiful words these are: to retire into solitude, silent adoration, so as to pass the rest of one’s earthly life in permanent face-to-face meeting and intimate union with God…to stay close to the Cross of Jesus. We see that Pope Benedict XVI, faced with the brokenness of our world which has lost its sense of God, its awareness of God’s closeness as well as his immense greatness, chose to serve by immersing himself into a hidden life of prayer and intercession.
In doing this he gave all of us, often so blinded by an overly “horizontal” or earthly perspective of life—forgetful of the sacred mystery of infinite Love—a beautiful witness to the central mystery from which all of the Church’s effectiveness springs. If she is not intimately united to God in love, prayer, and adoration, how is she to radiate him into the world, to make him palpable for the people of our time? Benedict saw this as even more important than the office and authority of Peter—not as in competition with it, but as its inner wellspring and the mainstay of its strength.