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Week 3: Mystery All Around Us: Where Revelation is Found
As we said last week, we can only know the Mystery of God if God allows Godself to be known, just like we can only know other persons if they let us know them. The knowledge of God, like the knowledge of persons, is much more than just knowing things. It is a gift of self, a revelation. It is always a grace, not something we can force or deserve.
It’s important to add right away, though, that—as gracious as God’s revelation is, and as free as God is in revealing Godself—we shouldn’t think about it as God is “zipping in” and “zipping out” of our lives. No. Mystery is all around us. As the French novelist Georges Bernanos wrote, “all is grace;” or as the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed famously “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It’s just at certain moments in our lives we become aware of it. And the more attentive we are the more we can sense that graceful, surrounding presence.
A wonderful example of how God is always in our lives might be seen in the work of the U. S. American artist Bev Doolittle. In many of her paintings—often of the American West, with Native Americans and wildlife—what one sees at first glance is only a very superficial view of what is actually there. For example, in one of her paintings, entitled Hide and Seek, we see at first the words “hide and seek,” painted in a dappled pattern of browns and white. But as we look more closely, we begin to see hidden in the painting one brown and white pinto horse, then another, and then many others. The horses were there all the time. We just needed to look more closely at the painting so it could reveal them to us (see the painting at http://artusa.com/files/store/product/doolittle-hideandseek92.jpg ).
The Mystery is all around us. Speaking of the Holy Spirit—who is always the agent of God’s revelation—Anglican bishop John V. Taylor says that although we speak about the Spirit “as the source of power,” what is really going on is that the Spirit “enables us not by making us supernaturally strong, but by opening our eyes.”
The Mystery is all around us, but God reveals Godself in particular in three “places” in our lives: in our everyday experience, in the experience of reading or hearing the Word of God in Scripture, and in the experience of the Christian Tradition.
First and foremost, God reveals Godself in our everyday experience. “The mystery of existence is always showing through the texture of our ordinary lives,” wrote U. S. novelist Flannery O’Connor. In moments of prayer or quiet, for example, a thought or realization might “jump out” at us. I remember vividly one time at prayer when I was struggling with a particularly bad habit in my life (I was trying to quit smoking!). As I thought and prayed over the matter, suddenly without warning I “heard” deep within my heart a kind of “voice” saying, “don’t worry—I understand—I am patient.” All at once a great peace surrounded me and I realized that despite my struggles I was still loved and accepted by God in a way that only God’s grace could accomplish (and I did eventually quit!).
Often in events of our lives we have a sense that God is present and near. Sometimes these are “up” experiences—the birth of a child, passing an exam, a close call when we narrowly avoid an accident, attending a liturgy that is so beautiful and moving that it takes our breath away. I remember, for example, a time when I was on retreat. I was out in the ocean swimming, floating on my back, lazily kicking up water that was catching the light of the sun. All of a sudden I had a deep sense that God was with me, that all was right in my life, and in the world. But we can also experience God in “down” experiences as well, when we experience failure in life, or break up with someone we had been dating seriously, or are diagnosed with a serious disease. In 2006 I was diagnosed with a non-malignant brain tumor and had to have brain surgery—what a shock! And yet in that experience I found the presence of God in my life in ways that I never had before.
The point is that, at any moment, through any kind of object or experience or person, God reveals God’s constant presence in our lives. This is what we Catholics mean when we speak about the sacramentality of the world, of life, or of the present moment. The Mystery is all around us.
A second way that God reveals God’s self to us in our lives is in the experience of reading or hearing the Scriptures. It might sound shocking at first, but I think it is important to realize that the Scriptures do not reveal God’s presence in any kind of automatic or mechanical way. I like to say that while the Scriptures are in some way the Word of God, it is really more accurate to say that at certain moments they become the Word of God—when the story of Scripture becomes mystory. It’s like the Word of God is between the lines of Scripture.
An example of this is the moment when St. Augustine finally accepted God’s invitation to faith. He was in a terrible state, not sure whether he should believe and give himself over to the Christian God. As he was struggling he heard a child in the neighborhood singing the phrase “Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!”—“Take up and read!” And so he took up the Bible, opened it at random, and his eyes fell on the words of Romans 13:13-14: “. . . not in debauchery and licentiousness . . . Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Immediately, he writes in his autobiography, the Confessions, he knew that he could no longer refuse to believe. He had probably read those words a good number of times. Now they became for him the Word of God.
A third way that revelation “happens” is when the Christian Tradition comes alive for us. Our doctrines are not just a list of things we have to believe. They are ways of capturing how God is offering Godself to us in our lives. I remember being in a class of Christology in Rome when the professor was talking about Jesus’ divinity—his being “consubstantial” with the Father as we say in the new translation of the Nicene Creed. The whole point of the doctrine, explained my professor, was to express the fact that Jesus was “uno di noi”—one of us—that God was not a distant God, but a God whom we can understand and relate to because God had shared our human, earthly existence. That’s when it hit me—Jesus really was like us, and so his humanity was like a window to the very reality of God. It’s hard to express my feelings that this revelation gave me, but they were strong, deep feelings, and the reality of God opened up for me in a way that is still very meaningful. God had revealed Godself to me through the tradition.
The tradition can also reveal God’s presence in the lives of the women and men who are our “ancestors” in the faith. Who cannot be inspired by the lives of an Augustine, a Hildegard of Bingen, of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, of Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez? Through the stories of their lives we can experience the goodness, the passion, the love of God. For several years I read the life of a saint every day in Robert Ellsberg’s wonderful collection called All Saints. Every once in a while I had that experience of being touched in a personal way by the life and example of a holy woman or man whose life I was reading.
The Mystery is all around us, but it only becomes a revelation when we actually respond in faith, just like a gift only becomes a gift when we accept it. This moves us into the dynamics of faith, which we will reflect on in the final week of this online retreat.
By: Steve Bevans, SVD, Faculty Moderator
Questions for reflection:
- When in your life have you experienced the “graceful, surrounding presence” of God?
- Do you feel that God is “zipping out” of your life sometimes? When?
- Can you remember an “up” moment in your life when you have experienced God’s presence? And a “down” moment?
- Are there passages of the Scripture that are dear to you because they have become “Word of God?” Which ones?
- Do you find the lives of declared or undeclared saints inspiring? Which ones?
For further reading:
- Stephen B. Bevans, An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 17-17-26.
- Thomas Franklin O’Meara, Loose in the World (New York: Paulist Press, 1974).
- Ronald D. Witherup, Scripture: Dei Verbum (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006).