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In the Church we are so pressed with tasks to perform, problems to confront, and challenges to respond to that we risk losing sight of, or leaving in the background, the “porro unum necessarium,” the “one thing is needful” of the gospel (Lk 10:42), which is our personal relationship with God. Moreover, we know from experience that an authentic personal relationship with God is the first requirement in dealing with all the situations and problems that come up without us losing our peace and patience.
I have decided, therefore Venerable Fathers, brothers, and sisters, to set aside every other theme and any reference to current problems. Let us try to do what St. Angela of Foligno recommended to her spiritual children: let us “recollect ourselves in God and [plunge] our whole soul in the divine infinity.” Let us take a bath of faith each morning before beginning the day’s work.
The theme for these Advent sermons (and, God willing, also for Lent), will be a verse from a psalm: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:2). People today are passionate in searching for signs of the existence of intelligent beings on other planets. It is a legitimate and understandable search. Few, however, search for and study the signs of the Living Being who has created the universe, who entered into its history, and who lives in it. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We have the real Living One in our midst, and we overlook him to search for hypothetical beings who, in the best of cases, could do very little for us and certainly could not save us from death.
How many times are we forced to say to God, with St. Augustine, “You were with me, but I was not with you.” Unlike us, the living God in fact seeks for us and has done nothing other than that since the creation of the world. He continues to call out, “Adam, where are you?” (see Gen 3:9). Let us decide to attend to the signs of this living God, to respond to his call, to “knock on his door,” to enter into new and lively contact with him.
We rely on Jesus’ saying: “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7). When we read these words, we immediately think that Jesus promises to give us all the things we ask for, and we are perplexed because we see this rarely happens. However, he did intend to say one thing above all: “Seek me and you will find me; knock and I will open the door.” He promises to give himself, above and beyond the small things we ask of him, and this promise is always infallibly kept. Whoever seeks him finds him; he will open to whoever knocks, and once someone has found him, everything else is secondary.
The soul that thirsts for the living God is guaranteed to find him and with him will find everything else in him, as the words of St. Teresa of Avila remind us:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
With these thoughts in mind let us begin our journey in search of the face of the living God.
The Bible is punctuated with texts that speak of God as “living.” Jeremiah says, “He is the living God” (10:10); God himself says in Ezekiel, “As I live, says the Lord God . . .” (33:11). In one of the most beautiful psalms in the psalter, written during the exile, the psalmist exclaims, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (42:2), and in another psalm, “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (84:2). Peter, at Caesarea of Philippi, proclaims that Jesus is “the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).
This obviously deals with a metaphor drawn from human experience. Israel was constrained to use it to distinguish their God from the idols of the other nations that were “dead” divinities. In contrast to them, the God of the Bible is “a God who breathes” and his breathing or breath (ruah) is the Holy Spirit.
After the long ascendancy of idealism and the triumph of the “idea”, in recent times even secular thinking warned about the need for a return to “reality” and expressed that in the motto for its program: “turn back to things themselves.” It means not stopping at the formulations about reality, the theories built on that, or what is commonly accepted about it, but focusing directly on the reality itself that underlies everything; it means removing the various layers of earth deposited on top of it and discovering the rock underneath.
We need to apply this approach to the sphere of faith as well. In fact St. Thomas Aquinas has written about faith, “It does not stop at formulations but at realities.” When it is a question of the supreme “reality” in the sphere of faith, that is, God, “turning back to things themselves” means turning back to the living God; it means breaking through, so to speak, the terrible wall of the idea that we have made of him and running, with open arms, to encounter God in person. It means discovering that God is not an abstraction, but a reality, that there is the same difference between our ideas of God and the living God as between a sky painted on a sheet of paper and the real sky.
The program to “turn back to things themselves!” has had an application that is justifiably famous: the one that led to a discovery that things . . . exist. It is worth rereading the famous passage from Jean-Paul Sartre:
I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.
It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green, that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was “an existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself.
The philosopher who made this “discovery” declared himself to be an atheist and therefore did not go beyond the observation that “I exist, the world exists, and things exist.” We, however, can start from this experience and make it a trampoline for the discovery of another Existing One, the spark that makes possible another illumination. What was possible with the root of the chestnut, why couldn’t it in fact be possible with God? Is God perhaps less real for the mind of a human being than the root of the chestnut is for an eye? The Fathers did not hesitate to put insights into truth from pagan philosophers at the service of faith, even those insights that were intentionally used against Christians. We need to imitate them and do the same thing for our time.
What then can we retain from the “illumination” of this philosopher? There is no direct application or content but only an indirect and procedural application. Read with a certain graced disposition, this narrative seems intentionally written to shake us out of our mental routine, to arouse in us at first the suspicion, and then the certainty, that there exists a knowledge of God that is still unknown to us . . . that perhaps before now we have never even realized what it means that God “exists,” that he is an existing God or, as the Bible says, a living-God. We therefore have a task before us, a discovery to make: to discover that God “is,” and so much so that we too for an instant have our breath taken away! It would be the adventure of a lifetime.
What can help us understand what this means is the experience of some converted people to whom the existence of God was suddenly revealed at a certain point in life after they tenaciously ignored or denied it. One such person was the French journalist André Frossard who died on February 2, 1995. This is how he describes his life before conversion:
God did not exist. His image, the images which remind one of his existence and of the existence of what one would call his descendants in time, the saints, the prophets, the heroes of the Bible were not mentioned at all in our homes. None of us spoke about him. We were perfect atheists, the kind that no longer ever question their atheism. The militant anti-clericals who still survived and spent their time speaking at public meetings against religion seemed to us rather touching and rather ridiculous as might an historian intent on debunking the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.
One summer day, tired of waiting for a friend with whom he had an appointment, the young Frossard entered a nearby church, observed its architecture, and looked at the people praying there. And this is how he narrates what happened:
First, were the words: spiritual life. They were not said to me, nor did I form them in my mind; it was as though they were being spoken by someone close to me who was seeing something which I had not yet seen. The last syllable had hardy brushed my conscious mind when an avalanche descended upon me. . . . How can I describe what took place in words which refuse to carry the sense . . .? I apprehended . . . a different world, whose brilliance and density made our world seem like the wraith of an unfulfilled dream. What I saw was reality; this was truth and I was seeing it from the dim shore on which I still stood. Now I knew that there is order in the universe and at its beginning, beyond the shining mists, the manifestation of God: a manifestation which is a presence, which is a person, the person whose existence I should have denied a moment ago. . . . This surging, overwhelming invasion brought with it a sense of joy comparable to that of a drowning man who is rescued at the last moment.
When he left the church his friend, seeing that something had happened, asked him, “What happened to you?” He answered, “I am Catholic” and as if he was afraid of not having been sufficiently explicit, he added “Roman and apostolic.”
The expression that best expresses this event is “becoming aware of God.”
“Becoming aware” indicates an unexpected opening of our eyes, a startling jolt to our consciousness by which we begin to see something that was already there but that we did not see before.
Let us reread, in line with the “illumination” described by Sartre, the episode of the burning bush. It will help us ascertain, among other things, how even modern “existential” thinking can help us discover something new in the Bible that ancient thinking, oriented in an ontological direction, despite all its richness, was not able to grasp.
The passage in the Bible that recounts the event of the burning bush (Ex 3:1ff) is itself a burning bush. It burns but is not consumed. It has not lost any of its power after thousands of years to transmit the sense of the divine. It shows, better than any discourse could, what happens when someone truly encounters the living God. “Moses said, ‘I will turn aside . . . .’” He is still thinking and exercising his will. He is still his own master. He is the one who is in charge (or believes he is in charge) of what is taking place. But now God bursts onto the scene and imposes his law. “Moses, Moses, Do not come near. . . . I am the God of your father.” Everything has immediately changed. Moses suddenly becomes docile and submissive. “Here I am!” he answers, and he hides his face, like the Seraphim who cover their faces with their wings (see Is 6:2). The “numinous” is in the air. Moses enters into the mystery.
In this atmosphere God reveals his name: “I AM WHO AM.” This phrase, transplanted on the soil of Hellenistic culture by the Septuagint, was interpreted as a definition of what God is, the absolute Being, as an affirmation of his most profound essence. But such an interpretation, say today’s exegetes, is “altogether out of keeping with [the thinking of] the Old Testament” and instead the phrase means, “I am the one who is there” or even more simply, “I am here (or I will be here) for you.” This is a concrete affirmation, not an abstract one; it refers more to the existence of God than to his essence, or more to his “being here” than to “what he is.” We are not far from “I live,” and “I am the Living One,” that God says in other parts of the Bible.
Moses thus discovered a very simple thing that day, but one that was capable of setting into motion and sustaining the whole process of liberation that would follow. He discovered that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob exists. He is, and he is a reality that is present and operative in history, someone who can be relied on. After all, that was what Moses needed to know at that moment—and not an abstract definition of God.
There is something that is common to the experience of the philosopher before the root of the chestnut tree and that of Moses before the burning bush. Both discovered the mystery of being: the first man discovered the being of things, and the second man, the Being of God. But while the discovery that God exists is the source of courage and joy, the mere discovery that things exist does not produce anything, according to the saying of the philosopher, but “nausea.”
What does it mean and how do we define the living God? For a moment I considered answering that question and outlining a profile of God, starting with the Bible, but then I saw that would have been very foolish. Wanting to describe the living God and delineating his profile, even though it would be based on the Bible, is to fall into the temptation again of reducing the living God to the idea of the living God.
What we can do in facing the living God, is to transcend “the feeble points of reference which men have traced on the surface,” to break the small husks of our ideas about God, of the “alabaster jars” in which we keep him enclosed, so that his perfume expands and “fills the house.” St. Augustine is a master at doing this. The saint has left us a kind of method to lift our hearts and minds to the living and true God. It consists in repeating to ourselves, after every reflection on God, “This is not God. . . . This is not God!” We think about the earth, about the sky, about angels or about any other thing or person, and finally we think about what we ourselves think about God and repeat every time, “Yes, but this is not God , this is not God!” All the creatures contemplated respond, one by one, “Seek higher than us!” We need to believe in a God who is beyond the God in whom we believe!
A living God, insofar as he is living, can be vaguely sensed; we can have a kind of inkling or intuition about that. It can arouse a desire, a longing. But more than that, no. Life cannot be enclosed in an idea. Through this one can more easily have a sense or an inkling about him rather than an idea about him, since an idea puts the person in a box while the feeling reveals a person’s presence, leaving intact a person’s wholeness and indeterminacy. St. Gregory of Nyssa, speaks of the highest form of the knowledge of God as a “feeling of presence.”
The divine is in a category that is absolutely different from any other: it cannot be defined but only alluded to; it can only be spoken of through analogies and contrasts. One image in the Bible that speaks of God this way is that of the rock. Few biblical titles are able to create in us such a vivid feeling about God—especially of what God is for us—than this image of God-as-rock. Let us try, as Scripture says, “to suck honey from the rock” (Deut 32:13).
More than being simply a title, “rock” appears in the Bible as a kind of personal name of God, so much so that at times it is written with a capital letter: “The Rock, his work is perfect” (Deut 32:4); “The Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal” (Is 26:4, NIV). But in order for this image not to cause fear and dread because of the hardness and impenetrability it evokes, the Bible immediately adds another truth: he is “our” rock, “my” rock. He is a rock for us, not against us. “The LORD is my rock” (Ps 18:2), “a rock of refuge for me” (Ps 31:2), “the rock of our salvation” (Ps 95:1). The first translators of the Bible, the Seventy, were startled by such a physical image of God that seemed to debase him, so they systematically substituted the concreteness of “rock” with abstractions like “strength,” “refuge,” “salvation.” All the modern translations have restored the original name of “rock” to God, and rightly so.
The title of rock is not an abstract title; it says not only what God is but also what we ourselves should be. A rock is made to be climbed, for people to seek refuge there, and not just to be contemplated from afar. The rock draws us to itself, it fascinates us. If God is a rock, then we need to become a “rock climbers.” Jesus said, “Learn from the steward of the household” (see Lk 12:42ff); “Look at the fishermen” (see Mk 1:16ff); St. James continues this kind of instruction and says, “Look at the farmers” (see Jas 5:7). We can add, “Look at the rock climbers!” If night falls and a storm arises, people do not make the imprudent mistake of attempting to go down, but they cling even more to the rock and wait until the storm passes.
The Bible’s insistence on God-as-rock has the goal of instilling confidence in people, driving out fear from their hearts. “We will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;” says Psalm 46:2, and the reason given is that “the God of Jacob is our refuge” (v. 7). This is the state of mind expressed in the hymn “God Is Our Fortress and Our Rock” that has contributed so much to shape religious sentiment in the Protestant world. One single fear remains before this God-as-rock, but it is not exactly a fear. It is reverential fear: the holy fear of God.
The first biographer of St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Celano, describes a moment of darkness and discomfort that the saint experienced at the end of his life as he saw around him deviations from the original lifestyle of his brothers. He writes,
Once when he was disturbed over bad examples and, thus distressed, gave himself over to prayer, he brought back this rebuke from the Lord: “Why are you disturbed, little man? Did I not place you over my order as its shepherd, and now you do not know that I am its chief protector? . . . Do not be disturbed, therefore, but work out your salvation, for though the order were reduced to the number of three, it will by my grace remain unshaken.”
The French Franciscan scholar Father Éloi Leclerc, who better than anyone has presented this tormented phase of Francis’s life, says that the saint was so revived by the words of Christ that he went around repeating to himself the exclamation, “Dieu est, et cela suffit” (“God is and that suffices! God is and that suffices!”).
Let us also learn to repeat these simple words to ourselves when, in the Church or in our lives, we find ourselves in circumstances similar to those of Francis, and many clouds will disperse.
1.St. Angela of Foligno, The Book of Blessed Angela (Instructions), Part 3, in Angela of Foligno: The Complete Works, trans. Paul Lachance (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993), p. 243.
2.St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 27, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960), p. 254.
3.Hand-written prayer-poem [“Nada Te Turbe”] known as St. Teresa of Avila’s bookmark found in her breviary after her death.
4.“Zu den Sachen selbst” is the motto of Edmund Husserl’s School of Phenomenology.
5.St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa teologicae, II-IIae, q. 1, a. 2,2.
6.Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (1938; repr. New York: New Directions, 2007), pp. 126-127.
7.See André Frossard, I Have Met Him: God Exists, trans. Marjorie Villiers (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), p. 22, 24.
8.Ibid., pp. 118-119.
9.Ibid., p. 121.
10.See Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 180.
11.St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 85, 12 (CCL 39, p. 1l36); see also Confessions, 10, 6, 9, p. 264.
12.St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, XI, 5, 2 (PG 44, 1001).
13.Thomas Celano, Second Life of Francis, CXVII, 158, in Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, ed.
14.Éloi Leclerc, The Wisdom of the Poor One of Assisi, trans. Marie-Louise Johnson (Pasadena, CA: Hope Publishing, 1996), p. 113.
English Translation by Marsha Daigle-Williamson