Spirituality Topics


The Mystery of God

By Sister Carol Johannes, OP
Dominican Center for Religious Development

Why do so many people long to enter the realm of the spiritual today?… to find ways to get in touch with the Mystery we call God?… to learn more about how to reach God in prayer?

Might it be that we're looking for a relationship with Someone we can trust? We've all had so many experiences of late in which our trust has been betrayed – by the Church, by the government, by law enforcement, by financial institutions, by those we relied upon for protection and help.

Some people have become so disheartened by all of this that they feel our culture has completely lost its moral sense, its clarity about determining right from wrong. And in reaction, many have resorted to the certitude of fundamentalism which, with its literal interpretation of Scripture, images God as one who provides clear, black and white answers to everything. A literal interpretation of Scripture, however, often mediates a God who is vengeful and punishing and who gives people and nations permission to be vengeful and punishing in turn.

This God tends to frighten us rather than to invite relationships. It's no wonder then that we hunger to meet a different kind of God, One who accepts us as we are, who is ever patient and compassionate and who loves us unconditionally.

Meeting God in Everyday Experiences
But how and where do we meet this God? How do we enter into relationship with this One who is graciousness and mercy itself? We often get glimpses of God as we live our ordinary lives and observe others living theirs.

Take, for example, the child of an acquaintance of mine who, when her father returned early from work with a bad case of the flu asked, "Daddy, can I hurt with you?" What a dear, sensitive child and what a great image of God. God is a God who wants to hurt with us, who never causes the hurt, but who desires to comfort, console and heal us as we struggle with anything difficult.

Or think of the three mothers I saw a few days ago who walked their pre-schoolers to the bus, waited patiently while each child boarded and was settled in a seat and then waved and threw kisses until the bus pulled away. Our God does even more than the mothers. God not only walks us to the bus and waits with us but gets on the bus with us and faithfully accompanies us on whatever journey life requires us to take.

Another glimpse of God came to me when my nephew told me about an experience with his three-year-old son. Chris. He told Chris he would take him to the auto show to see all the cars and trucks the child loved. "But you'll have to promise me one thing," he said, "that as soon as we get there you won't start complaining that you're thirsty or hungry and want a hot dog or that you're tired and want me to carry you. This will be a fun day. No complaints!" Chris said thoughtfully, "I don't want to go." His annoyed parent asked, "What do you mean you don't want to go?" And little Chris responded, "It's not my nature not to complain."

Meeting God in Scripture
We all have exasperating moments when we need to complain. And we can always complain to God. There's no intensity of rebellion or rage that we cannot share with God. We can tell God anything!

We see this in the psalms in those verses where the psalmist prays with malice and hostility that God will punish his enemies. Though this sometimes shocks us, it demonstrates the psalmist's deep trust in God. He needn't be on his good behavior with God.

We see it, too, in the Epilogue of the Book of Job. Job's three mealy-mouthed friends insisted he must have sinned and should repent, though Job knew he was innocent. Instead, Job shook his fist at God, shouted, and demanded vindication. In the Epilogue, God scolded the friends for lack of honesty and instructed them to ask Job to pray for them.

There's one more Chris story that speaks to me of God. When Chris was just a toddler his parents discovered he had poor vision and needed to wear corrective lenses all the time. But naturally, he wouldn't wear his glasses when he went swimming with the family at the Jersey shore. And he forgot to put them back on as the family enjoyed a picnic following the swim. When it was time to clean up Chris wanted to help so his father allowed him to take a bag of trash to the bin a little distance away. Chris had to circle the bin to insert the trash: and without his glasses, he became disoriented and walked in the wrong direction. When the family realized Chris was gone, they were beside themselves and mobilized everyone on the beach! They found him quite a distance away and everyone returned to the beach blanket, seemingly calmed. But, suddenly, Chris's father picked him up, threw his arms around Chris, and sobbed with relief and gratitude and intense love for this little boy.

This is God's love – passionate, faithful, searching for us, pursuing us, wanting to hold us close, wanting to be self-gift to us – to give us everything we can be given, wanting to be known by us, wanting to be self-revealing.

At the Dominican Center for Religious Development, we use a creed that speaks of God in these terms:

God is a mystery.
God is self-revealing,
self-gifting love. God's self-revealing and
self-gifting love embraces all human persons
just as they are.
God will never cease loving us with-
out ceasing to be God. Though God's loving
disposition toward us is changeless, God has
an infinite capacity for responsive change in
loving us according to our need.

Taken from "A Spiritual Director's Creed" - Dominican Center for Religious Development

What does Jesus Teach Us About God?
How does God reveal God's self to us? In Scripture, in each other, in those who are poor and vulnerable, in nature, in all that's beautiful and good, in our joy and struggle and most especially, in Jesus.

The life of Jesus, all of it, not just dramatic moments like the Transfiguration and Resurrection but all of his life, images God. When we say that Jesus is divine, what changes is not our understanding of Jesus, but our understanding of what it means to be divine.

Theologian Albert Nolan says: "Jesus himself changed the content of the word of ‘God'….If we now wish to treat Jesus as our God, we would have to conclude that our God does not want to be served by us, but wants to serve us: God does not want to be given the highest possible rank and status in our society, but wants to take the lowest place and to be without rank and status; God does not want to be feared and obeyed, but wants to be recognized in the sufferings of the poor and the weak; God is not supremely indifferent and detached, but is irrevocably committed to the liberation of humankind, for God has chosen to be identified with all people in a spirit of solidarity and compassion. If this is not a true picture of God, then Jesus is not divine."
(Albert Nolan, JESUS BEFORE CHRISTIANITY, pp. 166-670)

Nolan does not deny that God is absolutely transcendent, absolutely Other, all knowing, all wise, all-powerful. But he does say that God never acts out of a domination – subjugation dynamic with us. Rather, God exercises power out of a dynamic of self-emptying, self-gifting love, compassion and mercy.

God sent us Jesus so we could really know who God is, how God acts, how God feels, so that we can be close friends, intimate friends. This is what God desires.

Intimacy grows in friendships when there is mutuality. Thus it's safe to be ourselves with God. It's safe to pray in such a way that we tell God who we are, and how we act, how we think, how we feel, what worries us, what angers us, what confuses us, what embarrasses us, what shames us, what frightens us, what we desire.

Thomas Merton encourages us to be confident in prayer: "In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have and you realize that you are already there….Everything has been given to us. All we need is to experience what we already possess… We don't have to rush after it. It is there all the time and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us."

[ back to top ]

Ecumenical Spirituality

By Anneliese Sinnott, OP

As I attempt to articulate some insights about spirituality, I think about my own journey and experience, and this reflection leads me to describe my personal spirituality at this point in my life as "ecumenical."

I grew up amidst a family that was truly ecumenical. My aunts and uncles belonged to different Christian traditions. One was Lutheran, one Methodist, one Presbyterian, one Baptist and several were Catholic. But despite this great variety, in an era where different Christian traditions didn't even usually communicate with one another, and certainly never affectionately, my family was very close. Somehow this early experience gave me the wisdom to reject or perhaps, "not to hear" teaching that suggested that "only Catholics" could be saved, because I knew differently! I knew my aunts, uncles and cousins were good and holy people. This early experience of "ecumenism," I believe, prepared my way to expand my spirituality beyond a somewhat narrow "Roman Catholicism."

Certainly as I was growing up, the daughter of two Catholic parents, and well into my early life as an Adrian Dominican, my spirituality was shaped by my Roman Catholic heritage. My relationship with God (for, after all, that was spirituality) was nourished by the regularity of my prayer life and included, not only the rich tradition of contemplation, but also a public participation in the prayers of the Church and of the Dominican Order. I felt quite comfortable and complete, and believed that, if I was faithful, I would reach "perfection"

It was only after I began to study theology, and, in particular, to consider seriously the implications of Vatican II, especially Gaudiem et Spes, that I realized that my spirituality was narrow. It had to be much broader than "me and God," and, perhaps, needed additional "feeding." At the same time, the experiences of renewal within the congregation were also pulling me along toward a much more expansive vision of what the Christian life must be to be faithful to the Gospel. At that point in my life I probably would have described my spirituality as a "Vatican II spirituality."

It was only after I began living in the city of Detroit and teaching at Marygrove College and at Ecumenical Theological Seminary that I found that my spirituality was, perhaps, still too narrow. As rich as Vatican II and the Roman Catholic tradition was, there was other "truth" I needed to encounter, other spiritual traditions from which I could benefit and grow.

In the parish of which I am a member, there are a significant number of African Americans, many of whom are not "cradle Catholics." They bring a rich cultural and religious heritage, and I discovered that my spirituality was being changed and deepened by my prayer experiences in a setting that was "Catholic" yet very different that what I had otherwise known.

In my teaching ministry I found myself praying with Lutherans, Methodists; Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Baptists, and then, with people from the Church of God, the Church of God in Christ, Pentecostals, Unitarian-Universalists and folks from churches labeled non-denominational! I discovered that I had to be open to allow their spirituality to challenge and stretch my own. I began to realize that they, too, had much to teach me in the very depths of my deepest relationship with God and others.

Spirituality has been often described as the "interconnectedness" between oneself and all of creation: other people, the earth and universe, and, ultimately, the one who is - God. An "ecumenical spirituality," I suppose, then, means being "connected" to the history, traditions, beliefs and prayer of my all Christian brothers and sisters. And, not only do I feel connected, I am nourished and sustained by these experiences. This doesn't preclude, of course, the rich spiritual heritage of the Roman Catholic tradition. I certainly continue to find meaning and sustenance in the ways we pray and have prayed in the past. But I find my life, my belief, my ability to "connect" is so much richer, so much broader because I have been privileged to be included in the "connectedness" of so many others. I hope my next step will be to grow into an "inter-religious" spirituality. I'm a beginner on that path, but am willing to walk!

Sister Anneliese Sinnott, OP is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary, and the Director of the Pastoral Ministry Program at Marygrove College, both in Detroit. Sister Anneliese is involved in several ecumenical and interfaith organizations in the Detroit area. Prior to studying theology in Michigan and later in Louvain, Belgium, she was an elementary teacher in the Chicago area for a number of years.

This article first appeared in "Voices in Mission and Ministry," Winter 2002, an Adrian Dominican Publication, published by the Office of Communication. Used with permission.

[ back to top ]

All the Way Down and Up Again

By Sister Lorraine Reaume, OP

"I know the darkness of God
I sink into the abyss
It does have a bottom
a pocket warm, moist
like a mud bath
on a moonless evening."

Years ago I shared these words at a poetry writing group in downtown Toronto, Canada. Those gathered were a mishmash of people -- some struggling or unemployed, a few on the edge of mental illness, others lively, "artsy" downtown types who loved the culture of that intriguing city. They were rather surprised that anyone would mention the "darkness" of God. Most of these people had been raised in some Christian faith tradition but had long left it behind. Perhaps because they had never heard of the God who was with them in their darkness.

The loss of faith can lead to a sense of abandonment and a search to fill the emptiness. While the ongoing search is valuable, there is a risk of creating God in my own image, of only accepting the aspects of a spiritual practice that are completely pleasant and comfortable, of never joining with others in community. I may run away from being stretched or challenged. I may spend my whole life seeking, without every committing long enough to become grounded or rooted in any one place. Worse still, the entire search may become more about the quest for me (or to ease my anxieties or fears), rather than the God-quest, the quest for the one who is the true source of my being. It may turn into a quest that never faces darkness and, therefore, remains in the dark.

Certainly most readers of this article are grounded in a faith tradition or practice that leads to honest self-reflection, to a challenge to the self in the most positive sense, to a community that is larger than oneself. As well, many are aware of the tradition of the via negativa, the way of emptiness, the way to light through darkness. And yet, how often do we run from it? How often do we fill our lives up with busyness, tasks, workaholism, even rote prayer. Often my life is more guided by my "Things to Do" lists than by the spirit of God!

And yet we are called to pause, to be silent, to wait. I suspect that making time for prayer and contemplation may be our most prophetic and significant act. Certainly the moments of being with God in silence transform the actions we then move on to do. And these moments acknowledge that the only one who can truly fill our emptiness is God. In his Letter to the Order (#393), former Master of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe, says, "The temptation is to run away from God and find refuge in small consolations, and tiny desires. We can be tempted to fill our life with little projects, hobbies and gossip, just to fill the emptiness. We must leave the emptiness there for God to fill….Dare to abide in darkness and to be at home in the night without fear."

The goal of this abiding in the darkness is not to remain there! In fact, the blessing of staying there is that we get to the other side. We are Paschal people after all! We have a God who knows our humanity, and we join with our God in both the crucifixions of our lives and in the resurrections. Dwelling in the darkness offers us particular gifts: to discover our God-given strength; to recognize that no matter how painful things are, our God is with us always; to learn to stop running away; to become stronger; to wrestle with that angel until we receive a blessing; to be in solidarity with others, and to move once again toward the light. The inner growth that happens in the humus of those apparently dead times nurtures a new life we may not have imagined.

Those who have encountered darkness delight in joy. They come out the other side. They are not naively optimistic, but profoundly grateful and hopeful. Many of us will repeat this journey (like a spiral pattern) throughout our lives, each time entering into a deeper relationship with our God and, thereby, a deeper relationship with all humanity.

I unknowingly captured this cycle vividly when I was in Bolivia at language school preparing to be a lay missionary. One night I was completely miserable in this new and strange land and wrote an angry, lamenting psalm. But I stayed. Three months later, in exactly the same place, all I could see in my experiences and surroundings was the presence of God and I wrote a joyful psalm of praise. God brought me to that transformation. My remaining gave God the opportunity to grace me.

In our linear culture we so long to get somewhere, to reach our goals, and this is not all bad. And yet, the journey our God asks of us is much more humble. We are to respond to this God who calls us with love wherever we find ourselves, in our agonies or our glories. Wherever we are, at this moment, God is with us, whether in the bottom of a pit, the summit of a mountain or on level ground. To quote the delightful writer, Ann Lamott from her marvelous book Travelling Mercies:

"Love the journey
God is with you
Come home safe and sound."

and, I would add…

Love the journey
God is with us
We will come home safe and sound.

Sister Lorraine Reaume, OP, an Adrian Dominican Sister, is Associate Campus Minister at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan.

[ back to top ]