Our Centenary Celebration

By Kathleen Coyle

The Columban centennial celebration offers us an opportunity to gratefully reflect on the life and mission of the congregation for over one hundred years. More importantly, it invites us to appreciate that our commitment to mission is a sharing in the innermost life of our triune God. The compassionate love of the Father, Son and Spirit, is a love that is extravagant, flowing out beyond all cultural and religious expectations, and making all things holy. To paraphrase Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the triune God’s divine presence is boiling over from eternity into time, spilling divine energy on creation, flooding the universe and making all things holy. The divine infiltrates every sphere of existence from the tiniest bacteria to the personal and the global. The ancient tradition and teaching on divinization is the common heritage of the Eastern Churches. “You are sharers in the divine nature itself.” (2 Peter 1:3-4). Pope John Paul acknowledged that the Western Church, both Catholic and Protestant has largely lost its belief in divinization. We need to recover it for our spirituality. As sponges saturated and soaked in divinity, we are privileged to become channels of the compassionate love of the Trinity in our varied ministries and especially to those who need that compassion most.

Our centenary celebration invites us to ponder anew and appreciate our Trinitarian God of endless ecstasy. Earlier religious formation did not focus on the Trinitarian love of God or invite young religious to be channels of the compassionate love of the Trinity. There are historical reasons for this. The Trinity which best describes the very heart of the nature of God has been absent from our theology and spirituality for seventeen hundred years. Gratefully, it has been kept alive in our devotions. Christian prayer always ends with the Gloria Patri, a doxology in praise of the Trinity and our Eucharistic celebration begins with a doxology from St. Paul: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 16:14). Paul’s prayer was written about 58 ACE, only three decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It provides a key to the prayer life of early Christians and their experience of the Trinitarian God. They focus on the perfect relatedness and communion between the three divine persons. This is the God in whose mission we share.

Like the early Church community we too are invited to become channels of that compassionate love, from the Father to the Son and the Holy Spirit and returning to the Father in a continuous circulation of love, night and day, throughout eternity. This continuous current of divine love is an effort to describe the perfect communion between the three divine persons. Their divine presence spills over to encompass the whole world and we live in a universe where that presence is in every atom, in every breath we take, in every person. We touch God in the ordinariness of every day, bringing a new sense of depth to all experience. Elizabeth Johnson has grasped this mystery:

The universe is cradled in the Trinity. All that is shimmers with divine energy. This Trinitarian energy and compassion is all around us, pulsating in every particle of our expanding universe, flooding the universe and making all things holy. This divine compassion brims over with desire for the well-being of the whole creation.

The Energizing, Empowering Spirit

The first sound we hear in the bible is that of the breath of the Holy Spirit: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Gen1:2). The ruach, the divine breath-Spirit breathes order into creation and energizes it. It is the Holy Spirit that inspires our breathing. The Holy Spirit is the motherly energy and the inexhaustible and creative power “that reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.”(1 Cor 2:10). It explores the depths of the divine and infiltrates every sphere of existence from the tiniest bacteria to the personal and the global. In Gal 4:6 Paul tells us that “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. St. Augustine describes God’s love as “a fountain fullness.” The Holy Spirit is the giver of that fountain fullness of God’s compassionate love and energy that “is poured into our hearts” (Rom 5:5). The Holy Spirit is also the indwelling of God, the invisible power active in creation and in persons. In the Nicene Creed we pray to the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life.” While mainline religion is in decline with the notable exception of Christian Pentecostalism and Islamic Fundamentalism – a spiritual awakening is emerging among millions of spiritual seekers today. Diarmuid O’Murchu adds that “the restless pulsation of every movement of creation and of every desire of the human heart is the fruit of the energizing, empowering, and uniting power of the Holy Spirit that blows where it wills.”

Jesus Lives in the “Fountain Fullness of God’s Love (Mk 1:9-11)

When the Word became flesh, the whole cosmos was drawn into the divine embrace. “For God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only Son. (The original Greek word that is usually translated “world” is kosmos). Jesus was plunged into this “fountain fullness” of God’s love at his baptism. In Matthew’s gospel, an anonymous Jesus arrives from Nazareth, and appears on the scene. He joins a motley group of sinners and goes with them into the water to be baptized. And then the heavens opened. We read in Gen 1:8 that the vault of heaven separated the beyond, the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from where we are here in this universe. In the Jordan that vault is now smashed open! The Father’s voice is heard. “You are my Son, the beloved with you I am well pleased.” The Father shows his delight and is giving his approval because Jesus is integrating himself with sinners and uniting himself with sinful people, going down with them into the water. Heaven and earth are blended together. The gentle dove-like presence of the Holy Spirit is bringing all people into that fountain fullness of God’s love and all humanity is integrated into the triangle of relationships of Father, Son and Spirit. We too at our baptism were plunged into the compassionate love of the Father, Son and Spirit, into a love that is extravagant, boiling over from eternity into time, flowing out beyond all cultural and religious expectations, and making all things holy. It is because God is a fountain fullness of love that God can share in the sufferings of our lives and through these sufferings draw us into new life.

St. Augustine says we are like sponges in a boundless sea soaked with divinity. Therefore, in our Columban commitment we take the plunge like Jesus, to be soaked in divinity and bring the compassionate love of God into our ministries. It is not about the acquisition of a consciousness emptied of everything except thoughts of God. Rowan Williams offers us his insights. “When I come before God in silence, I allow the Holy Spirit to put Christ’s words into my mouth, to let my breath be breathed anew in the Spirit, carrying the words of Christ, and just let the Trinity be where I am when I pray.”

The Christian mystics have written about the holiness of the ground we walk on: it is sacred space, the eternity within every moment of the day; all time is sacred time; divine energy is in our beating pulse; our breath is sacred breath. ” However, this has not been the emphasis in our missionary spirituality. Nor, has it been the emphasis in the wider Christian Church for many centuries. While it is only twenty centuries since the Ascension of the Risen Christ, we have had to rethink our scriptural and spiritual foundations. Since the 12th century we have made divisions between the sacred and profane; we stressed the specialness of the sacraments in the church and lost the ancient sense of the ordinariness of everything, so much so that the Eucharist has become magical for us. We have to return to the ordinary, the tasks of home and school, factory and field, and find the Risen Lord in the gardener who plants harvests, in the secretary at her computer and the young mother with her new born child. Henri Susa O.P., the 13th century mystic explains that nothing is wasted, neither our disappointments nor our ministries, nor our trials nor temptations. Everything is transformed. He prays:

May our hearts expand to include everything in heaven and earth – body, soul, And all your powers, all creatures that God ever created, all tiny drops of water, dew, snow, I wish each would resound like a sweet instrument tuned into the melody of your hearts and thus be played as a new note and joyful hymn.

Divine Energy Flows through Us

The early Fathers of the Church and the mystics of later centuries spoke clearly about our divinization as participation through grace in the nature of God. It is our participation in the life of the Trinity. The Fathers of the Church were aware of this. Because we were plunged into this divine life through Christ, we are becoming more divine day by day as the divine energy flows through us. Cynthia Bourgeault says there is a magnetic pull from the core of our being to the heart of the divine. When we contemplate the divine core of our being, we can pray with St. Paul: I live now, not I, Christ lives in me”(Gal 2:20) and Columban Pat O’Shea adds that our lives are “swept up into God.” Origen says that in the Holy Spirit the divine Word divinizes us. Athanasius adds “the word became human so that we might become divine and Cyril of Alexandria says that Christ takes shape in us through the Holy Spirit who reinstates the divinity in us.” Julian of Norwich says we are swimming in a river of prayer, a torrent of love, from the heart of Christ to the Father. Why was our divinization not the focus of our spirituality? We will look at history for a few reasons.

Dismantling the Past

As children we were taught that we inherited the sin committed by our first parents – all 7+ billion of us! We were plunged into a world of chaos – a massa damnata as Augustine called us – and because our sin was so great only a divine being could repair the damage and pay back to God what was due because of our sin. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 615 we read, “Jesus atoned for our faults and made atonement for our sins to the Father.” Abelard strongly disagreed and said. “If God was so bothered why didn’t he just pardon Adam and Eve?” He was not listened to. The image of God who drove our first parents out of paradise and closed the gates is deeply engrained on our psyches. For some Catholics these are basic truths that cannot be changed. In the 11th century St. Anselm of Canterbury developed the satisfaction theory that Christ had to die on the cross to make good our offense and to restore the order that had been violated. His teaching has dominated theology, preaching and liturgy for over twelve centuries until today. Our spirituality has been tarnished by an unhealthy penal starting point. An authoritarian understanding dominated Christian thinking for over 1,500 years. With a preoccupation with personal failings and imperfections Christians have not been present to the beauty and grace within the ordinary moments of their lives. We are not a fallen race; there never was a fall; paradise was never lost. John Henry Newman, among many contemporary theologians, in a frank and unambiguous statement states that we are not the unfortunate results of some terrible aboriginal calamity.

We have also had to dismantle an earlier understanding of spirituality. In the early centuries of Christianity a hierarchical way of viewing God and an understanding of sanctity developed which regarded the secular world as vanity. A movement known as Neo-Platonism contributed to this other worldliness. Its spirituality required a ladder of ascent, the different rungs bringing us closer to God. As one climbed the ladder of ascent to the spiritual and divine realms one had to reject the things of earth and turn away from the material world which was considered inferior and not truly real. We have examples of this other-worldly spirituality in the spiritual writings of the saints and mystics. In the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing we read “Forget all the creatures that God has ever made so that your thought or your desire will not be directed or stretched to any of them.” John of the Cross similarly advises “Desire to enter into complete detachment, emptiness and poverty with respect to everything that is in this world. Do not love the world or the things of the world; they lead people to pride.” And from Thomas A. Kempis we read “Study to withdraw the love of your soul from things visible, and turn into things invisible. Turn from the things that are visible to things that are invisible. The world is vanity and ashes.”

This orientation towards other-worldliness became even more pronounced after Luther and the Reformation. Unfortunately it is still with us today. The earth was never seen as part of God’s plan of salvation. Nature had no reason to exist except to serve us. Since we were pointing towards heaven and away from earth Christians became preoccupied with personal salvation and focused on sin and guilt and personal salvation. Fortunately the doctrine of the Incarnation, that God’s word became human flesh; that God who was always Spirit took on a human body, kept us grounded. On the contrary we are already graced, and carefully fashioned in the divine image. Take for example the word kadosh (kdoshim). In Hebrew it means holiness; it also means marriage. “You are sanctified unto me.” Our impoverished Catholic liturgical ceremonies are in need of updating.

Christian spirituality, following the medieval tradition paid little attention to creation or to science. Since the whole world was created by God, who saw that it was “very good” (Gen 1-3; 11:31), all the creatures that dwell there have great value in God’s eyes. We have been put in the garden to till it and to keep it. (Gen 2:15), yet when we look around we see human-generated pollution: oil spills, pesticide spread over miles of farmland, collapsing bee colonies, fossil fuels emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, emissions from motor vehicles and incinerators. These as well as climate change invite our urgent commitment.

Teilhard de Chardin

Gratefully, a prophet and mystic, has walked among us and has plunged us back into the compassionate love of the Trinity who makes all things holy. That prophet is Teilhard de Chardin. He realized that we needed a new kind of spirituality – an understanding of God and creation and our part in it. For Teilhard the great mystery of Christianity is that the divine presence is everywhere in the universe. Occasionally, when mystery comes alive around us, we realize that our planet earth is full of concealed beauty. During World War I, he worked as a stretcher bearer with Moroccans and Algerians. It was a harrowing experience in which he took part in 67 battles, in a war where 1.4 million died, and 8 million were wounded. Because he was afraid he might die and he wanted his insights that the divine is in the cosmos passed on he wrote Cosmic Life. In the lull between battles he wrote “communion with the earth is a way of attaining communion with God,” and again “we are helping to complete creation by the humblest work of our hands.” He has reminded us that the universe is penetrated by the divine as it evolves. He says there is a living heart beating with a fiery energy of compassion at the heart of the universe.

God’s presence penetrates all things, radiates outward, transforms all things and invites us to surrender in communion with God though the universe.

All around us, to the right and left, in front and behind, above and below, we have only to go beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and showing through. By means of created things, without exception, the Divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact, we live steeped in its burning layers. As Jacob said, awakening from his dream the world, this palpable world, is, in truth, a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite Adoramus!

We are coming from ancient and false images of a fixed universe, a historical fall, and a creator who watches over the natural world from up above. The image of God who drove our parents out of paradise and closed the gates is deeply etched on our psyches. Most spiritualities following tradition usually put scientific facts aside, assuming that they had little to do with the spiritual life. For Teilhard, everything we learn about creation is something we are learning about the body of Christ. He offers a most encouraging insight: at the Eucharistic celebration transubstantiation creates a halo of divinization that extends to the whole universe and every human being has access to this divinity in which everything becomes potentially divinized, transformed into fullness and abundance in the universal Christ. In his prose-poem Hymn of the Universe he prays:

I will place on my paten, o God, the harvest to be won this morning by the renewal of daily labour; into my chalice I will pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the fruits of the earth. . . all the things of the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish, all those that will die. . .This is the material of my sacrifice.

The Cosmic Christ Lives in the Heart of the Universe

At the Ascension Luke tells us in Acts 1:9 that “with the eye witnesses looking on, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” There is no account here of Jesus going up into the firmament. A cloud took him! In his ascension Christ has disappeared into the cloud, into the heart of the universe. The cloud was a sign that God was in their midst. When Moses went up Mount Sinai to stand before God, the Lord descended in a cloud. In Exodus 13:21 the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud.” Later in a cloud God filled the tent of meeting with his presence. By the Book of Numbers the cloud has become the established symbol of the presence of God. When the temple of Jerusalem was dedicated a cloud filled “the house of the Lord” (1Kgs: 8:1-7; 9-13). King Solomon added, “The Lord has chosen me to dwell in the thick cloud.” On the Mount of Transfiguration “a bright cloud overshadowed them and the voice of the Father announced: This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him.”

In the Divine Milieu, Teilhard, the scientist, invites us to see, as he does, not only the Christ of 2,000 years ago, but the Risen Christ, the Cosmic Christ, present in the heart of the universe. His divine person has always and will always be present in the world. As cells and members of the Body of Christ we participate in and nurture the Body’s life. In the Collect for the mass of the Ascension the Church prays: “As Christ, by his promise remains with us here on earth, we might be made worthy to live with him in heaven.” The feast of the Ascension invites us to enter into the Cosmic Christ, the Body of Christ now present in the heart of the world. In the Ascension time and eternity meet in an infinite embrace.

It is our divine task to turn this fragmented creation in all its visible and invisible dimensions into the Body of Christ, glowing with divine energy. God shares with us in the brokenness of this world. We are invited to cooperate with Pope Francis in his mission to wake up the church to its missionary calling. We are united with the Pope in our ministries when our focus is on gathering in the hurt, the suffering, the abused, and the starving, dying bodies of humankind. They await us in every community, in every parish, in their loneliness and pain. Each one of us contributes what God has given us to care for and enrich others. Because of the multiculturalism of our communities and parishes, this is an ongoing challenge. With Jesus we care for the sinful, troubled people of our world as we remember those caught up in the atrocities and disasters of our sin-soiled world and as the works of evil continue to desecrate our earthly home. Gaza, Jordan, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and the drought-ridden countries of Africa come to immediate attention as do migrants making a dangerous crossing in rubber boats in the English Channel to reach British shores. This could be the urgent agenda for mission in the 21st century. At present, many Christians – cells of the Body of Christ – are unaware of their divine calling although they are in a continuous process of transformation. They are unaware of how special they are in the eyes of God, and unconscious of the fact that they are already living their lives as part of this Cosmic Christ. Elizabeth Johnson offers us her vision of the future, “a flourishing humanity on a thriving planet rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God. Such is the vision that must guide us.”

Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim In wonder, “How filled with awe is this place.


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