04 February 2013

Once Again: On Infused Contemplation, Union With God, and Elitism

[[Dear Sister, if God can gift any person with infused contem-plation despite the obstacles they present, then why doesn't he? Have you experienced the gift of infused contemplation? Isn't it a special gift and sign of God's love given to only a few?]]

The first question is unanswerable. I don't know why God does what God does, why sometimes a gift is prudent or necessary and other times it is not. Presumably one is not always ready for love in such a form. Some theologians reject the notion of infused contemplation because it strikes them as interventionist or elitist. Rahner does this and suggests that these experiences affirm merely that some people are more able to cooperate with God, perhaps have become more skilled, etc. However, I disagree with Rahner in this because yes, I have experienced "infused contemplation" --- something that seemed like the flooding of my heart and mind from within with the presence of God. It was a gift which had nothing to do with my skill or supposed "advancement" at prayer or my spiritual readiness for this gift. In fact, I have always had the sense that God gifted me in this way as an amazing (and amazingly gentle) "kick in the pants" precisely to signal what I was ultimately meant for and to remind me that prayer is ALWAYS what God does within us, not something we manage on our own.

My experience had several dimensions to it but it began with my inability to pray or to cease "trying too hard". To assist with this my director asked me to rest my hands in her outstretched hands and then to pray as I always did. I did this, took a couple of centering breaths and God did the rest! Prescinding from the imagery involved it centered on two insights or divine affirmations:  1) that God was absolutely delighted that I was "finally" here with him in this way and had "waited" for a very long time for this (and that this had nothing to do with my own age). I had the sense in all of this that I had God's ENTIRE attention and was completely sustained by him and this was exactly what I was called to. (This last part was literally true since during the prayer (a period of @ 45 minutes or so) I ceased breathing for some time, and others had to be sure I was okay while not interfering with the prayer itself. (My director eventually told me to breath at one point, and, with some initial difficulty, I did. Otherwise she and I simply trusted to God and let things happen as he willed.) 2) At the same time I had the sense that God loved and was caring for EVERY PERSON in exactly the same way. It was an amazing and paradoxical experience and neither element (the specialness nor the universality of God's love) was less important or true than the other.

In the 30 years since that experience I have had  others which were similar but also were far less dramatic. What I have learned is that union with God is not necessarily characterized by such experiences; in fact, such experiences are not strictly necessary any more than orgasmic experiences are strictly necessary to or characteristic of  married love generally. Granted, I apparently needed this particular experience at that point in my life to teach me a fundamental truth about God's love for me and for all others, as well as to remind me of the fact that prayer is NOT my doing. Even more, it taught me that prayer is meant for God's delight more than it is for my own. I needed these lessons on a level theological work itself doesn't usually allow, but I have not really needed others like it to experience communion with God or a felt sense of God's presence.  I also learned that such experiences need have nothing to do with being in some "advanced state" of prayer (though I do agree with Rahner that once we learn to open and entrust ourselves to God and do so regularly, it is easier for him to give himself to us in this way). Such experiences are indeed a gift, freely given by God because he loves us and desires we know that in ways which will sustain us and allow us to live authentically with a foundational security and hope which is edifying and even inspiring to others.

I learned at least one other lesson from this experience and my reflection on it which I will mention here (for indeed, I return to it fairly regularly to renew not only my gratitude to God for his gift of self to me, but to allow it to speak more fully to me). Namely, God dwells within us, actively calling, loving, sustaining and waiting for us to open our hearts to him. He is never absent and our smallest choice of life is a choice we make WITH and FOR him. Union with God is the very essence of humanity. We are not human alone. At the same time that union can be experienced in many different ways so it is important not to associate it necessarily with ecstasies, etc. Some of my most profound experiences of union with God have involved moments when a bit of theology becomes clear, a client achieves a significant step of growth, or I sit quietly with God and a cup of fragrant hot tea and am at peace and grateful for who and where I am. At those times and many others I have a renewed sense of God's delight and joy that we are FINALLY together in all of this, that he is mine and I am his.

I sincerely believe these significant experiences of union are open to everyone on this side of the eschatological divide. But of course, those of us who have experienced them cannot teach that they are meant for an elite few if we really want that to be true. And here is where one other central lesson of my own life of prayer becomes critical: whose experience do we focus on in prayer? Is it our own or is it God's? Better said, perhaps, do we stop with our own delight, joy, peace, and draw theological conclusions from those, or do we open ourselves to and consider what our prayer means for God?

If we do the latter, then we will be very clear that he desires us to help open EVERY person to this kind of experience, and to do so now rather than waiting for the eschaton and/or the parousia. NO authentic experience of union I have ever had supports elitism. None of them suggests such experiences are open to only a privileged few or are even necessarily a sign of "spiritual advancement" --- whatever that really means anyway. The experiences are ineffably special, no doubt about it, and they witness to how very special I am to God but none of them have excluded that second element I mentioned at the beginning of this post, namely, the sense that God loves and desires, in fact loves and yearns to love EVERY person just as exhaustively right here, right now. I have actually wondered if the presence of this second element is part of what validates the experience as authentic. In any case, I can only hope my life is an effective sign of this truth!! Otherwise, I will have failed in a significant way in the very special vocation to which I have been called.

Paintings from Brother Emmaus O'Herlihy, OSB: Camaldolese Hermit in Reclusion and St Romuald receiving the gift of tears  from the series "St Romuald and his Followers."