There is, to be sure, a stress within the Biblical tradition that God is radically other: “Truly, you are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour” (Isaiah 45:15) and “No one shall see [God] and live” (Exodus 33:20). This speaks to the fact that the one who creates the entire universe from nothing cannot be, Himself, an item within the universe, one being alongside of others. At the same time, the scriptures also attest to God’s omnipresence: “Your wisdom reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1) and “Where can I go from Your spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; … If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-12). This speaks to the fact that God sustains the universe in existence from moment to moment, the way a singer sustains a song.
What is perhaps the defining feature of the spirituality associated with Saint Ignatius of Loyola—“finding God in all things”—flows from this second great biblical emphasis. Despite His transcendence, God should not be thought of as distant in any conventional sense of the term, certainly not in the Deist manner. Rather, as Thomas Aquinas taught, God is in all things, “by essence, presence and power.” Mind you, since God is endowed with intellect, will and freedom He is never dumbly present, but always personally and intentionally present, offering something of Himself to us. Therefore, the search for God can commence right here, right now, with whatever is at hand.
One of the questions in the old Baltimore Catechism was “Where is God?” The correct answer was “everywhere.” Once that truth sinks in our lives irrevocably change, for now every person, every event, every sorrow, every encounter becomes an opportunity for communion with God. The 17th century Jesuit spiritual master, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, expressed the same idea when he said everything that happens to us is, directly or indirectly, the will of God. Once again, it is impossible to accept the truth of that statement and remain the same person you were before. This already graced quality of “all things” functions as the starting-point for Ignatius’ spirituality.
Ignatius had been very much on my mind while I was in Europe filming a documentary on his life and teachings for my “Pivotal Players” series. On the long flight from Los Angeles to Rome, I had occasion to enact the principle I just described. Ever since I was kid, I loved maps and so when I find myself on a lengthy plane voyage, I spend a good deal of time with the flight map, which tracks the location of the plane, vis-à-vis landmarks on the ground. I read and watched some videos the first part of the flight and then I slept most of the time we were over the Atlantic, but when I woke I began studying the map with great interest. We were passing just north of Ireland and I could clearly see the indications for Dublin, where my mother’s father was born, and for Waterford, where my father’s grandfather was born. I commenced to think about these men— neither of whom I had ever met—who bore the Catholic faith that eventually came to my mother and father and finally to me, as a sheer grace.
As the plane continued its journey across the English Channel, northern France came into view on the map and I saw the great name “Paris.” A slew of memories flooded my mind: my simple room at the Redemptorist House on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, Notre Dame, where I used to give tours to English-speaking visitors; the Institut Catholique where I did my doctoral studies; all of my Parisian friends, teachers and colleagues who accompanied me across those three years; the beauty of Paris on a rainy day. All of it, I knew, was a grace, a sheer gift.
Next, I saw we were approaching the Alps so I opened the window screen and looked down on the snow-capped mountains gleaming in the sun. How could I not appreciate this view, which untold generations of humans would not have even imagined possible, as a splendid gift?
In a word, the simple study of a flight map toward the end of a tedious journey became a rather marvelous occasion of grace. I wonder whether we would find this sort of experience less anomalous if we mused on the fact that God positively wants to share His life with us, wants to communicate with us. Perhaps the problem is that we stubbornly think of God in the Deist manner and relegate Him to a place of irrelevant transcendence. Then the spiritual burden is on us, to find some way to climb the holy mountain or sufficiently impress a demanding moral overlord. What if we accepted the deeply Biblical notion that God is always already busily and passionately searching for us, always already endeavoring to find ways to grace us with His love? What if we blithely accepted the truth that God can be found, as Ignatius taught, in all things?
© Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Bishop Barron is a #1 Amazon bestselling author and has published numerous books, essays, and articles on theology and the spiritual life. ARTICLE originally published at wordonfire.org. Reprinted with permission.
A few months ago, during a conversation about a “difficult” colleague, my immediate superior remarked: “If I am not able to be a source of solace to such people in my team, then all my spirituality is in vain.” It was a wake-up-call; I had often been in the habit of judging this colleague, so this left me in shame. I realized how badly I had failed to be a true witness to my faith, at my workplace. All of us are surrounded by difficult people, maybe in the form of a nagging spouse, an envious neighbor, an irritating colleague, or a domineering boss. In fact, Jesus dealt with difficult people on a daily basis, giving us the perfect example of compassion. This Lent, let’s be thankful to God for all these difficult people in our lives. Instead of judging and avoiding them, let’s try to be like Jesus. Let’s do to them what Jesus would have done for them if He was in our place. And let’s not forget that it’s not the good people but the difficult people who purify us.
There is a regrettable interpretation of the Cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, an appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath. But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.”(3:16) John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather, God is a parent who burns with compassion for His children who have wandered into danger. Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus, God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right. Saint Anselm, the great medieval theologian who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off. In so doing, of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion. Jesus said that any disciple of His must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.
Q: My Protestant friends say that Catholics believe we need to earn our salvation. They say that salvation is by faith alone and that we can’t add to anything that Jesus already did for us on the Cross. But don’t we have to do good works to make it to Heaven? A: This is a pretty big misunderstanding for both Protestants and Catholics. It may seem to be theological minutiae, but it actually has a huge consequence in our spiritual life. The truth is this: We are saved by living faith—our belief in Jesus Christ that is lived out in our words and actions. We must be clear—we do not need to earn our salvation, as if salvation was a prize if we reach a certain level of good deeds. Consider this: who was the first one to be saved? According to Jesus, it was the Good Thief. While he was being rightly crucified for his evil deeds, he cried out to Jesus for mercy, and the Lord promised him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) So, salvation consists in that radical faith, trust, and surrender to what Jesus did on the Cross to purchase mercy. Why is this important? Because many Catholics think that all we have to do to be saved is ‘be a good person’—even if the person doesn’t actually have a living relationship with the Lord. I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me something like: “Oh, my uncle never went to Mass or prayed, but he was a nice man who did many good things in his life, so I know he’s in Heaven.” While we certainly hope that the uncle is saved by God’s mercy, it isn’t our kindness or good works that save us, but the saving death of Jesus on the Cross. What would happen if a criminal was put on trial for a crime, but he said to the judge, “Your Honor, I did commit the crime, but look at all the other good things I did in my life!” Would the judge let him off? No—he would still have to pay for the crime he committed. Likewise, our sins had a cost—and Jesus Christ had to pay for them. This payment of the debt of sin is applied to our souls through faith. But, faith is not just an intellectual exercise. It must be lived out. As Saint James writes: “Faith without works is dead” (2:24). It’s not enough just to say: “Well, I believe in Jesus, so I can now sin as much as I want.” On the contrary, precisely because we have been forgiven and become heirs to the Kingdom, we must then act like Kingdom-heirs, like sons and daughters of the King. This is very different than trying to earn our salvation. We don’t do good works because we hope to be forgiven—we do good works because we are already forgiven. Our good deeds are a sign that His forgiveness is alive and active in our lives. After all, Jesus tells us: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) If a husband loves his wife, he will seek concrete ways to bless her—giving her flowers, doing the dishes, writing her a love note. He would never say: “Well, we’re married, and she knows I love her, so I can now do whatever I want.” Likewise, a soul that has known the merciful love of Jesus will naturally want to please Him. So, to answer your question, Catholics and Protestants are actually much closer on this issue than they know! We both believe that we are saved by faith—by a living faith, which is expressed in a life of good works as a sign of thanksgiving for the lavish, free gift of salvation that Christ won for us on the Cross.
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) Do you remember hearing these words as a child? They seemed simple enough—just go to your room, close the door, and pray. I remember hearing them and being confused. Simple words, yes, but it just didn’t make sense that we could only say prayers, in our room, by ourselves. But my child-like faith told me to believe these words. As I grew, so did my faith and understanding of this Scripture. I came to realize these beautiful, profound words meant I could go into my room, turn my heart to the Lord, anytime, anywhere. My prayer life blossomed. How wonderful to spend quiet time with our Father and receive His love. Every time I hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I appreciate the Lenten season even more. It’s a reminder of God’s love and how much He desires our friendship. Love heals. For me, that’s the reward when I go into my room and pray.
Want to be in the loop?
Get the latest updates from Tidings!