Some 2,500 men and women representing religious congregations met in Madrid on April 12, 1977, in part, to hear the following remarks by Pedro Arrupe. In these remarks, the Jesuits’ Superior General uses the “crisis” facing religious life as an opportunity rather than a negative. “Religious life is a privileged place today,” Arrupe argues, simply because it asks and answers “the universal questions of the Church.” In doing so, religious life has to prove itself “capable of articulating its experience of God (theologically, existentially, and institutionally) and of integrating that experience with its specific insertion in the world—not only in theory, but also and especially in “concrete forms” provoked by the Spirit.” Arrupe believes that the experience of God should be both “unifying,” “essentially transforming,” and “liberating.”
For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.
It has become commonplace to speak of religious life in terms of “crisis.” My reasoning for recalling this fact as I begin concerns itself with an etymological insight. The Japanese translate the word “crisis” with two Chinese characters: one of them means “danger,” “impending ruin” and the other signifies “opportunity,” “break-through,” “an opening ahead.” This crisis will provide us with a focus for this paper.
Presently religious life is taken to the cross, along with other sectors of society and Church life, for the sake of releasing new possibilities which, though not likely to exhaust the potential within religious life, promise to provide more adequate models of response to the challenges of the present historical moment as well as to those of the immediate future.
The experience of God, which constitutes the essential and radical feature of religious life, could not have remained untouched, naturally, by the contemporary crisis, especially because the crisis is theological and cultural as well. The crisis has been cultural in that it disturbed human roots, it upset values and the categories used to express those values, and it affected systems of social relations between people and with nature. Nearly everything was stirred up by this movement within culture, and religious life was very much included. The history of religious life clearly shows that transformations result not only from the internal dynamism of the Spirit but also from the inevitable pressures emanating from cultural, social (i.e. political and economic), and spiritual contexts.
But the crisis is also theological: not only in the sense that there is a theological dimension behind every profound human phenomenon, but also because what is at stake here, even beyond the necessary and radical institutional adaptations, is a new articulation of that core spiritual experience that is a source and sustenance of religious life as it is lived in the heart of modernity, a modernity that, as a minimum, no longer professes to be Christian.
I. The Problem
One of the pretensions of this modernity is subjecting the reality of religious experience to the pure test of reason, experimentation and criticism. An attempt is made to examine the specifically spiritual experience of religious life, its constitutive elements. But the attempts are fruitless. Because by trying to analyze religious experience from the sociological, psychological and structuralist point of view, the most that is achieved is the unmasking and purifying of certain sentimentalisms and aberrations of spirituality and of commitment. We are left at the threshold of “suspicion,” at the point where there is a break between a certain “spiritual tradition” and a new experience of God being born within persons and society.
But how does one correctly grab hold of, interpret and live out this new experience today? It is necessary to discover the profound relationship that exists between the experience of God and religious life incarnate in the present world and lived for the present world, but without being of the world. This experience has to be such that, by inserting ourselves in the real lived world of people and by living with and for them, it also provides us with a freedom and a healthy saving distance with respect to others so as to achieve our “greater” service.
I understand that this problematic relationship hasn’t escaped becoming an issue for contemplative religious life in its many forms. If contemplative religious life is to live as the heart of our world, it necessarily must achieve a real, albeit mysterious, insertion there, registering in its pulse the urgencies of the world, the efforts and the failures, all the pain involved in being human. But, basically, the following reflections have apostolic religious life in mind.
Let us ask ourselves directly: Why is the experience of God “suspect” today? Why does it come to be seen as something antagonistic to a commitment to the world? Why does this “suspicion” affect religious life so profoundly? And why the frequent tendency to polarize an introverted experience of God, on the one side, and the action of an iconoclast on the other? What purpose has this sterilizing effort to separate the first from the second commandment? Our inability to worship God in the human person has led us to action that pretends to be able to prescind from God but which, in fact, proves itself less effective in terms of contributing help that is profound to people.
Religious life is a privileged place today for asking and answering these questions which really are the universal questions of the Church. To the extent that religious life proves capable of articulating its experience of God (theologically, existentially, and institutionally) and of integrating that experience with its specific insertion in the world—not only in theory, but also and especially in “concrete forms” provoked by the Spirit—to that extent, religious life will perform an important aspect of its prophetic function, namely helping the so-called secular person to live the synthesis of faith and temporality.
Facing us, then, is the problem of overcoming the distance that exists between the specific Christian experience of God and the symbolic language (i.e. life style, spirituality, institutions, etc.) that are proper to religious life as a “sign.” Otherwise the formalism of the symbols will make the experience constantly more opaque (for those inside religious life as well as for those outside it) and the “sign” will become insignificant (un-significant?).
Overcoming this ambiguity, experienced existentially as a “break,” requires a constant and urgent effort that is both penetrating and authentic. “Penetrating” so as to be able to analyze with serenity the spiritual roots and the cultural causes of the problem, and “authentic” so as to be able to confront religious life with honesty from its own sources and from the gospel. In this way, religious life should be able to respond to the challenges of a culture that proclaims itself post-Christian.
II. The Today of the Church and of Religious Life
I presume that you not only know, but, more importantly, that you actually experience and live within the fundamental features of this culture to which I refer. Now, there will be some who will interpret the present situation as an authentic disgrace or even as a form of the just and hidden designs of God who is chastising our sinfulness and purifying us from infidelity. Evidently, such interpretations are made by people who find ethical categories best for explaining the entire process that we are undergoing today.
As one continues to reflect upon this matter, however, the limits of a purely ethical interpretation are readily perceived. To simply classify the present situation as “sinful” or “unfaithful” is itself unjust. In times like ours, when changes are so extensive and profound, an in-depth examination cannot be rendered solely at the level of the good or bad will of the individuals involved.
If we really look at things closely and with eyes of faith, we shall discover how the most incisive interpretation which we could and should contribute to all that is happening in our world is a theological interpretation. And this must be done very concretely from the perspective of the sacred history of the People of God, a history that teaches us that liberation events and conversion to God are both processes that are given by means of the desert. The desert is an empty place, without roads or fixed horizons, where a people suffers from terrible solitude and from the coldness that comes from the loss of all forms of human security; it is through such an experience, however, that the encounter with the living God is possible.
One religious, presently working and living in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Latin America, describes a chapter of his personal and interior exodus in this way:
The classical framework for contemplation in religious life has almost no worth for us any longer. We cannot take refuge in a quiet, inspiring chapel, because our places of worship are very poor and put to a variety of purposes. Nor can we enclose ourselves in our rooms, as poor as they may be, because there are no private quarters. We can no longer stop and appreciate beautiful statues; the misery of the neighborhood imposes itself upon us with more force and realism than any other sign. We simply cannot isolate ourselves in any habitual sort of way or reserve any corner of beauty, because the contaminated environment and the air of oppression invades us on all sides. The cloisters have transformed themselves into alleys of rusted cans. Without privacy, misery violently interrupts the silence and our quiet is constantly overtaken by the urgencies of the community. How to be contemplatives?
This really is the number 1 question. Any serious solution that attempts to face the problems and new settings of religious life today will have to presuppose an unleashing of the contemplative potential which is the source of any true form of religious life. And as all of us here present recognize, in a variety of ways, the contemplative potential has something extremely essential and definitive in the lives and works of our founders.
III. The Experience of God
It is not my aim here to launch a scientific analysis of the experience of God with the categories that are assumed in psychology, sociology, or structuralism, because, as was mentioned before, they have a tendency to leave us just outside the door of the experience itself. My approach, rather, is to start with the experience as a given fact and to accept it as a mysterious reality, not unlike God himself, and also as a historical reality that has made and continues to make history right up to the most recent commitments made on behalf of the Kingdom in our own times.
In the life of each and every religious, an event has been and is taking place which is very similar, to a greater or lesser degree, to an event that occurred within the lives of the ancient prophets. At the level of our personal consciousness, the involvement of God as protagonist in my life is experienced; an involvement that is personal and personalizing, possessive and binding. It communicates in terms that are human the commitment of God himself to our world.
This experience, while being most personal, can be characterized by its openness, by its resistance to close in on itself. This initial dialogue between God and an individual breaks out into praise of God as discovered in the mystery of humanity. This praise has two fundamental moments: the moment of hearing and receiving the Word and the moment of action and service.
This experience is not the exclusive possession of a religious, but it is nevertheless true that, without such an experience, religious life more than any other life becomes impossible to explain and its function in the Church and in the world becomes unclear.
I’ll summarize briefly what I consider to be most important in all this. Transcending the purely empirical (which is, at best, a simple point of departure) and the strictly experimental (which even when consciously evoked, never goes beyond serving as an important moment), we find ourselves before an experiential reality that is an experience which commits the most “me” of myself, an experience in which the person as a whole is touched, recognized, found; an experience in which the entire person gives and is fulfilled.
Empirical sciences, oriented towards control over nature, achieve their desired objectivity through acquiring a certain distance from the object under analysis. But these two notions of control and distance are basically irreconcilable with the religious experience of God, because that experience hinges on letting-go and on drawing near. To experience God is to “undergo a change” through Him (sufrirlo), allowing Him to be all in all things and avoiding any tendency to control God by encasing Him in the captivity of our narrow and rigid schemes.
The authentic experience of God is a liberating experience in which the religious, overtaken by the absolute and unconditional love of God, voluntarily becomes docile and available to be modelled by God’s hands, discovering in this act of trust, the very fullness of being a person. By centering his or her complete existence in God, the religious is liberated from that most painful slavery of all, the interior disregard for life and for others, which comes from not having perceived life as a gift or not having proclaimed and fulfilled this gift fully in history.
The experience of God, then, is a unifying experience, integrating at the depth of a person those elements which, because of an internal force of human gravity, we tend to separate into sterile dichotomies: action/contemplation, spirituality/commitment, individual/community, vertical/horizontal, etc.
Surely, the liberation and integration that the experience of God implies cannot be obtained outside of conversion; the experience of God is essentially transforming. The personal word of God (i.e., His most personal communication) breaks into the life of each religious and must take root, have a yeast-like effect on the dough, and grow in the silence of the night before each new day all of which is nothing less than the life of God himself, who is love for all people.
The end result from this process is that the whole person and everything within that person ends up being possessed and committed through this all-encompassing (totalizante) experience. God and the human person, the created—I and the Creative—Thou, do not brush up against one another superficially, nor does their contact require intermediaries; rather, the encounter is profound and direct. Even on those occasions when the Thou is felt to be distant, we know that it is always Him whom we seek and that it is the most personal part of ourselves which does the searching.
This experience of God ought not be identified with a type of private, occult, or mysterious religious knowledge that locates the Christian God beyond any reach, attainable only by a select minority of “enlightened” or “illumined” ones. The authentic experience of God is expansive and it is destined to be publicly proclaimed and communicated. From this core intrapersonal experience of the Father in Jesus, the interpersonal dimension opens up like a crossing, enabling exchange and sharing with the same sort of experiences in others (and this constitutes in reality what is done in a Christian community) and enabling, making possible, our discovery of the other as both task and good news. Finally, the true experience of God completes itself in the metapersonal dimension, the social dimension of commitment and of action. The experience of God is further nourished at this point and simultaneously deepens all other dimensions.
I’m conscious of forcing into schemas a phenomenon that is as complex as the person who lives it and as mysterious as our God who provokes it. At the same time, this experience of God occurs with unusual simplicity. Here I have simply wanted to gather together those features which are fundamental and common to all forms of the experience of God; those that take place within the plenitude of Sinai and those that happen in the ordinary routines of our day or in the more difficult days of the desert.
The religious who lives this experience is trained by it, trained into becoming an “expert on God,” because to the extent that a person’s affirmations regarding life flow from that experience of God, these statements will necessarily engage others and call out faith, even when they sound upsetting or are out of step with other modes of logic. But through this experience of God, one is also trained or formed into “an expert on people.” No other approach or discipline (e.g. psychology, sociology, philosophy nor all of them together) can provide the depth of meaning which this experience promotes with regard to the grandeur and frailty of the human person.
I’m talking about a new way of reading human reality and history, a new kind of contemplation in which the experience of God enables an in-depth experience of the human person. This dialectic is not unlike the experience of God himself in the event of kenosis without retrenchment. To live this two-fold experience with depth is the service of the religious.
IV. Challenges and Opportunities for Experiencing God Today
And so it is precisely this two-fold experience of God and of humanity or, you may want to say, this single experience with its two moments, that is going through a process of purification by means of certain challenges, and through renovation by means of the new opportunities that surface in the context of our global crisis, a crisis which is also a crisis of meaning for people in that it is a crisis in the meaning of God.
4.1 Our Sense of Mystery
Even at the heart of this experience of God (and actually it tends to be especially true at this deepest level), the reality of God continues to be perceived as Mystery. Included here are those moments referred to by St. Thomas as the “visio tranquilla.” Simultaneously, however, the religious today has this contact with mystery within an age that considers itself to be quite knowledgeable, very proud of the conquests and securities achieved, always aspiring to control even more areas of knowledge. But the fact is that, with each new conquest in knowledge, new problems emerge and multiply. Areas of mystery expand and the individual becomes doubtful, less sure. The wiseman becomes more like a seeker, less a carrier of answers and more a carrier of questions. The question is a sign of our times.
Religious today logically participate in these questions and their experience of God can be affected by unquiet, by doubt, or by worry. Some live this questioning relationship with God very dramatically. And too, there are those who possess faith and peace in such a way that their relationship to God serves as a light which frees that person from all torment.
The great majority, however, wrapped up in the difficult tasks of every day and very much under the influence of the profound changes which we have been given to live in this hour of God, experience God imprecisely, more along the lines of mystery and problem than as proof and assurance. In this adventure where we experience God, there really is no such thing as mathematical assurance. Nor, for that matter, do we ever experience such certainty in many other areas of life such as love, friendship, commitment, fidelity. Simple faith must decide, and without it no relationship with God is possible. In fact, without simple faith, no communication that · is truly open will occur even with-other people. At this point, the gospel phrase “revelasti ea parvulis” (“You have revealed it to the little ones”) can be appropriately called to mind.
So, before us, we have a first challenge with its corresponding opportunity for a new religious experience of God today. First of all, it is a challenge because the presence of God can become an absence or, at least, be perceived in those terms. Secondly, we run the risk of finding ourselves alone with just ourselves, of mistaking the surface level of life with the dimension of depth where we are called to see the truth of things and of ourselves. A dis-ordered desire for quick information can keep one at the surface level, as can the fear of new demands which may well follow from a deeper experience of God.
But this challenge combines with an opportunity in-so-far as it initiates a process of cleansing and gradually accomplishes a more genuine experience and perception of God in our lives. Basically, God is “Absolute Mystery,” as Karl Rahner unwearyingly affirms. “No one has ever seen God,” announces St. John, and at the very heart of Old Testament anthropology is the sense that no one can see God without dying or without being blinded by the splendor. God is not just another object among the many coming under our scrutiny and manipulation. To perceive God as mystery is to perceive God biblically. This is the mode of perception which can be seen in the lives of the prophets, in the life of Paul and of Augustine. It is probably also the way most of our contemporaries experience God, namely, as a yearning, a thirst, and as a final utopia that is charged with hope and fullness.
For this reason, one is not surprised to find that theology tends to see a genuinely positive side to the crisis of God in our times. The fact that God appears distant and mysterious, the fact that we experience God as absolute silence, need not, according to Karl Rahner, be reason to lament. Nor ought we automatically to attribute it all to the spiritual decline of our times. Paradoxically, today as well as yesterday, those who most profoundly believe are also those who experience God along the lines of mystery and desire and whose security comes from the search for God in itself, a search which could only be possible through the presence of mystery that in some way commences the search within us. Furthermore, recall the extraordinary witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Protestant theologian and minister, who made the point that the God-problem has its origins more in God than in the human person. In other words, part of the difficulty in experiencing God lies rooted in God Himself, in his essential otherness with regard to the limited and ambivalent world that is ours.
The historical moment we live does not manifest the theocentric features that influenced, for other reasons, the difficult times of the Middle Ages. The experience of God in that period took place within a context of a more secure obviousness that is simply not given to the critical persons of the post-Enlightenment that we are. Not even the sharp and critical spirit of a man like Luther came anywhere near placing the existence or total presence of God into doubt. Luther did seriously question, but his questions aimed at appreciating God’s mercy—“How can I obtain the mercy of God?”—not the question of God’s existence or questions of the possibility of entering into contact with God. These matters were, for Luther, facts and matters of conviction.
Today, on the other hand, the experience of God for the large majority of people has ceased having a self-evident character, and it has been transformed into one of the greatest questions that accompany the 20th century person. These times which are the witness to so many wars and so many profound tragedies can relate to God most prevalently in the form of a question. Romano Guardini used to say that in the moment of the final judgement he expects to have more questions for God than God is likely to have for him.
The condition for the possibility of comprehending the deepest meaning of the word “God” is precisely our inability to comprehend: the inability to comprehend reality and the history of our world, the inability to understand God himself, the inability to correlate the fact of God with the suffering of innocent people, the inability to understand guilt, meaninglessness, and death. If one fails to hold on with persistence, often prolonged persistence, to these humble questions, one will have difficulty in appreciating the experience of God that is typical of people today.
The greatness of being human lies in our human capacity to put limits on the kinds of questions we ask. We are questioning people, and we can become a question to ourselves. In this sense, we are hardly superior to St. Paul or to St. Augustine just because we have learned to operate the machines of the 20th century. And there is no experience of God that completely extinguishes this questioning condition of ours which makes us always unsettled and, in some way, unsatisfied with the way things are. There is no reason to hide the fact that our experience of God is a questioning one, that it is open and problematic. The experience of the great mystics was of this sort. This will only scandalize those who have the notion that the experience of God must issue in a load of answers, recipes and certainties. Or the person who has forgotten that it is precisely when we experience God like the biblical believers of the Old and New Testament (“men of which the world was not worthy”) that we begin to perceive the dimension of mystery within reality and to ask questions, not now of ourselves, but of God.
We are still inundated by the fact of the Incarnation, that is to say, by the new and ever-renewing presence that God takes in our world. This new presence meets us and our need to see His face at that point where our capacity to see is felt. Our questions are born from the same basic matrix as were the questions reflecting Mary’s shaken confidences the anguish of Nicodemus the aggressive stance of the “wisemen.” It is so important that we experience God in these most personal reactions, in these questions and in the silences. The questions do not judge, but ask quietly; the silence waits in hope. The question is the prayer of the child (“Why? How? Who? What?”) and the silence is the prayer of the poor.
No other disposition more fruitfully unlocks a reading of our present and future situation, because it reveals to us the prolongation of the Incarnation in its existence among us today.
4.2 Our Sense of the Gratuitous
Together with the challenge of knowledge, and really quite intertwined with it, is the challenge of power. The “man of progress” has acquired the capabilities of controlling a thousand forces that people of the Middle Ages assigned to God. A noticeable dislodging of God from human affairs has happened. God is not considered truly “necessary” for the functioning of many things: indeed according to some, for the functioning of anything. Clearly, such a displacement can create problems for religious, for whom God’s presence defines their lives. The religious’ life finds its meaning and is justified only by the inescapable presence of God, whereas if God is experienced distantly and appears to be totally removed, the experience of such a God can be considered nothing more than an inoperative liability for humanity.
Of course, it is true that this Goliath-like power which the world today possesses remains profoundly relativized by the infinite questions that arise at every step one takes. That this Goliath has feet of clay shows itself when we stop to observe how, in practice, this power falls back upon ourselves like a powerful boomerang. We hear every day how people become transformed into manipulators of nature for up justifiable aims, and even into manipulators of other human beings by dissecting and programming and converting them into robots on the table of certain psychologies, sociologies and biologies. And we discover how people can engage in manipulation of human collectivities through philosophies and tactics ranging from the individualism of capitalism to the collectivism of Marxism. “Today there exist techniques that tend towards mass manipulation, and they are extremely effective.”
Precisely here, the opportunity for a truly liberating experience of God presents itself, an experience that leads us back to the meaning within ourselves and to a clear vision of what it means to be human. And to be human involves the realization that it is not possible to be liberated alone.
This is the hour for the religious who is able to demonstrate with his or her life that it is possible to be free and strong even when stripped of everything, when forgotten by all and handed over to all, when threatened or persecuted, before a firing squad, inside a concentration camp or simply when suffering behind the screen of a cloistered convent. This is the hour for inserting into the world a divine presence and the power of the God who is always on the side of and within the hearts of the newly oppressed of every class. And in the face of manipulating power, this is the hour for Christian service in its most liberating form; a service which moves preferentially to the most marginalized of every revolution, towards those who totally lack the power to make themselves known in any way or even to raise their voices with any claim beyond the simple identification of themselves as human beings.
But, how can this all come about without the personal experience of the “weakness of God,” that is, without having received an experience of His reversal, His Kenosis, His free gift to humanity which continues to be the most scandalous revelation of who God is and of what it means to be human. And where can such an experience take place if not within the “passivity” of authentic prayer, when the individual ceases to be the center of his or her contemplation, takes a good and just look at himself, becomes small, and then goes out beyond himself, breaking out the deceptive blockade of his or her own immanence in order to discover and to confess himself as pure gift? And how can this happen without a period of time being freely set aside by the religious at the disposition of God, a time that is His and to be spent with Him without doing anything else (i.e., devoting oneself to prayer alone) convinced that in this simple gift, the person is given back “a full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.”
Who can fail to see that only within such an experience of God does one discover existence itself as a free gift, as well as the “Christian power” of converting this same gifted existence into a free donation? Finally, (although I realize that these questions could go on indefinitely), who can seriously doubt that the religious will re-experience his own vocation every time the value of human life is rediscovered through an experience of God?
Before human “power” that tends and tempts towards autonomy, the religious makes present the “power of God” visible inside a Church that is poor and that serves the poor and the weak—a church that believes, accepts and participates in the kenosis of God and that makes of this event a defining category of its own existence.
“Desire to be nothing
in order to arrive at knowing everything” …
“In order to arrive at that which thou are not,
thou must go through that which thou are not.”
4.3 The Challenge of Praxis
Finally, a third challenge in close connection with the previous mentioned challenges is the challenge of doing, of praxis, as the primary value. By praxis here, I refer all sorts of practice—all the way from the kind that is self-justifying as a result of the divinization of technology to that which is recognized in a revolutionary situation. This challenge suggests that only what is able to be measured in terms of efficacy and immediate utility is valid for the individual and for the community. This challenge is particularly subtle and strong when the pragmatic sense of existence is made the ideal, and the measure of a Christian’s commitment.
Who does not find here a real challenge in terms of one’s experience of God which cannot be reduced to categories of immediate human efficacy?
Certainly, the experience of God to which we have been referring is a question of commitment. The Christian’s faith is a historical faith. To know God in the purest biblical sense of the word (and the experience of God should lead to this awareness) is to obey Him, to put His will into action, to work by concretely giving one’s life for others. The verb “to do” in all its modalities (“my work,” “the work of my Father”) fills the pages of Scripture like a refrain. For John, there is no knowledge of God, no true experience of God, without concrete love.
In this sense, the religious today receives a positive and twofold call from the challenge of praxis:
First of all, the challenge of praxis gives us the opportunity to purify our experience of God from any type of evasion. We are challenged to realize that the experience of God cannot be reduced to intellectual contemplation. We are challenged to accept affectively the liberating presence of God among us. But any acceptance of God that is merely conceptual or merely affective will not be likely to involve a growing closer to God as understood by the Fathers of the Church and by the Christian tradition in general.
The authentic experience of God is irreconcilable with any types of escapism or migration to other worlds. It requires a radical commitment with this world. Even contemplative religious life justifies itself in terms of the kingdom. The religious—precisely as one “bound” to God and wrapped up in this profound and all-encompassing (totalizante) experience we’ve been considering—cannot surrender any part of his or her life to the demoniacal forces that attempt to enslave it; whether it be in the areas of culture, of politics, of social change, of the family. The intention of a religious is, as it was in the life of St. Paul, that in all the fundamental areas of life God may be all in all things.
The religious’ experience of God will bring him to a variety of forms of active insertion in and daily solidarity with salvation history—which is profane history given its new meaning in Jesus of Nazareth, in the Christ-event that illuminates everything, including suffering and death, and opens all of history to a most firm hope. In this way, history is transformed into a movement, or an effort to recognize that one’s true and first claim to worth is as a child of God and to recognize this same inherent value effectively in other people. Our challenge is to read history this way and to be of help in the reading of others’. Our challenge is to make history this way. That is the service specifically required of religious on the strength of their personal experience of God.
But there is a second opportunity that calls to the religious through the challenge and renewed importance of praxis: that is the opportunity to transcend it.
Certainly an experience of God that carries one no further than the mere human word or that proclaims itself only in gesture or in ritual or in magic—in the “security of the Law”—will never be authentic. “Your hearts are far from me.” But, at the same time, neither will work alone do. Praxis, as pure praxis, doesn’t contain the redemptive or liberating power that is attributed to it. Nor does this power come to it solely on the grounds that the work is done for people. Christian doing, that active presence of being in the world with and for others, is valid if one is of God without ambiguity and if one acts on behalf of others as God, without any reductionism. In other words, one has to enter into the structure of the Incarnation, which is not politics but gospel, which is not social functioning but life between brothers and sisters, which is liberation not merely from one manifestation of slavery but from all forms of it, which is not the defense of individual human rights but the affirmation of the whole person and community and an announcement of obligations (Beatitudes). Only praxis that is transcendent in this way becomes qualified for a deep vision of humanity, which is the vision from the perspective of God, the perspective of Love. Only such a praxis is finally and radically capable of changing our world and of making it possible for the resurrection to enter into our world as a basic category of human existence.
Then praxis becomes a constitutive dimension of our very experience of God and it continually renourishes that experience from the concrete instances and events of life itself.
There are, beyond any doubt, many other challenges that constitute new opportunities for religious today. For example, there is the dangerous challenge towards the privatization of religion and of the person’s experience of God. This tends to go together with the making private of the gospel as if the gospel were just an interior matter or a question of personal conscience. But here too lies a vigorous opportunity for us to be inspired by the Spirit and to rediscover the communal dimension of the experience of God; the word of God as it is given to us is the communication that God makes to us of Himself (in whatever form) and is to be communicated and shared communally and publicly.
We have faced this challenge and opportunity, however, so there is no need to dwell on this issue longer. I have imposed on myself the limit of examining the principal challenges that face the experience of God today in terms of each person which as should be obvious, hasn’t a thing to do with that sort of individualism that attempts to camouflage itself as an authentic experience of God.
Other challenges (situations of exile of de-institutionalization, even of persecution) communicate themselves to us in a crucial moment such that they clearly speak to us by themselves as stimuli to God rather than as obstacles. But, though we haven’t directly touched on these, they are taken up under the three fundamental challenges we’ve examined in this paper, challenges which are both new in their manifestations and yet as old as the history of humanity (surprisingly, we could turn at this point to Genesis).
V. The Experience of God in Jesus Christ
Now, it is unimaginable (and even impossible) that there be an experience of God which meets this three-fold challenge, and which grows deeply by means of this triple opportunity, that is not at the same time an experience of God in Jesus Christ.
The God of mystery who is “always greater” is known to us by means of His Son and by those “to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” And this God who is “always necessary” is, in Jesus Christ, the strength of the weak Church. The Church, with the powerless people, finds that it has no true power except that found “in the name of Jesus Christ,” “the strength of God and the wisdom of God.” Jesus Christ is the concrete commitment of God with people; he is the living praxis of God. Today and always, any legitimate experience of God will be given to us in a religious experience of Jesus Christ.
The mediation of Christ is an infinite gift of mercy, because, in it, God makes it possible for people to go to Him. And it is also an infinite paradox in that it is through a man that God, who is inaccessible, is reached. There continues the permanent possibility of scandal, because the Christ event seems to humanize God and to place a man between God and us. All the humility as well as all the boldness of our faith is here committed; a person is saved by truly believing in Jesus Christ who is the Son of God. Consequently, any true relationship with the true God is realized through Jesus Christ; it will begin in Christ and will find fulfilment in the Spirit sent by the Son in whom we find the Father. A person exists as a creature in Christ through whom everything was created; as one saved in Christ through whom all people were saved; as a son in Christ in whom all filiation begins and culminates; as a brother in Christ in whom all communion is based and unfolds. All Christian experience inscribes itself within these constitutive relationships, and faith is the affirmation of our ontological and spiritual immanence with Christ; faith is taking conscious account of our rootedness and grounding in the love of Christ.
Faith in Jesus Christ, when understood as the existential gathering together of all that the gift—God is in His communication to people, this word (the Word), is the essential newness of Christianity and is that which distinguishes Christianity from all other religions and from all other humanisms. From all other religions, because in the center we find the man-Jesus as presence and revelation of absolute meaning and of history itself; and from all humanisms in that the reason for the infinite importance of each individual comes not from the person alone, but from the person’s rootedness in God. This experience of faith takes the form of a scandal and provokes the accusation of atheists against Christians according to the same logic that condemned Christ to death for blasphemy.
Therefore, there can be no authentic Christian experience of God outside the irreducible affirmation of the historicity of Jesus Christ and of the revelation that is made to us through Him, just as there can be no experience of the divinity of Jesus Christ outside of or above His human existence, but only within it. In Jesus Christ, the presence of God is not made manifest through reality only in order to carry us off into a mythical “beyond.” Rather, paradoxically, God becomes identified with historical existence without being determined by it. God opens and carries history towards its maximum capacity, to the acceptance of the total and gratuitous communication of the love of God. In Jesus Christ, our existence remains forever open to the encounter with and the experience of God; His life has become ours.
The reality of Christ’s life, common to all Christians, takes on a specific density in the life of religious, because of their fundamental option for Jesus Christ on the basis of a religious experience that gave birth to and which constantly nourishes that option each day.
It is from this experience of Jesus, whenever it is profoundly realized, that a new reading of reality and of the human person is provided. In the light of the Jesus-of-Nazareth event, every human being emerges with the quality of an absolute. Everyone becomes someone for whom it is worthwhile to give one’s own life, to die. This is another aspect of that newness that situates Christianity light-years ahead of any other religion or philosophy, past or future, in the history of the human race.
The person who has experienced God in Jesus finds himself in exceptional conditions for engaging fully in an experience of man. By being an “expert” regarding God, one succeeds in being an expert with regard to being human. No outlook exists that is more penetrating into human life, even in its most helpless manifestations in the life of the “least.” It is precisely in this vision of the “least” where the highpoint of an authentically Christian experience of God will take place: “whenever you do it for the least … to me.”
And although the experience of Christ is not exhausted in the experience of the poor, it is a fact that the poor continue to be a privileged place for this experience of God. Among other reasons, here faith becomes great faith and the mystery of God in the poor becomes more mysterious. God’s strength is more strengthening in the weakness of the little ones. Whoever enters into this sort of special experience of God does so not on his or her own initiative, but always as one who has been loved first.
The authentic experience of God, furthermore, never becomes closed in upon itself. It opens out into an endless spiral. And the poor (and here I give the term its broadest meaning) become a true “locus theologicus” towards an inexhaustible discovery of the novelty that is God in Jesus Christ. This newness is like a shining light that illumines everything, giving an unaccustomed and more incisive clarity to it all. The word of God which has been read a thousand times and listened to in silence takes on a new color. When faith is lived from this experience of the poor, the testimony seems to be unanimous, and I read again from one such testimony from a religious worker in the slums:
The New Testament was born in poor, small communities dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, threatened by persecution and constantly suspected and despised. If the Scriptures appear to us difficult to understand, it need not be on account of insufficient exegesis, but could well be explained by something entirely different: the situation in which we live. The oppressed understand the language of the oppressed and marginated society. Are we able to understand the gospel by reading it from a privileged position within the system, from within a position of power or security or institution?
Reading the word of God from the perspective of the oppressed allows us to contemplate its newness and difference, to be surprised by the Word incarnate. Here where the human being is most stepped upon and destroyed, here where the mechanisms of oppression are overwhelming, right here the salvific grace of Christ is made manifest with forcefulness. Christ, torn from this world through the violence of the powerful, thrown into a sealed and guarded tomb, who went down into the very depth of human misery, is reborn today as saving good news in the heart of the poor. Our attitude is one of giving name and face to this anonymous hope that so many years of human exploitation has failed to extinguish. The hope re-emerges as does a flame out of ashes, from the lives of the oppressed: the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth today.
Thus we become “witnesses to the resurrection” not only to the resurrection of the historical Christ, but of our brother who today is reborn from among the dead, from the sepulcher of oppression by means of the saving power of the Spirit in midst of the community that accepts His word and His risen life. He was dead and has risen. We have seen him and recognized him.
The quote is a long one, but worthwhile, I believe. This experience of what it is to be human, this experience of the poor in which the religious becomes intimately involved, is an experience of the Incarnation, finding Christ in the poor. The religious becomes, then, experientially learned not only in God but also in humanity.
This unique dialogue is now possible, a dialogue which is at once concrete and tangible in action, while being also mystical in word, prayer and ritual, always indivisible without cracks or contradictions. Both the word and the action are given in service because they are received as gifts, expressions of the love (agape) of God and they provoke love (agape) on the part of people.
The work of the Christian has one aim: to build up Christ in all fullness. The constructive power in this building effort is agape. It is, in effect, the only true creative power in the new universe and in the People of God. Agape creates and recreates; it brings newness into existence and it sustains all growth. A power of divine origin, it unites the Father with the Son and with the Spirit, and it gathers us into a participation in this communion of love. Agape became most manifest and given as gift in Christ, in the Spirit which enables the expression and prolongation of Christ in us, his members. The whole Christ enters into relationship with the Father as Son; and as Son, Christ is for all of us, his brothers and sisters, the principle of salvation, divinization, and union with the Father. Brought together in the Spirit of Christ and incorporated into the humanity of Christ, we all participate in a twofold impulse: as sons and daughters of God we are given into the love that unites Christ with the Father, and as brothers and sisters of Christ we are joined with all people in the salvific love of God. Rooted in this love, ours is the responsibility to express this love in our lives, to extend this love to all people. And this is what it is to build up Christ.
In conclusion, the religious is made into an expert regarding God and an expert regarding what is human according to the measure with which the experience of Jesus Christ forms the heart of one’s experience of God. Because of its obscurity today, allow me to say a word or two more about this.
Certain theologies or Christologies, stemming out of a new rationalism, tend to tear the seamless tunic that is the reality of Jesus Christ, the true God-man. These Christologies may be quite learned at the level of the human word about God, but they do not seem to witness to the Word as manifested, transmitted, and believed. Any denial of Jesus as true God and true man cannot help but affect those for whom Jesus Christ is the fundamental model and option, and they have their effect not only in terms of one’s experience of God but also in terms of our experience of humanity.
Here again we have a great opportunity for the religious today: the opportunity of molding a theology that is the fruit of the humble acceptance of the word at prayer, a true “confession” of Jesus Christ as our fundamental choice, our joy and freedom, “as the opportunity provides itself.” Beyond any doubt, this is the “greater service” that religious can offer to the world of post-capitalism and post-Marxism.
The neo-believer, survivor of every form of materialism, a person internally free from the chains of social, political, and ideological dictatorship, will be the person whose life is a question for others and for himself. This person will live concerned about others and, at the same time, will live transcendently and interiorly. Questions will flow as to who he or she is: “What are you doing? Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” (The concern being with the quality of life). And at a later step or moment, the questions will go something like: “Why do you live this way? How do you justify your existence?”
We should be happy if our lives as religious surface such questions in the people around us, and we should be worried if our lives don’t pose a question. The mere question already reflects the presence of a silent, but nonetheless clear, proclamation of the Good News.
This topic is inexhaustible, but our time is not. What we have been dealing with here is the very nucleus of religious life in any age, but our future is especially contingent upon this. If religious life is not an unmistakable confession and announcement of Jesus Christ, we have every reason to justly worry—and we have the obligation to reorient our lives sincerely, particularly in this area of the experience of God, because it is there where the truest part of ourselves is touched by the Word of God.
Looking at the recent wear and tear within religious life, there are some who suggest we’ve been over-denunciatory. Not that we should fail to “denounce” to the north as well as to the south, the east and the west. But, if our denouncing fails to move beyond the expression of our repressed aggressions and if it fails to be, at the same time, an expression of joy, even the most generous efforts terminate in burn-out. Others, rather, will state and emphasize in the other direction that, by purely “announcing,” we’ve often become accomplices to unjust situations. This could well be the case. But then we have no right to glory in the preaching of the true gospel. The causes in this case are a lack of creativity and our inertia.
From one angle or another, we are certainly moved and impelled to evaluate our experience of God in Jesus in a new light. And at stake in all this, evidently, will be the strength for martyrdom, for public proclamation of Jesus Christ who has revealed to us both God and man completely.
The power behind this sort of sign, testimony and response within religious life is—as it was in the lives of our founders—in proportion to our integration of service and surrender to people with the indivisible act of humble praise of God who is mystery and yet who shares our history. In order to achieve this integration which must be accomplished in the heart of each person, the contemplative potential of religious life is going to have to be unleashed thus enabling us to see Christ in the silence of our rooms, in the traffic of daily life, in the suffering of a hospital, in a slum, in the yearnings of science.
It is not easy to reproduce the traditional structures of time and of space that were previously part of religious life. A spirituality of practices at fixed times and places is neither sufficient nor even possible. Similarly, a spirituality of “get filled up with Christ” in order to then “serve others” is inadequate. Rather, we seek a spirituality that fits within the community and within a commitment in history alongside the oppressed. The face of the poor will unfold the power behind the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and will assist us towards making the move from death to life.
Consequently, the long moments of silence, retreats, moments of prayer within the religious community must not be “taking leave from” the pastoral work, but must constitute the “desert” where we find ourselves face-to-face with God and where everything we have seen and heard in the community regarding the Word of Life finds resonance.
I’ve cited these words once again of a religious among Latin America’s poorest simply as one of many such testimonies of this effort, which we have to intensify, to unloose the potential for contemplation within apostolic religious life.
I am finishing with this: Prophecy today (and religious life is a privileged place for prophecy within the Church) must be born of an experience of God that very much takes in the experience of a people. Legitimate prophecy has always developed in this way. To both prophet and people, the Lord moves when he makes sacred. Therefore, in spite of the dangerous challenges—I should say precisely through them—we inherit this hour for the sake of a renewed experience of God in the very heart of modernity, an epoch that groans under the continued slavery of people. And this our lot we share with the prophets, who likewise were impelled by the invading, irresistible, and most personal presence of the Lord in each of them.
Challenge to Religious Life Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—I, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1979, “Our Experience of God Today and the Challenges and Opportunities Facing Religious Life,” pg. 201–226.