Even the casual reader of the Jewish scriptures or the Christian Old Testament are familiar with the stories of the men and women who are routinely identified as our ancestors in faith. Most people are familiar with the patriarch Abraham and his invitation to be in covenant with the Lord (Genesis 15). Most also know the story of Sarah, who receives the gifts of fertility and the birth of a child long past the normal age (Genesis 21:1ñ7). Still others will easily recall the story of Jacob as he wrestles with an angel and enjoys the vision of a ladder of angels going up and coming down from the heavens (Genesis 32:23ñ31). Other great personages of the Bible also emerge with their stories including Noah, Cain and Abel, Ruth, Rebecca, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, and the prophet Jonah and the whale, just to name a few.
When I, not unlike many other people, read and reflect on these stories, I easily sense the awe and wonder, the moments of grace that are necessarily part of the encounter with the sacred and the profound. At the same time, however, I also experience another feeling. There is often within me a kind of longing mixed with a certain kind of questioning. ìWhy does it seem so different today?î
The men and women of the Bible experienced an almost effortless encounter with the divine and the sacred. It seemed they never were surprised when they encountered God or one of God’s angels. They almost expect such encounters and experiences of God. That doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the fact that they are blessed and chosen. In this month’s reflection, my intention is to illustrate what seems to be an experience of God that is in stark contrast to our experience.
The experience of the sacred and the profound is not denied to people today, but it is also not routine. We don’t easily bump up against the sacred. We don’t normally encounter one of God’s angels. We have to seek out the holy. In contrast to the experience of our ancestors in faith, it seems we choose to prioritize our time and portion some of it to our church, our community, and our life of prayer. More often than not, if we spend a restless night, we’re not wrestling with God but more than likely with a specific anxiety or frustration that emerges from our life. Unfortunately, it seems that stress is often more recognizable than the sacred.
A partial truth can emerge as we meditate and pray about our relationship with God. Is it possible
that perhaps what has changed in the relationship is not God but us? In the ordinary times of our life, have we given up the expectation that we might encounter the divine and the graced moment? Have we gotten to the point where we might learn to compartmentalize and organize a little more than necessary? Is it possible that we may have used some of our gifts while at the same time ignoring other gifts and, in the process, lost something of importance?
I don’t believe this change in our focus was deliberate, nor do I believe the men and women of the Bible were any more holy than us. Something has happened to us, not a result of a decision, but rather as a consequence of the accumulation of past choices and decisions that define who we are and how we are formed.
The reason we don’t routinely encounter the sacred and the divine is because we’re no longer convinced it’s possible. We have succumbed to a vision of life that suggests there is a proper time and place for everything. Spontaneity is often mistrusted. We tend to dislike being surprised. We want to understand the result of something before we commit to proceed. Some of us have become so protected, so isolated, and so sheltered that it might seem impossible to experience anything other than that which is already present to us.
Perhaps we need to refocus our attention and perhaps shift some of our priorities. If we desire to encounter the sacred and awe-inspiring presence of God, we must desire to place ourselves into a position where it is at least possible. Thankfully we do not have to go very far in order to encounter the possibility of a profound experience of God. God surrounds us, and grace is everywhere when we are open to the experience of encountering it.
For the people of God who suffer with scrupulosity, the desire to encounter God in a profound manner is often complicated by the disorder from which they suffer. Scrupulosity has a way of scrambling the truth and forcing experiences and emotions through the tight and disfiguring lens of sin. The result is not a celebration of grace and the mystery of God but rather the experience of fear and anxiety. In such a state, God seems far away.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I believe God is very much present in the experience of scrupulosity. I understand that the experience of the disorder can be a gateway to deeper faith and a profound experience of grace. What is required is resisting the temptation to label the intensity of the experience as somehow sinful. Instead, recognize the power of God and the presence of grace.
I can say this because I know that scrupulous people are extremely sensitive to the experience of God in their lives. They are so sensitive that they desire, above all else, not to offend God. Scrupulosity is not a sensitivity to sin but rather a sensitivity to the presence of God and the work of grace. Scrupulosity obscures the presence of God, but it cannot keep a person from God’s presence or separate anyone from the experience of God’s grace.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR