Second of two posts looking ahead to the new liturgical year and making new (church) year’s resolutions. For the earlier post, link HERE.
Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for Friday poses a theological question I want to work on in the coming year. I don’t know exactly what to call it, and I want to move it out of the realm of precise definitions and abstract theological speculation anyway. It has to do with the nature of God, and our relationship with God. Beyond that, I don’t know how to define it. But I’ve encountered it in Lutheran and Russian Orthodox writers as well as Catholics.
Since I don’t have the right words for it, I’ll let Rohr — or a a member of his editorial team who wrote the editor’s note for his meditation — identify the issue. It’s titled “God is Present in All,” and the headnote promises:
In keeping with his Franciscan tradition, Father Richard teaches that we can find God’s freely given image in all of creation, beginning with ourselves!
In the meditation itself, Rohr suggests “a mantra that we might repeat throughout our day: ‘God’s life is living itself in me. I am aware of life living itself in me’.” He goes on to say:
We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God, even as we read these words. This not some New Age idea; recall St. Patrick’s (c. 373–c. 463) blessing, “God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you.”
God within you. That reminds me of something else — I grew up with an Anglican hymn based on St. Patrick’s breastplate, as “Christ be with me, Christ within me, / Christ behind me, Christ before me […] Christ in hearts of all that love me, / Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” So we can chalk up one more faith tradition. This idea of the presence of God within us, or whatever you call it, isn’t shared by everyone. But it’s nothing if not ecumenical.
Once I can see the Mystery here, and trust the Mystery even in this piece of clay that I am, then I can also see it in you. We are eventually able to see the divine image within ourselves, in each other, and in all things. Finally, the seeing is one. How we see anything is how we will see everything..
In another meditation, on the related theme of “Incarnation and Indwelling,” Rohr puts it more succinctly. Saying God is both “out there” and “in here,” he says it all comes down to experience:
Transformation comes by realizing your union with God right here, right now—regardless of any performance or achievement on your part. That is the core meaning of grace. But you have to know this for yourself. No one can do this knowing for you. I could tell you that God is not elsewhere and heaven is not later, but until you come to personally and regularly experience that, you will not believe it.
God is not elsewhere, and heaven is not later. The idea that God is everywhere, and therefore the spirit of Christ dwells in within all of God’s creatures, is typically Franciscan, as that editor’s note Friday reminds us, but it’s shared by other Christian mystics.
In fact Rohr sounds almost Lutheran here. God is present with us, now and forever. Regardless of our performance or achievement. By grace. A school of Lutheran theologians in Finland has a similar take on things, saying God is indeed within us. They would add by grace through faith.
A side trip into Lutheran theology
The Finns get off in the weeds (I think) of high theological concepts like justification by faith and imputed righteousness. But, hey, they’re theology professors. It comes with the territory. The founder of the group, Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki, who got involved with it in dialog with Russian Orthodox theologians, paraphrases Luther like this: “When a human being believes in Christ, Christ is present, in the very fullness of his divine and human nature, in that faith itself.” While it’s controversial, I think Mannermaa and the Finns are onto something here. I’d never known it before, but there’s a mystical side to Luther (I blogged about it HERE last year). It’s controversial, but it’s fascinating.
I think may even be liberating if I follow through on my reading.
There’s a passage in Luther’s Freedom of a Christian that points in this direction (I copied it from the Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, last year in an unfinished blog post): “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbour.” But he said that in 1520, early in his career, and only rarely returned to the idea in later years. Nor is Mannermaa’s school of theology accepted by all Lutherans.
Back where the rubber meets the road
Rohr isn’t averse to a little theologizing himself, and there’s a mystical turn to his writing that people like me, who pride themselves on being skeptical and practical-minded, sometimes have a hard time following. But in Friday’s meditation, he’s careful to ground his mantra — “God’s life is living itself in me. I am aware of life living itself in me” — in daily life.
And he grounds it in the Franciscan charism of ministering to the poor, the neglected, and all of God’s creation. After all, the retreat he founded in Albuquerque is called the Center for Action and Contemplation. Not just contemplation. He says:
Jesus pushes this seeing to the social edge. Can we recognize the image of Christ in the least of our fellow human beings? That is his only description of the final judgment (see Matthew 25). Nothing about ten commandments, nothing about church attendance—simply a matter of our ability to see. Can we meet Christ in the “nobodies” who can’t play our game of success? In those who cannot reward us in return? When we see the image of God where we are not accustomed to seeing the image of God, then we see with the infinitely tender eyes of God
Rohr takes it a step further. We should love our enemies, he says, because they’re part of God’s creation:
Logically that makes no sense. Yet soulfully it makes absolute sense, because in terms of the soul, it really is all or nothing. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we end up not seeing it very well at all. There is a first epiphany, and gradually the circle keeps moving outward, widening its embrace. It is almost the core meaning of a whole and holy life!
What does that look like? Maybe this — a stylized picture of St Francis face-to-face with a wolf, with a bird perched above the saint’s shoulder and a squirrel frisking in the tree above him.
The picture (copied at the head of this post) is taken from a mural at the St. Francis Inn, a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. It illustrates the legend of the wolf of Gubbio in the Little Flowers of St. Francis, and it was posted to a website called Creative Commons Prayer that provides free content under Creative Commons licensing. When I found it, my main interest was in looking for artwork to illustrate this post. But I think the story fits here thematically.
It’s typical of the legends in the Little Flowers a 14th-century hagiography. The wolf has been terrorizing Gubbio, an Italian village; St. Francis goes up to the wolf, makes the sign of the cross and says, “Come hither, brother wolf; I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor anybody else.” The wolf complies; the townspeople agree to feed him; and they all live in harmony till the wolf dies of old age — “and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of the virtue and sanctity of Saint Francis.”
Clearly we’re not entirely in the realm of observable historical fact here. Nor are we in the realm of theological disputation. But I think we’re well within the realm of legend, when you strictly define it, as Wikipedia does, as “a reaffirmation of commonly held values of the group to whose tradition it belongs.” And I think seeing the image of God in brother wolf, brother squirrel and all of our brothers and sisters in all of God’s creation — including what Rohr calls “this piece of clay that I am” — is one of those commonly held values.
I have more questions about all of this than I have answers, but we’re definitely within the realm of things I want to work on in the coming year.
“Prayers in Public: St. Francis Mural,” Creative Commons Prayer, Sept. 27, 2017 https://www.creativecommonsprayer.com/public/st-francis-mural/.
Richard Rohr, God is Present in All,” Daily Meditations, Center for Action and Contemplation, Dec. 3, 2021 https://cac.org/god-is-present-in-all-2021-12-03/.
__________. “Incarnation and Indwelling,” Daily Meditations, Center for Action and Contemplation, Nov. 20, 2017 https://cac.org/incarnation-and-indwelling-2017-11-20/.
[Published Dec. 5, 2021; revised Jan. 16, 2022]