Face to face
Our world abounds with wonders and marvels. The most amazing of them all is our ability to know and love; and to be known and loved.
But known and loved by whom?
On more than one occasion I have said that our awareness can reach unexpected depths. I was talking about the mystery of meeting God, of meeting Love himself.
When we pursue awareness to its end it will become encounter. Encounter begins by our observing objects more clearly. It makes us relate to persons like ourselves more fully. But it does not stop there. Ultimately we will meet Reality itself from whom all personhood derives.
At times, in prayer, we are filled with a sudden awareness: God is here with me! God touches me! It is a precious moment we should treasure.
But is it all?
It is one thing to become aware of God in general, it is quite another to meet God face to face.
Can we ever come face to face with God?
It is a valid question.
After all, God is the Ultimate Truth, the Supreme Spirit, the Ground of all Being, the Source of all Love. Can we ever meet God on a level so to say, visibly, tangibly, unmistakably?
The answer is: Yes, we can - to some extent. But it requires that we understand two realities: becoming flesh and becoming sign.
One word for becoming flesh is 'incarnation'. For God to become visible God has, as it were, to assume the reality of body. The Gospel says: 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1,14).
Concepts of incarnation are found in other religions too, but it has been developed most strongly in Christianity.
On the next pages I will outline how Christians know God in their daily lives. If you are a Christian, or want to know more about the Christian experience, you will learn from what saints and mystics tell us. If you are not a Christian, you may find similar experiences in your own religious tradition.
For Christians, Jesus Christ is the incarnated presence of God among us.
We should not interpret this simplistically. Jesus was human in all respects. But we believe that in this human individual God somehow showed himself/herself to us. By knowing Jesus we can know what God is like. By discovering Jesus' attitude of love, we grasp that God, in essence, is love.
As Jesus says in John's Gospel:
'Who sees me, sees the Father' (John 14,7-9).
'If you hear me speak, it is my Father you hear speaking' (John 7,16).
Believing that Jesus is the human face of God may seem hard to accept. Why would God manifest himself/herself like that, we might think. But then, if God does exist and wants to communicate with us in a more direct, human fashion, who are we to exclude the possibility?
The fact is that innumerable Christians over the past twenty centuries have felt closer to God because they believed Jesus Christ is truly 'God with us' (Matthew 1,23). Hundreds of millions still believe so today. They are convinced that in Jesus they know God and meet God in a very intimate way. And it is here that we need to introduce the word sacrament.
God in people we meet
Sacrament literally means 'holy image', 'symbol of what is sacred'.
Jesus himself, when he lived and worked in Palestine, was, we believe, a sacrament, a holy sign, of God's presence. But his sacramental presence did not cease. It continues today.
For one thing, Jesus' presence continues in other people.
Jesus told us that whatever we do to any other human being, we do to him. And that means we do it to God. When we give someone food or drink, when we nurse the sick or comfort the bereaved, our love is love shown to God. 'Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me' (Matthew 25,31-46). So every human face has symbolically become the face of God.
How does this happen?
It is obvious that when we help another human being, we confirm our relationship to that person. Our 'touching' another person is a genuine act of love for him or her. But the event can also become a sign. This happens when all of a sudden we begin to realise that through this human contact we are reaching out to someone much greater, namely God.
The Gospel tells us that when Jesus was led away to be crucified, some of the local women wept openly (Luke 23,27-31). According to an ancient legend, one of them wiped Jesus' face with a cloth. To her surprise Jesus' features remained imprinted on it. Tradition gave her the name Veronica, that is: 'the lady with the image'.
Veronica's legend is not historical, we can be sure. But it teaches a profound lesson. In an act of human kindness, of wiping the face of a prisoner led to his execution, Veronica touched more than just another human being. She touched God. And God's face stayed with her.
The same will happen to us if only we open our eyes so that we see this mysterious dimension of reality. When we touch another person in a gesture that is truly unselfish, we are reaching out to a dimension that lies beyond us. We are touching Love itself. And so the event can become a 'disclosure situation', a happening through which we become strongly aware of Christ's presence.
Becoming aware of Encounter
So how does all this apply to our moment of prayer?
When we are engaged in our silent withdrawal, when we recall the events of the day and begin to see, hear and touch with greater awareness, the deeper reality of encounter may also impinge itself on our consciousness. It may dawn on us that God was very close in what happened. And then we know we are face to face with God. There will be no doubt about it. It will overwhelm us. It will overpower us with awe, joy, a renewed sense of meaning.
And, as always in our prayer, it will make us much more sensitive to this sacred dimension in the course of our every day. We will recognise the moment when it occurs.
God reaches out to us through human contact in many other ways.
Obviously, we have to be careful here. I am not suggesting that every deed or statement by another person is a revelation from God. Far from it. What I am saying is that there is a deeper dimension to our contacts with other human beings. God is present there, and sometimes his presence can be disclosed to us through such contacts.
What is needed is discernment, and it is here that our moments of silent withdrawal can play a key role. And so will our participation in sacred ritual.
Meeting God through sacred ritual
Christian church buildings, especially in the Catholic tradition, abound with religious symbolism. Walls are covered with paintings. Stained-glass windows and carved statues of saints create an atmosphere of mystery. The ceremonies themselves are a feast of colourful signs and images. The purpose of it all is to heighten our consciousness, to make us aware of the dimension of God.
Central to Christian worship is the sacramental presence of Christ himself.
The continued presence of Christ is thus celebrated in ancient signs which bring about what they signify. Participation increases our awareness of encounter.
Our meeting God in church and our meeting God in people cannot be separated.
They are two sides of the same coin.
At the Last Supper, Jesus both instituted the eucharist and reiterated the principle of foot washing. He stated that we would be recognised as his disciples by the practice of unselfish service and genuine love. Jesus taught that the love of God and the love of other people are related and equally important. We cannot claim to love God if we do not love our neighbour. Meeting Christ in church prepares us for meeting God more distinctly in people.
What if you are not a regular churchgoer? I do believe that then you are missing out on something. On the other hand, I know that people may have cogent, personal reasons for not going to church on Sundays. Your situation at home may make it difficult. You may have found that you lack the inner spark which gives meaning to ritual.
Whatever be the case, do not on that account give up seeking 'Christ'. You too can meet Christ in a genuine encounter.
Christ on your shoulder
In this context I would like to relate another legend which is equally as unhistorical as the Veronica story and equally instructive. It concerns St.Christopher, still regarded by many as the patron saint of travellers.
Christopher, we are told, was searching for meaning in life and decided he would give his allegiance to the most powerful lord on earth. First he served a mighty king. Then he switched to the devil. Finally he discovered that the devil was afraid of Jesus Christ. So he began to look for Christ.
He tried to enter a monastery, but it did not work out. He could not get used to the recitation of psalms, the long services, the strict fasts and other practices. Then a wise monk gave him advice.
'You are a strong man', he said. 'There's a river nearby that has no bridge. Old and weak travellers who pass that way, frequently lose their lives when they try to cross over. Why don't you go to live there and help them across? I'm sure one day you'll find Christ.'
Christopher agreed. He built a hut near the river and offered assistance to travellers who needed his help. One night, while a storm was howling outside and he was fast asleep, a small boy woke him. 'Please, take me to the other side', he asked. Without hesitation, Christopher got up, lifted the boy on his shoulder and began to carry him across.
The gale blew. The rain lashed. The currents flowed with greater turbulence than ever. Christopher did not mind. What he did mind was that the child began to grow heavier and heavier with every step. Tottering under the weight, he turned his head and said: 'Who are you? It's as if I'm carrying the whole world.'
'You are!' the child replied. 'And more. You are carrying the Creator of the world.'
Christopher, whose name means Christ bearer, had actually been touching Christ all the time whenever he carried or guided people. When the moment of disclosure came, he realised this fact and came face to face with God.
This is what praying is all about.
Through silence, seeing, hearing, touching and responding, we prepare ourselves for true encounter. The encounter in turn helps us to see with greater clarity, to hear people's cry, to touch those in need and to respond with love.
What you should do
Start your inner prayer by drawing on your experiences of the day.
For the video clip from "The Seven Circles of Prayer" we obtained permission from the copyright owner Housetop. The text was taken from "Stepping into the Seven Circles of Prayer" by John Wijngaards who is also the author of this course; illustrations are by Alison Conti.