Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Unitive Experience: A Personal Reflection

While I do not “feel” God all the time I acknowledge that when I turn my gaze toward Him most often His Presence comes rushing in.  I have always attributed that to the experience of the Holy Spirit six weeks after my conversion.  It was an experience of complete abandonment in the Presence of God.  It came unsought, pure infused grace after a year of wrestling with purgation.  Infused grace is that grace which comes as pure gift, poured on one seemingly without conscious preparation.  Purgation is a season of self-discovery under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and ends in penitence and confession.

The purgative stage was cyclical and I was through sorrow and the experience of guilt and alienation from God gradually led to such a place of self-awareness that I abandoned all and cast myself in utter trust on the mercy and love of God.  The moment of surrender and final confession opened a door into an immediate sense of the Presence of God without guilt, and without recrimination.

I had no words for the deeper experience that came six weeks later.  Eventually Charismatic theology and the words of Scripture would identify the experience as the Baptism with the Holy Spirit.  Such an identification however falls short in understanding the essence of the encounter.  An older theology would have understood it as an experience of being rapt in God that issued in a sense of being at unity with God, of oneness, a lostness in the enrapturing Presence that for those moments removed me from all awareness of my surroundings and held me tossed to and fro in the ocean of God’s boundless love.  The circumstances are not as important as the event itself.  It happened in the midst of a superficial community that was accepting at least that such things could and should happen.  But the experience itself was intensely personal and removed me emotionally, spiritually, and it seemed physically from the community itself.

Basically such an experience is word based and perhaps even the result of acquired grace.  For me the experience was preceded by avid and disciplined reading of the New Testament and by exposure to the Psalms, particularly expressions like the old Scot’s Psalter tune for Psalm 42, “As pants the heart for cooling streams When heated in the chase, So longs my soul, O God, for Thee, And Thy refreshing grace.”

 Some of the mystics would have identified it as an experience of initiatory grace.  Initiatory grace is that grace we sometimes experience at the very beginning of our spiritual journey giving us a foretaste of spiritual delights and drawing us on into disciplines that prepare us for acquired grace.  Although acquired grace is itself a gift, it is experientially the immersion in the Presence that comes in response to quiet discipline.

Certainly it was initiatory grace, but it marked me forever and left within me a spiritual and emotional receptor, a doorway for the Presence of God.  It had nothing to do with worthiness.  “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and Your servant shall be healed.”  To my sorrow and occasional confusion I grieve that I am so slow in responding obedience, but I hasten to add that whatever obedience I have is responsive by nature.  The experience left me with a sense of unity with God that fades and then is renewed in the ebb and flow of my experience of God’s love and grace in rhythm with my ongoing process of self-discovery and penitence.  The experience of unity with God has also marked me with a willingness for abandonment with God.  I would not want to be tempted to abandon the experience of the Presence which comes as pure gift, even in those times when on the surface it seems to be acquired grace. 

I have had dark nights of the soul since then, some of them unsought, some blundered into.  What I have learned is that God loves me, in tune, out of tune, at all times and delights to have me know that love.  His love precedes and transcends my transformation.  The issues of the human soul move very slowly and God will not await our timing but takes us to His bosom, as we are, in transition, in partial and sometimes inadequate, very inadequate states of sanctification.  That is what the blood of Christ is for, cleansing and purifying even as it makes this union with God a possibility.

I am at a loss to describe the experience of His Presence.  I feel enveloped.  I would say I feel loved, but how does one feel loved?  To be sure it is subjective, but nonetheless it is so persistent and sometimes so pervasive that it cannot be denied.  It is Divine hands upon my shoulders, Divine breath breathed deeply in.  It is comfort, peace, and at times physical warmth.  It is more than subjective.  It is an inner knowing, a receiving of the immanent God, “a golden breathable medium.”  I relax into it and am still.  I pick up the Scripture or my Psalter, or a book written by another child of God and feel the Presence spilling from the pages into my very soul.  I pick up my pen and write, or write even on the computer knowing all the time that He is with me.  I experience Him with the same clarity that I experience the others whom I love. 

I acknowledge that it is not something that I have done although on another level I have allowed myself to thirst for Him and for His Presence.  How should it by otherwise?  The words of an old hymn come back, “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seeking Him seeking me.”  At times I have hesitated.  At other times I have drifted away.  But, by grace, in the final analysis I respond to Him with the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”                                                                                                                                                                               ~ The Rev. Canon Dr. Robin P. Smith, Oblate OSB

Copyright © 2016 Robin P. Smith

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wondrous Love

The greatest wonder of my life is that of being loved. 
The love that I have known did not come by heritage. 
It flowed not from the wellspring of my earthly parentage,
      but from a deeper purer well. 
Sin makes one obdurate, one’s own sin and the sin of others.
      My heart was adamantine,
      closed by the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. 
His love is pure,
      a richly flowing stream
      from the wounds in his hands, his feet, his side. 
His love is not in words alone, but
      in a work of such profound humility
      that he left the throne at his Father’s side
            and was born one of us. 
      Bone of our bone,
      flesh of our flesh,
            broken for us and for all who will receive him. 
He is my steadfast love, he who loved me so
To him alone I open my heart and pray in wonder and awe,
      “Enter in and take your place on the throne of my life
            even as you have risen and ascended
            and taken your seat at your Father’s right hand.”
      “Whom have I in heaven but thee,
        and having thee there is nothing upon earth that I desire.”

Monday, March 7, 2016

Death Is Not Death

My spiritual journey has brought me into a liturgical Church and to making an Oblation in a specific Benedictine Monastery, but when I was at the very beginning of my Christian journey I asked our Scots Presbyterian minister, “What happens to you when you die?  The basic answer that he gave was that when you die, your body lies mouldering in the grave until the day of resurrection when the saints rise from the grave and ascend to meet Christ in the skies.  This is a very popular answer among some evangelicals, but it is based on a false premise.  I remember that at the time the answer seemed perfectly beastly. 

This scenario is drawn from a dispensationalist view of the return of Christ; the theory being that the saints living on earth are raptured before the Great Tribulation, and the saints who have died and have been lingering in the grave are resurrected at the same time.  This has raised anxieties for some who worry about whether or not cremation creates problems with the resurrection or what happens if a body is scattered over the earth.  This interpretation is held by a number of Baptist and independent Bible Churches but was not popularized until the 19th Century; and has not been held by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion or most Protestant Calvinist churches. The basic reason is that there are no references in the early church Fathers for this and the biblical foundation for the view is weak.

The most popular text referenced for this view is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.  For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” 

This we are told means that the dead in Christ remain in the grave until he comes again; but that ignores the immediate context in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him,” and an earlier text in 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, “And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.”  In both of those texts we are told that the saints are going to return with Christ when he comes, and our comfort is that while they are asleep to us, they are alive to God and they will accompany Him when He returns to claim his own.

The basic view of Holy Scripture is that when we die we enter into the rest of God Himself. “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9-10).  This does not mean that when we die our rest renders us unconscious in deep sleep, unless you think that God himself rests in that manner.  That rest the saints enter into, is the Sabbath rest that God Himself enjoys.

As Anglicans our understanding of what happens when we die is reflected in a prayer from the Burial Office, “Remember thy servant, O Lord, according to the favour which thou bearest unto thy people; and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, he may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The prayer is representative of the basic view of The Book of Common Prayer which assumes that on dying Christians enter immediately into eternal life.

This also coincides with the teaching of Jesus when He is confronted by the Sadducees, “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32).  This tells us two things: first, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive, and second, that they have already been resurrected.  This is also illustrated by the Transfiguration.  Moses and Elijah appear in visible form and speak with Jesus about His exodus which He was about to accomplish.  The Book of Revelation, written for the comfort and encouragement of Christians in a time of persecution also treats the martyrs beneath the altar in physical form wearing white robes, and they are told that the number of martyrs is not yet complete.

What then do we do with biblical concept of the resurrection of the saints?  In order to understand this one has to understand the relationship of time and eternity.  Time is created by God, and as His creation we dwell in time, but God Himself is not time bound but He dwells in eternity.  When we die we step out of time and we step into God’s eternity and all things are present to us, including the return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints.  

This is the view held by C. S. Lewis and unfolded in the Narnia Tales in “The Last Battle.”  The children who die in the last battle step right into the resurrection and are physically present in glorified bodies with capabilities far outstripping what they had when they were time bound on earth, or in Narnia.  At death, time and the physical limitations of this earth are annihilated and we enter our inheritance fully resurrected, fully physical, and more than physical. The model for this is the bodily resurrection of Jesus, our forerunner.

The view that when we die we lie mouldering in the grave until the resurrection makes the mistake of assuming that eternity is an extension of time.  It is not, and the day will come when we too will step out of time and into the amazement of eternity.
Death is not death, and therefore do I hope:

   Nor silence silence: and I therefore sing
      A very humble hopeful quiet psalm,
   Searching my heart-field for an offering;
A handful of sun-courting heliotrope,
   Of myrrh a bundle, and a little balm.1

1Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 392