Encountering God

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

What does it mean to encounter the holy? Most of us know that it has to do with God in some form or fashion. At least, God is the primordial instance or example of the holy, and likely the source of whatever other forms of holiness that come across our path.

We know that a genuine encounter with the holy begets a sense of respect in us, and reverence, in a way that we don’t experience in our other encounters. It’s different from the wonder we feel at something new and strange, or the sense of bewilderment before the incomprehensible or exotic. There’s always a personal component to meeting the holy, but the personal factor in the holiness experience is different from that associated with coming upon a highly gifted person in the arts or sciences or the professions. In these latter instances, admiration is the more likely component of what we undergo on such occasions, but, again, that’s different from the peculiar and very special features of happening upon the holy.

Usually an encounter with the holy puts us in a passive mode. We back off from taking a leadership or aggressive stance, and choose rather a quiet, low-key, reverential attitude. We judge quiet to be more conducive to holiness than noise and loudness. We regard aggressiveness (“pushiness”)on our part is out of place, and suspect that an attitude of waiting or expectation is more conducive to a holiness event than one of barging in or trying to take control. The agency in the holiness event comes from elsewhere rather than from us, whose appropriate mode of behavior is one of waiting and watching.

So “the holy” often “breaks in” upon us like the surf washing over the beach. The beach doesn’t go out to meet the water; the water breaks in upon and floods the shoreline. All of these expressions of what the holy encompasses would be comparable to what a novelist such as Flannery O’Connor did in her frequent efforts to depict what “the holy” is, especially in her arena of interest, the personal encounter. She was gifted in highlighting the interpersonal features of a holiness episode. It did not present itself to her as an architectural or artistic event, but as an encounter with “another”, often a bizarre and unusual “other”, quite different from what we would expect a “religious” person to be.

The characters appearing in her stories are “strange” in the extreme, in fact, the last type of candidate in the world we would ever think of calling “holy”. They are bizarre, strange personifications of holiness, the likes of which we would find beyond anything associated with the holy. They look strange, their speech patterns are out of the ordinary, their modes of behavior are off the beaten path, their dress styles are ill-kempt and out of style. The last thing in the world we would think of calling them is “holy”. They are, to say the least, “different”. They move and behave outside the boundaries of what we would expect were we forewarned about meeting a holy and religious person. Her religious person would catch us “off guard”.

So, the prim, proper, orderly, and predictable are inadequate ways for her to describe what “the holy” is. She doesn’t employ a stance of reverence, respect or politeness in presenting her candidates for holiness to us. Rather, she catches us unprepared, surprising us and leading us to exclaim: “Well, I certainly didn’t expect THIS. Whoever would have thought that this character exemplifies holiness!!” He/she looks funny, talks funny, dresses funny, walks funny, behaves unpredictably. That would likely be our reaction, should any of her characters emerge from her stories to engage us. In short, they would be STRANGE.

And that, in the last analysis, is the best way of reminiscing on her presentation of “the holiness event”, should we ever have the occasion of encountering it. It is likely we could not have prepared ourselves to handle her version of a religious experience, for it would have fallen outside the framework we employ in thinking about the holy.

But, in many ways Jesus Christ epitomizes her version of the holiness event, from His birth as a baby in a shelter, to the puzzlement He induced in the temple guardians, to the “street” people He befriended in the course of His short life, and especially to the twelve unlikely candidates He invited to be His apostles, and then onto the final hours of His life, excoriated as a breaker of the law and a criminal, suffering public execution. Some of us might have thought twice about accepting the invitation to buy into the meaning of holiness in His terms. For they were indeed quite STRANGE.


God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Does God only help those who help themselves? Or does God help only those who can’t help themselves? Does God favor those who show some initiative, some “get-up and go”? Or are His favorites the lowly and the poor, the incompetent, those without initiative?

He certainly seems to favor the “go-getters”.   Jesus’ story of God’s reward system in which the king rewards those who have invested His gift of money and, in the process, doubled its amount, contrasts strongly with his response to the one who timidly protected what he/she had received, and, at the final reckoning, hesitantly returned the same amount received initially (Mt 25.14-3). For this person ended up losing what little he or she had, and falls out of favor with the king.

Or what about the final contrast at the Last Judgment when the king rewards those who went out of their way to help the indigent and needy, while those failing to act on behalf of such folk hurt their standing with the king? (Mt 25.31, ff.) But on the other hand, the Lord belittles any attempts at self-improvement we make in our regard, like adding an extra moment to our life span (Mt 6.27). And He reminds us of the futility of our efforts at gaining His attention by adding to our prayers (Mt 6.7). In these cases our attempts to help ourselves seem without much effect, and appear even futile. The bottom line seems to be that our efforts are futile. The message seems to be that what God does on our behalf counts more than our own efforts at improving our standing.

Is there a conundrum here: damned if we do, damned if we don’t? Is the message here that, if we try our very best, our efforts go for naught unless supplemented by what God does for us. But, on the other hand, if we don’t try at all, aren’t we vulnerable to God’s reproach that we will gain His forgiveness only if we forgive one another, as we pray in the Our Father? That is, His response on our behalf depends on our own action to do something, so that, if we don’t help ourselves in this matter, He will offer us no helping hand.

This may seem like we’re caught in a “gotcha” moment, whereby we lose, whatever we do or don’t do. Jesus , however, experienced comparable criticisms against Himself, on one occasion, when His healing acts were criticized because attributed not to His power but to that of the devil (Mt 12.24), and, on a later occasion (on the cross) when He was being savaged because seeming unable to come down from the cross and save Himself, i.e., as if failure to act condemned Him to a miserable condition (Mt 27.42).

But perhaps it’s not a matter of either/or action or inaction on our part but of both/and. That is, there’s time to try our hand at something , and there’s a time to gain His help by stepping aside and letting God take action.   We recall the criticism leveled against John Baptist for neither eating or drinking, and then against Jesus for doing these very things (Mt 11.17). So often condemnation for whatever we do or fail to do implies that there is always something to be improved upon.

So it seems God is flexible in this matter. He acts on behalf of those who work diligently to improve things, and He is at hand when we fail to act. Sometimes what we do is important; at other times, what we fail to do is equally significant for gaining God’s favor. God seems equal to both situations.

Success–What is it?


The May 12th issue of America has a great article by Brian B. Pinter, entitled “Redefining Success”. What struck me most (maybe because I am an educator) is the following quote: “As Jesuit educators we are being asked to do something great—to assist in leading the church to unequivocal solidarity with the poor, to a mystical consciousness, to maturity of Faith.”


There are two words in this quote that strike me as particularly pertinent to our Passionist charism: poor and mystical. Most of us know what poor is but what is this other word, mystical? Earlier the author gives us a clue, using this quote from Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904 – 1984): “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.”


Again, what is a mystic? St. Paul of the Cross has been characterized as the greatest mystic of the 18th Century. Somewhere I remember hearing the difference between mysticism and theology. It went something like this: theology tells us what love (put in any term you want here) is; mysticism tells us an experience of love. Now we need both no doubt, but today it seems to me we have an overabundance of theology and a dearth of mysticism. How can we do what Pinter suggests above and as St. Paul of the Cross did?


Here is an example, I think, that answers that question. In the 70’s responding to the Second Vatican Council we at Immaculate Conception Parish, Norwood Park, Illinois decided to change the name of our religious education program from The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) to The Institute of Christian Encounter” (ICE). It was more than just a name change. In our programs we did not talk about doctrine or theology so much as create opportunities where we, and our students could experience what it means to be a Christian. For instance, instead of talking about what makes a good community, we went camping or CLAM Digging, (digging for Christian living Among Men). Anyone who has ever been camping knows it’s not an exercise in esoteric wondering as much as just simple real living and sharing in the tasks associated that.


In the above YouTube video, Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg discuss what redefining success means to them. For them, it means experiences such as: failing and proceeding on to an eventual success; listening to our intuition or gut feelings; sleeping more; meditating daily; enjoying silence; creating our own job or startup businesses; telling our stories. These are just a few of their ideas. The selection is long, and I believe it’s worth the time. Hope you enjoy.

And the Halo Goes to…


by Jim Paulin

Saints are thought of and rigorously screened for how well they lived their lives in light of “holiness”. They are always deceased when authorities in the church determine this state of sanctification after a good deal of time has passed for evidence to be properly examined. The people declared saints, if asked while alive, would certainly claim no such pronouncement as their legacy and most would admit to being nothing more than feeble servants of the Lord with flawed existences common to all of humanity. What is necessary to become a “saint”?


We are told there are many people that the church believes to be in Heaven who have not been formally declared saints but who are otherwise referred to as saints, since they are believed to be completely perfect in holiness. It is necessary to be perfect to attain heaven but no human is completely perfect based on personal performance. This purity that is required is only acquired through the atonement of sins purchased with the freely offered sacrifice of the blood of Jesus, which was given once for all who accept Him.


The question becomes just who is really holy? Holiness is described as being clean or sinless. With a mere wrongful thought being construed as sinful, there would be hardly a soul who has experienced life in any measure who could claim utter sanctity. Indeed, the word of God says there are none without sin. Yet God still loves us and wants to be united with us so God generously awards halos with every act of true repentance. Gods only Son took our sins upon Himself and became sin to make us perfectly acceptable in heaven and deserving of our own personal halo. Living close to God obviously makes sense to the devoted and although halos are all wonderful, they probably come in sizes.