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Understanding Our Loving God
by Bishop Robert F. Morneau

A story: I recently visited the second grade at one of our Catholic schools. The little geniuses knew every answer as I drilled them about the characters in the movie The Lion King. "Who was Scar?" "Simba's uncle!" they cried out. "Who was Nala?" Their reply: "Simba's girlfriend!" "And who was the great warthog?" Again the correct answer: "Pumba!"

Having built up their confidence and mine, I turned to matters of religion: Jesus, the apostles, the commandments, the Eucharist. We concluded our time together by praying the Lord's Prayer and a Hail Mary. About to leave the halls of learning, I asked if anyone had a question for me. Little Harry, sitting in the last desk, raised his hand and with great innocence asked: "Hey, Father, how much do you know about God?"

A poem: Some years ago I began collecting poetry that spoke of God. Gerard Manley Hopkins's "God's Grandeur" and George Herbert's "Trinity Sunday" and Jessica Powers's "God Is a Strange Lover" are all in my folder. There is one stanza from a poem that is at the top of the pile. It comes from Father Gordon Gilsdorf's "Lyrics for the Christian." It simply and directly strikes home:
                I searched
               God's lexicon
               To fathom "Bethlehem"
              And "Calvary." It simply said:
              See "Love."

A hymn: In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris states: "Music is serious theology." Songs carry our theology and have a tendency to sink deeply into the soul. We have a rich treasure of music in our Catholic tradition. One of my favorites is the refrain: "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est." ("Where charity and love are, there is God.")

How much do we know about God?

The question here is not reserved for theological scholars; nor is it without practical significance. Our faith tells us that we are made to God's image and likeness. To know who God is, then, is to know who we are. The reverse is also true: Not to know God is not to know ourselves. Ignorance of the nature of God means that we will not come to self-knowledge. The second-grader's question has impact on the very meaning of our lives.

God is imagined in many ways. For some, God is a severe judge whose wrath and justice cause great fear and trembling. Others see God as a distant deity who began this world but left it on its own. Still others maintain that the second-grader's question cannot be answered—we cannot know God. The more arrogant hold that there is no God.

Pope John Paul II has called the Church to prepare for the new millennium by growing in our faith and knowledge of God by pondering the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. We do this with much humility, conscious of the limits of our intelligence and the inadequacy of language in dealing with things divine. The God-Reality is always greater than our finite propositions and human concepts. Albert Schweitzer's line is worth pondering: "The highest knowledge is to know that we are surrounded by mystery."

Our God is triune: a loving Creator, a merciful Redeemer, a providential Spirit—one God, three persons. Our God brought us into this muddy existence, came among us in the person of Jesus to set us free from sin and death and continues to guide us still through the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit.

Each of us has a threefold relationship with God, a relationship that elicits a variety of responses. Praise is fitting as we contemplate the mystery of creation that stirs up in us a sense of wonder and awe. Gratitude flows from the heart of those who see the extravagance of God made present and manifest in Jesus' dying for our redemption. Joy and commitment arise when we become convinced of God's indwelling Spirit, filling us with grace and calling us forth to be joyful ambassadors of God's mercy and love in a broken world.

In the passion of Jesus we come to know the mystery of God in a new and powerful way. Jesus, Son of God, the Word made flesh, took upon himself our human nature. As both human and divine he lived our life, tasted our food, experienced our sun, saw our stars, embraced our human suffering and death. It was the fullness of his love, compassion and forgiveness that brought about the transformation of our world. Jesus is the light to all nations, the love revealing the Father's glory, the life we now know in the Spirit.

The mystery of the Trinity and Incarnation is overwhelming for the eight-year-old second-grader and for the 80-year-old theologian. But then we humans have difficulty in understanding the flight of a meteor, the song of a lark. Our knowledge, so wonderful in its small brilliance, is always confronted by mystery and is challenged to say "yes" to God through the luminous darkness of faith.

God is love

A core statement regarding the mystery of God comes from the first epistle of John: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).

Pick up any dictionary of theology and one will find thousands of words to describe the reality of God. To limit God's lexicon to a single term seems rather strange, certainly inadequate. In fact, one might imagine that more and more words and concepts must be used or constructed to express ultimate Reality. Yet we come back to "God is love" and the claim that this word is sufficient to tell the tale of Bethlehem and Calvary—the birth and death of God-made-man—and to communicate the gift of the Spirit.

Love is like a prism which seems to take grace—the self-giving of God—and break it into a variety of rays. In the face of suffering, love appears as "compassion." In the face of sin and alienation, love is made manifest in "mercy." When fear and anxieties overwhelm the human spirit, love comes to it as "trust." And the list goes on.

Love has something to do with giving, caring, kindness. St. Paul lists qualities of love in one of the great hymns of the Church: "Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Here is the vision for living a Christian moral life. We image our God as we live a life of love. Then we will be a light to the nations.

The love attributed to the very essence of God has nothing to do with romanticism. Rather, it is a strong, indeed tough love because it is rooted in truth, a truth so profound as to set us free and call us to justice. We begin to sense that love has a family system: truth, freedom, justice. This love resembles the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which God rules in our individual hearts and our larger society.

Love at work

At a recent retreat, one of the participants said that "[S]ervice is nothing other than love in work clothes." My imagination pictured Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, the mystery of God-Love serving his creatures. The mission of Jesus—to serve and not be served—is the task of the Church, the community of disciples. The image of God sitting upon a throne looking for homage from a subservient people clashes with the revelation given us in the person of Jesus. God's royal garments are coarse work clothes.

The love that explains Bethlehem and Calvary also explains the great love moments of our sacramental life. Love wants to visit, love wants to be present as a sign of concern. So this Christian God keeps breaking into our lives when a baby is baptized, when children receive first Communion and Reconciliation, when the Spirit comes in Confirmation, when commitments for life are made, when sickness and death need divine strength and courage. Love "goes where the suffering is" and, yes, where joy is, too. God is love, present and manifest in signs and symbols and nature and community.

God's love is not coercive. Gifted with freedom, we can turn away from the divine mystery. When choices are made that alienate and divide, we enter the realm of darkness and death. At this juncture God's love "seems" like wrath or anger. In reality, God, who is love, is always compassionate and filled with light and life. We need but "turn around" (repent), to experience once again, in freedom, the source of all peace and joy.

Stronger than the darkness

"Where is God?" is a valid question. Throughout history, but never so dramatically as in our century scarred by the Holocaust, individuals and nations have raised the question of God's whereabouts in the face of horrendous suffering. Evil is a fact. The greatest human minds have not been able to explain this dark enigma. Explanations proposed—misused freedom, our radical animality, etc.—have all been given and have been found wanting.

Faith asserts that wherever there is charity and love, we are in the presence of God. Faith asserts that God came among us, experienced evil from within the walls of history and rose above it. How deep and extravagant is God's love for us!

The Carmelite poet Jessica Powers specified that the volume of her selected poems should end with a verse praising the three-person God of unconditional and extravagant love. There is no better way to conclude this essay than by quoting her:
                "Doxology"

               God fills my being to the brim
               with floods of His immensity.
               I drown within a drop of Him
               whose sea-bed is infinity.

               The Father's will is everywhere
               for chart and chance His precept keep.
               There are no beaches to His care
               nor cliffs to pluck from His deep.

               The Son is never far away from me
               for presence is what love compels.
               Divinely and incarnately
               He draws me where His mercy dwells.

               And lo, myself am the abode
               of Love, the third of the Triune,
               the primal surge and sweep of God
               and my eternal claimant soon!

               Praise to the Father and the Son
               and to the Spirit! May I be,
               O Water, Wave and Tide in One,
               Thine animate doxology
.*

Bishop Robert F. Morneau is auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He is the author of 11 books, including Paths to Prayer and A Retreat With Jessica Powers: Loving a Passionate God, both from St. Anthony Messenger Press.

(*From Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, Regina Siegfried and Robert Morneau, eds., copyright ©1989 Carmelite Monastery, Pewaukee, WI; used with permission of Sheed and Ward.)

 


 

Roma Downey

 

"I'm an angel sent by God, who loves you very much. He wants you to know that you are not alone."

Each Sunday night, millions of TV viewers, many of them families eagerly seeking wholesome entertainment, hear actress Roma Downey deliver the lines which have made her a beloved and familiar figure to so many. As Monica, the caseworker angel in Touched by an Angel, her job is to bring a message of comfort and hope to the principal character in that week's show. The struggle that person faces differs from week to week, ranging from family estrangement to destructive behavior, life-threatening illness, financial ruin or any number of life issues. But each Sunday night, Monica offers a message that leaves the character, and many in the viewing audience, convinced of the presence of God in their lives.

Roma Downey acknowledges that Touched by an Angel is sentimental. But for her the show goes beyond feeling to the conviction "that there is a God and that God loves you."

Recently voted best actress in a drama by TV Guide readers, Ms. Downey accepted the award not only as an individual but as a member of the show's entire cast. "I am very proud to be part of a show that has the power to touch people's lives in such a positive way with a message of hope and love," she said. She also offered special praise to producer Martha Williamson for her "amazing words that inspire us every week."

A native of Derry, Northern Ireland, Roma Downey was raised in the 1970's in a strong Catholic family that provided a protective environment. Outside, however, Northern Ireland's civil war was heating up. The actress, who turns 36 this month, has clear memories of crouching behind cars during gun battles in the streets and being evacuated because of bomb scares. "I grew up in an environment where people were killing each other in the name of religion," she recalls. Such experiences, she believes, have reinforced the importance of being involved in a show "that embraces the spiritual."

Though she occasionally yearns to stretch her actor's wings and move beyond the angelic Monica, Ms. Downey shares a sense of mission with her fellow cast members on Touched by an Angel, which consistently conveys the message that "God is love."*

— by Judy Ball



 
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A First for Fiji

 

It is almost certain to be standing room only at the midnight Mass December 31, 1999, at Holy Cross Church on the Fijian island of Taveuni in the South Pacific. As the Catholic Church closest to the international date line, Holy Cross will have the distinction of offering the first Mass of the third millennium.

Taveuni, one of about 100 inhabited islands that make up Fiji, claims 14,000 inhabitants—almost half of whom belong to the parish. The tiny island also claims a large white cross which tourists can spot from afar. The cross is located almost precisely on the 180th meridian, also known as the international date line. As such, it is the point internationally recognized as where the day begins.

The white cross also figures in the religious history of the island, most of whose inhabitants are Catholic. In 1863 the people of the island defeated the invading Tongans and were subsequently converted to Catholicism by a French Marist priest. The introduction of Christianity brought an end to cannibalism, polygamy and various practices considered superstitious.*



 
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