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The experience of grace: a reflection

BILL TONER SJ :: Notes for an online group reflection with colleagues in the Irish Jesuit Curia.

Many of us here are familiar with the chapter in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius entitled ‘Contemplation to Attain the Love of God’. What we are asked to do in this chapter is to ask for an intimate knowledge of the many blessings received, that we may be filled with gratitude and may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty. St Ignatius goes on to ask us to reflect on how God dwells in creatures, in the elements giving them their existence, in plants, in animals and in human beings. He asks us to consider all blessings and gifts as descending from above.

If you are familiar with the musical Godspell you will be familiar with the song that goes, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; so thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love”.

There is no doubt that for many of us the beautiful things of nature, and the wonder of humanity at its best, inspire in us the love of God. Some of our most popular poetry is about this. As children many of us learned simple poems like ‘Trees’ and ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose’, and many of Hopkins’ poems bring to mind God’s bounty.

But these poems, like St Ignatius’s contemplation, try to inspire in us the love of God, not the total experience of God. It we want to glimpse the total experience of God we have to venture further afield. We have to embrace all of reality. Because God is complete mystery. St Paul says, “How unsearchable are God’s judgments, and how inscrutable his ways? Who has known the mind of the Lord, and how has been his counsellor?”

One theologian who has explored the mysterious and challenging side of God is Karl Rahner, particularly in his essay, ‘Reflections on the experience of grace’. Rahner sees God’s presence in the world in what we call grace, which is the very life of God active in our world and in our minds and hearts. But Rahner finds grace in the most surprising places, in what we might call the transformative experiences of life, the experiences that challenge us to the core. Listen to a little of where Rahner finds, first of all spirit, and ultimately, in this, the presence of God.

Rahner asks:

Have we ever kept quiet, even though we wanted to defend ourselves, when we had been unfairly treated? Have we ever forgiven someone even though we got no thanks for it and our silent forgiveness was taken for granted? Have we ever sacrificed something without receiving any thanks or recognition for it, and even without a feeling of inner satisfaction? Have we ever been absolutely lonely? Have we ever decided on some course of action purely by the innermost judgement of our conscience, deep down where no one can any longer tell or explain it to anyone, where one is quite alone and knows that one is taking a decision which no one else can take in our place and for which we will have to answer for all eternity? Have we ever tried to love God when we are no longer being borne on the crest of a wave of enthusiastic feeling? Have we ever tried to love God when we seemed to be calling out into emptiness and our cry seemed to fall on deaf ears, when if looked as if we were taking a terrifying jump into the bottomless abyss?

If we find such experiences, then we have experienced the spirit. When we let ourselves go in this experience of the spirit, then it is not merely the spirit, but the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. This is the hour of his grace, the bottomless depth of God communicating himself to us.

The chalice of the Holy Spirit is identical in this life with the chalice of Christ. The chalice is drunk only by those who have slowly learned in little ways to taste the fullness in the emptiness.

[Theological Investigations 3; Ch 6: Reflections on the Experience of Grace]

Let us take five minutes to reflect on these thoughts of Rahner. Could we in fact have experienced the grace of God in moments of near despair and abandonment? If so, St. Ignatius’s contemplation for obtaining love takes on a whole new dimension. It is so important in dark times, like the present one, to know that we are still encountering God. (5 mins.)

If anyone wants to make a prayer, on any topic, or share a reflection, they are welcome. (2 mins)

We finish with a prayer:

God of all mercy and compassion,
Life and death are in your hands,
Hear our prayers in this time of illness and infection,
Of isolation, fear, and uncertainty.
Let all who suffer come to know
That they are joined in the sufferings of Christ
Who gave his life for the salvation of the world.
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord.