“God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.” Pope Francis
The second quotation from Pope Francis to which John Candido has drawn my attention is to my mind of key importance. It asks me to put on one side my picture of a God so infinitely great that he is inevitably remote, and to look more closely at an intimate God whom I encounter continuously in every aspect of my world.
I can look at this is different ways but I start with an insight which was brought home to me by Frank Sheed in his great book Theology and Sanity. (Frank Sheed was, I understand, the only lay person at that a time who held the qualification of Doctor of Divinity. He died in 1981.) The point he made was that, if we believe that God is the creator of everything, then it must follow that every single aspect of the universe exists because of his ever present will that it should exist. On the table in front of me lies an idle paperclip. And I remember that, from moment to moment, that paperclip exists because God chooses that it should. And not just the paperclip, but every atom of it, and all the particles which make up that atom. Were he to withdraw his will, the paperclip would simply cease to be.
This is a dramatic thought. God is so close to us through his creative will that his presence is to be recognised in every moment of human experience. When I think about issues of science, I am studying the material world, but in studying that material I am studying the will of God.
But what do we really know of God beyond philosophical statements such as his omnipotence or his omniscience? These don’t help us very much because they are concepts beyond the grasp of the human mind. Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, taught that every characteristic we posit of God takes us further away from his reality – he is so far beyond such concepts. But the question was put by the Apostle, Philip, when he asked of Jesus: “Show us the Father” and Jesus replied: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
The only way in which I can interpret this exchange is that, if we want to know the Father, our human understanding will never get closer than our understanding of the Son. If I say that Jesus is a metaphor for the Father, I use that word in a special sense.
If I then extend this to Paul’s words: “I live now, but not I, Christ lives in me” I realise that we are to be the metaphor of Christ to each other, and the world. At which point my heart fails because most of us, I think, obscure Christ as much as we display him. But maybe at some times, and on some occasions, we show Christ, and so the Father, to others.
But Francis takes us further because he emphasises that we are all redeemed. He tells us, using the extreme case, that even the atheist can do good in company with us. Although the atheist does not recognise Christ in the guise of his neighbour, through his good deeds, he displays him. And anyone who does not know atheists and agnostics who do good deeds, must know very few.
It is significant that, although Francis recognises the mystical contemplative life as a special charism, he sees Christ’s presence as dynamic. It is most characteristically seen in action. And seen in action in every human circumstance in which we are all continually faced by the opportunity to do good, or to reject it.
The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, has an often-quoted line: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Indeed, whether we like it or not, whether we are believers or not, we encounter him continually, and we are continuously faced by his challenge.