Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Caress of the Cheek

No one saw the hour of your victory. No one is witness to the birth of a world. No one knows how the night of that Saturday’s hell was transformed into the light of the Easter dawn.

Asleep it was that we were carried on wings over the abyss, and asleep did we receive the grace of Easter. And no one knows how it happened to Him. No one knows which hand it was caressed his cheek so that suddenly the wan world beamed with a thousand colors, and he had to smile involuntarily over the miracle that was realized in him.

Who can describe what it means to say ‘The Lord is Spirit’? Spirit is the invisible reality that asserts itself more manifestly than all that is sensible. Spirit is the invisible fragrance of the Paradise that has arisen in our very midst. Spirit is the great invisible wing which we recognize by the blowing of the wind and by the keen desire that overflows us when we are grazed by its down.

Spirit is the Paraclete, the Consoler, whose tenderness makes the world of remorse be muted unsaid, absorbed like a drop of dew in the sunlight. A great white mantle, light as silk, is laid about your body, and under it the clinging garments of despair fall to tatters of themselves.

Spirit is a sorcerer: it can create in you what does not exist; it can make disappear what appeared to be irremovable; in the midst of a wilderness it creates gardens, fountains, birds; and what it conjures is no specter: it is sheer truth.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World

Reflection  - This is another great classic of contemporary spiritual reading. Those who have heard of von Balthasar, are a bit intimidated at the prospect of reading him, especially since he tended to write his books not so much by the word as by the pound, may find this title a good introduction to his thought. It is (relatively) short, accessible to the normal literate reader, and (oh yes) also stunningly beautiful and shattering in its insight into God’s love and human sin, mercy and what our need for it is.

As we start to draw our attention more towards the other pole of the Easter season, the great feast of Pentecost, it is good to meditate some on this reality of ‘Spirit’ in our lives. What does it mean, anyhow, that God is Spirit, and that, as in John 6, ‘it is the Spirit that gives life’?

Well, it means a great deal, and hopefully none of you expect me to comprehensively treat it in a blog post. What strikes me on this early morning hour is this business of the hand brushing the cheek of the dead Christ, leaving in its wake a flush of warmth and color on that pale fixed visage, stirring to motion and vitality the dead God of the world.

This is the great action of the Spirit in time and history, the raising of Christ from the dead. But it is also the great action of the Spirit in the history of all humanity. The Church, understood at its deepest reality, is this very resurrection of man from the dead, the whole human race stirred to new and everlasting life by the brush of the hand of the Holy Spirit.

It is also the great action of the Spirit in your life and mine. Whenever there is a stirring to life in us, whenever ‘love is come again’ just when we thought it couldn’t possibly, whenever repentance cracks our hard shell, and hope awakens in us, when faith blossoms after a season of doubt and near-despair, whenever forgiveness happens, whenever gifts flower, whenever good triumphs, even in some little way that nobody else even notices—whenever any of this blooming into new life happens, the Spirit is acting.

And it is the ‘personal touch’ that I want to highlight. The action of the Spirit is not some wholesale thing – like a big fire hose of water being poured out on a bunch of people. The Spirit is given to all, but to each it is that hand caressing the cheek, that personal intimate and very loving contact with God.

Spirit is deeply personal, deeply a matter of communion, of freedom, and of a great encounter of love with Love, of person with Person. And it is this encounter that rebirths a world in peace and in joy, and that rebirths you and me into sons and daughters of the Father of us all, by the saving work of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ.


  1. Is the Spirit brushing the cheek of all persons and participating in all good? Is the Spirit involved in the good actions of the secular person? Is the non believer unknowingly and perhaps unwillingly an instrument of the Spirit when repenting, loving or doing good? Is Christian life different?
    It does seem there is no identifiable difference between most Eucharistic recipients and other Christians. The Sacrament of Confirmation is often the door through which young people leave an active Catholic faith. Where is the Spirit? How does a person of faith come to a oneness with the Spirit? Do we simply trust the Spirit is present in our lives or can a person of faith look for some identifiable life change to result as happened in the hearts of the Apostles? Looking forward to your comments.

    1. Friend,
      YOu may find Rabbi Heschel helpful with some of your questions..."The meaning of life is to treat your life as a work of art...the oppposte of good is not evil but indifference"...

      "it is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion forits own defeats. Religion declines not becaue it was refuted, but because it became dull, oppressive, insipid.
      When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisi of today is ignored becaus eof the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than the voice of compassion- its message become meaningless" Heschel, God in Search of Man

      A challenge to love... and consent...to let ourselves be loved...

    2. Patricio - this is a profound and most important question. So much so that I can't actually answer it in the narrow format of the com-box. I think I will write tomorrow's blog as an answer to your question, using your comment as a jumping off point, if that's all right with you. You raise very central and key issues in your perceptive comment.

  2. Father Denis,
    Wow. God caring for God. The spirit of God caring for the son of God. Amzing. Then follows all these images about the integration of our personhood, how a Christian person becomes whole. Sort of takes my breath away.
    Welcome back! Congratulations on the new computer! May the cyber road smooth out for you, so that you can continue this important work!
    Interesting , while I missed you, I still felt connected to you in prayer. Truly, it is "deeply a matter of communion"...rebirthed as daughters and sons...but also brothers and sisters. Bless you

    1. Yeah, beautiful, eh? This is why I love von Balthasar so much - his writing is chock-full of such imagery. Have you ever read Heart of the World? It's one of those books that float around MH quite a bit.
      Thanks - it's good to be back, and I'm charging ahead with the new machine, blogging like a fool (for Christ, hopefully...).

  3. Dear Anonymous,
    Thank you for your thoughts with which I agree. It is nice to have some added conversation about our faith. Pope Francis clearly states the issue and what we need to do about our idols and our first desire. The unanswered question so far: Is this guidance just about the importance of sacrifice and judgement day? Where is the Spirit in all this? Are we on our own to cast off idols? Can we point to desirable, tangible benefits in our lives as we turn from idols toward God which might mentor or encourage others? What is your experience or thoughts? Or you Fr. Denis or others?


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