SACRAMENTS: With The Silent Glimmer Of God’s Spirit by Lambert J. Leijssen

With The Silent Glimmer Of God's Spirit, by Lambert J. Leijssen

From With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit

My grace is sufficient for you. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

To celebrate the sacraments is to enter into a dialogue with the self-giving God.  We allow God’s Word to come to us, and we know that Jesus’s story directly addresses us.  This encounter unfolds in the real circumstances of our life.  It is rooted in the power of the living Spirit who issues forth from the Father and the Son.  In this way, we come to stand in the mutual love of the three divine persons and become immersed, as it were, in this divine mystery.  We participate in their love that is offered to us.  Our response to God’s love, which consists in voluntary acceptance and thankfulness, is itself possible only through the power of the Spirit active and moving within us.

Reforming the Classical View of Grace

Classical theology conceives of the effects of the sacraments in categories of grace that are communicated to the faithful.  Ontologically based theology sees grace as a situation, an attitude, a condition (habitus), “something” in and of the person, that a person either has or does not have, or possesses in greater or lesser degree.  We need to reformulate this representation of grace, and in so doing we can be guided by the distinction made earlier between uncreated and created grace.

The term uncreated grace applies to the Trinity as the interpretation of their mutual exchange of love, which is transcendent, that is, above creation.  This mystery of divine love is poured out on creation and, in the incarnation of Jesus, “received from the Holy Spirit.”  The believer is called to participate in this divine love.

Upon accepting the divine offer, the believer enters a new form of relationship with the divine persons, one indicated by the term created grace: the sanctifying grace in the human soul.

Renewed Understanding of Grace

In the current context of a phenomenological theology, we do well to abandon the concept of grace as a “thing” and instead to refer to grace as “God’s habitation through God’s Spirit.”  Created grace can be conceived of as a dynamic relation established by the Spirit.  If we regard the sacrament as the language of the self-giving God, we direct our attention toward the gift of the Spirit.  This gift is the grace of every sacrament.  The Spirit is poured out in the various celebrations of the sacrament.  There is no place here for an objective thinking in terms of more or less.  As the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is communicated to the participants in the sacramental celebration and is also active there.  The relationship that is forged between Spirit and believer is a dynamic, spiritual reality, immanent in the faithful.  It is the Spirit who prays within us and who, as “the other Helper/comforter” (paraclete; see John 14:16 and 26), remains with the disciples after Jesus’s departure.  The Spirit of truth instructs these followers in the path of truth and righteousness.  Therefore, the sacraments are many forms of the gift of the Spirit, God’s Advocate (advocatus), who strengthens us in the changing circumstances of our lives.

Spirit as Light

The greatest metaphor in all religions for the divine, transcendent mystery is light, lucidity, the clarity that bursts through and drowns the darkness.  The symbol of light also figures quite prominently in the Jewish and Christian traditions.  It is said that God lives in inaccessible light, blinding to our eyes.  The prologue to the Gospel of John, echoing the creation narrative, elaborates further on this metaphor: Jesus as “light from light.”

The activity of the Holy Spirit is also represented in terms of light and fire that shine in the darkness.  Blinding light is thus a symbol of the transcendent God, and participation in that divine light is described as the reflection, the splendor that shines forth from this light.  The activity of the Spirit, immanent in the believer, can be characterized as a reflection of the divine light, an inner glow and warmth.  The mystics bear witness to this phenomenon in their experience of the divine love, (Beatrice of Nazareth, Hadewijch).

Yet, a distance from the divine also remains.  We experience emptiness or a “dark night,” something lacking in our senses.  For that reason it is advisable to speak of the silent glimmer of the Holy Spirit: by this means, the human life that is sanctified by the sacraments, brought into a relation with the deepest mystery, receives a silent glimmer of divinity, a reflection and illumination of the divine life.  Herein lies the uniqueness of the Christian sacraments as metaphors of daily life.  The human reality that is celebrated in the sacraments receives a special luster and depth from participation in the divine life.

Both postmodernism and apophatic and negative theology are sensitive to the distinction and the difference between transcendence and immanence.  The divine Other cannot simply absorb humans into itself.  For that reason, participation in the divine must also maintain this distinction; but it must also confirm the connection via the meditation of language and symbols.  The believer really becomes a new creation in his or her own way through God’s habitation in the reception of the gift of the Spirit.  He or she lives on in this mystery as a “new person.”  The divine is simultaneously present yet also hidden, invisible in the human form of appearance.  Just as in the person of Jesus the divine came close to us and, as the Son of God, lived among us, so too the divine presence in the sacraments is also a veiled presence.  The man Jesus revealed God’s self most fully in his self-emptying (kenōsis), his not regarding “equality with God as something to be exploited.” (Philemon 2:6)  The mystery of the incarnation of God’s son continues in the sacraments of the church.  They are the ways in which the glorified humanity of Jesus (humanitas Christi) appears.  They share in the same veiling of divinity as occurred with the man Jesus.  Sacraments are human acts in which a faithful response is given to God’s self-communication in Christ through the Spirit.  Thus they fit into the pattern of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.  In this way, Jesus is again present, through the power of the Spirit, in the lives of the faithful, under the figure of human signs and speech-acts, but also illuminated from within by divinity.  This divinity can be seen only by the inner eye; it can be experienced only from this inner connection, with reverence and thankfulness.  For that reason, we speak of the silent glimmer of the Holy Spirit.

The Activity of the Sacraments

Compared to the classical interpretation of the doctrine of grace, does the theme of the “the silent glimmer of God’s Spirit” say enough about the activity of the sacraments?  Is this characterization of the effect of the sacraments on the faithful too modest or too weak?  I do not think so.  My explanation of this is guided by the thought of Karl Rahner and Piet Fransen on created grace, as well as that of Jean-Luc Marion on the phenomenology of love (charité).

Grace as Gift of Love

The Greek word for grace in the Bible is charis, the love from God to us, undeserved and unselfishly communicated.  It comes first, before any achievement or title of esteem.  The love in return that the individual exhibits in his or her caritas is itself a result of this divine acceptance.  Interestingly, the great scholastics never overlooked this personal character of God’s love.  In fact, Peter Lombard did not hesitate to compare this caritas with the Holy Spirit.  In this vein, it is not the “Godhead” that lives within us, but rather the three distinct persons of the Trinity.

The Father lives within us as origin and source of all divinity, the first beginning and the last end, the Alpha and the Omega.  The Son lives within us as the image of the Father, and thus precisely as the original image of all that is created, that is reborn in grace.  That “being-image” (eikoon) of the Son and our own “image-of” are not static qualities.  We share in the Son’s life, ut servi in Servo et ut filii in Filio (“as servants in the Servant and as sons and daughters in the Son”) through helpful obedience and filial love, because we love the world and live for it through him.  As the final doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer intones, we are “through him, with him, and in him” bound in thanksgiving to the Father.  The Holy Spirit resides within us because the Spirit, both within and outside of the Trinity, is the one through whom everything comes to perfection – the divine persons as well as creation (according to the mystic Ruysbroec) – each in its own way.  This bringing to perfection is no static construction but the actualization of the image (eikoon) of the Son in us, in the dialectical tension between our external acts and our internal introspection.  Put somewhat differently, the Spirit is that which propels us toward the world and toward humanity in the multiplicity of activities that form our existence, the multiplicity that develops into a living witness precisely through this “inspiration.”  The Spirit is also the one who allows us to rest inwardly in God, who directs our lives toward greater intimacy and unites us with God through our “heart,” the most profound core of our personhood, according to the mystics.  We are attached and bound to God as to the deepest ground of ourselves.  God knows our “heart” and is far greater than our heart.  This interior dynamic forms the rich, overflowing life of grace, a life that is not to be conceived of as a static acquisition but that bubbles up within us as a continuously renewed source of joy and fulfillment.  We are immersed in that stream of grace.

Rahner’s Prevenient and Accepted Grace

Karl Rahner’s distinction between prevenient grace and accepted grace offers further clarification.  In the first place, grace is a selfless offer (Vorgegebenheit) intrinsic to the divine invitation from the divine ground within us.  It is a creative given-ness that gives rise to situations within which, in the context of this divine presence, the aceptance and assent to human freedom follow, and thus it becomes accepted grace.  It is offered grace (gratia oblata) as well as accepted grace (gratia accepta), both on the level of one’s personal fundamental option (sanctifying grace), and on the level of the freedom of choice that develops in time and is thus called immediate grace.

Rahner regards this accepted grace not as the receptive person’s own achievement, but rather as the believer’s response, borne by God, who now comes to stand in the one grace, the one Love.  Only those who exclude themselves from this proffered grace by means of a guilty “no” place themselves (temporarily) outside of this offer.  God always reaches out to humans in self-communication.

This problem arose again in the Jansenist controversy.  A distinction was made between accepted grace and purely sufficient grace (zureichende Gnadenhilfe), which is not active in and of itself but is elevated to the status of active grace only by human freedom.  This sufficient grace was described as proportionate to the goal to be attained or dependent on the state of the recipient.  Human freedom remains clearly respected, but it remains just as much an experience of faith that even this freedom is borne by grace.  This is why a more adequate definition of grace is “the light of faith,” clarification and inspiration by God’s Spirit.  The human person gains further insight into his or her faith, as well as further acceptance, by the dwelling of God’s Spirit within.

A Perspective

According to Piet Fransen and Karl Rahner, the distinction between prevenient grace and its existential acceptance is as old as the theology of grace itself.  Fransen pointed out a similar distinction in the work of the great Lowland mystic Jan Ruysbroec, namely, the distinction between “image” and “likeness.”  As told in Genesis, humans were created in the image and likeness of God.  This subtle distinction regards image (eikoon, imago) as a quality or a property put in the person in God’s name that remains undeniably present.  Meanwhile, likeness (omoioma, similitudo) is a goal that the person attempts to realize by living in accordance with his or her deepest and final destiny.

The theology of creation and redemption has developed this theme of the imago Dei through the irreplaceable responsibility of the human person for the entirety of creation and a society worthy of human occupation.  The theology of the sacraments connects this theme to the elaboration, activity, and fruitfulness of sacramental experience, in which the faithful participate in divine life for the life of the world (pro mundi vita, Jean-Luc Marion).  In this perspective, the grace of the sacraments is nothing other than the Spirit, who is once again creatively active in the world.

This is a Spirit of pure love (charis) which, having been given beforehand (étanta donné, Jean-Luc Marion), inspires and illumines the believer.  In this mystery of gratuitous love, returning this love is no requirement for existence.  Love is offered to and respects the freedom of the individual.  When the offer is accepted, the self-communication is raised to a sacramental occasion whereby the participants are taken up in divine love.  Gratitude and thanksgiving are the only adequate responses to the completely gratuitous love bestowed on us through the Spirit of God.  In this gracious response, our lives are illuminated with an inner glow, filled with divine light that imparts a silent glimmer to daily existence.  The celebrations of the seven sacraments are high points in which this glimmer breaks through in the various situations of our concrete journey through life.


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