“People are walking tabernacles of grace.” — Father Christopher Seiler
For monk and author Thomas Merton, a famous revelation hit him at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the middle of the Louisville, Kentucky shopping district. For St. Francis, the revelation struck him while riding a horse on an Italian road leading to Assisi.
I’m not a contemplative or writer in the class of Merton and not a man of God of the caliber of St. Francis. Nonetheless, the revelation overwhelmed me one day as well, while I was driving my Toyota Highlander on Interstate 270 near St. Louis, Missouri. Not long afterward, during a presentation to my Secular Carmelites group, Father Seiler gave words to the sense that this writer hadn’t been able to find.
“People are walking tabernacles of grace.”
Many theologians have written on this notion. St. Thomas Aquinas had explored the concept of the “threefold presence of God” in our material, created world. In more modern times, that belief was examined by 20th-century authors Father Barthelemy Froget, Father Anselm Moynihan and Father Bede Jarrett, all Dominican priests.
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity was another profound writer on this topic. Still awaiting canonization, Blessed Elizabeth was a French Carmelite nun, mystic and spiritual writer who passed away at the age of 26 in 1906. During her brief life, she discerned that to have God living in our soul is the beginning of eternal life. Blessed Elizabeth, writing after she entered a Discalced Carmelite monastery in 1901, said: “I find (God) everywhere, while doing the wash as well as while praying.” She sensed God intimately within herself.
I earlier wrote here about two of the three ways God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit is omnipresent to his Creatures: “Finding God’s Holy Presence … Everywhere” and “Jesus Waits: God’s Presence In The Blessed Sacrament.”
The Indwelling of God in Every Man and Woman
Both of those examples clearly involve a profound level of intimacy, but they are initiated by a Presence that launches from our exterior. It involves, in a sense, man and woman searching for God. The third realm of that Divine Presence is cozier, even private: an indwelling of God in the human soul, by grace.
“In the souls of those who live in God’s grace,” Father Moynihan wrote, “God is present in a special and still more profound way. In the inner depths of the faithful soul, God is present as Someone, an indwelling Guest, a loving Friend. God is within, and He is available for knowing and loving. To have the Holy Trinity dwelling within one’s very soul is at the heart of what it means to live in God’s sanctifying grace. A baptized faithful person is, in a way, like a tabernacle.”
Among the accepted secular definitions of tabernacle is “a dwelling place.” At www.catholic.com, a Catholic tabernacle is described as “liturgical furnishing used to house the Eucharist outside of Mass. This provides a location where the Eucharist can be kept for the adoration of the faithful and for later use.… The tabernacle in Church is so named because it is a place where Christ dwells in the Eucharist.”
That same Christ dwells in human tabernacles.
“It is there, right in the depths, in the Heaven of my soul, that I love to find Him since He never leaves me. God in me, I in Him — oh! — that is my life!” Blessed Elizabeth said. “My only devotional practice is to enter ‘within’ and lose myself in the Three who are there. I feel God so alive in my soul that I only have to recollect myself in order to find Him within me. That is the secret of all my happiness.”
Jesus instructed that the kingdom of God is within, and saints have known that ever since because saints have experienced it. St. Catherine Siena talked about how when she prayed in solitude, she went to her spiritual “inner cell.” St. Teresa of Avila said that when a soul wanted to speak alone with God, it need only “look upon Him present within itself.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” Put differently, he was telling them that if they would abide in him, then he would abide in them; he will abide in them and all of us, because he created us all and saved us all and he loves us all equally. God doesn’t play favorites; it’s not in His nature.
Mystici Corporis Christi, the 1943 encyclical from Pope Pius XII on the Church, referred to this aspect of the threefold Presence as in “indwelling.” Bishop Fulton Sheen differentiated the first two aspects from this one in a book, saying “It is not man who is on the quest for God. It is God who is on the quest for man. He leaves us restless. The first question we have in the Scripture is (God asking) ‘Man, where art thou?’”
A Connection That Leads To Great Love
How can man not love such a God? And how, knowing that such a God dwells not just in our own soul but in the souls of all around us blessed with grace, can man not love all those other people as well? We are connected, which can lead to an intense, familial love.
I think back to a particular Gospel story in which Jesus was teaching a crowd inside someone’s house. His mother and other kinsfolk were outside the house, unable to squeeze inside. When someone passed that information along to Jesus, he asked who actually was his mother and who actually was his brother, then responded that anyone who does the will of his heavenly Father is his sister and brother and mother. That wasn’t to indicate that he loved his family any less than other people, but instead that he was raising all his disciples to the lofty status of his family members, that he indeed loves everyone at that level of intimacy.
If we wish to imitate Jesus and love with the heart of Jesus, then we are called to do the same. It happens to us in a holy revelation. Here was how the Holy Spirit inspired Thomas Merton as he looked around at the crowd of people surrounding him on that Louisville street corner, from his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.… There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Here was how the Holy Spirit inspired St. Francis of Assisi while riding on horseback that special day, as related in the 13th-century book The Remembrance of the Desire of A Soul by Thomas of Celano, Francis’ the first biographer:
He met a leper on the road. He felt terrified and revolted, but not wanting to transgress God’s command and break the sacrament of His word, he dismounted from his horse and ran to kiss him. As the leper stretched out his hand, expecting something, he received both money and a kiss. In the Testament of Francis, given by him when he neared death in 1226, he said, “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned in to sweetness of soul and body.”
Both men realized they shared something powerful with every person around them: God was present in all. Friend, family and stranger. Saint and sinner. Healthy and beautiful as well as ailing, pungent, filthy. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist. Young and old, wealthy living in huge mansions and impoverished living on the streets or in cardboard shacks.
Brotherly Love in the Midst of Traffic
The revelation struck me as I was driving to work on an autumn Monday morning. I just had completed my morning meditation on The Jesus Prayer and was merging into a lane on my left side when I made eye contact with a man in a compact car. He smiled and allowed me in front of him. I looked back at the crowd of cars in front of me and on both sides of me. We were moving about 20 mph slower than the speed limit of 60 miles an hour.
Still about 10 minutes from work, I suddenly wondered about all these other people. Where were they going? Where did they live? What had the morning been like for them? Were they happy in life? For some reason, my mind stuck on one question: Had they gone to church somewhere the previous day?
I said a prayer for them. And as I did, it struck me: The indwelling of God the Father, Son, and Spirit in my soul was the same indwelling of the same God in each of those other people. I felt a new sense of connection, a new understanding of responsibility, an overpowering love for all my fellow human beings beyond any brotherly love I ever had known. As the day progressed, the love expanded to include people in places I never have been.
And in time, the loving connection intensified to include even those people who might be considered much less than saintly, men and women who misbehaved, who were offensive, who were violent or mean, who embraced their sinful nature and never considered asking forgiveness of a fellow human being much less God. I understood that God created each of them with the same love and hope for union that He had when He created me, that He never lost a bit of that love because He’s incapable of anything else, that every other person has the capacity of experiencing that indwelling.
I found myself able to pray to Him in a way I never had truly understood.
“O my God, make me understand that I am Your dwelling-place, the hiding place where You conceal Yourself. Have courage and rejoice, my soul, knowing that the object of your hope is so near to you that He dwells in you and you cannot exist without Him. What more could I desire, and what do I seek outside of myself, O my Lord and my God, when You have deigned to put Your kingdom, Your dwelling-place, in my very soul? Here, then, in the innermost sanctuary of my heart, I wish to love, desire, and adore You; no, I shall no longer go to seek You outside myself.”
St. John of the Cross, in Spiritual Canticle
If only my soul would be filled with the indwelling Presence of God and nothing else, certainly not the love for myself or material things. That is my plea, my desire, my constant prayer. What’s truly interesting is that the more I seek a true sense of God within me, the greater the love I feel for Him – and the greater the love I feel for every person I encounter, all of those other walking tabernacles of grace.