Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Only in God is my soul at rest; in him is my salvation" (Our "Inner Sanctuaries" - Reflections on the 6th Sunday of Easter, John 14:15-21)

My grandparents’ house was my sanctuary when I was a little boy. There I knew I’d be safe whenever I ran into trouble with my parents because of some silly and crazy things I did. Once I’ve made it past their front gate, I knew I was safe. No matter how big the offense, my grandparents would always make my parents promise I wouldn’t get punished - or that my punishment would at least be light. It wasn't that they let me get away with anything; but I knew that in their home, I was safe.

We’ve all had these ‘sanctuaries’. They don’t have to be places. Sometimes they’re persons, things, or even memories that somehow give us comfort and strength. When we’re with these persons or in those places, we feel safe, worry-free and at peace. When we’ve been having a bad day and then are suddenly reminded of our happy memories, we feel better. They’re like our “comfort zones”.

That was the disciples’ experience with Jesus. He was for them, their ultimate “comfort zone”. He was their “sanctuary”. When they were with him, they felt safe, strong and secure.

Everything was ‘ok’ when Jesus was around. Never mind if there were some problems. They knew he would make things right. With him around, they felt they could overcome any difficulty, even temptation and sin.

Unfortunately, Jesus had to leave and return to his Father when his mission on earth was done. That’s what was happening in today’s gospel.

The disciples were already feeling like orphans. They started to get worried, scared and anxious. What were they to do when Jesus had gone? How would they go on being strong?

That’s why Jesus promised to send them his Spirit who would remind them of his presence and love for them.

The Holy Spirit was going to make him always present in their lives. It would be as if Jesus had never left, because his Spirit would always be there to remind them of him and of the great moments they shared with each other. And that memory would always make them strong, secure and faithful in the face of the difficulties they would encounter.

It was as if Jesus were saying to them: “Don’t worry. I may be gone, but you can always take me with you. The Holy Spirit will see to that”.

An ancient mystic used to tell people to think of a place where they were most happy and at peace and to imagine themselves carrying that place inside them, wherever they go. He said they could always go into that place—their own personal ‘sanctuary’—whenever they felt weary, anxious or fearful.

“Go deep into yourself”, Saint Augustine used to say. “Do not go out, but go within; for it is there that you will find God”. It isn’t in externals, but deep within, that we find joy and peace.

This also is what Jesus is telling us to do in today’s gospel. He may not be around physically, but we can still feel his presence and his love whenever we want. We can carry him wherever we go and be with him whatever we do. He says to his disciples, and to us, in today’s Gospel:

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans.”

Acknowledging the presence of Christ’s Spirit in us is like having our own personal sanctuary within, where we can always be strong, secure and at peace.

That’s what the Holy Spirit does. He takes us to that place deep inside us where we can be with Christ, where the worries, cares and anxieties of the world cannot bother or touch us.

The ancient Christians had a practice which might sound rather odd in our day and age. Whenever they felt lonely, tempted to sin, upset, disturbed or angry, they would stop and say the name of “Jesus” again and again—like a ‘mantra’—until peace returned to their minds. It strengthened them and kept them focused on Christ.

Today’s gospel is an invitation for us to do the same: to remain focused on Christ, to make his very own Spirit our sanctuary dwelling deep in our hearts, and to take him wherever we go. In that place, we can always be at rest, we can always find contentment and joy, happiness and fulfillment - no matter how strong the winds and storms of life may blow outside of us.

In that inner sanctuary, kept hidden within our hearts and souls, Christ's Spirit will always keep us in his peace. In that place, we can - with the psalmist - pray:

"Only in God is my soul at rest, \
he alone is my rock and my salvation;

he is my fortress, I shall never be shaken.

In God alone is my soul at rest;

my hope is from him alone."

Both my grandparents have long been gone and their home which I called my sanctuary as a boy has also long been gone. But I still carry them with me. And the thought of them still strengthens me and gives me peace whenever I think of them.

Today Jesus invites us to carry him with us as well, to let his Spirit build his sanctuary in us, so he can always be with us, to comfort us, give us strength, and give us peace.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)