In our effort to come up with "a spirituality for troubled times" it seems important to reflect for a few weeks at the outset on our image of what God is like. The various ways we have of picturing God or describing the Divine are of course going to make all the difference in the kind of spirituality we eventually arrive at.
I hope to look to the bible to find some ways of speaking about God which may prove relevant and helpful to our spirituality for troubled times. My method in each posting will be to begin with some experience of my own and then reflect on it in light of some specific word in the New Testament, sometimes looking at the word in the original Greek of the New Testament for an otherwise hidden insight.
Let's begin, then, with a verb which describes an important characteristic of God found in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the Gospels, and which is certainly going to be part of our spirituality for troubled times.
"SI DIOS QUIERE"
Of the many lessons I have learned from the Spanish-speaking people for whom I say mass on Sundays, one of the most valuable comes from a custom of theirs: whenever you say something about your hopes or plans, either you or someone else will automatically add the phrase "Si Dios quiere," "If God wills." For example a simple "See you next Sunday" evokes the immediate response "Si Dios quiere." At first when someone added the phrase to something I said, it sounded to me like a correction or at least a friendly revision. Then as I heard it over and over I began to understand it as a way of saying "Don't forget that ultimately it's God and not you or I who will decide if we are to see each other next Sunday." And now that I've begun adding it on my own I've become much more aware of the two unspoken assumptions of this three-word phrase: first, that the Lord is very much in control of events in the world, and second, that God is deeply and lovingly involved in my daily life. "Si Dios quiere" has become not just a pious expression but a comforting reminder in the face of worries and stress.
A GOD WHO GETS INVOLVED
The Israelites in the Old Testament knew God not through abstract thinking, but through having experienced Yahweh's saving deeds. God was always acting on their behalf, intervening in the course of history. Until we sophisticated modern believers can begin to see God acting in our lives our relationship with God will be abstract and lifeless.
There is a word in the bible which beautifully expresses this intense personal involvement of the Lord of History who intervenes in the life of the nation and of each individual: the verb "to visit." The Greek word is episkeptomai, (ep-ee-skep'-tom-ahee), “to inspect, to go to see someone, to pay a visit."
It is a common enough word with a simple meaning, as when Saint Paul says to Barnabas, "Come, let us return and visit [episkeptomai] the believers in every city where we proclaimed the Lord and see how they are doing" (Acts 15:36, NRSV).
The Greek translation of Old Testament known as the Septuagint, which was the bible used by the earliest Christians, gives “visit” a deep religious dimension and a whole variety meanings, any of which can offer hope and encouragement in troubled times. When describing the Lord's interventions in the world, episkeptomai has the dual sense of "visit" and "be concerned about." For instance, it is the word used when the Lord "looks on" Sarah and she bears a son, Isaac (Genesis 21:1), and when the patriarch Joseph promises on his deathbed that God will "look upon" his brothers and lead them out of Egypt (Genesis 50:24).
This idea of a God who is deeply involved in the world is carried over into the New Testament where in almost half the uses of this word it is God who is doing the visiting. When Jesus revives the dead son of the widow of Naim, the amazed crowd cries out, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst” and “God has visited [episkeptomai] his people" (Luke 7:16 NAB).
"I WAS SICK AND YOU VISITED ME"
“Si Dios quiere,” “If God wills,” reflects my belief that God is involved in my life. But while I count on God's visiting me to heal me and deliver me from trouble, I also need to remember that Jesus expects me to do the same for others. He says explicitly that my final reward or punishment will be decided on the basis of how well I have imitated this God who “visits:” “Come, you who are blessed by my Father… for… I was sick and you visited [episkeptomai] me" (Matthew 25:36). Our Lord is not talking about occasional, random acts of kindness, but rather about a fundamental attitude like God's own attitude of caring and selfless love toward others. A patient response to someone who is pestering me, a kind smile to a salesperson, a quick email to let someone know I'm thinking of them, these are all part of being a good Christian. James insists in his epistle “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for [episkeptomai] orphans and widows in their affliction…" (James 1:27).
When Jesus "visits" the widow in Naim (Luke 7:13), he brings divine love and healing into her shattered world; when I call on the Lord to come and deliver me from a difficult situation I am also promising to pass on to my brothers and sisters that same love and healing by my visits to them. This also sounds like a good way to take my mind off of my own worries. I'll have a chance to put this into practice tomorrow afternoon; I'm going to visit a good friend in the hospital – Si Dios quiere.
Other texts that contain the verb episkeptomai offer food for meditating on the various ways God comes into your life or into the life of the Church:
1. "The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to [episkeptomai] the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped" (Exodus 4:31)
2. The Lord promises through Ezekiel "I myself will look after and tend [episkeptomai] my sheep" (Ezekiel 34:11).
3. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 8, “What are … mortals that you should care for [episkeptomai] them" (Hebrews 2:6) ?