There is, to be sure, a stress within the biblical tradition that God is radically other: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15) and “No one shall see [God] and live” (Exodus 33:20). This speaks to the fact that the one who creates the entire universe from nothing cannot be, himself, an item within the universe, one being alongside of others. But at the same time, the Scriptures also attest to God’s omnipresence: “Your Wisdom reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1) and “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. … If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-12). This speaks to the fact that God sustains the universe in existence from moment to moment, the way a singer sustains a song.
What is perhaps the defining feature of the spirituality associated with St. Ignatius of Loyola — “finding God in all things” — flows from this second great biblical emphasis. Despite his transcendence, God should not be thought of as distant in any conventional sense of the term, certainly not in the deist manner. Rather, as Thomas Aquinas taught, God is in all things, “by essence, presence, and power.” And mind you, since God is endowed with intellect, will and freedom, he is never dumbly present, but always personally and intentionally present, offering something of himself to us. Therefore, the search for God can commence right here, right now, with whatever is at hand.
One of the questions in the old Baltimore Catechism was “Where is God?” The correct answer was “everywhere.” Once that truth sinks in, our lives irrevocably change, for now every person, every event, every sorrow, every encounter becomes an opportunity for communion with God. The 17th-century Jesuit spiritual master Jean-Pierre de Caussade expressed the same idea when he said that everything that happens to us is, directly or indirectly, the will of God. Once again, it is impossible to accept the truth of that statement and remain the same person you were before. This always already graced quality of “all things” functions as the starting-point for Ignatius’s spirituality.
Ignatius has been very much on my mind, for I am in Europe filming a documentary on his life and teachings for my Pivotal Players series. On the long flight from Los Angeles to Rome, I had occasion to enact the principle I have just been describing. Ever since I was kid, I have loved maps, and so when I find myself on a lengthy plane voyage, I spend a good deal of time with the flight map, which tracks the location of the plane, vis-à-vis landmarks on the ground. I had read and watched some videos for the first part of the flight and then I had slept most of the time we were over the Atlantic, but when I woke, I began studying the map with great interest. We were passing just north of Ireland, and I could clearly see the indications for Dublin, where my mother’s father was born, and for Waterford, where my father’s grandfather was born. I commenced to think about these men, neither of whom I ever met, who bore the Catholic faith that eventually came to my mother and father and finally to me, as a sheer grace.
As the plane continued its journey across the English Channel, northern France came into view on the map, and I saw the great name “Paris.” Suddenly, a slew of memories flooded my mind: my simple room at the Redemptorist House on the Boulevard Montparnasse; Notre Dame, where I used to give tours to English-speaking visitors; the Institut Catholique, where I did my doctoral studies; all of my Parisian friends, teachers and colleagues who accompanied me across those three years; the beauty of Paris on a rainy day. And all of it, I knew, was a grace, sheer gift.
Next, I saw that we were approaching the Alps and so I opened the window screen and looked down on the snow-capped mountains that were gleaming in the sun. How could I not appreciate this view, which untold generations of human beings wouldn’t have even imagined possible, as a splendid gift?
In a word, the simple study of a flight map toward the end of a tedious journey became a rather marvelous occasion of grace. I wonder whether we would find this sort of experience less anomalous if we mused on the fact that God positively wants to share his life with us, wants to communicate with us. Perhaps the problem is that we stubbornly think of God in the deist manner and relegate him to a place of irrelevant transcendence. Then the spiritual burden is on us, to find some way to climb the holy mountain or sufficiently to impress a demanding moral overlord. What if we accepted the deeply biblical notion that God is always already busily and passionately searching for us, always already endeavoring to find ways to grace us with his love? What if we blithely accepted the truth that God can be found, as Ignatius taught, in all things?