The best movies for kids embody wisdom for adults. In the animated Toy Story series, Buzz Lightyear has a bigger vision than the other toys. His destination – “to infinity and beyond” – offers guidance for the spiritual journey.
The spiritual journey is a lifelong process of learning to leave our small lives behind in order to learn, grow, and stretch. It urges us to leave our comfort zones and open ourselves to something more. As we embrace the unfolding journey throughout our lives, time and again we find ourselves transformed. Ultimately, the brief years we spend on this planet open us to eternity – to infinity and beyond anything we can imagine.
Our relentless, earth-bound effort to cling to our comfort zones is a feeble attempt to keep ourselves safe, to manage our fear, and to avoid the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of life. Reality, however, tends to upend us in spite of our best efforts to stay risk-free. Sometimes the ways life stretches us are gentle – such as subtle insights that emerge slowly and gradually erode the barriers we have erected to keep ourselves safe. Other times, dramatic events – such as the unexpected and painful ways tragedy strikes – force us to rethink the foundation on which we’ve built our lives.
If we are able to step back and take a larger view, we may come to realize that our lives are centered in four relationships: the way we relate to ourselves, to God, to others, and to all creation. As our spiritual journey unfolds, these relationships evolve and change. Embracing the spiritual journey urges us to continually recalibrate each of these relationships and the ways they are intertwined with one another.
Our Relationship with Ourselves: I know what it is to have a small view of myself – one anchored in fear, anxious about life, and focused on staying safe. The risk-averse version of myself works overtime to maintain control, manage risk, and keep my anxiety at bay. Jesus understands this tendency, and he addresses it directly in the parable of the talents. (Matt. 25: 14-30) He chides the fearful servant who buries the one talent he’s been given for fear of losing it. He urges us to follow the example of the three-talent and the five-talent servants who took the risk to ensure their talents earned a return. We are called to fully develop whatever gifts we have been given and to use them in service of others – particularly those who are most vulnerable.
Jesus also encourages us to give up the timid ways we tend to hide our gifts – putting them under a bushel. He urges us to recognize we are light. He calls us to put our light on a lampstand and to be light for others. (Matt 5: 14-16)
There is nothing in Jesus’ message or his example that urges us to cling to our comfort zones and opt for safety and security. His deep awareness of God’s presence and his profound trust in God’s abiding love let him view life with an infinite horizon. Steeped in that vision, he urges us to leave our small, fearful selves behind. He calls us to risk developing our talents to the full and finding the courage to be light for others.
Our Relationship with God: We can also cling to a too-small view of God – one that expects the divine presence to keep us safe no matter what. I remember Carl’s response to an unexpected setback. He registered his complaint against God and the universe: “I don’t deserve this.” His small view of God was that if he worked hard and did what was right, God would immunize him against tragedy. When his naïve view was shattered, he was forced to wrestle with God and come to a deeper understanding of his relationship with the divine presence.
As a trauma survivor, James Finley knows what violence is. In a single sentence, he gives us a profound insight about God’s presence in midst of tragedy: “God is the presence that spares us from nothing, even as God unexplainably sustains us in all things.”1 God creates us in freedom and calls us to love. Love can never be forced, and the freedom to love opens the door to its opposite. Sometimes freedom leads to violence, tragedy, and evil. God doesn’t spare us from that – to do so would eliminate freedom and nullify our ability to love. Yet, in some way we cannot explain, God is the continuous, sustaining presence that is always with us in whatever we experience. Carl’s too small view may have kept him from recognizing it, but God was present to him in the midst of his setback. No matter what comes, we always live in the midst of the divine presence.
Finley’s one sentence accepts the reality that God allows bad things to happen while the divine presence sustains us with healing and redemption. It affirms what we can barely grasp and never explain: the death to life passage that is the miracle of Easter and our shared destiny. The spiritual journey – the ongoing process of transformation that unfolds throughout our lives – takes us ever deeper into that mystery. God’s love sustains us no matter what we endure. As Richard Rohr teaches: God is “the great allower.”2 God’s presence doesn’t keep us safe, but it sustains us no matter what we endure.
Our Relationship with Others: The spiritual journey is a lifelong process of deepening our love for others and expanding the circle of those our love encompasses. Most of us learn our first lesson about love in a small circle of intimacy – the family we grow up in, the friends we can count on no matter what comes, or a partner whose unconditional love leaves us profoundly changed.
As we grow and mature, Jesus calls us to extend our love beyond that small, intimate circle. He urges us to embrace the expansive view of “neighbor” that is at the heart of the Gospel. (Luke 10: 25-37) His radical teaching is that “neighbor” is an encompassing understanding of human solidarity. It transcends religion, nationality, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and any other characteristic that can divide and separate us. The more fully we embrace this expansive view, the more fully we realize that in God there is no “other” – only sons and daughters who are loved and cherished.
It is this expansive view that inspires Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He insists that for those who have clothed themselves in Christ:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3: 28)
It is one thing to grasp this expansive view of human solidarity with our heads. To open our hearts to it requires a profound, lifelong process of conversion. That process invites us to open ourselves ever more fully to the love of the God whose nature is Trinity and whose shared life is a circle dance of love. As we do so, we slowly come to more fully embody that love in our own lives and share it with others – all others, without exception or limit.
Our Relationship with Creation: The spiritual journey also invites us ever deeper into our relationship with all creation. From the depth of the ocean to the farthest reaches of the universe, creation is a sacrament of God’s presence. All of it is, as Genesis describes, the handiwork of God’s spirit hovering over the waters of creation. (Gen. 1: 2)
The sheer beauty of creation and its immense scale evoke the wonder and awe that are at the heart of our spiritual sensitivity. The natural world also plays a significant role in the Gospels. It provides Jesus with lesson after lesson on spirituality and discipleship: the lilies of the field, the fig tree, the mustard seed, and the vine and branches. These symbols of creation provided insight and guidance for disciples during Jesus’ lifetime. They continue to do so through centuries down to today.
Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear are becoming ever more painfully aware of the threats to the fragile planet we call home. Like Francis of Assisi, we need to recognize that we are intimately related to brother son, sister moon, and all of creation. As disciples, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the consequences of our actions and the way they impact God’s gift of creation. There is an urgent need for each of us – for all of us – to care for our common home.3 We are called to tread lightly on the earth and to actively engage in the efforts to protect and preserve our planet for future generations.
Buzz Lightyear’s journey “to infinity and beyond” reminds me of my friend Sam. He was an amateur astronomer fascinated by the marvels of the universe. When Sam was dying, he told his wife Kathy: “I’m going to visit all of the planets. Then, when you die, I’ll take you to see my favorite ones.” Sam is now on this journey to infinity and beyond, and Kathy is waiting to join him in their eternal home in the heart of God.
Those of us who are still earth bound are called to embrace ongoing transformation – coming to an ever-deeper grasp of the four relationships at the center of our lives. Each day invites us to deepen our relationships with ourselves, with God, with others, and with all creation. Each day offers us the possibility of joining Buzz and Sam in embracing an ever-expanding view of life, meaning, mystery, and God. Each day encourages us to reach for infinity and beyond.
Questions to Ponder
Here are some questions to help you reflect on the four relationships at the center of your life.
- In what ways has your self-understanding deepened over time?
- How has your view of God evolved as you‘ve faced life’s difficulties?
- In what ways does Jesus’ expansive view of “neighbor” challenge you?
- How has your relationship with all creation evolved – particularly in terms of the need to care for our common home?
- James Finley, “The Mystical Foundations of Nonviolence,” Nonviolence: Oneing, Volume10, Number 2, (Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, 2022) p. 132.
- Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for the True Self, (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2013).
This phrase comes from the title of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’: On the Care for Our Common Home, (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015).