Someone once said that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God. I go through a normal day making various efforts to keep You present to me. Some days are better than others. Sometimes I feel Your presence in my morning or evening prayers – but more often not. Sometimes I experience Your presence at Mass – but not always. Often I feel Your presence in meditation or in these letters, or in centering prayer – but not infallibly. The fact that I try to conjure Your presence every hour when my watch beeps does not mean that I am always successful – sometimes I just ignore the beep. But I do experience feelings of joy now and then – and sometimes great joy. Am I missing the most positive sense of Your presence in failing to look for You there? There is a feeling of excitement that goes with joy and, interestingly, a feeling of serenity and security.
It is part of the human condition that in times of joy the excitement, serenity, and security are more conducive to experiencing Your presence than times of sadness, which may bring depression, anxiety and worry. Your presence itself can be the cause of joy and, thus, magnify itself in us. In times of joy we are more apt to think of the goodness of God than in bleaker times when that thought does not come so easily even thought it’s equally true that You are there. It is more human to equate good feelings with God’s hand than to think about His presence when all is dark.
But what about “infallible?” I think joy is an infallible sign of Your presence in this sense: because of sin in our lives, the faults, the failings, the shame and guilt that we are so much aware of, snatches of joy come as intermittent flickers. The fallibility of our recognizing Your presence is a product of the fallibility of our own humanity. There is a sense of this fallibility in the joy we experience here. Joy becomes an infallible sign of You after we shed the shackles of our human life. Infallible joy is heaven.
I’m not sure that I work hard enough at it, but I do know that I make continual and varied efforts to keep You present throughout a day. One method is my own modified version of the “Jesus Prayer” which the “beep” from my wristwatch reminds me to say every hour. But, as with so many other daily mechanical habits, it often becomes thoughtless and does not always evoke Your presence. I especially have been making a concerted effort to see You in the people and events of each day, and also in nature. I am learning that with a little effort I can find You regularly in the combinations of certain people in certain circumstances.
For me the most important facilitator of this ability is not the knowledge that You are already present in those people or events, but rather that I, with a mind set to finding You in them, am often able to do so. It’s the same with things in nature. You have always been in the cottony drifting clouds of a blue sky, in the special radiances of a sunrise or sunset, in the color and sway of a breeze-blown field of wildflowers, in the roar of Niagara Falls; but the eye and the heart must be set on seeing You there just as in seeing You in an old man counting his beads in church or in the newly discovered world in a baby’s eyes. If I cannot find You in my own heart, it’s hard to find You anyplace else.
What I wish I was more proficient at is sustaining the moments I am deeply aware of Your presence. For me, they are characteristically brief flashes now and then. I can evoke Your presence with my will but certain circumstances render it easier than others, and the times I fail are the times when more effort is involved. I know that the habitual sustaining of Your presence in my consciousness over time would take the effort and focus for which the distractions of daily life are seemingly immense speed bumps. The real trick (and it’s not easy) is to find You as well in these distractions; to regard Your presence actually in the people and events that appear to pull me away from it.
The biblical commentator, William Barclay, on an early chapter of II Peter says that when Peter talks about brotherly affection as being part of the courage with which we equip our faith, what he means is that there is something wrong with a spirituality that finds the distracting claims of personal relationships a nuisance. Rather, it would be eminently more fruitful to look for Your presence in such occasions.
The sum total of our entire existence – the whole package – is being loved by You and loving You in return. That’s it! Nothing more or less! Yet we spend a lifetime cultivating proficiency in defending ourselves from Your love. We ignore it or fight it off in continuously creative ways. We go to great lengths and expend great effort to avoid it. We are so much a part of the world’s hustling attachment to image, power, possessions, and self-satisfaction that we cannot hear or see You for the blare; and so we give up trying and cave in to these things. Even though You are there, You are not audible or visible to us in these things. Each of these, in its own way, in my own life, is a way I block Your love.
As I think about them, it occurs to me that I have left one out, one that is major in my own life. It’s “activity” – busy-ness – non-stillness. From the moment I get up in the morning my thoughts turn to what I’m going to do today. First this, then, before lunch, that, then this afternoon, this, and after that I’ll get these things done, and tonight watch the game on TV. Right from the morning I load the day with obstacles to my loving You and allowing You to love me. Some tasks, chores, or responsibilities are necessary, but unless I take time to make a concerted effort to include You in what I’m doing or see You at that moment, I just plow right over You. I’m not talking about those rare contemplative, transcendental flashes when everything else just vanishes, but rather about times when I linger in an un-busy sense of openness while doing something else – like fishing in the middle of a beautiful lake setting on a gorgeous day, or swimming aimlessly and calmly through cool waters, or just watching birds in a birdbath. These are times when there is no sense of urgency about anything. Somehow, in such times, without trying to summon Your presence, You are there, You fill the empty spaces. What we need to do is find more empty spaces and cultivate an approach to living our daily lives that makes us more proficient at letting them- and You - just happen.
You are, as the author Kathleen Norris observes, not the God of a dictionary definition but the God of relationship. We are not purely spiritual beings like the angels who behold You constantly. We struggle to behold You. We reach for the relationship. The spiritual side of our nature demands things of our human side that connect us with You. In our relationship with You we look for things that reveal You to us. Contemplating creation is our stepping stone to beholding You.
The angles, of course, see You; but I wonder if they could not see You if they might see You in humans as we might see You in lower animals. It is not just a cliché to say that we see You in nature. We swim in the ocean of Your being, but we so often ignore the water to concentrate on our different strokes. The peace, warmth and satisfaction of beholding You in the beauty and good of life as it exists, not just in us but in an amoeba, an insect, a flower, a fish, a cat, dog, chipmunk, chimpanzee, etc., is something to reflect on, and in that reflection to step closer to You. All around us our eyes see and our ears hear the ebb and flow of this sea of being. Being, in all its forms (creation) is the obvious stepping stone that connects us to You.
Have we done better or worse without the tangible presence of God in our lives? In various periods of world history it would seem that at the times Your absence was most loudly proclaimed Your presence was, somehow, profoundly revealed. You cannot be denied. You cannot be obliterated. You emerge constantly from the most extreme vacuums of godlessness. Your spirit is indomitable in mankind. Human beings are the vessels of Your ubiquity. The prophets of old actually spoke to You and You to them. The apostles and disciples could physically reach out and touch You. But in this age there is no tangible presence of God. In this age faith guides our relationship with You. If I was able to audibly hear Your voice or if You were physically present in bodily form I would be a puppy dog awaiting every meaningful word from Your lips and every possible twitch of body language. I would not need me because I’d have You. I would not need to struggle to master the interior intellectual gymnastics contrived to get me closer to the one “out there.” All the praying, reading, writing, centering, etc. would be dropped.
Now, the question is: in which way do we do better? There is truth in the words “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” If You were physically right here with me now, I can see myself treating You as I treat those closest to me – those I love the most – and that is not always so great. That is defective. That leaves much to be desired. I think I might be more prone to despair over my inadequacy and my shortcomings if You were tangibly present now because I know what happens with those I love most. I would fear how I’d fail You. It’s not that I don’t fear that anyway, but with You actually before me I could not bear how I might treat You. Yet, without You here I treat You the same way. The difference is that only with Your invisibility is there hope that Your love for me is so far above what I do to You that I am able to bear what might otherwise be the visible effects of Your disapproval. And yet, maybe You look upon me and see how I treat other people – people who are the vessels of Your presence in this life – and shake Your head thinking, ‘see how he treats me?’ That indictment is bad enough; I don’t think I could bear to see the look on Your face.
In this life we are constant victims of the inverse proportion between distance and intensity. While the conflicts, strife, and sufferings on the other side of the world, though no less real, are of little or no importance to us, the pain and conflict we experience closer to ourselves is of much greater impact. This notion of intensity increasing with proximity peaks at the point nearest to our interior self. Our most intense concerns, then, deal first with what affects our personal self; and next, those closest to us and their worlds; and next, our neighbor and so on in ever-widening and more distant concentric circles. Even the magnitude of a far-distant catastrophe pales in the face of a bothersome but tiny mishap in our own home. Closeness magnifies seriousness.
If, in the interior life, we consider ourselves and our God the unequivocal definition of closeness, then cosmic chaos is as nothing compared to the bumpy road of distractions, temptations, and sufferings of the spiritual life. The quest for You travels along a highway that bristles with potholes, barricades and orange barrels that touch deeply our intimate selves – more than a distant war, more than natural disasters, more than terrorism, more than losing the world-series, more than a house fire on the next street. If I was a person directly involved in any one of these “calamities” their intensity and effect would be hugely magnified, but, in perspective, not even then should they be as intense or important as even the smallest feeling of failing You.
The irony here is that You are at once the closest and the farthest. You live and move and have Your being in Your people, but Your people remain far from You. It is we who put distance between God and ourselves. In doing so we correlate Your impact on us with Your distance – a distance we create – a “comfortable” distance. Thomas Merton has said that the spiritual life is dialectic between idealism and realism. Ideally we walk in a continuous present with You, but the reality is that, more often than not, we place You “out there” at some distance. If we are serious about disposing ourselves to be found by You then we must work at a consciousness of Your continuing proximity, all the while understanding that our failures to do this are the most devastating and proximate disasters of our lives.
People who thrive on structure and organization in daily life generally seem less spontaneous that those who live life on a “come-what-may:” basis. Setting aside a time for this and a time for that or following a set schedule is, however, a means of self-discipline. It helps to cut down on “surprises” and aids others in determining our reliability. It establishes for us and for others a certain “comfort zone.” When we are in school our days are pretty much structured; so too in our work environment. The daily routine in a seminary or monastery takes this to its apex. Ideally though, custom provides a setting into which each of us can inject our own spontaneity. There is a tendency in us to go with the conformity and flow of a “semi-robotic” day – especially as part of the herd of others that is doing the same. Even in retirement I am strongly drawn to organization and structure. Precise daily or weekly time slots for You, for others, and for myself are de rigour. This isn’t all bad because, as I said, self-discipline is involved.
What can very easily happen though is that our focus from one part of the day does not filter down into other “time slots.” It’s like our first exposure to a class in logic. In class we focus on the principles being explained. We learn them. We’re fascinated. We derive insight. Later, we drive home, or mow the lawn, or do the laundry and that class in logic is far from us even though some of the principles we learned could apply in each situation. We do this with You too when we move from a time slot of prayer to a time slot of eating breakfast and reading the morning paper, or doing yard work, or working out on the treadmill.
Keeping You present in times not “slotted” for You is a major goal of spiritual growth. One of the times this becomes most difficult is when watching TV or a movie. We become so “pulled in” by what’s on the screen that all thoughts of anything else are effectively erased. This is why the broadcast media is so powerful. Nonetheless, the point is precisely about keeping present to ourselves that which we most desire to be present.
As a teacher of mine once said, “…it’s not what you learn in this classroom to pass a test that’s important, but rather how you apply what you learn here to your life.” There’s a huge gap between the ideal and the real here. Keeping Your presence in our focus every minute of every day may be the ideal but the reality is there’s too much else in our cluttered lives that fights against it. Maybe the best we can do is to desire to keep You always present and to try a little bit harder each day to do it.
By stillness and silence I conquer pride and vanity. When I have calmed all my senses and my only movement is my breathing and I sit still and rapt in Your lap, there is no me – just You. What proud or vain conceit can thrive in such an atmosphere? It suffocates. Without the noise and motion of a busy self it cannot live. Its life-blood is drained away. That is why when this is experienced there is an increased longing and anguish for it. This longing is a gift of Your grace, for by it we lose ourselves in You, and that is where we want to be.
If being still and silent before You enables me to forget self and let You in, would stillness and silence before others be a means of less selfish love? Probably not! For the truth of the matter is Your ways are not our ways. It is not our way but rather Your grace that calms us and stills us in Your presence. In the presence of another person such calmness, silence and stillness might indicate apathy rather than love. In the ways of men, love must be “shown” with fanfare, activity, proclamation and performance. The hopeful results of contemplation are learning that the ways of stillness, silence and receptivity are Your ways and that the ways of men are often barriers to growth in Your love.
It is in the moments of stillness that the loving certainty of what Evelyn Underhill in her book Mysticism describes as “intellectual visions” takes place. The awareness of You brought about by no form of sensual or imaginative effort, yet inexplicably certain. Such moments thrive in the friendly habitat of stillness and silence though they certainly are not limited to such times. Our failure to encourage them is a “human” failure. You are like Fr. Anthony DeMello’s image of a movie screen which is itself invisible because of all the images projected upon it, yet it is nonetheless there. With the analogy of a bus that we never get off of, DeMello further describes our penchant for getting comfortable with certain formulas and routines that never allow us to penetrate the “dark night” or the “cloud of unknowing.” The stillness and silence needed are not on the bus.
There is great consolation in the fact that You love even when no one else does. You will help us find a way. The psalm says, “God makes a home for the desolate to dwell in.” Once we are truly conscious of the fact that He whom we seek dwells in us, life must become a search for going beyond the images it projects and seeing the screen on which they are projected, a stopping and getting off life’s bus and following different routes in stillness and silence, for that is where we find You.
Thomas Merton has said that seeking You is not so much an organized ascetic system as it is a learning to be quiet through prayer, self-denial and love so that You may possess us.
By my lack of stillness and quiet, my constant flurry of activities, I always get in the way of Your possessing me. To be possessed means to be so one-dimensionally obsessed with something that it pervades our very existence to the witness of all. Though I may wish and long to be possessed by You, and though I may say I seek it, I, in fact, do a great deal to thwart it. I am one of those people who is very organized and systematic about almost everything. This approach itself, whether applied to my spiritual life or the practicalities of daily life, creates a barrier to Your possession of me. A man in Frank Bianco’s book Voices of Silence puts it this way: “…Why do you suppose those moments of solitude offer us such relief? [the answer is] Because they give us a chance to simply be ourselves, to enjoy what and where we are, to savor just being. Alone with God we feel no need to perform, to do. The pressure is off.”
Sounds simple, but for me it’s not; for even when I daily sequester myself in silence and stillness with You, my busy mind fights Your taking possession of me by conjuring up a stream of thoughts about what I will do after this period. To systematically plan to spend x-number of minutes alone in silence with You on a regular basis is one step forward, but to perfect this approach in all my waking hours as one of stillness and quiet in Your presence in all I do, is the ideal. This is the door we must learn to keep open in order for You to enter and possess us. It is a door marked “stillness” – stillness more of spirit than of body, although stillness of body helps.
Ultimately we should be able to remain active and work while maintaining, at the same time, a stillness of spirit that keeps the door open. A constant sense of Your companionship, in every step of our day’s journey is characteristic of the spirit of stillness by which You are able to possess us. Therefore, whatever keeps You present to us all day long – the “Jesus Prayer,” seeing You in others, in nature, mental prayer, etc., will help create the interior stillness that is needed no matter what we’re doing exteriorly.
We seek solitude with You and, at the same time, we seek to draw the whole world to You – seemingly another paradox. One question becomes, how does the hermit draw others to You? Very often the desirable practice of living in the present obscures our vision of long term results. I am sure that at some time every hermit, mystic, or cloistered religious ponders this point. We are familiar with the writings of Merton, Fox, Keating, Pennington and so on – all cloistered monks who have drawn others to You through their writings. But what of the thousands of such people we have never heard of? One answer is, without them what was accomplished by the more prominent spiritual writers might not have come about. There is a mesh here of which we are seldom aware.
There is no telling the influence of the solitary over others long after he’s gone. His/her prayers alone may have been the cause of wonderful effects not readily apparent to us. The will of God is that we all be one with Him. If, by His constant grace, we are able to do His will, our solitude, by some mystical means, contributes to the completion of that will and of the drawing of others toward that will. The fact that a mystic latches on to a way of life through which he is able to do Your will and unite him/herself – his/her very being – with You, is a fulfillment, to the degree possible in this life, of Your will for all of us.
Here I am, a person of the world, influenced almost daily by the writings of these men/women and drawn by the way of life of thousands more whom I never knew and who never knew me. I say to myself, just as they must have said to themselves: with such ammunition I must draw the world to You. But Saint Peter, in his letters, tells us that sometimes you give a person a vision but say to the person, “not yet.” It is more than possible that the last and the least are foremost in Your plan.