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Living in the Presence of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
What do we mean by "presence"? What do we mean by living in God's presence with our minds, or mentally? And what do we mean by living in that same presence with our wills, or volitionally? What does it mean to cultivate this presence of God?
Whatever else the spiritual life is, it is practice and more practice. We don't become spiritual by reading books about it. Since God is Spirit and since we are spiritual precisely because we have a mind and a will, whatever this practice of living in God's presence means, somehow it must mean being united with Him by the two arms of our spirit, which are the mind and the will.
So what is presence? As you know in a language like the English one-over three hundred million people speak English; most perforce are not Catholic and many are not Christian-the vocabulary becomes what the people of that culture make it. Words, verbally and semantically, really mean the same, but the meaning attached to words depends on the people who use them. It is, therefore, of more than passing importance to get behind the sense of words, to see what we mean when we use the words that are so commonplace in our spiritual life-here, "presence".
Presence always describes a relationship between people. I could by an extension of language say that a desk is present to me, or I to it; but it wouldn't actually be correct. Thus we are not precisely present to stones or trees, nor they to us, in spite of what the poets say. Furthermore, when we speak of presence and we imply that two or more people are somehow present to one another, it makes a big difference whom we are speaking of as being present to whom, whether it's A present to B, or B present to A, because A can be present to B and B might not be present to A.
The deepest mysteries of our faith are simple, but words can complicate them. Is it true that we are always present to God? Yes, God must sustain us, so surely we must be present to Him. Is it also true that God is always present to us, physically, as the omnipresent divine reality? Yes. He is always present to us by His infinity or, as I prefer to say, physically, because the reality of God is always affecting or influencing us. Admitting that God is always present to us physically, is He always present to us spiritually? No, no more than a person who is physically next to us in a room is present to us spiritually unless or until we somehow respond to his or her being there. A person may be physically present in a room, but unless we are somehow aware of that person being there, and respond to that presence, he or she might just as well not be there. It is this spiritual presence of God that is the subject of this meditation.
Take Time to Think of GodWhat does it mean to live in God's presence in this spiritual sense unless we first make up our minds to take time out to think of God. And nobody, not even God will make up our minds for us.
What does it mean to have someone present to us in this mental sense? Does it not mean, before everything else, that the person is on our minds? In the deepest sense space and time are irrelevant here, because we are talking about spirit being present to spirit; it is immaterial. That is what spirit is: the reality which is independent of space and time.
She may be in Durango and he, in Southeast Asia. Or the one present to us may be long since dead-dead in body, not spirit; centuries may separate us from that person. No matter. By that mysterious alchemy of the spirit, the moment we begin thinking of him or her-but we have to begin thinking-they become literally present to us. In fact, the person may be physically in our presence, but unless we are thinking about them in the spiritual sense, they are absent.
If, then, we wish to cultivate living in the presence of God, we must set our minds to think about God. We must place Him before the eyes of our mind. And this God will not obtrude Himself. We must look at Him with the power of our mental reflection enlightened by faith. There is all the difference in the world between a person being here and our seeing that person; and more still is there even a difference between seeing and looking at the person. We must first look at God with that faculty whose principal purpose is to see God. We must, then, see Him with that strange power we have, or recalling people we want to think about. One of the privileges we have is that if we want to, we will; however, if we don't want to, we won't. It is the power we have over these minds of ours to direct them to attend to whom we wish to think about. And if we want to, we can forget.
Some people have the ability to turn their thoughts easily and almost instinctively towards God; others, not so easily. The essence of the contemplative life is not great facility in turning towards God-that's not what makes a contemplative. What makes a contemplative is turning one's mind towards God, whether it's easy or not. This is the basis of everything else.
Of course it demands some effort, especially effort to stop thinking about other things less than God. But we must take every occasion to use or, if need be, create situations which then become occasions for being "thought-full" of God, where our thoughts are full of God. What we have to convince ourselves of is that we have the power of turning our minds to what we want.
The creating of occasions to become full of thoughts of God is the fundamental principle operative in spiritual reading. What is the difference between spiritual reading and that which is not "spiritual" reading? The nature of spiritual reading ought to be such that it reminds us of God. This is also the purpose of sacred images: pictures, statues, and crucifixes. This is the purpose of liturgical ritual and of religious symbolism-down to the cut of the vestments and the color for different liturgical days. It is moreover, the fundamental reason in God's Providence for external gestures and words, posture and position, in times of prayer and is the whole purpose for creating such occasions: that we should be surrounded, literally immersed in religious symbols which will remind us of God. This is so basic that, if we wish to foster living in God's presence, we must make sure that He first comes to our attention outside of the mind, in order that He will enter inside the mind.
While it is possible to think of God without external reminders of God, it becomes increasingly difficult and, among other things, is one of the main reasons for wearing the religious habit. As one religious told me: "When I began to wear secular clothes, I began to feel like a secular; then I began to think like a secular; and now I'm afraid I'm beginning to act like a secular."
These are not trivia. All of this is Providentially intended that we might be thoughtful of God, because these stimuli, the sensations that we experience outside of us, will be pretty much the measure of the kind of thoughts we will have inside of us. If we want God-like thoughts, we must have God-like experiences. We must see and hear and touch and even, as in flowers and incense, smell God-like things in order to have God-like thoughts. What, then, does it mean to live in God's presence mentally? It means to have Him in mind.
God Must Be in Our WillsLiving in God's presence volitionally. Clearly, just thinking about God is not yet living in God's presence in the way in which we know we should as Christians, not to say religious. God must also, and especially, be in our wills. Here we have Christ's own formula for cultivating this presence of God. At the Last Supper, among other things, He said, "If anyone loves me he will keep my word," meaning: he will do my will, "and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him." The "if" is up to us-always, of course, with God's grace; the "and", in this case, is up to God. We take care of the "if" and He will take care of the "and". "If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him."
In this passage from Christ's homily at the Last Supper is the perfect method for living in God's presence with our wills, with the assured guarantee of His then responsive dwelling in our hearts. It means simply and unequivocally that we try as far as possible always to say "yes" to God's will in our lives. How hard to put into practice!
When we are tired and there is work to be done, what do we do? We must do it. When we are worried and uncertain about the outcome (we may have tried it before and failed) but we are sure it is God's will, so we do it. At times we cannot understand why something happened to us or to those we love, but we must say: "Thy will be done." Every time we unite ourselves in will, to resign ourselves to the will of God, where the "yes" may be very reluctant; or every time we carry into effect God's will by doing it, we are living in His presence by that strongest of all presences: the union of love, where both lover and beloved have the same will. In this case His becomes ours.
No wonder Christ promises those who keep His word that the Father would love him and, "We" (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) "shall come to him and make our home with him." When are you at home? When you belong; when you feel you belong. So too with God, if we can use human language: he is made to feel He belongs. When you are taken for granted-you can relax, you're home. We touch, then, on the heart of our subject when we say this: God will do His part, He will make His home with us.
Now the trouble is, we expect something for nothing. So we read books of Saint John of the Cross, of Saint Paul of the Cross, of Saint Teresa of Avila, of Ignatius, of Margaret Mary, and we almost envy the consolations they experienced, the intimacy with God which they evidently had, their ease. Saint Margaret Mary spent seven or more hours in chapel lost in ecstasy before the Eucharist. Well, God is a hard bargainer. Of course He will give us intimacy. We know enough about the spiritual life to know that the subjective or psychological awareness of God's presence is not necessarily a sign of high sanctity. Nevertheless, the deep sense of intimacy of God's indwelling is not something we can acquire cheaply. These are the costly graces. If we wish to experience them, we have to carry the cross. If we do this, He will do His part. We give Him our wills and He gives us the intimacy of His presence as only God, making His home in our souls, can effect.
How to Make Progress Living in the Presence of GodLiving in God's presence practically. Is there some practical rule for growing in the presence of God? How do we do it? We make progress living in the presence of God the better we learn to live less and less in the presence of self. There are all kinds of ways you can divide the human race; the men and the women, the rich and the poor, the literate and the illiterate, the Christian and the non-Christian. We can also divide the world into two parts: those who spend most of their time living in the presence of self and those who try, as far as possible to live in the presence of God.
We hear much about the function of grace as given to us by God in order to carry out His will; that is undoubtedly one of the purposes of grace. But the role of grace is not only that we might do God's will, but that we might enjoy doing it, by sensing down deep in the recesses of our souls that He is with us. This sense of God being with us is His gift, on one condition: that we try to be with Him.
Living, then, in God's presence is the joy He gives us in this life as a foretaste of the joys in store for us, when all effort and struggle will cease and only peace and beatitude will be had. You see, Heaven is living in God's presence where we don't have to work
Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood
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