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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Omnipresence of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We have so far reflected on the nature of God and his divine attributes. We have seen that God is absolutely one; there is only one true God. We have seen that God is a pure spirit; he is absolutely simple and as pure spirit he has a divine intellect and a divine will. God is not a solitary being. We believe he is three persons in one divine nature: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; from all eternity God has been the divine uncreated society. God, we saw, is the creator of all things visible and invisible. We further saw that God exercises constant universal providence in the world which he created. Moreover God is all perfect; he is, in other words, the infinite limitless God: he possesses the fullness of being. We then saw that God is absolutely unchangeable; he is, our faith tells us, the divine immutability. Everything changes, "You, God, never change." We then went on to see that God is both all-knowing and all-wise. His knowledge is without limit, and the exercise of his knowledge, which is wisdom, is infinitely perfect. And we last saw that God is love, loving himself as the divine community of the Blessed Trinity. But God is also all-good in communicating his love in the benefits he constantly confers on the whole world which he made.
We wish to reflect in God's presence on his omnipresence. He is everywhere present in the created universe. Theologically we call this the divine ubiquity - from the Latin word 'ubique' which means 'everywhere.'
However, before going into our prayerful reflection on God's everywhereness', I think we had better distinguish among the three different ways in which God is now in the world. The first way: God is present everywhere and his presence we call natural. It is called his omnipresence. It is also a universal presence in all creatures, rational and irrational, in heaven, on earth, in the stiller regions, and even in hell. In the second way God is present and we call that his supernatural presence. It is more properly and technically called the divine indwelling. It is the way that God is present in the souls of those who on earth are in the state of sanctifying grace: the divine indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the just. The third way God is present in the world and we call it the Real Presence. It is his presence as the God-Man, it is his corporeal or bodily presence in the Holy Eucharist. Our present focus is to reflect on the first of these three ways that God is present in the world by his omnipresence.
In order to cover this overwhelming subject, remember the focus of our reflection: it is on the natural presence of God in the whole world. What is the revealed foundation for God's omnipresence? Sacred Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, gives eloquent testimony to God's everywhereness. Thus the psalmist prays to God. "Where shall I go before your spirit? Or where shall I flee before your face? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I descend into hell, you are there; if I take my wings, early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall your hand lead me and your right hand shall hold me." (Ps 138). Then God told Jeremiah a rhetorical divine question. "Do I not," the Lord told Jeremiah, "fill heaven and earth?"
However, the most detailed profession of faith in God's omnipresence found in the Bible is part of St. Paul's long discourse to the pagan Greeks in the city of Athens. Remember, Paul had walked around and found an altar dedicated to the unknown God. Paul used the occasion to tell the Athenians: "My friends, I see here that you offer sacrifice to the unknown God. Well, let me tell you about this unknown God." (Leave it to Paul; he would take every occasion to proclaim the one true God.) "This God whom you call unknown, is not far from any of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:27-28).
The omnipresence of God, we may say, is the underlying theme of everything which the Bible tells us about God. So true is this that doubting or unbelieving interpreters of the Bible are scandalized by the childlike simplicity with which the Bible speaks about God everywhere: He's in the wind in the storm; in a word there is nowhere where God is absent. The Bible attributing everything, everything to the action of God is simply the revealed expression of the belief that God is, and is constantly active everywhere.
Here is the Church's explanation, the understanding, if you will, as far as the human mind can grasp the meaning of a mystery, of God's omnipresence in the world. Understanding the faith means the how; the belief is the what, the understanding is the how. On the clarity of our faith in the mind depends absolutely the generosity in our living the faith in our spiritual lives. We don't love what we don't know. The omnipresence of God is threefold.
The Church teaches that God is present everywhere by his power. He is present in the whole of creation as the first cause of all creatures. Meaning what? When we speak of God as the first cause, that first cause means first chronologically. God first had to exist, and then he as the first divine cause, brought the world into being. But this same divine first cause which was first in the order of time is also the first cause in underlying, undergirding everything in creation. How then is God present? By his omnipresence as the first cause of all creation. He is present - to try to understand a mystery - he is present by giving the power, the capacity, the ability for creatures to continue existing. He is present therefore in the first way as a cause is present to the effect which it produces.
Why must God be present everywhere? Because God must exercise his almighty power right now to sustain the creatures which he has made no less than when he first brought the creatures into existence out of nothing. Unless God were present by his power in all of you, this would be an empty chapel. Unless God is present in me by his power, there would be no speaker. We are trying to fathom as well as we can with the light given to us, how is God present everywhere. He is present everywhere as necessary, by his power, to keep us in existence. And he had to be present by his almighty power to bring us into existence in the first place.
Secondly, God is everywhere by his divine knowledge. What do we mean? God is present by knowing the creatures that he made. He had better know the creatures that he made, because it is his constant divine knowledge, which we call his wisdom, that is being exercised on all the creatures, not only to sustain them in their being, but to provide for their continuous activity. A moment's lapse in God's sustaining knowledge of the created world and the world he made would lapse into the nothingness from which it came.
Finally God is present everywhere by his divine being. There is a pervasive error that has deeply, profoundly infected the thinking of millions, of millions of Christians, millions of Catholics and especially of those who are trying to live the spiritual life. It is the heresy of pantheism.
Let us make sure that as Catholics, when we say that God is everywhere let us not for a moment even suspect that God is everything. That is blasphemy! I repeat, the number of books, by now the hundreds of articles in journals, pantheism disguised in a multitude of forms, playing loose with the mystery we are considering, the omnipresence of God. God is everywhere, therefore, by his divine being. He is, and he exercises his power and knowledge. He is not only active in the world, working in the world everywhere, he is in the world. But keep that preposition! He is in the world, but he is not the world.
The divine essence, as the Church teaches, literally fills the whole of creation, material as well as spiritual, terrestrial, celestial, and, as we said and we repeat, universal. Where any creature exists, God is there. We cannot say that although God is everywhere that he is everything; that is a real blasphemy in real papers, in real books. It is this claim that somehow - and the subtlety of the human mind under the influence of the devil, the subtlety of the human mind under demonic influence is unbelievable. Pantheism is at the heart of communism. At the heart of communism is Karl Marx. At the heart of Karl Marx is Hegel, the most diabolically influential philosopher in the world today - a pantheist. And you read what he wrote and he drips with piety, he reeks of incense.
God, we repeat is everywhere. The world that God made is not God. It is a creature and he is its creator and its omnipotent sustainer. Unless our faith is clear, I know, I know, struggling with priests who have swallowed the cyanide of pantheism. God is in the whole world; his being pervades the whole universe. But his being, who God is, and the being of the world, what the world is, though they are very close, couldn't be closer, because without God's proximity to the world there wouldn't be a world; but God's being close to the world does not make him the world nor does it make the world him. What a weak word to describe the profound truth. God is God and the world is the world. He pervades the world, he permeates the world, he penetrates the world; use all the verbs you want but don't you dare say that God is the world.
As one writer puts it: "There is nothing in the world, no mountain peak, rivulet, sea, song of bird, no heart of man without God being behind it as a fruit is behind the rind or a face behind a veil; but the face is not the veil."
Thus St. Paul in writing to converts from paganism in Rome, says, "The invisible things of God, from the creation of the world are clearly seen, and understood from the things that he made." What St. Paul is telling us is more than most of us realize. When a comet falls from the sky, or a dry leaf rustles from the tree and falls to the ground, or while we take our next breath, God is in the air we breathe. When we take a drink of water, or a morsel of food, God is there. When we think a thought, or have a desire, God is in that thought in the mind, and desire in the will. But God is not the thought, God is not the desire. The thought or the desire are ours, but God is there.
Now some implications. As our faith and common sense tells us, the implications of God's omnipresence are everywhere. Because we believe that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, - that is true - but I repeat God is not we, and we are not God - we have the grounds for the realization for the intimacy of God. As I'm sure you know, for one being to be physically near another being is not to make "A" present to "B" or "B" present to "A". We are talking here about God's presence to us. He is a divine spirit with a mind and a will. We are finite spirits with an intellect and will of our own. He is there, he is here, he is near. He is always thinking of us and loving us. And as we've seen, God thinking of us and loving us is what we understand by his omnipresence. He is near physically speaking, as one being is close to another. No two beings could be closer than God is to us. But what does God want of us? To realize and respond to his presence. And I repeat, presence is not the same as proximity, presence is not the same as being near. This glass is near this piece of paper, but the water is not present to the paper and the paper is not present to the water. Why not? Because neither the water is thinking about the paper or loving the piece of paper, nor the paper thinking of and loving the water. Presence is possible only between spiritual beings.
God is not only near us, close to us, and he couldn't be closer, he is present to us. What does he want? He wants us to be present to him. He is thinking of us, he wants us to think of him. He is loving us, he wants us to be constantly loving him. God, we believe, is present to us constantly by his almighty power. If there is one thing that should prove to us that pantheism is blasphemous heresy it is the frequent awareness that God gives us of our own weakness. Great! God makes us aware of how pathetically weak we are. Why? So that conscious of our own inability to cope with the least temptation, to undergo the smallest trial, we might call upon him and cry out, "Lord, help me!" He does not have to make a long distant journey from the heavens, he's here.
Lord Jesus, you are our God. If there is one thing you wanted to teach us it is complete, constant confidence in your presence as God. You tell us not to fear; you tell us not to worry; you tell us that the God who you are not only made us but you sustain us. Deepen our faith in your omnipresence so that even as we believe in your presence we may believe in your power, in your wisdom, in your being with us always, now and through all eternity. Amen.
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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