The practice of the presence of God.
On this third Sunday after Easter, the traditional liturgy avails of the text of St. John’s Gospel, chapter sixteen, verse sixteen to twenty-two. The words of Christ seem more meaningful now than ever before, “a little while, and now you shall not see me”. (John 16:16) At first they seem especially pertinent to this present time, yet upon deeper consideration there is in fact great hope contained in these words. As a large proportion of the Catholic world is deprived from encountering Christ in the Mass, the words which follow are of particular comfort: “and again after a little while you will have sight of me, because I am going back to the Father”. In many ways the deprivation of the Mass and the sacraments feels strongly like the time of absence which Christ spoke of. Unable to visit Him in the churches or to regularly avail of the sacrament of confession leads to a state of confusion akin to that which the disciples experienced in the Gospel. Our response is even the same as theirs, namely confusion and questioning, demanding to know how this is so and what could it mean. (John 16:18).
Our Lord’s response and explanation is a call to the life of Catholic abandonment to Divine providence, whereby we learn to love not the world or its’ goods, but instead to rely only on Him. Hence why He states “you will weep and lament while the world rejoices; you will be distressed but your distress shall be turned into joy”. Enduring the suffering of being apart from the Source of the spiritual life is indeed a cause for lamenting and great distress. Christ mentions to the apostles that they are indeed “distressed now” but that He shall bring them such gladness as cannot be taken away.
Yet this Gospel allows us to dwell upon the pious practice of the presence of God, for whilst there may be a little while when we shall not see Him, there is never any time in which He is not with us. Again, whilst there will be times of weeping and lamenting, these are not sorrows which we must bear without the consolation of the presence of God, nor His Blessed Mother.
The practice of the presence of God.
In times such as these, the advice of the saints is even more pertinent, for they counsel those souls desirous of perfection to practice the presence of God always. That is to say, that in all our actions throughout each day we bear in mind that we are continually in the presence of God who sees our innermost thoughts and knows our most hidden deeds. We have the scriptural evidence for this practice in the Psalms, where the psalmist writes “I set the Lord always in my sight: for he is at my right hand, that I be not moved”. (Psalm 15:8). Later he counsels us to “seek ye the Lord, and be strengthened: seek his face evermore” (Psalm 104:4). Job too reminds us that the Lord is with us always: “Doth not he consider my ways, and number all my steps?” (Job 31:4).
In St. Lukes’ Gospel we find similiar passages to both the Psalms and the Gospel of today, where Christ mentions that “you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake, But a hair of your head shall not perish”. (Luke 21:17) Again in Matthew, Christ counsels that one ought not to be solicitous for the things of earth or be filled with doubt and confusion, since just as the lilies in the field have every need provided for, so will we, who are made in His image, be provided for by God in His Divinity. There is nowhere away from His omnipresence or outside the power of the aid He gives to man.
The psalmist also depicts the state of the wicked man as being he who does not practice the presence of God: “God is not before his eyes: his ways are filthy at all times” (Psalm 9:26). It is a common theme in the teaching of the Fathers of the Church that those who wished to advance in the spiritual life should always walk remembering that they were in the presence of God. In his great tome on the spiritual life, Fr. Rodriguez devotes a whole treatise to the subject of the continual presence of God and the great aid which it is to advancing in perfection. But it is to St. Francis de Sales that we can turn for a precise treatment of the matter.
The great bishop writes on the practice of the presence of God when instructing Philothea on how to make a fruitful meditation, but the process can be easily applied to the general schedule of daily life. He notes four ways by which we might place ourselves in the presence of God:
I) First he mentions that we should develop a living understanding of the omnipresence of God: He is everywhere, there is no place where He is not. By properly grasping this truth we should be moved to always act in a manner that would not cause Him pain, for He sees all our actions even as we perform them.
II) Next, the saint mentions that God is “in a very special manner in your heart and in the depth of your spirit”. (1) Hence we should endeavour to nourish a growing love and reverence for God, who is so intimately present within us. A good manner of strengthening this union is by making regular aspirations and acknowledging our own dependance upon the Divine will.
III) The third way is to have always before our mind the fact that Christ looks upon His Church in particular, upon we who are the members of His mystical body. This should be a source of hope for us, as well as an encouragement in doing all the actions of daily life in the most perfect manner possible. St. Paul exhorts the faithful to do all for Christ, to work endlessly for Him as members of His Church. (1 Cor 10:31). For Christ is not present in the abstract, He is truly and constantly present; thus “though with one eye we deal with His Divine Majesty, we are to fix the other on doing our works well for Him”.(2)
IV) The fourth way of St. Francis de Sales, is to employ the powers of the imagination, by “representing to ourselves the Saviour in his sacred humanity, as though he were near to us”.(3) By this way we are able to develop a more personal understanding of the presence of God, conversing with Him through means of prayers and ejaculations as one would converse with a friend who is really with us.
The saint calls upon us to treat God as we would a dear friend, and to wish to spend the entire day with Him, conversing with Him through prayers or ejaculations, and acting always in a manner that renders Him honour. By using these or other methods of practicing the presence of God, we are thus seeking to imitate in some imperfect way, the great felicity which the saints enjoy in heaven. As St. Paul states, “we see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face”. (1 Cor 13:12) This dim view of eternal beatitude which can be gained through the presence of God, is a great means of comfort when we enter into the time of distress mentioned in the Gospel of the day. Just as we spend time with friends, sharing activities with them in order to deepen our relation, the same must apply to our relation with God. Man’s end is not in earthly riches or prowess but in union with God and thus any trials, distresses or crises are made into joys, infinitely sweeter than we could hope for, if we do but unite ourselves to Him. Since our end is with Him, practicing the presence of God enables us to learn to love Him so that we enter into a deeper union with He who is the only source of life and peace.
The saints counsel that a soul who wishes to grow in perfection would be remiss not to employ the practice of living always in the presence of God. Our aim is God and being united to Him, hence in order to most surely secure the prize, we should live in His presence. Doing so lessens our inclination to sin, knowing that we would be offending God in His very sight. This pious practice, by which our life is already lived as it would be so in Heaven, enjoying the sight of God, is a sure means to strive after perfection and deepen the love of God which we should so rightly long for.
Thus, when we hear the words “a little while and now you shall not see me”, they should not trouble us, for through living in the presence of God we can enjoy some small piece of the divine union to which we are called. (John 16:16) Even in the midst of sorrows and distresses, as Christ describes, living in the sight of God is a joy and grace that truly “no man shall take from you”. (John 16:22).
(1) St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 2nd part, chapter 2 “A short method for meditation”.
(2) Fr. Alphonsus Rodriguez S.J, Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues, Volume I, (London, The Manresa Press, 1929), 370.
(3) Introduction to the Devout Life, 2nd part, chapter 2.