Monday, December 14, 2009

The exercise of the Presence of God in prayer - advice and inspiration for the coming feast of St John of the Crosss

I have changed the mode of this post into expandable one for the readers convenience. The post is updated as often as possible in the month of November, dedicated to Saint John of the Cross. We celebrate his feast-day on 24th of November, therefore, we may reflect on the exercise of the presence of God, the practice of great importance in mental prayer and recollection. Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa were expert on the topic. Another Carmelite Saint, Lawrence of the Resurrection, was also renown for his devotion to the practice of the presence of God.

The presence of God is the application of the soul to God, conceived in an intellectual or imaginary manner. Therefore, following this twofold manner of conceiving the thought of God one may distinguish twofold presence of God, imaginary and intellectual. For example, if one should represent to oneself sensible things by means of corporeal images, as are, for example, the circumstances of the Passion of Christ, this would be an imaginary presence of God: but reflecting on on intellectual things, such as the goodness, greatness and justice of God, this would be an intellectual presence of God, as nearly all is accomplished by the understanding without the help of the imagination. The exercise of the presence of God is suitable to all parts of mental prayer; wherefore ascetical authors generally speak of it as the first rule to observe in order to meditate well. St Teresa also recommends it as the first act of mental prayer:

"...After having humbled yourself before God", she says, and made the sign of the cross, try without delay, since you are alone, to find a companion, but what company is more preferable to that of the divine Master?"(Way of perfection, 27).
"The soul may represent to herself Jesus Christ as if He were before her. This is an excellent method to make progress in a very short time. This practice of always having Jesus Christ present to the mind, is useful in all states of prayer. it is sure means by which to derive profit in the first state, to arrive in a short time at the second, and to guard against the illusions of the demon in the last". (Life, 12)
St John of the Cross begins by laying down the dogma of Faith, on which this holy exercise is based: God really dwells in the soul.
"God can be present in the soul in three different ways. First is His essence. This essential presence of of God is the lot not only of holy and virtuous souls, but also of those that are criminal and enslaved in mortal sins, and even of all creatures. God communicates being and life to them all; without Him, they would cease to exist and fall back into nothingness. The soul, therefore, never loses this presence. By the second kind of presence, which is sanctifying grace, God dwells in the soul and takes His delights there. All souls do not enjoy this presence; those that fall into mortal sin are deprived of it, and nobody can know, in a natural and certain manner, that he possesses it. Finally God makes Himself present in the soul by the effects of spiritual love, which become perceptible in pious souls in many different ways, filling them with consolations, delight and joy. Nevertheless, this kind of spiritual presence is veiled, like the preceding kinds, in which God does not show Himself such as He is, because the condition of this miserable life does not permit of it. The essential presence of God endows the soul with natural existence; His spiritual presence raises her to perfection." (Spiritual Canticle, St.I)

The soul is therefore assured that God is always present to her at least by His essence.

"In truth, the Word, the Son of God, dwells essentially with the Father and the Holy Ghost in the most intimate depth of the soul, where He hides Himself. The Prophet Isaiah addressing himself to the Lord, says: 'Thou art truly a hidden God' (45:15), God therefore dwells in secret in every soul, hidden in their substance. But He dwells there under very different conditions. He is in solitude with some, while with others He is not alone: He abides with pleasure here, but there He remains only with repugnance; with the one He is in His own house where He both reigns and governs at the same time, while with others He is as a stranger, in the house of another, in which He is not given the right to command or to act.
It is in the soul that has retained the least sensible appetites and natural taste that God dwells more perfectly alone, that he enjoys most consolation, and that He is more really as in His own house, where He directs and governs all things according to His good pleasure. He dwells there in a secrecy the more absolute as He is there more alone. Thus in that soul in which there are neither appetites, nor imaginations, nor forms of creatures, the Well-Beloved dwells in impenetrable secrecy. he causes her to enjoy a union closer and more intimate in proportion as she is more perfectly purified, more wholly disengaged from all that is not God. "
(Flame of Love, St 4)
Thus the soul that wishes to find God, must separate herself from all that is created, by her affection and will, and enter into herself by a recollection so profound that all creatures may be to her as if they did not exist. This is the reason why St Augustine (Sol. 40:31) speaking to God, as we read in the book of his Soliloquies, says: "I found Thee not, O Lord, outside myself: I was deceived in thus seeking Thee: I sought Thee not aright, since Thou wast in my interior". God is therefore hidden in the soul; it is there we must seek Him, with faith and with love, without wishing to find either satisfaction or joy in any created thing. Faith and love will be your guides; they will guide you by unknown paths, to the retreat where God dwells. (Spiritual Canticle, St I)
O most beautiful of the creatures of God, who desires so ardently to know the place where your Beloved is, in order to seek for Him and to unite yourself to Him, you are yourself the retreat where He shelters, the dwelling place where he hides Himself: a thing most consoling and calculating to fill with joy; your Beloved, your treasure, your only hope is so near you that he dwells with in you, and, in truth, you cannot be without Him. has not the divine Spouse declared: "The kingdom of God is within you'? (St Luke 17:21). And His servant St Paul adds: "You are the temple of god (2Cor 6:16). No, God never goes away from the soul, even when she is in mortal sin, much less when she is in the state of grace. How advantageous it is for her to understand this consoling truth! What more can you wish for or seek outside yourself, O Soul, since you possess in yourself your riches, your pleasures, your satisfactions, your satiety, your kingdom, that is to say, your Beloved, the object of your desires and search? Be glad and rejoice wit Him in your interior recollection, since He is so near you. Love Him, desire Him, adore Him and go not outside yourself to seek Him; that would distract you and fatigue you in vain, and you would not enjoy Him more certainly, more promptly, nor more intimately. (Flame of Love, St 4:3)

A sublime vision with which God favoured St Teresa, confirms the doctrine of Saint John of the Cross.

One day, while we were all assembled in the choir for the minor Hours, it pleased God to favour me with the following grace. Being profoundly recollected, I saw on a sudden my soul under the form of a bright mirror, without sides, without back, top to bottom, but brilliant in every part. In the centre our Lord Jesus appeared to me, as He usually does; yet I saw Him in all the parts of my soul as if He were there reflected; and this mirror of my soul, in its turn, I know not how, imprinted itself wholly in our Lord by an ineffable communication, but all full of love. I can affirm that this vision was very advantageous to me, and is still does me the greatest good every time I recall it, especially after communion. By means of the light that was given me, I saw how, from the moment a soul commits a mortal sin, this mirror is covered with a thick cloud and remains extremely black; so that our Lord cannot be represented nor seen therein, although He is always present in as much as He gives it existence. As to heretics, it is as if the mirror were broken, an incomparably greater misfortune than if it were merely obscured. There is a great difference between seeing this and saying it: one can only with great difficulty explain such a thing. I repeat, I have derived the most precious advantages from it; but how often also have I not been penetrated with sorrow, by the remembrance of the offences by which I have so often obscured my soul, and deprived myself of the sight of so good a Master.
This union is excellent, in my opinion, to teach persons who are habitually recollected, to consider our Lord in the most intimate part of their soul. The advantage of such a method is visible: it makes us find God in ourselves, without its being necessary to raise ourselves by our thoughts to heaven, thus sparing us an effort which fatigues the mind, distracts the soul, and makes us gather less fruit. (St Teresa Life Ch 40).

Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa add that there are souls arrived at a very high perfection, who constantly feel within them this real presence of God.

To the soul that has reached this high perfection, God is not hidden; she has perfect consciousness of Him, and ordinarily finds in Him ineffable delights. God resides without repugnance with those others, who are not yet arrived at perfect union; but as they are not yet entirely disposed for this eminent  favour, He dwells in the secretly. Moreover, ordinarily, they do not feel His presence, which is manifested only at certain intervals. (St John of the Cross 'Flame of Love' St 4, v3)

The first time that Saint Teresa experienced this presence of God in her soul, she was seized with astonishment, because she was ignorant of this doctrine of the real presence of God in us, and yet she could not doubt that she truly felt God in her soul. This is how she relates it:

I know a person (the Saint alludes to herself) who knew not that God was in all things by His essence, presence and power, and who, after being favoured by the grace of which I speak, believed it in the most unshaken manner. In vain did one of these half-learned men, of whom she asked who God was in us, and who knew not more than she herself before she was enlightened, asnswer her that God was in us only by His grace; she would not at all believe this answer, so sure was she of the truth. Afterwards she enquired of truly learned people, and as they confirmed her in her belief, she was very much consoled by it. (St Teresa, Interior Castle, 5th Mansion, Ch. I).

You must not think that this certitude has anything corporeal for its object, as in the case of the real though invisible body of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. No, nothing of the kind; there is question here only of the Divinty. But how, you may ask me, can we have so great a certitude of what we do not see? To that, I can only answer: it is one of the secret of the Omnipotence of God into which it is not for me to penetrate. Yet I am sure I speak the truth. Regarding these spiritual things, we are not to seek for reasons to know how they happen. Our mind not being capable of understanding them, we should torment ourselves uselessly. Let it suffice us to consider that the power of Him who works these wonders is infinite.
On this subject, I call to mind what the Spouse of the Canticle says: "The King introduced me into his cellars of wine". You see she does not say she entered them of herself. She again says "that she went everywhere seeking her Beloved." In my opinion, this mysterious winecellar is the centre of our soul, into which God introduces us when He pleases, but into which all our efforts could never give us entrance. I repeat that it belongs only to God to bring us there. The only concurrence He asks of us is, a will entirely submissive to His. O my daughters, what great things we should see, if we always kept our eyes open to our vileness and our misery, and if we learned to understand to understand that we are not worthy to be the servants of this great God whose perfections and marvels overwhelm our understandings! May He be praised for ever! Amen (St John of the Cross, 'Flame of Love', St 4, 2).

In her commentaries upon the "Our Father", at these words: "Who art in heaven", Saint Teresa develops admirably the doctrine of Saint John of the Cross.

"Let us follow the lesson of our divine Master, and see what he understands by these words: "Who art in heaven." Take great care, my daughters, not to think that it is of little importance to know what is in heaven, and where we must go to seek our tender and adorable Father. It is on the contrary of the greatest importance for those of distracted minds, not only to believe the truth contained in these words, but also to neglect nothing in order to have an experimental knowledge of it; for it is one of the considerations most apt to arrest the understanding and to bring the soul to recollection.
You already know that God is in every place: now, as wherever the king is, there is the court, so wherever God is, there is heaven. You can receive as an undoubted truth, that where His divine Majesty is, there will be found also all glory.
St Augustine tells us that after having long sought for God in the objects that surrounded him, he found Him at last within himself. Meditate upon this saying profoundly; for it is eminently useful to a soul that has difficulty in recollection, to understand such a truth: - to know that it is not necessary for her to rise herself to heaven to commune with her divine Father, and to find near Him her delights, nor to speak loudly to be heard by Him. He is so near to us that he hears the least movement of our lips, even the most secret word. We have no need of wings to seek Him; let us go into solitude and enter into ourselves; it is there He dwells. (St Teresa, "Way of perfection" Ch 29)
...more to follow...