Here is a very abridged chapter from my book, A Love Affair with God: Twelve Traits. It’s entitled “Presence.”
When we love a person we long to be with them. Meister Eckhart asserted, “No human being has ever desired anything as much as God desires to be with him or her.” At the Last Supper Jesus said, “I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). God promised, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you.” (Revelation 3:20).
Dining with God is a delightful image of the intimacy you are privileged to experience with your divine Lover. Such intimacy is dependent on being attuned to God’s voice and opening the door of your heart. William Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World illustrates this: Jesus knocks at a door that lacks a doorknob and so can only be opened from inside.
It is impossible to avoid God’s presence, albeit a veiled presence. God is present everywhere and at all times. Nicholas of Cusa expressed this attribute geometrically: “God is he whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The Catechism refers to God as Most High (transcendent) but also Most Near (immanent). (#2581) St. Paul, preached, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). You are engulfed by God. This means God is there for you 24/7. Here’s a metaphor for God’s ubiquity:
Little fish asks old fish, “Where is the thing called ocean?” Old fish replies, “It is the thing you are in right now.” “But this is just water,” protests the little fish, disappointed; and he swims away.
Scripture limns God’s presence in Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?/ If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make me bed in Sheol (land of the dead), you are there….” You could add: “If I have to work with so-and-so who drives me crazy, you are there.” “If I am being interviewed for a new position, you are there.” “If I am diagnosed with a chronic disease, you are there.” “If my mother dies, you are there.”
God in Creation
God surrounds you in creation: “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24). God has always animated everything from an infinitesimal microbe to a fifteen-ton Tyrannosaurus rex. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus declared, “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ affirmed God’s presence within every created thing:
The creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence. (100)
One poem of Gerald Manley Hopkins begins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” In a letter he elaborated: “All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and, if we knew how to touch them, give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him.”
Teilhard de Chardin agreed: “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”
St. Catherine of Siena wrote, “What then is not a sanctuary? Where then can I not kneel and pray at a shrine made holy by God’s presence?” And one time when St. Angela of Foligno was overwhelmed by the presence and power of God in everything she saw, she cried out, “The world is pregnant with God!”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning conveys this idea in “Aurora Leigh”:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
God’s words to Joshua, he also speaks to you: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). There is not one second when God is not close, delighting in you and loving you. In fact, God dwells in the depths of your being.
God Alive in You
A teacher asked, “Does God ever take a vacation?” Hilary answered, “Of course. God went with me on my vacation.” She knew that God is within us. A Carmelite website reminds us: “A God is the Divine Guest of my soul, dwelling there day and night, desirous of receiving the unceasing homage of my intimate friendship and of my love!” Blessed John of Ruysbroeck noted, “God is the one who approaches us from the inside out.”
St. Catherine of Siena experienced the truth of the Divine Indwelling. After she was plagued by temptations, somewhat miffed with Jesus, she demanded, “Where were you when I was in such a frightful situation?” He assured, “Daughter, I was in your heart, fortifying you with grace.”
Jesus promised, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). He also proposed an image for your vital union with him: a vine and branches. A vine is the source of life for the branches. As long as you are attached to Jesus, the true vine, divine life courses through you. St. Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Christ likewise lives in you. You are a walking tabernacle!
You could be acutely aware of God’s abiding presence during exceptional moments as when you are celebrating a an anniversary or when you accomplish something you thought you were incapable of without supernatural help—like driving safely through a blizzard or mastering a computer. Although a woman I know was an introvert, she agreed to deliver the eulogy for a friend’s mother named Louise. Driving to the church, she was filled with dread . . . until she noticed the license plate on the car in front of her: 4LOUISE: a message that God would empower her.
You might be overwhelmed with the knowledge of God’s presence while engaged in a mundane task like folding laundry or doing dishes. Experiences of your divine Lover might bring tears to your eyes.
God proves his love by outrageous acts of self-surrender. God became a man so he could love you with a human heart, reveal himself to you, and die to keep you near him for all eternity. The God-Man surrendered to a humiliating, agonizing death. The omnipotent God condescends to assume the forms of bread and wine—small, vulnerable, inanimate things! He is placed on altars, locked in tabernacles, and within our bodies. Such is the folly of God’s love. The the Eucharist is known as the Real Presence.
God aches for you to be with him forever. When you ignore, forget about, or are angry at God—even if you doubt God exists—this steadfast Lover does not jilt you. No, God patiently waits like a parent with unflagging love waits for an obstreperous teenager to grow up. God loves you unconditionally. In God’s eyes, you are never unworthy of his love.
• When have you felt God’s presence in a strong way?
I like this video of the hymn “Yahweh [Lord], You Are Near,” which is based on Psalm 139. It begins with a scene related to the little fish story above. Gorgeous nature scenes follow.