Every year on this day we celebrate our Emmanuel – our “God is with us” – but did you ever wonder what it really means? Can anyone living in an age of iPods, smart phones and WIFI ever really experience the “God with us” in everyday life?
The answer is a surprising “yes!” Everyone from learned men to children can learn how to live in the presence of God because it’s so simple. Rather than being a devotion that requires constant or long hours of prayer, the practice of the presence of God consists of nothing more than an occasional inward glance throughout the day, a kind of quiet notice of the God who dwells within us.
What a difference it makes in our life to realize that God is here with us at every hour of the day or night. The God who created the Universe, who controls the world with a power inconceivable to the human mind and who knew you before you were ever born, is right here, right now. He sees the text that you’re reading and knows the thoughts going through your mind as you do so. He even feels the chair you’re sitting on and hears the background noise of the home around you. Yes, He’s that close, and to come to a firm realization of this is not just thrilling, it’s life-changing.
Who can fear anything with Him here? What troubles cannot be resolved? What hurts cannot be mended? If we truly understood what it means to have Emmanuel here with us, personally, every day, we would never be the same again.
A humble Carmelite named Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection wrote a book about this entitled, The Practice of the Presence of God, in which he said that he keeps himself in God’s presence with nothing more than a loving gaze upon God throughout the day. This constant contact, “causes me interior, even exterior, happiness and joy so great that in order to moderate them and prevent their outward manifestations, I am obliged to resort to behavior that seems more foolishness than piety.”
Okay, so our lives are much more frenetic and complicated than that of a 17th century Carmelite brother, but a loving gaze is a loving gaze no matter what century we’re living in. It’s just not that hard to do.
The spiritual masters suggest that we start by establishing a habit of remembering God’s presence throughout the day, not just during prayer time. We might use simple reflections such as, “God is here” or “Lord be with me.” These inward glances should take place during natural pauses in the day such as a lunch break, getting in the car, standing in line at the supermarket. These glances are meant to be brief and loving, just a quick look or momentary acknowledgment.
This takes practice, just like any other habit, so don’t get discouraged if your attempts are inconsistent at first.
We become spiritual by practicing it.
The first step in practicing the presence of God is the most crucial – pray for God’s grace. Only with His help will we have any success in this endeavor.
Next, we must make up our minds to do it. And this decision must be made of our own free will.
“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,” Father Hardon advises in his article, “Living in the Presence of God.”
Next, we need to understand exactly what is meant by “presence.”
According to Father Hardon, “presence” always describes a relationship between people. A desk can’t be present to us, but a person can be.”
He explains: “When . .. 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.”
In other words, we can be sitting right next to someone and not be in the least bit present to them.
It works the same way with God. We’re always present to God because He sustains us but, spiritually speaking, is He always present to us?
“No,” Father Hardon writes, “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.”
This is the kind of “presence” we’re talking about when it comes to recognizing our “God with us.”
And it is achieved simply by willing it.
“If we wish to cultivate living in the presence of God, we must first make the decision to think about God . . . We must see Him with that strange power we have of recalling people we want to think about,” Father Hardon instructs.
We may not be able to be there physically for someone, but spiritually we’re not confined to space and time which means spirit can be present to spirit, Father writes.
For instance, a person may be in Philadelphia and another in Chicago but they can both think about and therefore be present to one another. “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 by thinking – they become literally present to us.”
This is why it’s so important to create similar opportunities during the day to be “thought-full” of God, he writes.
“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 . . .” This is why it’s so important to keep sacred objects and images of God in our homes to remind us of Him.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we spend our whole day thinking about God. This would be unnatural and impossible. Instead, we just “check in” with our Emmanuel during the day with a simple, “Hi!” or “I’m thinking of you!” Or, it could be nothing more than an inward glance in His direction, a quick moment of remembrance that comes and goes like a flash of light.
These simple practices will slowly add up over time and develop into a whole new level of relationship with God, one that is profound, intimate, and filled with an authentic and radiant love for this God who stoops so low to be with the likes of us!
What day could be more perfect than this Christmas Day to begin this practice? Let us not only welcome our Emmanuel on this holy day, but vow to never let Him out of our sight again!
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