"Obedience is the true holocaust which we sacrifice to God on the altar of our hearts."

St Philip Neri

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"Lord, take from me everything that hinders me from going to You. give me all that will lead me to You. Take me from myself and give me to Yourself."

St Nicholas Flue

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"Before a man chooses his confessor, he ought to think well about it, and pray about it also; but when he has once chosen, he ought not to change, except for most urgent reasons, but put the utmost confidence in his director."

St Philip Neri

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John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 

 

SPIRITUAL MAXIMS (cont)

 

by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Fourth Maxim: The practice of the presence of God

Be always mindful of the God Who is present everywhere, and Who dwells in the hearts of the just

No spiritual practice is more to be recommended than that of the presence of God; none is more useful, none more profitable for advancement in virtue.

It is indispensable. How is it possible to grow holy and attain to union with God, if we do not habitually think of His presence? It is most efficacious. With God always before our eyes, how can we help but try to please Him in all we do, and to avoid displeasing Him? It is most simple. In its simplicity, it embraces all other means of sanctification. God present within the soul, our duties become clear to us from moment to moment. It is most delectable. What can be dearer than the continual remembrance of God, what sweeter to one who desires to love Him and to be wholly His? Lastly, it is a practice which the willing soul cannot find otherwise than easy.

God spoke to Abraham saying . Walk before Me, and be thou perfect. [11] He mentioned that one point only, because it contains all. David says of himself, that he set God always before him. Why? For He is at my right hand, that I be not moved. [12] Had he continued faithful to his word, the sight of a woman would not have led him to adultery, and from adultery to homicide. All saints, under both the Old and the New Law, have held to this more than to any other rule. Indeed, it is so well known that I need not press it, nor need I dwell on its advantages, for they are known to all, saint and sinner alike. I shall confine myself, therefore, to two points: one, to explain well what is meant by walking in the presence of God; the second, to indicate the means that will most avail us.

The presence of God may be considered under different aspects. God is necessarily present in all men, good and bad alike; in the souls of the lost as in those of the blessed; in all creatures animate and inanimate.

God is also present to all things by His providence. He sees all things, not only our actions but even our most secret thoughts. He sees the good, and approves and rewards it; He sees evil, and condemns and punishes it. He rules all, directs all, according to His eternal designs, and in spite of all obstacles makes all things work together for His glory. [13]

In the souls of the just God is present in a special manner: that is, by sanctifying grace. The heart of the just is His dwelling- place, says St. Gregory. This presence is a presence of good-will, of charity and of union. It is the source of our merits, making us children of God, pleasing in His sight, and worthy of possessing Him eternally hereafter. It is given to us in baptism, and restored by penance. It is habitual, and continues as long as we preserve the grace to which it is attached. Although no just man can answer for it within him (since no one knows whether he is worthy of love or hatred [14] ), yet, when he has fulfilled the rules laid down for procuring it, he may reasonably believe that God has graciously bestowed it on him, and he must do all he can to retain it.

God is also present to the soul by actual grace, which enlightens the mind and attracts the will. This presence is not necessarily continuous for, although grace is always being offered to us, it does not always act, because its action presupposes certain dispositions on our part. This presence acts more or less on sinners, inspiring them with a sense of sin, and calling them to repent. Some are ceaselessly pursued by it; they cannot allow themselves a moment for thought without hearing the voice of God, bidding them turn from their evil ways. Much more does it act on the souls of the just, to turn them from evil, excite them to holiness, and sanctify all their works. It is more felt and more efficacious, according as our attention and fidelity are more or less perfect.

Lastly, there is a presence of God which consists of an habitual infused peace. This presence first makes itself known by its sweetness, which as St. Paul bears witness, surpasses all understanding. [15] Afterwards, it is only perceived, without being strongly felt, and finally, it is enjoyed, like health, without being noticed. God does not thus bless with His presence all the just, but mostly those of whom He takes special possession, and whom He desires to place in the passive state. Others generally only experience its transitory effects.

The different kinds of God's presence being thus explained, it is easy to understand what is meant by walking in the presence of God. It is not merely just thinking about God, as a philosopher might do when he meditates on divine things, without applying them to himself. It is rather thinking of God, as affecting our habits and conduct; it is a deduction from that thought of the moral consequences in so far as they imply a rule of life. Thus, in the practice of the presence of God, it is a straightforward and devout will which must direct the understanding, and the heart will always have the chief share.

It is a mistake to think that this practice consists of violent efforts to force the mind to be always thinking of God. That is not possible, even in the most perfect solitude and detachment from earthly things. How much less so, then, in the case of persons living in the world, distracted by the cares of life, by business and domestic worries, and by a crowd of similar things. Are such people to be excused from attempting this practice? They would be, if the presence of God meant banishing every thought from the mind. But this is not the case: no Christian is exempt from this exercise on account of the circumstances of his state; indeed, it is compatible with the busiest life.

He walks, then, in the presence of God who, when he is free to do so, systematically arranges his time so that he can recall the presence of God at different times of the day --by meditation, for instance, or prayer, by assisting at Mass and similar devotions, by visits to the Blessed Sacrament, vocal prayer and so on; who, as in the sight of God, employs his time usefully and well, avoiding idleness, and in general keeping a curb on his imagination.

He walks therein who, apart from his morning and evening prayers (which no Christian should omit), in a day filled by necessary occupations, offers his principal actions to God, thanking Him for the food He sends, recalling Him from time to time, and making frequent use of short ejaculatory prayers during the day.

He also walks therein who, like Job, takes heed to all his ways, watches over his thoughts and words and works, in order to say and do nothing to wound his conscience and displease God. This practice is no constraint for one who fears God, still less for one who loves Him, and it is thus that all good Christians should act. It is nothing but a faithful preservation of sanctifying grace and of God's favour, which is the primary duty of every Christian.

He walks therein more entirely who, like David, keeps the issues of his heart, in order always to hearken to what the Lord shall say to him, and to the secret warnings He may give him; who studies to correspond to every inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and to perform every action under the influence of grace. All interior persons follow this method, which is the most apt for leading them to perfection.

Lastly, he walks therein still more perfectly who, having been favoured with the infused peace of which I have spoken, diligently endeavours not to part with it, dwelling always, as it were, within his own heart, in order to realize it; carefully avoiding anything that might disturb it or cause him to lose it, and eagerly embracing all that will help to preserve and increase it. This peace, as I have said, is purely the gift of God. It does not depend on ourselves to obtain it, but having been given it, we must do all in our power to preserve

As to the means which facilitate the exercise of the presence of God, some are general and some are particular. The first thing is to remove all obstacles. Once these are out of the way, the presence of God becomes as familiar to us, as free and as easy, in a way, as the act of breathing. We must mortify, therefore, our desire to see, hear and know things which are useless and which do not concern us. We must avoid all curiosity, for curiosity draws us out of ourselves, as it were, into the things themselves. The practice of the presence of God, on the contrary, recalls the soul to dwell within itself. We must keep a strong hand on the natural restlessness which incites us to come and go, ever changing our place, our object, our occupation. This restlessness is really the effect of that uneasiness which overwhelms us when we look within ourselves, and fail to find God there. All this inordinate eagerness and vehemence in our desires must be brought under control.

The imagination must be curbed, until it becomes accustomed to be at rest. If, in spite of our efforts, it runs away with itself, it must be led back gently, and gradually weaned from what it feeds on, what affects it vividly and strongly, such as vain shows, exciting books, and a too great application to the imaginative arts. Nothing is more dangerous or more incompatible with the practice of the presence of God, than to give the imagination too free a rein. It is true that we are not wholly masters of that faculty, the wanderings of which are the torment of religious souls. This is a great humiliation, and a fertile source of scruples for those who are unable to despise them. But what is in our power is to refuse the imagination the objects it seeks with such avidity, and to which it clings with such tenacity. Avoid everything, therefore, that can serve it as pasture, which dissipates it, excites it, and calls for its too great indulgence. Keep, too, a great liberty of mind and heart, dwelling on neither the past nor the future. Remember that the present moment alone is at our disposal. Put aside all useless thoughts, for it is equally contrary to the presence of God to think too much or too little. Do not meddle with other people's affairs. Set your own in order, without undue anxiety as to the result; be reasonably careful over them, and leave the rest to God. Do not take too much upon yourself, but reserve some time for rest and recollection. It is quite right to render services to others, and to undertake works of mercy. But these things have their measure, and cease to be right when they do harm to the soul. So much for liberty of mind.

As to liberty of heart, let nothing enter therein which will affect it too sensibly, or agitate and disturb it, or excite excessive desire, fear, joy or grief: nothing, in fact, which is likely to captivate it or turn it aside from its one true object. As this exercise is one of love, the distraction of the heart is far more harmful to it than that of the mind. The more the mind and heart are free, the more shall we be disposed to remain in God's presence, for God is always the first object that offers itself to either, when they are emptied of all else.

The particular means to this end are the frequent use of such things as may remind us of God: as, for instance, the crucifix, religious prints or pictures, texts from the Scriptures or Fathers, the sign of the cross (as was the habit of the early Christians, who, according to Tertullian, were accustomed to begin all their actions by making that sign). The mind is drawn by the meaning behind these things, and nothing is more apt for steadying or recalling the imagination. It is good, also, to know by heart a certain number of aspirations drawn from the Psalms or from other parts of Scripture, and to use them often. After a little practice, these habits will become easy and pleasant. If daily meditation is practised, some thought or affection that appeals to one will be enough to nourish the soul during the day. It is for everyone to choose for himself the method that suits him best, and follow it or change it according to the benefit he receives.

But the best way of all to acquire the practice of the habitual presence of God is to meditate often on Our Lord Himself and on His mysteries, especially His Passion. The various representations of Our Lord's sufferings strike vividly the imagination; the mind finds in them endless matter for solid and holy reflection; the heart is touched and moved, and the feelings stirred which nourish devotion. I shall speak of this, however, at greater length, in the following chapter.

As for those are in the passive way, there is no need to teach them any particular method of remaining in the presence of God. The Holy Spirit will lead them to the use of all suitable methods, and they have only to submit themselves to His guidance. In the beginning, they will feel too much happiness in their secret intercourse with God ever to be tempted by anything that might interrupt it: even the thought of such a thing is repugnant to them. Later on, however, when God withdraws His sensible presence and drives them, so to say, out of themselves, so that they may not notice the work He is doing within them, they may seek in creatures the consolation they no longer find in God. This is fatal, for God punishes with jealous severity any unfaithfulness in this matter, and should they persist in their infidelity, they will inevitably lose all that they have gained. Without committing themselves, however, to any particular line of conduct, they must be very faithful to the inspirations of grace, omitting no accustomed practice voluntarily, but persevering in exterior and interior mortification, believing that as God had given more to them than to others, so He will require more at their hands.

The habit of the presence of God, like all other habits, is difficult to acquire, but once acquired, is easy and pleasant to preserve. The sweet thought of God, so nourishing to the soul and so essential at all stages of the spiritual life, makes all other thoughts intolerable and vain. As the soul progresses, it sees God more dearly in everything. The very sight of created things recalls the thought of their Creator, while the perfection of His works fills it with delight. In all that happens, whether in the world or in the Church, whether temporal or spiritual, great or small, adverse or prosperous, the faithful soul perceives its Lord, Who manifests Himself equally in all things. It sees itself only in God; its interests only in God's interests; its glory in His glory; its happiness in His happiness. The things of earth fade into the distance, and the soul becomes a stranger to them. Already it feels itself transported into heaven, and judges of everything as it will one day judge of them in eternity. Such are some of the admirable effects of the practice of the presence of God.  
 

 
   
 
11. Gen xvii. 1
12. Ps. xv. 8
13. Cf. Rom. viii. 28.
14. Cf. Eccles. ix. 1