The Presence of God: Struggling with the Idea of Practicing it: What should be done?
Dear Father John, I have had a pretty regular prayer life for a few years, and have been going to confession regularly as well, and receiving Communion frequently. In my spiritual reading, though, I keep coming across the idea of “practicing the presence of God.” This means staying aware of Jesus throughout the day’s activities, right? Well, I have been trying to do this, but can’t seem to make any progress. The end of the day comes around, and then I remember that I should have been aware of his presence. Is this something I should be worried about?
A beautiful question. Beautiful for two reasons: 1) If “practicing the presence of God” keeps coming up in your personal reading and reflection, you can be sure it’s because the Holy Spirit wants you to keep this on your spiritual agenda. This is how he coaches us – he puts something on our minds or hearts, and he keeps insisting on it. And if God is drawing you towards this rather advanced spiritual discipline, it means that he is already helping you grow in it. This is good stuff, altogether; 2) “Practicing the presence of God” will draw you closer to Christ than you ever dreamed possible, and that’s what it’s all about. Now onto the answer.
No, you should not be worried about your difficulty or confusion in this area, you should be excited about it: God is teaching you something new! Worry doesn’t come from God (if you mean by worrying a preoccupation that causes turbulence, doubt, and frustration in your soul). It comes from our pride, our tendency to think that we can make ourselves perfect and save the world by our own efforts. Remember, our Lord reminded us: “Do not fret about tomorrow, let tomorrow fret over its own cares. For today, today’s troubles are enough” (Matthew 6:34).
On the other hand, your instinct is right: this is a point of spiritual work that you should pay attention to at this point in your journey; this is why God has put it on your agenda. And here are some considerations that may help you do that.
What does it mean? “Practicing the presence of God” means not only staying aware of Jesus throughout the day, as you mention. That’s part of it, but not all of it. Practicing God’s presence means living every activity of the day with Jesus, by his side, sharing every experience with him. Remember in your school days, how it was always more enjoyable to do your homework together with a good friend instead of all by yourself? You didn’t have to be doing the exact same assignments, and you didn’t even have to be helping each other, but the mere fact that you together, that you were sitting in the same room, maybe at the same table, that you were in each other’s presence and could throw a couple words or looks back and forth every once awhile – that was enough to change the character of doing homework. Think of another example. How often do you go to a movie all by yourself? Not very often, most likely, unless you are a professional movie critic or some sort. You go to a movie with a good friend. And even though you don’t spend those two hours talking with your friend, sharing the experience with that other person makes the experience more valuable, fruitful, and enjoyable. This sharing of experiences – the experience of every activity of every day – with Christ, allowing him to share the experience of your life, that is the real heart of “practicing the presence of God.”
What does it yield? As we grow in this spiritual discipline, it has a major effect on our lives. We were created to “live in communion with God, in whom we find happiness” (Catechism #45). But in this fallen world, and due to our fallen nature, we tend towards a false sense of self-sufficiency. This stifles our growth as human beings. Instead of growing in wisdom, wonder, courage and all the virtues, when we live as if we were sufficient unto ourselves, we end up taking that path that eventually turns us into crotchety old men (or women), self-absorbed and self-absorbing, like black holes. Practicing the presence of God helps us maintain and deepen our communion with God even in the midst of the trials and tribulations of life in a fallen world with a fallen human nature. This is the path to holiness, God’s term for lasting happiness.
How to do it? Since everyone’s friendship with God is unique, no generic formula will suffice for developing this spiritual discipline. Nevertheless, some common principles apply to all of us.
- First of all, we need to develop the basic spiritual disciplines you mention in your question: a structured and consistent daily prayer life (this doesn’t have to be as complicated as a monastic prayer life, just sincere and substantial); regular and fruitful reception of the sacraments, especially Communion and confession (this is the objective foundation of our communion with God – God’s grace is the stuff of which our friendship with Christ is made); and a reasonable, mature effort to overcome one’s selfish tendencies and to grow in virtue (spiritual reading, a program of life, and spiritual direction are a big help here, as we’ve mentioned in other posts).
- Secondly, we can experiment with practical techniques that will help us form the habit of remembering that we are never alone, that Jesus is at our side, eager to share our experiences and make them fruitful and meaningful. Here is where tactics like the spiritual bouquet come into play (choosing a phrase at the end of the morning meditation that you will use as a motto for the day, to keep in mind the insights and resolutions that came up in your meditation). Here we can also get creative: using a screen-saver that will remind you of the Lord; keeping religious articles visible in key places that you will frequent during the day; programming reminders into your email calendar; praying the Angelus whenever you get into the car to go for a drive; dropping by a local shrine, chapel, or church on your way home from work, school, or shopping… Since the current of the culture in which we live flows in the direction of self-centeredness and self-absorption, we have to make a positive effort to swim against it. Practical tactics can help. But here’s a warning: these are only means to an end, so don’t be surprised if one such tactic helps you for a while but then stops “working.” When that happens, experiment with something else. I would love to hear about some of the tactics that our readers have used and found most helpful (just add them at the end of this post as a comment).
- Thirdly, and most importantly, you (and all of us, really) need to ask yourself why it has been difficult for you to “practice the presence of God.” Part of the reason will simply be the superficiality and pace of our culture. Part of the reason will also be habits of self-centeredness that you haven’t yet overcome. But a deeper reason may also be at work. When you go to a dinner party with people who are important, fashionable, and popular, but who you don’t know very well, you are a bit nervous. You are worried about making the right impression. You don’t want to commit a faux pas or inadvertently offend someone. You are excited to be invited, but the excitement is mixed in with some tension. Whether things go well or ill, at the end of the night, when you get back in the car to head home, you breathe a sigh of relief; driving home with your spouse or with an old friend, you can be yourself again. At the party you were sharing experiences with people, you were living in their presence, but you didn’t have a relationship of trust with them. With your old friend, on the other hand, you never have to worry about making a good impression; you don’t have to be anxious about what they may think of you. Your relationship is solid, resilient, familiar – you can relax together. At times, the biggest obstacle to our “practicing the presence of God” is a subtle, subconscious fear about what God thinks of us. In the back of our mind, we are concerned about making the right impression in God’s eyes, and so when we are “in his presence” we put on a show; we watch carefully over every word instead of speaking simply and from the heart; we try to live up to standards that we imagine God is expecting of us; we are afraid that if we don’t meet those extra expectations, God will be displeased with us – he won’t invite us back to the next party. This mindset discourages us from living in God’s presence, because we can’t relax, we can’t be ourselves if we are trying to live up to artificial expectations.
But God is not like that. He is not watching us like a hawk, just waiting for that faux pas, just looking for something to criticize. He knows us through and through already. He truly is the only friend who is perfect and perfectly committed to us. He wants to share every moment of our life, because he is simply that interested in our lives, like the oldest friend, the one we can always count on. That is how God is. The more deeply and fully we believe that, the easier and more natural it will be to live always in his presence.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD
Art for this post on struggling with practicing the presence of God: Modified detail of Landscape with Christ and His Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Jan Wildens, 1640s, author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.