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Fall 1997

Walking in the Presence of God

Every good in the spiritual life depends upon our walking humbly with our God. "God has showed you, 0 man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? " (Mi 6,8). In our last letter we showed that "union with God can only be achieved by fixing the gaze of our heart on God." And that "by this all souls become imitators of the angels." Let us now take this a step further and consider what it means to walk in the presence of God. Why is this necessary? Is this a practice for beginners or only for advanced souls?

The greatest praise in the Old Testament was offered to Enoch and Noah. Why? because: they walked in the presence of God. "Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Gen 5,22.24); "Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God" (Gen 6,9). Concerning Enoch, the letter to the Hebrews explains: "By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, ... because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God" (Heb 11,-5).

Later the covenant with Abraham imposed this condition: "The Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless" (Gen 17, 1). Significantly, Abraham's confidence in angelic assistance issues from this exercise. To his servant he said, "The Lord, before whom I walk, will send His angel with you and prosper your way" (Gen 24,40). By walking in God's presence, we shall especially enjoy the angel's help because this exercise disposes us so well to cooperate with divine grace.

What does it mean to Walk in the presence of God

Walking in the presence of God consists in the advertence or attention a soul directs lovingly to God, Who dwells within, in all its activities. It begins with and is a fruit of prayerful contact with God, and leads to still greater union. It is the practical, spiritual awareness that God is present to me in all my activities, coupled with the pure intention of carrying out my activities according to His will and for His glory, so that by becoming like Him I might enjoy perpetual union with Him.

Such an intention, of course, can be made at the beginning of the day, but walking in the presence of God adds the conscious awareness with which one lives and acts habitually by the light of faith.. Naturally speaking, man should act by reason and will; supernaturally, he should consciously act by faith and charity. The growth of the theological virtues, such that they be the active guiding and executing principles behind all our actions, is what is meant when we say that someone walks with God. It is the drama of personal cooperation with divine grace in which the guardian angel is the principal minister of God.

The new Catechism teaches: "The life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with Him. This communion of life is always possible because, through Baptism, we have already been united with Christ."1 Walking in the presence of God is the normal way for all Christians to true interior prayer and intimacy with Christ. The "Doctor of Prayer", St. Teresa of Avila writes:

Remember how important it is for you to have understood this truth - that the Lord is within us and that we should be there with Him. If one prays in this way, the prayer may be only vocal, but the mind will be recollected much sooner, and this is a prayer which brings with it many blessings. It is called recollection because the soul collects itself together with all the faculties and enters within itself to be with God. ... Those who are able to shut themselves up in this way within this little Heaven of the soul, wherein dwells the Maker of Heaven and earth, and who have formed the habit of looking at nothing and staying in no place which will distract the outward senses, may be sure that they are walking on an excellent road, and will come without fail to drink of the water of the fountain, for they will journey a long way in a short time. 2 

St. Augustine sought God and happiness outside in the world for many years; then finally he discovered that God is within our hearts, waiting for us there. Clearly, once one has understood that the Kingdom of God is within, sincerity only has one path to choose. Failure to strive to walk in the presence of God is an intellectual compromise that explains why so many souls fail to make any substantial progress in the spiritual life. They have - perhaps unconsciously - opted for mediocrity by harboring a worldly spirit, thus dividing their hearts between God and creatures. Such souls cannot be joined to God in the intimacies of friendship in this life.

Many mistakenly believe that walking in the presence of God is an exercise proper to advanced souls. To the contrary, as St. Alphonsus de Liguori affirms: "The practice of the presence of God is justly called by spiritual masters the foundation of the spiritual life."3 It is important to insist on this fact, that walking in the presence of God is not some advanced, mystical grace, but rather an exercise of virtue which every soul ought to practice. St. Teresa of Avila, viewing it from the side of prayer, says that the soul, with constant and persevering effort can attain to a state of habitual recollection (her terminology) in six months to a year.4

Necessity of Walking in the Presence of God

Suppose someone had a greenhouse from which they shut out all sunlight but for 1-2 hours a day; what prognosis is there for a plant struggling for light in there? Yes, very little, at best! Now, suppose the soul is this greenhouse, and that poor plant is the soul's spiritual life struggling for light. Suppose, further that during the soul's various spiritual exercises (daily mass, meditation, rosary and spiritual reading) a spiritual window is opened letting in the sunlight of God's grace. To the extent that it shines into the soul, we say, "Wonderful!" But add up, these exercises - in the case of most souls - scarcely come to an hour of 'sunlight,' that is, of contact with God a day. No wonder the spiritual life for many souls is so pale and sickly. Contrarily, a soul that habitually walks in the presence of God is walking constantly in the sunlight of divine grace. No wonder St. Teresa can so confidently promise them rapid and substantial progress towards divine union.

A year of serious labor is little in view of the great benefit to be acquired. Moreover, the goal of spiritual growth and union with God has no other ordinary point of access. "Without walking constantly in the presence of God, we can in no way and never become perfect and holy."5 The reason for this is because walking in the presence of God is not just one means among many - as for example are the rosary, the way of the cross, spiritual reading, meditations and the like - but walking in the presence of God is the soul's exercise of the theological virtues which are the proximate means to union with God. Even the reception of holy communion - to be fruitful - demands this exercise of the theological virtues. Hence, other means are useful precisely insofar as they are joined to the exercise of the theological virtues.

How true is Konrad Hock's observation: "As long as the soul does not walk in the presence of God, creatures (not to say self) are the center of its thoughts and strivings; God is relegated to the back burner. But as soon as the soul begins to walk in the presence of God, HE becomes the center of its life and strivings. Creatures and self fall into their subordinate position in the background; thus, the way is open for intimate union with God in love, in which perfection consists."6

What is the spiritual portrait of souls who neglect to strive to walk in the presence of God? To what are their thoughts directed? In the case of good souls, they are concerned with the weal and woe of their friends, family and fellow man. They want to do good and help them, and accordingly their thoughts are engaged seeking new ways to make them happy, to help and console them, to enjoy their friendship. In the case of less generous souls, their thoughts generally hover about themselves and their own cares. They are caught up in their own hopes and anxieties.... They delight in the consideration of their own good qualities, their past triumphs and future expectations. They somehow relish in pitying themselves and in vituperating against their foes. In a word, they rehearse in their heart the drama of their own life after the manner of soap operas. Their interior life is not only superficial, but is a maze of petty habitual attachments and animosities.

Although such practicing Catholics may pray every day, may even assist at mass and do regular spiritual reading and say the rosary daily, still, their spiritual life is anemic, because in the final analysis, God gets a very meagre portion of their day. To aggravate matters, a closer look at their exercises of piety shows them to be rather unproductive. They complain of great difficulty in concentrating on prayer and meditation,... and in the same breath confess that they are tormented by distractions. But are not distractions just so many mini-'meditations' on the wrong things "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mt 6,21). Still, since our nature is so weak, St. Teresa counsels, "It is also a great help to have a good book,... simply as an aid to recollection,"7 She mentions how she herself profitably used a book in this way for some 10 years. This is mentioned, lest it be thought that walking in the presence of God be a panacea to remedy the weaknesses of our nature rather than the fruit of constant and persevering collaboration with the grace of God.

The Advantages of Walking in the Presence of God

The spiritual life according to St. Alphonsus "consists in three things: the avoidance of sin, the practice of virtue and union with God. These three effects the [practice of the] presence of God produces: it preserves the soul from sin, leads it to the practice of virtue, and moves it to unite itself to God by means of holy love."8 Let us consider these as an encouragement to strive even more to walk diligently in the presence of God. Scarcely any other exercise produces such varied and abundant fruits in the soul.

Walking in the Presence of God preserves from Sin

One confessor was wont to ask children who had admitted to some theft, "But you didn't steal it, while someone was watching, did you?" "No, of course, not!" "But don't you realize that God and your guardian angel are always watching?!" How wonderful it was to see the eyes of the children grow wide in comprehension of this great truth!

St. Jerome attests: "The remembrance of God shuts out every shameful deed!"9 St. Alphonsus goes on to affirm that "there is no more efficacious means of subduing the passions, of resisting temptations, and consequently of avoiding sin than by the remembrance of God's presence."10 A similarly universal thought is expressed by St. Teresa: "Every evil happens to us because we do not reflect that God is present with us, but imagine He is at a distance". More likely, we simply forget about His presence. The thought of God, actually present, not only withholds the hand from tantalizing temptations, but also strengthens the soul mightily in the face of tribulation and oppression.

St. Ephraim was once tempted by a lecherous woman. He suggested to her that the proper place for such a sin would be in the open market place, against which she protested that such a thing couldn't be done with every one looking on! "How much more should we fear to commit such a deed with God looking on," returned the Saint. Upon this the woman had apparently never reflected, for the reply struck so deeply in her heart that she burst out weeping, and begged Ephraim to help her achieve salvation. In fact, she entered a convent where, a few years later, she died a holy death.11 Susanna was strengthened to face great shame and death rather than to consent to sin with the perverted elders: "It is better for me to fall into your hand [i.e., to die] without doing it, than it is to sin in the sight of the Lord!" (Dan 13,22). The martyrs, too, were strengthened in their travails by the remembrance of the presence of God and by the ministry of the angels.

The thought of the Divine Majesty also helps cleanse the soul, for in this light it becomes acutely aware of its own misery and imperfections. The consideration of the divine mercy, present to heal us, both encourages our contrition and silences criticism and bitter complaints.

Walking in The Presence of God stimulates the practice of the Virtues

Walking in the presence of God also accomplishes a kind of spiritual awakening. It is as if scales fall from the eyes, and the soul suddenly sees its life and its works in the true light of God. It sees that even its good works were greatly marred by vanity, self-will, procrastinations and comfort. It had somehow been seeking a kingdom in this world as much as the kingdom of heaven. How much better it could have been serving God! How much time had it wasted in the past, how poor its prayer had been, how tepid and superficial had been its practice of virtue. This awakening from self-deception is the beginning of a new life.12 It resolves, henceforth, to serve God zealously and with purity of intention. Humility is understood as never before: Who is God and who am I? In this wise, our Lord showed Josefa Menendez a filthy swamp littered with debris. She asked,"What is this, Lord?" "That, my dear, is your soul!" He offered her this light, not to discourage her, but so that she be aroused to an even more heroic pursuit of virtue. With this new humility, the soul more readily views the foibles of its neighbors with compassion.

By walking in the presence of God the soul discovers more and more the goodness of God, it begins to delight in His perfections, and takes its delight in expressing its gratitude and praise. Thus, by turning habitually towards God, the soul is greatly facilitated in its spiritual exercises, for now HE is truly the treasure of its heart. As this esteem increases, the soul spontaneously grows in poverty and detachment, since the goods of this world loose their attraction: "Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ" (Phil 3,7).

This development in the soul does not usually take place without great interior drama and sufferings, because, while the higher faculties begin to delight in the things of God, the lower faculties are slow to surrender their attachment to the world. Many souls turn back at this point and give up striving for prayer and the presence of God. Thus St. Teresa depicts and bemoans the plight of her own soul at that stage of her spiritual life:

Going on from pastime to pastime. from vanity to vanity, from one occasion of sin to another, I began to expose myself exceedingly to the very greatest dangers: mv soul was so distracted by many vanities that I was ashamed to draw near unto God in an act of special friendship as that of prayer. As my sins multiplied, I began to love the pleasure and contort I had in Spiritual things: and that loss contributed to the abandonment of prayer. It was the most fearful delusion into which Satan could plunge me - to give us in, under the pretense of humility.13

It is important to see, that when after a year she returned to prayer, her plight initially became more doleful because of the division within her soul:

I began to return to the practice of prayer though I did not cut off the occasions of sin ... My life became most wretched, because I learned in prayer more and more of my faults. On one side God was calling me, on the other, I was following the world. All the things of God gave me great pleasure; and I was a prisoner of the things of the world. It was as if I wanted to reconcile two contradictions, so much at variance one with one another as are the life of the spirit and the joys and pleasures and amusements of the senses. ... I spent many years in this way. 14

Thus, she was praying by occasion, but did not have the generosity to walk habitually in the presence of God and separate her heart from the things of the world. Still, she persevered in prayer - something she reckoned a great grace of divine fortitude.15

"I may say that it was the most painful life that can be imagined, because I had no sweetness in God and no pleasure in the world."16

"I could not resolve to give myself entirely to God." 17 But as she persevered in prayer she came to live in and love His presence more and more.

Granting that we are always in the presence of God, yet it seems to me that those who pray are in His presence in a very different sense; for they, as it were, see that He is looking upon them, while others may be for days together without even once recollecting that God sees them.18

Walking in the Presence of God leads to Union with God

Souls who persevere through the wearisome and arid period of walking in the presence of God will, by the grace of God, arrive at divine union. No one arrives by the dint of their own efforts, nor does anyone achieve the state of recollection without the readiness to start over thousands of times. Invincible in its hope and trust in God, the soul who is humble and ready to start over hundreds of times each day in gentle patience and abandonment, realizing that if it but cooperates with God's grace, it will bear fruit in due season. Concerning this passage St. Teresa writes:

Herein there is nothing to be afraid of, but everything to hope for. ... If the soul perseveres, I hope in the mercy of God for it, seeing that no one ever took Him for His friend that was not amply rewarded: for mental prayer is nothing else, in my opinion, but being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with Him, Who, we know, loves us. Now, true love and lasting friendship requires certain dispositions: those of our Lord, we know, are absolutely perfect; ours, vicious, sensual and thankless ... 19

By persevering in the exercise of walking in the presence of God the soul will be transformed step by step by grace and acquire these dispositions, and so become an intimate friend of God.

Conclusion

Today, every day is a good day to start this practice of walking in the presence of God; every step is a step closer to god at the hand of our angel. He is like our personal novice master, whom St. Benedict - on whose feast this letter is finished - describes thus: "An older brother is to be appointed for them (the novices), who understands how to win souls. He is to watch over them with all solicitude. He should give heed whether they truly seek God, whether they are zealous for the divine liturgy, for obedience and in humiliations.20."

Let us approach God with these dispositions. In this way we will become more and more docile and transparent for His lights and inspirations through our angel. How great will be our angel's joy. Our friendship with him will naturally increase as he leads us closer and closer to God.


1 Catechism of the Catholic Church, nr. 2565.
2 Way of perfection. Ch. 28, paragraphs 4-6. Sheed & Ward, London, 1984. p. 115.
3 The True Spouse of Jesus, Ch. XVI,iii: "The Presence of God". Redemptorist Fathers, St. Louis, 1929. p. 495. The foundation is the first part of a building.
4 Ibid. ch. 29, in fine.
5 Der Wandel in der Gegenwart Gottes. Konrad flock editor Abbot Karl Egger. Josef Krahl Pub., Abendsberg, 1975, p. 19. The double negative is awkward but emphatic.
6 Ibid. p. 21.
7 Way of Perfection, Ch. 26. last paragraph.
8 Loc. cit. ch. 16,iii, p.495.
9 Commentary on Ezechiel, ch. 22.
10 Loc. cit. p. 497
11 St. Alphonsus. loc.cit. p.497.
12 Der Wandel in der Gegenwart Gottes, pp. 27-28.
13 St. Teresa. Autobiography, Newman Bks., Westminster, 1943. Ch.Vll, nn. 1-2 p. 42. "Oh what utter ruin! utter ruin of religious persons ... where the rules of the Order are not kept where the same monastery offers two roads: one of virtue and observance, the other of in observance, and both equally frequented! I have spoken incorrectly; they are not equally frequented; for, on account of our sins, the way of the greatest imperfection is the most frequented; and because it is the broadest, it is also the most in favor." (Ch. V 11, nr.9).
14 ibid. ch. VII, nn. 27-28, pp. -52--53.
15 ibid. ch. VIII, nr.2, p. 58.
16 ibid. ch. 8,nr. I., p.-57
17 ibid. ch. 9, nr.9, p. 68.
18 ibid. ch. 8, nr. 2, p. 58.
19 ibid. ch. VIII, nr. 7, p. 60.
20 St. Benedict. Rule, Ch. 85.

Fr. William Wagner, ORC