The presence of God should be the goal of every Christian. We yearn to be able to stand in the presence of God, enjoying the beatific vision for all eternity; to be suffused and—in some manner we cannot understand—united with his goodness, truth, and beauty.
This indeed would be the consummation of faith, hope, and charity; when all we can see or perceive is taken into the vanishing point of God, so that for us there is only him.
Perhaps only in the glory of the beatific vision will we be able to delve more deeply into the mystery of how God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28; Col 3:11). But a religious mystery is not a blank unknown; it is reality of which we have some knowledge, some intuition, but of which our knowledge can never be complete.
We Christians know of God in a peculiarly real and vivid way because of the Incarnation, and the Gospel of the Lord, which presents us with unforgettable pictures of the Son praying to the Father.
Who can imagine what Christ himself experienced when he prayed? We do not even try to imagine it, for it is so far above us that to speculate would be a mark of pride.
The apostles, who lived with the Lord himself, had ineffable experiences of the presence of God.
Signs of their experience have been left in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St John and St Paul, but also in the memories of the early leaders and disciples in the Acts of the Apostles, and the fervour and spirit of the epistles. Everything in the epistles shows their writers were present to the presence of God.
The church has always had a diversity of approaches to the unity of God, as is fitting, for we are all beginning from slightly different places. The central focus of the mystery is of course the Eucharist.
And as we are weak, and sometimes in need of exercise to help us rise from our sick-beds and attend church for the Divine Liturgy, so too we sometimes need spiritual exercises to help us.
Hence there have been a number of contemplative methods, from the teaching of the desert fathers through to the Hesychast awakening within the Orthodox Church, the Ignatian exercises, the method of Blosius, and so on.
It has to be frankly acknowledged that some, perhaps even many Catholics have at various times felt that the Eucharist was empty for them. They approach the sacrament hoping for a palpable feeling, and so are disappointed when nothing happens unless they get themselves worked up.
This is the fact and there is no need to run from it: one very rarely if ever feels the receipt of grace the way one does a cold drink, for example.
Rather, one has to receive the Eucharist in faith, and to meditate upon our experience in faith.
It is possible to realise, that is, to make real for myself, that the very lack of a vivid experience when receiving the Eucharist is precisely because the Eucharistic mystery calls for and strengthens our faith.
When one cannot see, one must find one’s way by other senses such as touch and hearing, or else stand still or what is worse, go back.
If I wished to train those other senses, I would deliberately move with my eyes closed, as some martial artists do. And so it is with the sacraments.
We cannot see what they do to our souls, but we can rely on other senses, our faith and our hope to progress towards God.
There is another method, too, which overlaps with these—contemplation. In the next week’s article, I shall speak about the endless mystery of contemplation as a means to finding the presence of God.