HOW TO LIVE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Closing Conference of a Retreat
We are first told to pray continually. The first time we meet this injunction of Christ is in the Gospel of St. Luke. Luke, by the way, is the evangelist of the Holy Spirit. The Savior is described by St. Luke as telling His followers to pray continually and never lose heart. Let us think seriously about what we are told. We need, that is we should, which means we are expected to, pray continually. It is a universal duty applying to all believers. To have no doubt about the obligation we are further told by the Savior to pray so constantly as never to lose heart. It means that we are really commanded both to pray always, and forbidden to cease doing so. What can the Holy Spirit possibly mean? He cannot mean for us to be always engaged in vocal prayer. That’s out of the question. Nor even always to be lost in attentive mental prayer. That too is impossible. What kind of prayer then are we told to pray without ceasing? It is, and please remember, it is prayer of the heart. It is the kind that St. Paul also tells Christians to practice when he bids them, “Pray constantly.”
What kind of prayer is this prayer of the heart? It is the immediate effect of divine grace, whereby a person in God’s friendship is disposed to do the will of God. It need not be actual prayer. It is rather habitual prayer that we may define as a disposition for the readiness to do the will of God. Spiritual masters explain how easy and spontaneous this kind of prayer should be. Why? Because for a person in divine grace it should be as natural to pray always as it is to love always. A person can love God always without always thinking about God, or even telling God, “I love you.” A husband does not interruptedly love his wife because he is not always telling her, “I love you.” It is enough, therefore, if we are determined not only to do nothing contrary to the will of God, but also take every available opportunity to prove our love and, when the thoughts occur and we make them occur, to make acts of love whenever the grace prompts us to do so.
It must be in this way that a mother loves her children, a wife her husband, a friend loves a friend. The person whom one loves never comes into the mind without awakening a feeling of affection. People in love will gladly keep the beloved image always present, and if the mind is devoted, as it often has to be, to other objects, the heart never lets go.
It is then the same with prayer. We are set to pray always if we are always ready to cooperate with the inspirations of grace. We pray essentially, not with our lips, not even with our minds—we pray essentially with our wills. Another name, therefore, for this constant prayer that we ought to practice, is prayer of the will, prayer of my desires, prayer of disposition, that my will is always, uninterruptedly, ready, bent on doing the will of God. And who doubts that God will give me plenty of opportunities, every day and during the day, to put this prayer into practice? It is the disposition of soul where my will is ever ready to do whatever God wants me to do.
Another biblical directive: “Do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus.” Properly understood what we call prayer of the heart is not hindered by the numerous occupations and responsibilities of daily life. Quite the contrary, these duties are precisely God’s way of providing us with occasions for not merely having the disposition to do God’s will, but doing it. St. Paul, again, could not have been plainer, “Never say or do anything except in the Name of the Lord Jesus.” Having said this, he goes on to enumerate a dozen and more of examples of how this is to be done, because whatever else a retreat should be, it should be living what we have decided to do. Wives, says Paul, are to give way to their husbands, and I’d say the same thing if this was an audience of women. Husbands are to love their wives, and treat them, hear it, with gentleness. Children are to be obedient to their parents. Parents are not to drive the children to resentment. Servants—call it employees—are to be obedient to their masters—call it employers. Masters are to treat their servants with justice and fairness. Watch this one—Christians are to be tactful in dealing with those who are not Christians. Prudence, wisdom, kindness. And so the Pauline explanation goes on, of what it means to do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus, which means, do things as theLord Jesus would want you to do them.
Elsewhere the Apostle is even more sweeping in his declaration, “Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.” This reference to eating and drinking may seem to betrivial, but it’s not. What bears emphasis is that nothing is exempted or excepted from the habit of doing itfor the glory of God, when I eat, then I eat as God wants me to. Some time ago I received a Protestant into the Church. After her First Communion, her husband took his wife, two children and myself to the Carlyle in New York for breakfast. I mean this to illustrate eating for the glory of God. I did not enjoy the breakfast. I ordered a plain two-egg omelet. My friend paid a tidy sum for that omelet. I didn’t pay for the breakfast. You know what I am saying? Eating, and drinking, within one’s means. The ad I see on the New York subways, about off-track betting, “Bet with your head, not over it.” I am not recommending that you bet. But all recreation should be according to the will of God. This, need I tell you, is not child’s play, as by now a lifetime of experience has taught us, yet it is something that even a child can understand. I am ready and willing—let me use the word—eager, at every moment, in every situation, todo what God wants me to do. This may be being patient with a person who naturally bores me. I was in acarpool when I went to college in Cleveland. There were six of us caught in a small car, about an hour’s ride to the university. We were engaged in an animated conversation, and in the middle of our conversation I forgot myself. I let out a loud yawn. Somebody asked, are you sleepy? I’ll never forgetwhat I said—”No, I’m bored.” I’ve learned. I hope I’ve changed. Being patient with persons who naturally irritate, or pain us, or bore, being kind to a person who as far as we can remember has never once shown kindness to me. Try it. It works. Being prompt in rising out of bed, prompt for work, prompt in keeping appointments, prompt in answering letters—I didn’t used to say this—and prompt in paying bills. Being understanding with the slow when I am early, and not resentful with those who show up early when I am late. Being communicative in conversation with people who want me to speak. There are people who like to talk. What is God’s will, barring such adjustments as all of us know we have to make? When someone wants to talk it is in God’s sovereign will, planned from all eternity, that I listen. And that I speak when others want me to talk.
This doing everything for the glory of God, implies three things, and this, in capsule, is our retreat. First, that I take the trouble to find out what God wants. Do this daily. Second, that I take time out to learn how He wants me to do it. It is not enough to know what God wants. I must somehow give some thought and prayer to how I am to do God’s will, not next week, or next year, for I don’t exclude also such long-range plans from my life. But, the next day, or as I wrote out, for the next hour. We shall live a good life if we live a planned life. Some people are more organized than others. Some live more systematically thanothers. We’re not talking about that. I must take time out each day, if only for a minute or two, to anticipate how I am to do what God wants me to do. What is evidently His will. This failure to anticipate, I believe, is the single principal reason for failure, and I won’t say just in the spiritual life—in family life, in social life, in business, in our dealings with others. In a word, in living as civilized human beings. Butthirdly, having taken the trouble to find out what God wants me to do, and taking some prayerful time outas to how I should do it, then commending yourself to God, do it. There are some people I call blueprint personalities. They’re the people that never get past the planningstage.
It is remarkable how many otherwise good people go safely through steps 1 and 2, but often stop at number 3. If I may offer a practical suggestion, born of experience and years of observation, let me offer the following bit of advice. Once you have decided that you should put into practice some idea that you consider correct, and have mentally excluded the opposite as wrong, no longer discuss the idea with yourself, especially not before the time of execution. Remember what I am saying. You’ve thought about this; you’ve prayed over it; you’ve made a decision. Then turn off the mind tight—be sure it’s tight—and do it. If you must think about what you are going to do, and the decision is still some distance in the making at most think of the good consequences that your understanding, enlightened by faith, will fortify your decision.
Let me give you a simple example. In the morning, the alarm rings. All you’ve got to do is to debate with yourself whether you should not get maybe a minute or two extra rest. Or you look at the clock, set for whatever time, and it rang five minutes early. So you start thinking to yourself, I’ve got five minutes of sleep coming to me. You know what’s going to happen. We act immediately, on the decision that by now should be part of our daily lives.
The point behind these comments is to help make clear that what God maybe wants of us is this disposition to do His will, this readiness to obey His call, this promptness to listen to His voice. There should be almost a certain anxiety, to do what lies before me as Divine Providence is showing. A childlike simplicity much as that of the boy Samuel, who told Yahweh when during the night God called to him, he said, “Speak Yahweh, your servant is listening.” It was the readiness of Mary, when she told the angel, “Be it done to me according to your will.” It was the promptness of Joseph, on being told in a dream to take Mary and the Child into Egypt by night, we are told Joseph got up, and taking the Child and His Mother with him, left that night for Egypt. Prayer of the heart is this kind of prompt and cheerful “getting up,” getting up from whatever we may be doing, may be enjoying, and immediately doing what God wants of us. Although it be at night, without waiting for the morning, and going to Egypt, which means for some of us to a strange and unknown land.
We have one more biblical passage—”Remain in My love.” Christ has no doubt that His followers could live in the presence of God by practicing what we are calling the prayer of the heart. That is why the night before He died He told us to, “Remain in My love.” Which means, abide in it, stay in it, continually. We might ask, is there some simple method of keeping one’s self as Christ wants us to, always in His love? I might insert here, by the way, that St. Ignatius told us never to close a retreat without a meditation on the love of God. Well this is it. A retreat is to close with a meditation on Divine Love. Is there a simple way of remaining in God’s love always? Yes, there is. It has been given various names, but essentially it is practicing “contemplation in action”—and the words may sound strange. How? By using one’s native weaknesses and faults as the means of remaining continually in the love of God. Here is how it works. I select some aspiration that expresses the special virtue I wish to cultivate today, or this week, or this month. Am I given to irritability? I need humility. The aspiration may be, “Jesus, meek and humble of Heart, make my heart like unto Thine.” Or my need may be for trust in God, because I am naturally given to worry and discouragement. So it may be, “My Jesus, I trust in you.” Which is the prayer I have had on my desk in Manhattan. I need it. I know my weakness. Then I say this aspiration, make it short, whenever I have a chance to practice the virtue that I think I specially need. I need to be more understanding with people. I’ll know exactly whom I am going to meet, say in the office, today. People are going to irritate me. I need to cultivate kindness. It may be just the one word, “Jesus.” All I know—but I know—that some very hard-bitten executives, professionals, the last people you’d dream of—are doing this. When I fail against the virtue I say the same little prayer in reparation for the fault committed. The value of this method is that by it I multiply acts of virtue with corresponding increase of merits. I make expiation for my sins, and because all these aspirations—all of them—are indulgenced by the Church, I gain additional satisfactory merit from the treasury of the Church. And all the while I am cultivating the spirit of constant prayer, in union with God, and elevating my daily actions from this cold world to the warmth of God’s love. I am not here speaking of just multiplying aspirations, or of sacrificing mental or vocal prayer, which should be part of our lives. The purpose is to interweave our active life with prayer. We capitalize on our weaknesses—you’ve got yours, I’ve got mine. Use these weaknesses, these manifestations of our lower nature, these temptations of the devil, as the occasion for strengthening and growing in my love for God.
Loving God should be the air we breathe. What have we, what are we, that we have not received from His love? Everything. And all God wants in return—but He wants it, He is God, He does not need it—but He wants it, is our love. He wants us to use the daily routine, often boring actions, the episodes that we either take for granted or tolerate because, as we say, that’s life. He wants us to consecrate, in a way no less than the priest at the altar consecrates the simple, material elements of bread and wine into Himself. God wants us to consecrate our daily actions into acts of prayer by offering them to Him as tokens of our love. There will be suffering, of course; bearing the cross, of course; being tired, of course. But, because we are in love with God, we are happy. We show our love for God not merely with the sentiments that we have in our heart—which we should have—or the words we pronounce with our lips. We mainly show that we love God by what we do, especially when what we do costs us. God will be pleased. You will be praying constantly because you will always, as far as in you lies, be doing what God wants, where your will will be totally united with His. This is true love.