“We learn to love by loving.” As a general principle, that is quite self-evident. But it can be applied in many different ways. Some people shy away from following any special road to the love of God that appears systematized or scientific. They argue that, since we learn to love by loving, the best way to come to a deep, tender love of God is by beginning to love Him and forgetting about any special rules.
But it is not enough to be told to start loving God and, after that, all will go well. Usually, all does not go well. Many people have desired divine friendship, only to find that, after months and years of fidelity to prayer and the commandments, they are still strangers to God. They have been driving in the night without any light to guide them. They know where they want to go, but there seems to be no one to direct them. For them, we propose a way of love that leads quickly and directly to divine intimacy. It is called the exercise of the presence of God.
This exercise is not a new method of prayer. It is not even, properly speaking, a method, because it does not bind us to follow a set pattern of rules. It simplifies prayer without making it less effective. As we shall see, this exercise, when brought to perfection, makes us continually aware of God and enables us to converse continually with Him. And, like all conversations of lovers, it is not made up of many words, but of profound silent desires and sighs that become part of our very being, almost as regular and natural as our breathing.
Of course, it is not possible for even the most perfect person to be conscious of God’s presence for twenty-four hours a day. But it is quite possible to think of God and be actively conscious of Him frequently throughout the day, just as a loving mother, although busy with housework, can be continually preoccupied in mind and heart with her sick child.
The exercise of the presence of God is for all men at all times; indeed, we find it practiced wherever men live close to God. The early Fathers of the Church used it, and spiritual writers throughout the ages have never ceased to champion it. It is for the beginner in prayer as well as the saint, for the unlearned as well as the learned, for the layman as well as the religious and priest. It admits of so many degrees that there is no state in the spiritual life of man wherein it cannot be used. It is, therefore, for you.
Before we go further, let us analyze what we mean by the “presence of God.” Strictly speaking, it is any act of the memory or of the intellect by which we believe or recall that God is present. We can, for example, imagine God before us, or even in us. We can (although this is contrary to reality) picture Him as a venerable old man with a white beard, or we can even imagine Him pervading the atmosphere as air does — as an ethereal being. Better yet, we can imagine the Son of God made man, standing before us in all His glorious majesty, just as He stood before Mary Magdalene after rising glorious from death on that first Easter Sunday.
If we find it difficult to form an image of Christ, then, as St. Teresa of Avila did, we can keep a picture of Him to look at from time to time. Or we can even think of Christ as present without forming any clear image; that is, we can make a simple act of faith that He is within us: “O God, I believe that Thou art within me.”
God is present to every creature
This act of faith is based upon fact. God is really present to us, and in many ways. For the moment, let it suffice to say that God is present to every creature in at least three ways: by His knowledge, His essence, and His power.
By His knowledge: God not only knows our every thought, desire, and action, but He knew us before we ever existed. He knows our eternal destiny. He is more conscious of us than we are of ourselves. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we have to give account.”
By His essence: God not only knows us, but He created us and sustains us in existence every moment of our lives. God is wholly and entirely present to all things by His essence, because, wherever He acts, His whole being is there; there is no separation of His action from His essence.
By His power: We are not only from God, but we still belong to God. He not only holds us, as it were, by the hand, but He sustains us in existence. We and all creatures are controlled by His all-embracing power; were He for one moment to withdraw His sustaining power, we would cease to exist.
So, God is very close to us. In fact, He is within us. He is more intimate to us than our own thoughts, although remaining distinct from us. Hence, if we really want to be human, we shall never try to escape from God (which in any case is impossible), for, when we deliberately try to live without God, we cease to act as human beings. We should, therefore, try not only to think of Him, but to think with Him, conscious of His ever-abiding presence and of our absolute dependence. We should consider it a pleasure to walk along the road of life hand in hand with God.
Love arises from awareness of God’s presence
It would be a mistake to think that recollection of God and belief in His presence are sufficient to make us His friend. For it is possible to think of God and hate Him. It is possible to study about God, learn all about His divine nature, believe all the divine truths, yet never raise our hearts to love Him. Our relationship with God could be like that of people who live in the same apartment house and remain total strangers. They know each other, talk about each other, but never speak to each other.
Therefore, if the practice of living in God’s presence is to unite us to Him in love, it must do more than teach us to think of Him. It must teach us to be attracted to Him, to love and speak intimately with Him, as a child with his father. In other words, it must include acts of the will, affections, by which we long for God and speak to Him in short, affectionate prayers.
The exercise of the presence of God leads us to intimate love of God, and indirectly leads us away from sin and worldliness. The more we grow in this practice, the less power the pleasures of the world have over us. When we have learned to live in God’s presence, things that once delighted us will lose their attraction. Their appeal will be like that of childhood toys to adults. Carried on by enthusiasm like that of Christ with His face set toward Jerusalem and Calvary, outstripping His Apostles on the road, the soul that has learned to live in God’s presence looks continually toward God, unperturbed by the allurements of the passing pleasures of life.
You must desire to live in God’s presence
Many people remain strangers to God because they love unwisely the pleasures of the flesh and the world. They would love God, but they want the inordinate love of creatures, too. Having known the pleasures of this life, they find it almost impossible to give them up. They fear, and how foolishly, that nothing can take the place of human loves, money, sports, and carnal pleasures. But, if they were to set out to love God, to live in His presence, they would find their love of creatures gradually diminishing. To one who sees God, all created things are small. Having loved a greater good, it is easy to forget the lesser: “If a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing.”
In this exercise, as in all progress in prayer, it is most important to persevere. We must have the desire to want to live in the presence of God. We must pray for this desire. We must not be satisfied only to be in the state of grace. We must continually bestir ourselves to realize that it is possible to come to deep love of God. We must renew this desire again and again, because, once we lose sight of God, we shall turn to fill our minds with worldly things that please only the senses.
There is, then, a short, direct way to intimacy with God. It is short, but not easy. We call it the exercise of the presence of God. It contains two actions: one of the intellect, the other of the will. In the first action, we think of God; in the second, we desire to be with Him and to speak to Him. The phrase “presence of God,” therefore, is not restricted to the acts of the memory or intellect alone, but is extended to include also the acts of the will, affections and aspirations. It is in this wider sense that we shall speak of the exercise of the presence of God. As we grow in this exercise, we shall grow in closer union with God, so that we will not only begin to think of Him, but with Him, and to love what He loves.
It is one thing to know what the exercise of the presence of God is and another to find ways to put it into action. To help put it into action, we will now present five practical ways of living with God. Finally, we will show how these different ways can be woven into the pattern of everyday life, so that we no longer walk alone, but with God.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Fr. Healy’s Awakening Your Soul to the Presence of God, available from Sophia Institute Press.