The supreme work of life is the perfect development of character, having ever in view the will and purpose of God, the development of all that God has given us in relation to Himself, and the harmonizing of all the various gifts and powers with which we are endowed, so as to form one perfect whole. Each has to develop his own personal life and to resist all those manifold conflicting claims and forces that are constantly trying to interfere with it and to hurt it.
It is scarcely possible for anyone to live a single day without finding that someone or something has been intruding upon him in a way that, if he does not resist it, will more or less injure him.
Other lives and interests cross ours. We may allow ourselves to get entangled by a thousand claims and occupations that are not really any concern of ours. Things in which no duty compels us to interfere constantly press forward and solicit our interference. On all sides multitudes of things, sometimes the least trifles, sometimes matters of greater moment, seem arrayed against us, for no purpose apparently but to dissipate our powers and prevent the concentration and growth of our life. It is not, indeed, easy for the most conscientious always to know where to draw the line or to see what is an intrusion and what is a duty; when to hold aloof and let things of interest pass by and when to take part in them; what is the claim of charity and what is the mere fussiness of pride.
It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that we should know how to protect ourselves from all these distractions, and how to deal with the various circumstances with which we come in contact, in such a way as to force them to help and develop our true life, not to hinder it. There are, however, two dangers that we must be on our guard against, two wrong ways of meeting these difficulties.
No one will ever develop his best self by always watching himself. There are some people who go through life wrapped in a kind of garment of spiritual self-consciousness. They never for a moment forget themselves and their own spiritual state; they are so afraid of being hurt by life, that, in their effort after self-protection, they inflict a fatal injury upon themselves that puts a stop to any healthy growth. They become morbid, introspective, timid, scrupulous; there is nothing spontaneous, nothing inspiring in their lives. They hold themselves back from all those experiences through which alone it is possible that life and character should develop, seeking to protect themselves sometimes at the expense of definite obligations. They fail to see that in neglecting to be responsive and sympathetic, they leave the richest side of their own nature stunted and maimed.
For God has so ordered it that our lives are bound up with one another, and in neglecting the claims of charity and the calls of duty we injure ourselves. All these duties and interests have their danger, no doubt, but in timidly shrinking from the dangers that duty involves, we fly into greater danger, for a life that has turned in upon itself and is always watching its own growth (or lack of growth) has already contracted a deadly disease. No, the atmosphere of spiritual self-consciousness and introspection is not the shelter that the soul is to find against the distracting interference of life.
But there is another danger. We must not, on the other hand, let ourselves go with undisciplined freedom. There are those who delight in feeling the play of life’s many interests and sympathies upon them. With them there is no reserve, no self-restraint, but a constant outpouring of sympathy and activity. Rightly revolting against the narrow, inexpansive self-consciousness of some so-called religious people, they go to the other extreme and pour themselves out upon everyone and everything that interests them. Everything leaves its mark upon their impressionable natures. Finally, we feel that it needs only time and sufficiently strong influences to destroy every marked token of individuality in such people and to exhaust all the gifts with which they began life.
Character certainly does not ripen to its perfection in an atmosphere of general benevolence and undisciplined sympathy, nor will the soul find its shelter in such a self-forgetfulness as that.
Finding a Balance
Shall we, then, tell the former class of persons that they must get out of themselves by throwing themselves in a spirit of self-abandonment into the lives and interests of others, and the latter that they must hold themselves back and check the outgoings of their sympathy and try to harden themselves against that sensitive appreciation that exposes them to so much danger? Undoubtedly they must do this to a certain extent, but they will not find in such an endeavor the real remedy for their fault.
No, there is a better way: let each try to live in that atmosphere that will at once protect and develop his life, enabling him to keep the balance between the twofold claim from within and from without, yielding himself to the circumstances and influences that demand his sympathy, yet never losing hold of himself, and living the inner life without self-contemplation or the fear to go forth wherever and whenever duty calls.
The earth in its orbit around the sun passes through many thousands of miles, yet those who live on it are not conscious of any sudden and great changes, for it bears its own atmosphere about with it. And as we pass from one place and occupation to another, we need to carry our own atmosphere with us to protect and develop our lives.
How shall we do this?
What kind of atmosphere should we be wrapped in? How shall we pass from prayer to pleasure, from silence into crowded places, without jar or loss? How shall we practice watchfulness without becoming morbidly introspective? How shall we sustain large-hearted and generous charity, and sensitiveness that both feels and begets sympathy, without wasting ourselves? How shall we be able constantly “to go in and out and find pasture” to shelter ourselves from the rude intrusions that would spoil our lives and yet never fail to go forth with our whole nature alive to every proper claim of the ever-widening world that asks our help.
There is one sure way: by living more and more in that atmosphere that draws out all the powers of the soul, that necessitates its growth, and in which at the same time it finds protection from every breath that would blight or stunt it, that intensifies all its sympathies and enables it to see all things in their true proportion.
And that atmosphere is the presence of God.
The soul that has learned to shelter itself in that presence has gained the protection it needs, from itself on the one hand, and, on the other, from the crowding appeals of life. In that presence there can be no morbidness, for it is the very truth; no stagnation, for it is the fountain of life; no timid holding back from the true claims of life, for that presence itself bids the soul go forth to work and action.
Nor, on the other hand, can one who lives in that presence fritter away his life upon things that have no claim upon him, for it ever holds back as well as sends forward.
He who lives beneath its shelter knows full well that the light and protection is limited to the sphere of duty and right, and that if he goes beyond that, he must leave it; but within that sphere he is safe amidst all the noise and distraction and wearying strain of life. “Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.” “Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.”
In proportion as we gain the sense of God’s presence, we are safe in the very tumult of life, in the very thick of the strife of tongues. For this presence protects our own individuality; it protects us so that we do not lose ourselves, and become, as we are often apt to do, almost a mechanical part of the world and the society in which we live, sinking into a routine in which we lose more and more the sense of responsibility.
We certainly need this, a clear and ever-deepening sense of our own separate and solitary individuality, with all its consciousness of personal responsibility and the dignity of personal life. And the first thing that the realization of God’s presence does for any man is to deepen this sense of his own personality and responsibility. He lives in a presence that is stronger than all the influences around him; that presence isolates him, frees him from the tyranny of the standards and judgments of the little coteries that make his world, and gives him new standards to judge himself by.
Many of those who have the capacities for influencing others, if only they could stand a little apart and be firm, are simply carried hither and thither by the babel of opinion in which they live and give themselves no time to pause and ask what it is all worth and what is their own duty. They have formed no clear idea of themselves, no notion of something definite that they were intended to be and to do. Having no strong convictions, they are borne hither and thither by the society in which they may happen to be for the moment.
And when such a person wakens to realize the presence of God, instantly there follows the quickened sense of his own personality and responsibility; he is wrapped around and stands alone in the presence that forces him to pass judgment upon himself. He sees himself in the presence of One who knows him and has been the silent witness of all he has ever said or done; he is compelled to gather himself out of the multitude, and the full recognition of his own personal responsibility is forced upon him.
There has come upon him something stronger than any of those influences that hitherto have acted upon him, robbing him almost of all sense of personality, and now he is able to stand alone and to withstand what before seemed impossible. “Thou art my hiding place. . . . Thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.”
There is something very wonderful in the way in which the thought of God at once wakens the dormant or half-lost sense of one’s own personality and the responsibilities that it involves. We cannot come near Him without realizing ourselves more deeply. When Isaiah saw His glory, his first words were, “Woe is me, for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips . . . for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Made as we are in the image of God, there is an instinctive rising to compare ourselves to Him who is the source of our life and our Archetype.
This realization of God’s presence is the power that gives such an intense personality to many who naturally would not be strong enough to stand alone. Encircled by this presence, they present that wonderful combination of sensitive timidity and moral courage that belongs to the Christian alone. This is the way of men and women who are not by nature strong or independent, but who cling much to others and depend much on others’ judgment, yet when occasion demands are able quietly to go and do their work in the face of adverse criticism and misunderstanding, for their lives are strong and self-possessed, living in the presence of Him to whom they are responsible. Amidst all the pain that they may have to suffer, they verily have a “joy which no man taketh from them.”
The presence of God is thus a shelter and protection for those whose duties compel them to live amidst many distractions and much variety of circumstances. It is as when one goes into a crowded room, and on all sides one hears a babel of voices and sees a multitude of people, one feels oneself lost in the presence of so many; and there amongst them you see one who is very dear to you, and as you draw near to him and hear his voice it seems as if you were leaving all that noisy crowd in the distance, and the tones of his voice at last so absorb you that they silence all else, and the tumult has ceased, and you and he are alone.
“Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues”; and this the presence of God can do for us. We can withdraw ourselves at any moment when we feel ourselves getting lost, as it were, in a crowded life, and rest under the shelter of His presence.
In this way we may protect our life from dissipating its powers and from losing itself amidst the distractions into which duty or pleasure may call us. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe.”
But, on the other hand, the practice of the presence of God will be the remedy for those whose danger is to hold aloof from duties and to become spiritually self-centered. For the presence of God at once lifts one out of oneself, yet not in such a way as to leave one in ignorance of one’s faults; one sees oneself — indeed, one knows oneself — in a far truer way than by any amount of introspection, but one sees oneself without self-contemplation and without self-depreciation.
Living in a constant spirit of self-watching and self-analysis, one may be quite possibly measuring himself by false standards; perhaps by the ideal that his own pride has drawn for him, perhaps by the standard of some other’s life, he may be striving after what God never meant and never gave him the power to attain. But as we learn to live in the presence of God, all this becomes impossible. In the presence of the truth, we are forced to be true, and it is astonishing to see how those whose aims were very lofty and very unreal, and who had gotten into an altogether false method of weighing the value of spiritual things, gradually, as they strove to live more in God’s presence, took a wholly different and truer estimate of life and thought less and talked less about their own spiritual life. “Thou requirest truth in the inward parts, and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.” They unconsciously gained another standard as they lived more simply before God. They grew out of a timid life of self-analysis into a strong life in which they saw themselves as God would have them to be. Yet their self-knowledge became, in fact, far deeper and truer.
Certainly, if we need protection from life’s many distractions and calls, we need perhaps even more protection from that ever-present atmosphere of self-consciousness that clings to so many like a damp fog; and, not by any means, the least dangerous form is spiritual self-consciousness. And we cannot get out of this by merely struggling with it, as we might struggle with temper or pride; such efforts seem often only to rivet the bonds more tightly upon us. We can get out of it only by losing ourselves in another, and there is but One other whose presence we can always have, who will never weary us, and who will never harm us.
But we must not expect that we shall be able to gain such a protecting sense of God’s presence in a moment. It will be the result of much prayer and mental discipline. We must not be discouraged, therefore, if after a long time we still find that we have made but little progress.
“In his presence is the fullness of joy; and at his right hand there is pleasure for evermore.” The fullness of joy and such lasting pleasure are not to be easily gained; they are to be won only by those who work hard and suffer much for it.
A few suggestions may be helpful to those who are beginning the practice of the presence of God.
- The mind must be kept in a healthy state; if it becomes overstrained, it will never be able to attain to the power of resting in God’s presence. The realizing of the presence of God is not to be accomplished by a straining of the mind or by a forcing of the imagination; the soul must grow into it gradually; it must be a rest, not a weariness. Therefore, anytime the mind feels strained or wearied, it should be relaxed; we should turn to something else and give it rest. We may test our progress by the growing sense of liberty, the facility and freedom from scruple or anxiety with which the mind rests itself when it feels the danger of strain or weariness; scruple and fear and a burden of rules will make advance in this practice impossible.
- Do not be anxious to grow too fast. If you are impatient and overtax your strength, you will fail altogether. To live in God’s presence means to be very holy, and, therefore, to grow in the sense of His presence means growth in holiness. It is one of the chief fruits of a holy life, and we cannot see that fruit except as the life grows and deepens. One part, so to speak, of the spiritual life cannot outstrip all the rest; be patient, therefore, and be content to grow slowly. It is good, indeed, never to forget the presence of God for a moment, but it would be fatal to begin by even trying to keep the mind always concentrated. “When I was a child I thought as a child.” Begin by recalling the thought of God’s presence at certain times, by setting apart a few minutes once or twice in the day to remain quietly wrapping yourself around with the thought, and be content with this until you are spiritually ready for more. The evil results of lack of prudence, which is often lack of humility, will not be healed by grace.
- In work that should occupy the mind, give your mind to it. Offer it to God when you begin and when you finish it. But while at work you must seek to glorify God by using all the powers of your mind in what you are doing. Therefore, do not try to realize God’s presence at such times, except during in a moment’s pause, but let the conscious thought of His glory stimulate you to do your best.
- Build the practice of the presence of God upon the indwelling presence of Christ. Let each Communion remind you of what you are as a Christian — a member of Christ, fed by His life. Let each Communion intensify the realization of that ever-abiding presence within you, and let the thought of each Communion remain with you until your next, even if through no fault of yours a long period intervenes. Some may seek to place themselves in the presence of God as in an atmosphere of holy light wrapping around them — that luminous “shadow of the Almighty”54 of which the psalmist speaks. But it will be perhaps an easier, certainly a surer and a quicker road to holiness to turn within and to rest oneself upon that heavenly light that burns in the inmost depth of the soul, radiating forth upon all its powers and faculties. “In the secret place of His dwelling shall He hide me, and set me up upon a rock of stone.”