The Presence of God in Us
From the first to the last pages of The Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross puts before us the soul anxious for union with God.
“Ah, where are you hiding?” it sings in the first stanza of the delightful poem that he will comment on during the whole course of the work. It is the soul’s cry of desire for union with God.
This soul, he notes, is the Christian soul. It is not necessarily a consecrated religious soul, a brother or a nun; it is simply the soul that, regenerated by Baptism and reclothed with divine grace, becomes painfully conscious of the potentiality contained in its elevation to the state of a child of God, and desires to see it brought to fulfillment.
I will explain.
Man has need of God. This need finds its first source in our condition as creatures. We exist because God created us and keeps us in existence; not only that, but we have need of Him continually in order to live and to act.
Further, our actions are dependent on the Supreme Being, who has to give us the capacity for action even in minute things: without Him, we cannot move even a finger. There are then so many human undertakings before which the prudent man recognizes his limitations and the uncertainty of success, which frequently depend on conditions over which he cannot exercise his personal influence other than in a very minor capacity. Then especially he feels the need of having recourse to God, of calling upon His omnipotence and providence and asking to grant him what he does not succeed in procuring himself.
Man has need of God and of having recourse to Him. If nature already orients us toward the Lord, how much more does divine grace.
Grace draws us close
We ought never to forget that grace makes us children of God. A man clothed with sanctifying grace belongs to the house of God; he is of the family of God:
“You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
He who belongs to the household has a certain right to the goods of the house and to the family inheritance. In the divine family, this inheritance is none other than God Himself. We know this: he who dies in the grace of God will infallibly possess Him eternally in heaven.
Grace, therefore, disposes us for the beatific vision; it will make us live in the divine companionship. Grace tends toward this union with God and will fulfill its potentiality only when we truly unite ourselves with Him. That is why there is in the man who lives in the state of grace, a certain inclination, a certain tendency, to live in company with God.
Unfortunately, there are Christians who do not cultivate this beautiful inclination, or who smother it under many tendencies and natural impulses that draw them toward creatures and distance them from God. When, instead, a soul seeks to dominate the natural impulses and in this way arrives at a certain interior tranquility resulting from this domination — or rather from a sufficient mastery of itself — this inclination toward God, which was as though hidden and buried under the tumult of the passions, awakens and is easily set free. And here it is that the soul begins to feel the need for God, the need to come close to Him, and there come to the lips the words that the saint puts in the mouth of the enamored soul:
“Ah, where have you hidden yourself?”
We, too, desire to know where He keeps Himself hidden, He with whom we yearn to be united, and for that reason we gladly listen to the saint’s reply:
And so that this thirsty soul may succeed in finding its Spouse and be united with Him in union of love as far as is possible in this life, we may well reply in the name of the Spouse, indicating the most certain place where He may be hidden, in order that the soul may assuredly find Him with the greatest perfection and savor possible. . . . It is to be noted that the Word, the Son of God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, essentially and personally remain hidden in the inmost center of the soul . . . and here the good contemplative must seek Him with love.
Here the saint exclaims with emotion in this ardent apostrophe:
O soul most beautiful among all creatures, who dost long so ardently to know where thy Beloved is so that you may meet Him and be united with Him, at last you have been told that you yourself are the place where He dwells, and the hiding place where He is concealed. Well may you rejoice, knowing that your whole good, the object of your love, is so close to you, that He dwells in you, or to express it better, you cannot be without Him!(Spiritual Canticle I)
This is an important answer and one truly made to bring joy to the soul that wants to attain union with God; therefore, we wish to pause a moment and examine the truth of this solemn affirmation of the saint.
Then, is God truly present in us?
Yes, effectively, God is in us; even more, He can be there in a twofold way: not only with His natural presence, because of His immensity, but also with His supernatural (presence), which is called the divine indwelling.
Let me explain briefly first the one and then the other.
The first presence of God in us, that which is commonly called the presence of immensity, is a consequence of the creative act of God.
We have indicated this above: we exist only through the divine action that, communicating being to us, preserves us in existence, a communication of which God alone is capable. God does not operate as we do — that is, by means of certain faculties that derive from our essence but are distinct from it. God, being simplicity itself, works through His own essence; therefore, where He immediately works, there He is.
Hence, since He works in the interior of all creatures, communicating their being, He dwells necessarily in the inmost part of each of them. Since our souls are creatures, God is necessarily present in us; otherwise, if He were not present, He would not operate in us; nor would He communicate existence to us, and we, quite simply, would not be. We would not exist.
Therefore, with all truth St. John can say to the soul: “You cannot be without Him.”
That is not all: close to this fundamental presence, in souls clothed with sanctifying grace, there is another that we know only by means of revelation. Jesus has taught us that if a soul loves God supernaturally — and it cannot do so without being in grace — the three Persons of the Most Blessed Trinity will come to it and make their dwelling in it. It is the presence that theologians call “indwelling presence.”
With this, the three divine Persons become present in a new manner, not simply as the creative cause that preserves and moves all things, but as an object that offers itself to the knowledge and love of the soul, and therefore as an object with which the soul can enter into communication. For that reason, it is said that with this presence, God comes to keep company with the soul and invites it to keep company with Him.
By this special presence of God in the soul, there is a corresponding capacity in it to put itself in a personal relationship with Him. Where there is grace, there are the three theological virtues — faith, hope, and charity — and these supernatural virtues give our souls the capability of establishing an intimate relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. Elevated by faith, our intellect is rendered capable of knowing the Most Holy Trinity, who dwells in us; and our will, corroborated by a confident hope and inclined by charity toward God, the author of all supernatural life, can love Him intimately.
What more is wanting to us to be able to begin, even in this world, a relationship and a union of knowledge and of love with that God who dwells in us?
It will be enough to put into action our theological virtues; and who can say even where this activity may be able to reach, when to the virtues will be united the gifts of the Holy Spirit which, according to theologians, have the property of rendering our knowledge of God in some ways, at least, experiential. Obviously, here indeed we shall meet contemplation.
The first presence of God in us, that of immensity, is therefore essential here; but much more precious is the indwelling presence. Let us not forget this, however: it is connected with divine grace, and he who loses grace also loses this precious divine company. This is one of the most disastrous consequences of mortal sin: destroying sanctifying grace in us, it also deprives us of the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity in our souls!
Seeking the Hidden God
For the soul desirous of union, it is not enough to know where one ought to go to seek God; it also wants to find Him. The soul responds to the Spirit with a new question:
“Granted that He whom I love is within me, why do I not feel Him and do not find Him?”
There is a great difference between having God and being introduced into His divine company, and thus living with Him.
“God is in me,” the soul says, “why does He not reveal His presence to me?”
To this, the saint will reply by explaining to us a whole plan of conquest. Listen to why the soul enamored of God, and in whom He dwells, does not feel Him:
The reason for this is that He is hidden, and you do not hide yourself as He does so that you may find Him and feel Him. He who is looking for a hidden thing should secretly penetrate its hiding place, and when he finds it, he too is hidden as it is.(Spiritual Canticle 1, 9)
Yes, it is true: God is within us, but He is hidden, concealed under the accumulation of our too-human preoccupations, all the obstacles to the fulfillment of personal plans for our profit and gain, plans that we want to carry out without taking sufficient account of the divine will and of the rights of others.
In our interior, there is too often a whole world of tendencies, of impulses, of very lively passions, that thrust us toward creatures and make us give them our hearts. They make us place our hope in them and seek our comfort in the remembrance of them.
So, we live in this superficial world, which occupies us to such a point that it makes us forget that more profound life that we could live but do not live, that truly interior life, in which the soul could be in relation with its God and could end by finding Him. The Lord waits for us, so to speak, in the depth of our souls, but we do not enter this depth, taken up as we are by “our affairs,” to which we give all our concern.
Now you see why we do not find Him!
To find Him, we will have to go where He is and escape from that immersion in creatures in which we live. Yes, we must “hide ourselves as He is hidden” and flee our superficial existence to enter a deep interior life, abandoning the more exterior sphere of our human interests, where everything moves around our little ego, to descend into the deeper center of the soul, where it learns to live together with its God.
Listen to the instructions of the saint:
Since therefore thy beloved Spouse (God) is the treasure hidden in the vineyard of your soul, it is necessary that you, too, forgetting everything and withdrawing from all creatures, hide yourself, until you find Him in the intimate seclusion of your spirit. Here, with the door shut behind you, namely, the will closed to everything, pray in secret to your Father, and then . . . in secret you will hear Him and love Him and enjoy Him . . . above all that tongue and sense can understand.”(Spiritual Canticle I, 9)