October 31, 2011

That Mysterious Presence of the Lord in Prayer

St. Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs provide beautiful descriptions of the mysterious presence of the Lord in prayer.  Wishing to encourage Christians who find their hearts yearning for God, St. Bernard personally appropriates the words of the Bride from Chapter 2:17, "Return, my Beloved."

St. Bernard was aware that while the Lord is always present to the soul in some way there are also times when He chooses to visit souls that wait for Him with a special intimacy.  Those who taste this beautiful presence of God, like St. Bernard, long for it and wish it never to end.  At the same time, they also accept that God is sovereign in his love and learn to respect this sovereignty -- even though the absence of the Lord is a very painful reality to endure.  In other words, they know that prayer does not produce God's presence but that his mysterious visits produce all kinds of wonderful things in the soul, and so they find the confidence they need to wait for Him.

Does not such a view free us from that excessive and distracting preoccupation with our own psychological operations in prayer?  Precisely because God's presence is not the product of one's own fantasy, one does not need to try to produce it.  It is a matter of remaining vigilant, sober, alert, and patient: our hearts fixed on the One for whom we long, searching for Him. studying Him, imitating Him, and ready for Him.

This kind of presence of God is never to be mistaken for a psychic state, a feeling or a sensation or even the mere absence of such experiences - all of this is merely what can be produced by our own clever egos. The coming of the Living God into one's soul is not a product at all.   Instead, this inestimable gift is wholly other, an Other who is totally beyond and completely deeper than such things.  As such his mysterious visit does not admit of being manipulated by techniques and methods.  In Christian prayer, the best methods merely dispose and prepare for the coming of the One whose heart piercing love remains forever wild and free, and therefore, boundless.

This boundless moment of divine intimacy floods our hearts in the most wonderful ways without our even being aware of what has happened to us, and this even during the time we spend in prayer.   His heart moving company is so subtle neither our senses nor even our powers of intuition are capable of noticing that He is truly there.  Yet in spite of our inability to notice Him, this interior epiphany of divine love is so powerful it not only makes us aware of all kinds of different sins which darken our hearts, it gives us new light by which we can repent, that is rethink our way of life; and at the same time it also frees us from even the slightest attachment to anything which in any way threatens what is good, noble and true about who we really are before the Lord.

Overwhelming us with so many strong desires to take up all kinds great works, when He visits us with his presence our hearts are also moved with courage to endure every hardship for the sake of love.  We hope in Him because we sense that He hopes even more in us. Years after St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas would explore the cause and the purpose of this gift in terms as the spiritual missions of the Son and the Spirit through the Divine Indwelling of the Trinity by grace (Summa Theologica I, 43).  For his part, St. Bernard saw this gift of love in prayer as a transitory foretaste of the eternal life that awaits us in heaven, a glimpse of God which we hardly notice when it happens -- but a mysterious visit haunting us and leaving us yearning  afterward, even to the point of calling out like a Bride heartsick for her Bridegroom, "Return, my Beloved!"

"Only by the movement of my heart did I perceive his presence and I knew the power of his might because my faults have been revealed and made visible; at the very slightest amendment of my way of life I have experienced his goodness and mercy; in the renewal and remaking of the spirit of my mind, that is of my inmost being, I have perceived the excellence of his glorious beauty, and when I contemplate all these things I am filled with awe and wonder at his manifold greatness.  But when the Word has left me, all these spiritual powers become weak and faint and begin to grow cold, as though you had removed the fire from under a boiling pot, and this is the sign of his going.  Then my soul must needs be sorrowful until he returns, and my heart again kindles within me -- the sign of his returning.  When I have had such experience of the Word, is it any wonder that I take to myself the words of the Bride, calling him back when he has withdrawn?" Sermon 74, 6-7 translated by Irene Edmonds in Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, vol. IV, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1980) 91-92.


  1. Thanks for the Summa reference. My favorite part: "hence the mission of the Holy Ghost is according to the mode of charity. Whereas the Son is the Word, not any sort of word, but one Who breathes forth Love. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. ix 10): "The Word we speak of is knowledge with love." Thus the Son is sent not in accordance with every and any kind of intellectual perfection, but according to the intellectual illumination, which breaks forth into the affection of love,"

    Essential understanding! Is it "normal" for one's perception of His presence to move from being experiences that might be mistaken for a psychological state, to experiences that are more obviously NOT from oneself?

  2. I think you are right about what is normative- When we are not as familiar with the Lord's presence, it is easy for us to mistake a psychic state, a mood, a feeling for Him -- only because his coming can produce all these things. These can be signs of his presence but they can also be misleading - for many other things besides God can stir the heart in these ways. But for the soul that has entered into the Lord's peace and come on fire with love's urging (that overwhelming affection produced by the intellectual illumination of the Word) - these signs of his presence almost become a kind of annoyance, because they distract from Him. Such experiences are merely the vapor trail and the spiritually mature no longer take interest in the Lord's vapor trails: these great souls are satisfied with Him alone.

  3. "then my soul must needs be sorrowful until he returns"
    I often feel fearful until he returns, fearful that I have sinned or otherwise displeased God. Hope to soon sit with sorrowful - replacing fearful.