February 23, 2012

When the Lord Discloses His Presence

What is it like for Christ to disclose his mysterious presence in prayer?  When I am asked this question, my heart goes to the beautiful descriptions we find in the Life of St. Teresa of Avila, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Life of Antony, the poetry of St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul, and Bl. Elisabeth of the Trinity's Prayer to the Trinity. In these works we find such a variety of experiences, it is reasonable to observe that each time Christ manifests his heart, He does so in an intimate, beautiful, and unrepeatable way.

inside of beautiful church with vaulted ceilings
From what they have written, it is reasonable to conclude that He has a plan for each one of us and this plan includes a special disclosure of his heart, a beautiful secret He yearns to share.   By virtue of the dignity in which we are created He respects us too much to force a friendship.  So the Almighty God patiently waits for just the right time, testing our readiness, all the while carefully preparing the perfect circumstances for this encounter.

What is it like?    He sometimes visits us when we are not looking for Him.  But these visits are momentary and usually for the purpose of waking us from our spiritual slumber.  Real prayer is not about a momentary experience, rather it is about dwelling in communion with our divine Friend.  While we are praying, should we be aware that we are praying -- we have not yet begun to pray.  At least, we have not yet begun to pray in friendship love for real friends are more attentive to one another than they are to themselves.  Real prayer is completely absorbed in Him.

He loves to dwell with hearts that are vigilant and persevering in their search for Him.  As the heart questions and seeks, it confronts all kinds of voids and inadequacies.  At the same time, it must ward off distractions.  Sometimes it labors ardently to attend to the One whom it knows is there by faith - but it cannot feel, or think, or intuit, or imagine.  It searches for Him in the Sacred Page - the Holy Bible as entrusted to us in the liturgy and through the wisdom of the saints who have gone before us.  This prayerful heart also carefully examines its whole life in light of the Gospel scrutinizing memories, especially the painful ones, for signs of his presence.  Often everything is just dark because Christ challenges us beyond ourselves into places we are unfamiliar.   All that can be done is to cleave to Him by faith.

This is already a deep contemplation, a real encounter, a profound union with Him, a deep adoration of one's whole being.  We find ourselves constantly dying to our old way of life in this kind of prayer and what once animated us no longer can claim our deepest spiritual center.  A new freedom is being born.  Such mystical union is so much the more fruitful because it is imbued with love, trust, surrender and hope in Him. His very life animates the soul that dies to itself and helps it persevere in its arduous quest through all kinds of trials and difficulties.

The saints also tell us that this darkness is not the final word.  Sometimes there are pledges of love, foretastes of a glory waiting to be revealed.   Indeed, there is fire in the night, flashes which illumine the soul with dazzling splendor.  All at once, the Bridegroom is there, astonishingly present in a manner that could never have been anticipated.  Such is the mysterious presence of the One we recognize in the Breaking of the Bread.  For those who yearn for real friendship with the Lord, a glance of heart piercing love is exchanged and the soul is all at once washed in a breaking wave of exploding jubilation, carried on a deep current of sweet sorrow,  and established in a peaceful stillness from which nothing can disturb it.

To know Him and to be conformed to his death: such knowledge is excelling.  In such knowledge one drinks love to the dregs.  Inebriated with the Holy Spirit, one sees the cosmos through resurrected eyes.  To behold this mystery even in the darkness of faith leaves the heart baptized in tears, the thoughts bowed in adoration, the intuition humbled in holy dismay, the imagination helpless in wonder, the memory forgetting everything but hope.


  1. So true, so true. Thanks you for opening yours eyes to glimpse it and listening for the words to express it.

    1. how does one know that these are not merely self-induced sentiments of the imagination?

    2. That is a good question, because we can be deceived. I think that when it is real, there is solid peace, joy, happiness - a true certitude that comes from God which is entirely natural - that is, we experience "substance" rather than a mere feeling.

  2. Dear Fact, This is a great question - especially for our time which looks at prayer so subjectively. In fact, the person who asked me how we know it is the Lord we encounter in prayer had the same concern. Real prayer requires a humility that comes from God. If our prayer is real, there should be good fruit - because when He comes to us, He animates us with his very life: the transforming mercy of God flows into us as we die to ourselves and live for Him. There should be some signs of real conversion. A good spiritual director can be very helpful on this point - because as your question implies we can be self-deceived, quite easily. There is more to say in response to your question - I will take this up in a future post.
    In Christ,

  3. The very difficulty is that the presence of Our Saviour, at least so far as I have experienced, appears intelligibly, but not sensibly. This activates the modernist allergy to anything that is, even if but a whiff, experienced only in the imagination. The fault is in the common (derogatory) conception and use of the word imagination. Personally, though I am insufficient as a scholar to track it down or know the ancient uses, I posit an intelligible realm that, while making use of the imagination, is not per se, imaginative. Er, that doesn't help. You can, by act of will, create an image in your imagination, images may form in your imagination that are not there because of your will. Well, excepting that you give accent. My, my! This is tough to put in words!

  4. thank you dr. lilles for your helpful comment. i look forward to your future article, as discernment on this point is so important.

    coldstanding: I think I understand what you are saying. When Joan of Arc was told that her visions were in her imagination, she replied something along the lines of "well, of course they were! how else would I perceive them?"

  5. Thank you so much for this posting. I just went to visit a priest at my parish about this...how to know when God is revealing Himself to us vs. our imaginations? Your writing is beautiful.

  6. Thank you for this beautiful description that inspires me to continue along the little path towards the One who is all Love. It is good to be reminded that what you describe is a normal, natural progression of the spiritual life - for all Christians.

  7. I think we often wonder if some insight is just our imagination. Spritual directors can help with this! But I think when the inspiration comes unbidden and it is compelling, it is certainly something to look at with the eyes of faith.

    And as we stay in a state of grace, we discern of course, but not overlong! We can take the first steps on a holy endeavor and place it in the Lord's hands. If it is not to be our path, the door will close. But if it is to be our path, then the next step will show itself and the compelling will remain.

    At least this is what I have found.