Several years ago, I was asked to answer this question: "Where have you seen evidence of God's presence in this world?" I stumbled over that question for days before I came to an answer that felt right to me and now, looking back on that time, I no longer have confidence that I got it right. I think that in trying to answer that question, my horizon was too limited or my focus was too narrow. A lot of the effort I put into spiritual growth now has to do with finding ways to see further, hear clearly, wait patiently, read widely and work diligently - all towards the expectation that I might find it easier to recognize God's presence.
But, it's not easy, I'll confess that upfront. Many things in our culture and society make it hard to find the Divine in my life. My daily routine often works against me; I recognize that I'm not a natural when it comes to being open and receptive to the signs that are coming my way. But I work at it and take my inspiration from wherever I can find it. I wish that I had a habit of prayer, but I don't - yet - but that might come in the future.
This photo from Bob McGauley is an example of how perception is so important to being aware of a divine presence. When I first saw it, I didn't know what to make of the golden beads or bubbling foam that seems to be floating on the blue water. It looked a bit like a "loofa" or some sort of material that had been thrown on to the waves...it looked artificial. When you look closely, you realize that it's 100% natural; it's water, air and sunlight. In combination, they make this amazing texture, this startling image that initially causes wonder. And so I ask myself: how amazing, how startling, how wonder-full does something have to be until we agree that it could be Divine in origin? Are we too jaded now to appreciate the Divine when it is right in front of us or all around us?
In the days of the early church, before dogma was firmly established, Christian mystics devoted their lives to the search for the Word of God, the Divine presence. You might imagine that, without the distractions of life that we face in the 21st century, their search might have been easy. From what I have read though, it was difficult. It required sacrifice, it required dedication, it often meant living in conditions of extreme frugality, isolation and exposure to the elements. Those mystics believed that enduring those conditions helped them find the "thin" places and times where the Spirit could be encountered by humankind. It was in those places and times where clarity was possible, if fleeting. This is a belief that has not lost its currency and there are many meditative, spiritual practices that can be cultivated to help us connect.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote about authentic Christian life and community, believed that singing, praying, reading, meditation, fellowship of the table, even work itself, could be avenues to encountering the presence of Jesus Christ. I find this view to be comforting and challenging at the same time. Another gifted writer about contemporary Christian life, Thomas Merton, echoed many of Bonhoeffer's ideas, with the added caution that in order to know God, one had to know one's self..."to have the humility to accept ourselves as we are." Another challenge to us.
I'm beginning to have a better idea of what it means to be on a journey of spiritual growth and faith-building, but I still do not have the final destination pegged down. The journey includes the activities that Bonhoeffer and Merton (and many others) point out as necessary to a life in God. I don't think there's a precise road map for the journey; there are probably lots of different ways to be on the Way...if you know what I mean (if you don't, we can talk). When in community and sometimes when I am alone, I seem to tune in to that sense of God's presence and it's a joyous and strengthening feeling. It doesn't last long, but the experience is enough to keep me moving along the Way.
I hope you find your path too.
"We are warmed by the fire, not by the smoke of the fire.
We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship.
So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection in our own acts.
We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts."
Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 1955.