The nearness of God


How do I experience God?

How do I experience His nearness?

The words presence and absence radiate strongly from my enquiries into these questions. In reaching for answers, I find myself embroiled in both of these qualities simultaneously. Approaching the divine enigma using the mechanism of language is an enterprise that continues to fascinate me, even in its inadequacies. The experience of God’s nearness comes wrapped in wonderful, tangled paradoxes. I’d like to share some of my rough cut paradoxes here.

  • I feel God’s nearness as a certainty within an absence. The quality of certainty turns the absence inside out – it negates it.
  • I experience God as a presence encompassed in an emptiness. ‘Emptiness’ is my brain’s best attempt at quantifying a temporal, bound perspective on the boundless and eternal.
  • The abyss into which I surrender is the presence of God.
  • The absence I feel is God.
A present absence, an absent presence

How do I experience God in times of desolation?

In other words, how is God known and felt in challenging situations, when the drudgery of the mundane seems to blacken even the tiniest glimmer of the providential? The spiritually evolving individual understands that God’s perceived distance serves to test them. In stepping back, God is simply doing what all loving fathers do for their children: giving space for independent growth and learning. By not intervening, He offers us the free will choice to hone our skills, expand our capacity for love and deepen our wisdom – or not.

"For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." 

Galatians 5:13

Above all, God wants to see if we continue to choose goodness and righteousness even when we feel that He is far away and we are standing alone on the most painful edge of solitary human experience. God gives us the gift of free will in honour of our potential, and the activation of this gift can only come through a journey of (perceived) separation.

It has turbo-charged my faith to understand that when God’s paternal presence is intangible, it is not an indicator of some great inadequacy on my part, but instead the sign of a loving manoeuvre made to aid my growth. When life is tough and I feel set adrift, I match these trials with a greater determination to cultivate humility and demonstrate my trustworthiness to our maker. Within this energy of perseverance and devotion, my faith flourishes.

"And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple."

Luke 14:27

On the other hand, when the external setting surrounds me with joy and happiness, the efforts I make towards bettering my faith are naturally more light-hearted. In contentment and bliss, faith blossoms with minimal grit and enterprise on my part. Whatever the outer circumstances bring, I keep doing the work of seeking Truth. Divine bribery is not required.

My perception of God as present or absent is not what matters. What matters is the grounding of faith within my heart. This is where God lives in my individual experience. He is always that close, and it is only ever my individual-self-in-pain-goggles that hinder my seeing of this.

The constantly broadening certainty of my faith serves to assist in cleaning the lenses of these self-goggles on a daily basis. Faith in the heart as the seat of my relationship with God has also given me a greater sense of stability – it brings the possibility of being content in my own actuality as it shifts from one moment to the next. Nonetheless, I continue to remind myself that all expectations are hurdles, and that one of the more noble of these hurdles comes in striving to ‘achieve’ the feeling that God is close to me at all times.

My Spirit Longs For Thee – John Byrom

My spirit longs for Thee
Within my troubled breast,
Though I unworthy be
Of so divine a Guest.

Of so divine a Guest
Unworthy though I be,
Yet has my heart no rest
Unless it come from Thee.

Unless it come from Thee,
In vain I look around;
In all that I can see
No rest is to be found.

No rest is to be found
But in they blessed love:
O, let my wish be crowned,
And send it from above!

J. Byrom of Manchester, England (1692-1763) 

Receive a kingdom

As Easter unfolds, I am on day 4 of a water fast. Not only does the Christian rhythm invite fasting and prayer at this time of year, but the unusual space created by the current (fallacious) narrative of pandemic and resulting national house arrest offers the ideal occasion for a healing fast. What better moment to strip back distractions even further and invite more stillness, more silence, more contemplation, more being? 

“A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return.” Luke 19:12 

Easter asks us to consider the template of resurrection portrayed in perfection by Christ. In extended fasting and prayer I am making my own modest gesture of humility in the face of this great act. I am engaging in deep gratitude for the most radical and potent of all Christian teachings. 

"Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit." ” 
Luke 23:45-46
St Michael and All Angels church, Garton, Yorkshire, England.

Within the timeless realm of fasting, prayer and quarantine, where days expand in inactivity, I find myself resting repeatedly in a zone of quiet and thoughtless neutrality. From the lowest registers of this space, small, personal revelations bubble up. These micro revelations are of a type that I can’t yet put into words in a manner that expresses their significance objectively. The closest I can come to articulating the contours of this territory is to say that I am resting somewhere between the truths conveyed in these two biblical passages:  

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." 
John 20:29

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Will bring her into the wilderness,
And speak comfort to her.”
Hosea 2:14

From here, the horizon to which I look is most beautifully depicted in the words of Meister Eckhart and Saint Augustine. For those who are paying attention, the wisdom they share is a bold incentive to change, metanoia.

“The true servant of God does not desire to be told or to be given what they would like to hear or see, for their prime and highest wish is to hear what is most pleasing to God” 
St Augustine
You should know that the friends of God are never without consolation, for their greatest consolation is what God wills for them, whether it be for their comfort or not.” 
Meister Eckhart

I wish everyone a fruitful Easter, and I hope that you all experience the joys of a transforming mind, heart and will.

The contemplative life

…is to retain indeed with all one’s mind the love of God and neighbour, but to rest from all exterior action, and cleave only to the desire of the Maker, that the mind may now take no pleasure in doing anything, but having spurned all cares, may be aglow to see the face of its Creator; so that it already knows how to bear with sorrow the burden of the corruptible flesh, and with all its desires to seek to join the hymn-singing choirs of angels, to mingle with the heavenly citizens, and to rejoice at its everlasting incorruption in the sight of God.

St Gregory of Nyssa

A Gift

Who else could have imagined 
a gift so wide and bold, 
as emptiness abundant
for all from young to old?

Each home a sudden cloister 
into which we are installed - 
take note, this points unswervingly
to whom we are now called. 

Seize the chance to seek release
into the real embrace, 
of that which fills
the depth and breadth and height 
of every space.

Stilled England, 2nd April 2020