Cultivating an Awareness of God
A friend of mine from New Mexico wrote about his recent visit to a bookstore. He hadn’t been to one in a while, and he wasn’t sure of what he wanted to read. But what greeted him at the door was a solid phalanx of political biographies. Everyone from vice-president-wanna-be’s to sanitation department czars are writing their political memoirs these days. Even those who’ve scarcely been in office for a month have enough material for a two-volume magnum opus.
To my friend it was amusing at first. And then the mere thought of all those self-serving biographies was depressing. Is this what life has become? Then the scales fell from his eyes, and he walked out.
In fairness to those who market political figures, they have the same challenges as all the others who try to sell us a huge array of things that we may or may not need. First of all, it’s important to remember that this is strictly business. They are all trying to sell us something. Second, they have no choice but to argue that what they are selling will change our lives — at least until the next product comes along. But more insidiously, they push the notion that this is what life is really all about. Everyone is interested in this candidate or that car or this total-makeover plan. If we don’t act now, our very lives will be wasted and we’ll be irrelevant and unpopular. But if we act now, it will change everything, and nothing will ever be the same again. Except that in a day or two we’re once again unsatisfied, and we’re hungry for something new.
In the middle of all this noise, how in the world do we cultivate an awareness of God? How do we keep the blitz of advertizing from crowding God out of our lives? And just as challenging, how do we see God in the chaos of life? In chapter 19 of his Rule, Saint Benedict writes: “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.” If that’s the case, do we really want to see the divine presence at Macy’s or at the ballpark, or even in our homes?
The options seem clear to me, at least. Either our sole purpose in life is to be benign consumers, or jealous occupants of a tiny space of real estate on our planet. Or there is some transcendent meaning to our lives. If the latter is even remotely possible, then it seems to me that we should give the search for God our best shot. So how do we perceive the divine presence everywhere?
The first step is to make the act of faith that it just may be possible that God does walk with us. Just as Adam and Eve walked metaphorically with God each afternoon, so it is possible to imagine that God does walk through life at our side. No one will ever give us proof — because then faith becomes unnecessary. But if we act on the possibility, we increase our chance to glimpse the divine presence in places and people where we never imagined. This can be a life-changing revelation.
If we admit that God might just be walking with us, then it would be good if we not put God in the zoo. Church on Sunday is a great place, and it’s a terrific opportunity in which to encounter God. There we discover God in the scriptures, in the Eucharist, and in the community of believers gathered in prayer. But if we keep God locked up in a church and visit there only once a week, we’ve imprisoned God in a zoo. There it will be safe to visit now and again, but at least there’s no danger that God will follow us home. Nor will there be the chance that God will stalk us later on. Perhaps a better alternative is to let God out of the zoo and roam free.
A third step is to look for God’s presence in other people. It’s a real and daily temptation to see others as competitors or enemies or fellow consumers. But there just may be more to other people than that. It could very well be that they are sacred beings, worthy of our respect and love. It could very well be that they have wisdom and experience that they’re willing to share. It could very well be that they too walk with God, each afternoon.
A fourth step is to be disciplined in your self-awareness. In the Catholic tradition there are daily exercises one can do to foster this sense of self and God. Some have practiced a daily examination of conscience. At Mass and at compline people confess their failings. And the point of this is not to wallow in guilt. Rather, we confess in order to leave our failings behind and to start afresh with God each day. It’s a confesson of our mortality and fallibility; but it’s also an admission that we need God in order to live life with eyes wide open.
Finally, if you leave a little room for sacred time in your life, and have a sense of sacred space in your surroundings, then the perception of the presence of God grows proportionally. I think it’s safe to say that if you give God an inch, God will end up taking a mile. But it’s also important to know that God doesn’t do labotomies. The greatest saints were not simpletons. They were people who were fully aware of what life had to offer. They also knew many or most of the dangers, because they encountered them just as we do. To them life just seemed richer because of the walk with God.
If then you are going to fashion a life that includes an awareness of God, then you have to give God a fighting chance. God has a lot to compete with in our minds, but in a head-to-head contest, God can best even the best of the marketers and public relations experts. And the good news is that God is not trying to sell us anything — except life lived to the fullest.
Midsummer offers some very distinctive views of the Abbey church that we never see at other times of the year. For a few short weeks the sun shines on the northern facade of the church, and the exterior geometry really stands out. Inside the church the stained glass takes on a vibrancy that it doesn’t have otherwise.
The other striking feature of the summer months centers on the east and west cloisters of the church. I’m not sure what Marcel Breuer had planned for those areas when he came up with his design. For years, however, lawns and shrubs carried the day. There was no guarantee of what it might look like in the summer, and drought could reduce it to a crispy brown. And in winter it could be a flat snowscape. In either case, it was singularly uninspiring.
Not so anymore. A few years ago the person in charge of the landscape put in gardens that have drastically reshaped our experience of these spaces. Through spring and summer and fall a procession of colors greets the eye, and the gardens serve as bouquets for the sanctuary. Then in winter the remaining plants lend their texture to the snow. So year-round things are much-improved and a delight to behold.
On July 19th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible to a group of alumni in Fairmont, MN.