Divine Presence: The Basis of Prayer

By Margaret Dorgan, D.C.M.

This article was first published in Spiritual Life

      Some questions never get fully answered. The more you pursue them with explanations, the more other questions are aroused. Questions about prayer are like that. We talk about praying and we babble the way philosophers babble about existence. But babble we must. To say nothing would be worse.


      Praying is trying to catch hold of mystery, the mystery of God and the mystery of myself in relationship to God. Neither mystery can be wholly grasped, so in prayer I'm reaching beyond what I can deal with. The basic reality is this infinite and loving Being who invites me to fall in love. It's a risky transaction that beckons me to transcend my own limitations at the same time that I'm rooted in them. But it's even more risky not to attempt to respond.

      If I don't stretch myself to answer the call of this God, I stay where I am - and stagnate. Even as I stagnate, I'm still held in existence by God's Presence but as one deaf, dumb, and blind to the creative energies sustaining my being.

      Most of us can look into our lives and see ourselves like the Samaritan woman in the fourth chapter of John's Gospel: walking day after day to a place where we work hard to pull up whatever it is we want. Wealth, prestige, preëminence in our field, enriching relationships. We are busy with all that effort in the heat of the noontime when a voice breaks through. “Give me to drink.” Like the woman at the well of Sichar, we are held for a moment, stopping what we intend to do. In the pause we make for listening, we hear, “If you but knew the gift of God.” If you but knew... If you but knew ... if you but knew. .. Wanting to know arouses us out of the slumber of our stagnation. We begin to become alert to the divine Presence, pulled alive to the life that makes us live. “On waking, I shall rejoice in your presence" (Ps. 17:15).

The Ground of Prayer is the Presence

      The divine Presence is the starting point and the end term of all praying. Everything else about prayer revolves around the Presence -- seeking it in depths dark or luminous - rejoicing in it, delighting in this or that aspect of the Presence, imploring its help, begging redemptive forgiveness from a God present to my guilt and to my remorse. Being drawn to the Presence is a gift from God. My very response to its soliciting is the work of the hovering Spirit breathing a yes that rounds my lips to the word. “All the day long it is said to me: where is your God? I remember and my soul melts within me” (Ps. 42: 3,4)

      A child can understand that God is present. We must tread carefully in our attempts at religious education in order to keep the child close to the Presence, not diverted from it. You say to a child, “God is everywhere.” You don't have to explain it. You simply proclaim it. “Yes, in this room. In your bedroom. Outside where fields are. Up the mountain. In the city street.” The child wants it affirmed, not analyzed. He/she isn't ready to dissect it for philosophical content. And some of us never want to probe it that way. God is everywhere. That is fulness to overflow the mind. The child touches it in experience. God invites contact in the brain, the lap of water, the gathering in church, the First Communion encounter looked forward to.

      At the end of the road as the mind's light flickers and almost fades out, the Presence may be all we can hold on to. And it is enough. When every other support is taken away and even weariness cannot be relieved by sleep, the Presence is there for solace. “On my bed, I think of you. I meditate on you all night long, for you have always helped me” (Ps. 63: 6,7).

      An Irish mission priest in Galway told me of visiting an old woman able only to jabber incoherent words, not recognizing anyone, even her own son, also a priest. Nothing spoken to her can penetrate the cloud of mental confusion. Despairing of making any kind of contact, the missioner holds up the sacred host. “To my astonishment, her recognition is total. 'O my dear Jesus,' she begins. A strewn of prayer pours out, passionate, beautiful. All that had seemed irretrievably scattered is now gathered together.” In the end, the missioner turns to look back as he leaves the room. “She is folded inward in prayer, safe in some deep and secret chamber of the heart that remains inviolate though ruin lies all around.” The Presence has penetrated like light piercing through fog.

The Sense of the Divine in Natural Processes

      Skeptics, produced in high numbers by western cultures, smile at the pervasive sense of God that binds primitive societies. Yet the instinct of primitives to recognize power immanent in the world around them is a capacity to vibrate with deep truths underlying physical appearances. Animism, of course, can be awkward groping that too easily moves into superstition. But modern sophistication, for its part, withers our aptitude to deal with the symbolic dimensions of the universe. And sophisticates have their own superstitions, as so many romantic movements show. The temptation to manipulate divine power by one's personal magic is universally seductive.

      A young and talented woman describes the bargains she plays with reality. “I don't bother with church, but I have this lucky cup. As long as it is in the window, I feel my apartment is safe.” Does it work? “It used to, but then one day somebody broke in and wiped me out. I guess the cup was in the wrong position. I've moved it closer to the middle now." This is making your own ritual to set up personal control. A sham substitute for sacred presence. It's pathetic chic, but it also reveals our sensed need for help beyond our own limitations.

      That primitive vision which sees God in the solidity of rocks, the liquid flow of water, the consuming hunger of fire comes closer to the truth of the all-penetrating one. I block many avenues of divine manifestation if I lose the ancient reverence of my ancestors for natural phenomena.

      That is why many of us want to go to the lands of our forebears to recreate the world that moved alive with messages of the gods. The first time I walked through a misty, dark green glade in Ireland where it was pointed out that Druidic rites had been performed centuries ago, I felt the rush of my Gaelic blood responding to the spell of damp and dark and circling-in vegetation. My distant foremother, pagan Celtic woman, had listened to movements of air and rushing water here where oak and mistletoe were sacred, and had recognized forces greater than herself. The good news proclaimed to me, her Christian daughter, that water can carry sacramental birth. I don't step to the beat of her fear of malevolent energies pulsating through the woods. All the same, I invoke my tie to her and sink into the elemental pull of earth and sun and sky that are more than they seem. My incomparable blessing is to feel the touch of Christ through it all.

      Turning away from external phenomena, I can seek spiritual experience of myself in deeper levels of my consciousness and my unconscious. Workshops with a high price tag advertise their promise to me that I'll learn how to roam through my psyche, exploring interior caverns I haven't entered before. Other techniques will teach me to reach for the mysticism of cosmic togetherness. To attain any or all of that might be personal expansion but it would be supreme loss of what is possible if I do not at the same time see the light of God shining on the face of Christ Jesus. Without him, we may have spiritual experience through carefully orchestrated psychological methods but we don't have Christian prayer.

    The son of God and of Mary makes all the difference. The Presence has taken a human form in him. It unfolds itself in definite characteristics, while remaining infinite and ultimately incomprehensible. In Christ, my search for God finds a well marked way with signposts for crucifixion and resurrection. I discover the Presence in this one who died and rose for me and leads me to death and rising.

      Spiritual experience, if it does not open us to our experience of Jesus, can steer us to treks of wandering better avoided. I've listened to people tell of psychic exorcises that led them into depths within themselves where they were plunged into nightmare conflicts. “It was primal scream all right, but I couldn't stop screaming.” With the Holy Spirit, we make that descent gradually as our increasing inner strength allows.

Modalities of Presence

      Jesus has revealed Presence to us in such richness that our Christian heritage shapes our prayer in a variety of presence-modes. For some people, the indwelling Trinity or one of the three persons fills their spiritual awareness. If we were to question a random group of Christians, probably most would witness to a christic sense of Presence: Jesus is their focus, a companion always accessible. Some who pray have an ongoing recollectedness centered on Mary; this is actually a particular expression of the christic mode.

      As prayer moves into a more contemplative dimension, an attribute of God such as mercy or power or wisdom or immanence may be the dominant contour of our religious awareness. The everywhereness of God held Edel Quinn, the young Irish envoy for the Legion of Mary in Africa. What may seem like a metaphysical approach to God moves one deeper into Christian mysteries, now seen radiant with the properties of their eternal source.

      Some favored people have within them such a deep sense of Presence that all they need is confirmation of what they already experience. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, before her entrance into the Carmel of Dijon, France, felt herself “dwelt in.” When questioned about this, the Dominican Père Iréné Vallée explained the theological basis of the indwelling. Once assured, Elizabeth longed to have him stop speaking so she could enter the silence within herself where the divine persons were drawing her.

      This inner world in which God speaks to the heart can never for the follower of Christ become a spiritual island cut off from the rest of the people of God. The Presence makes us hear the cry of the poor and the afflicted and urges us to take action in their behalf. It shows us how the tabernacle of the Lord is set up where suffering and injustice crush our brothers and sisters. Their undeserved pain continues his crucifixion. We go to the liturgy, gathering up all our human aspirations, and enact the Christian mysteries that elevate them to divine significance. Sacred texts proclaimed aloud in the assembly give life to our private pondering of scripture. The Eucharist shows how Presence is never mere stasis but nourishment that feeds for more abundant living. As those privileged to celebrate the Presence in such sacramental accessibility, we are fortified with bread and wine in order to take our riches and distribute them to others. The Presence I find in the congregation is on a single line with the interior sanctuary where I dwell alone with the Alone.

The Place of God's Presence in the Now of My Life

      If an infinite being is always present to me, where exactly is my God present? Right here, in my own experience, where I am today at this minute. No other moment of time is so available to me as the one registering on the clock.

      My past is baggage I'm carrying at this now. I can't live backwards. The past has helped shape this moment through the positive enrichments it brings. Or it tempers the impetuosity of this moment by warnings based on earlier misadventures.

      The future is a shadowy figure on a horizon I may never meet. To celebrate the present is to have confidence in its possibilities to flow into that future, to be glad for what can become. Still, all the days ahead that I promise to myself and to others are a tricky investment. I bankrupt my now if I pour out too much of its solid substance on a fragile perhaps. This now gives me surest contact with God. To embrace the Lord is to embrace this moment with its content of pain or joy, failure or success, deprivation or fulness.

      I have to begin by admitting where I am even if I ask the Lord to assist me to emerge from it. Sometimes all I can say is “Lord, this is my situation. It's a mess. I'm held by chains that got fastened to me before I realized the locks were clicking. I believe in your power to free me.” No prison - psychic, emotional, or spiritual - can bar the Presence from such a plea.

    That which keeps the chains on is refusing to acknowledge what my own experience really is -or deciding God is too far away, too remote to care about it. The deepest deception is to tell myself. God can't handle this. Then I say no to the power of the almighty. I set up my inadequacies as stronger than God's willingness or ability to deal with them. Few stay away from the Presence because of pride. What holds me back is the attitude, close to despair, that an omnipotent sanctifier cannot sanctify me.

      Failure in hope produces a paralysis in praying. I cower and turn away when the Presence overshadows me. The hell I make for myself denies the strength of the Presence to redeem my particular misery. That very feeling of hopelessness, however, can be turned into the cry of prayer reaching out to the Presence. 'Where could I go to escape your spirit? Where could I flee from your presence? If I asked darkness to cover me, and light to become night around me, that darkness would not be dark to you? (Ps. 139:7;11,12).

      For some people, waking from slumber to awareness of the Presence is through delight. For others, the awakening is by the way of pain. A group of Catholics, newly returned to the church after many years away, told how they were gently nudged or thrust almost violently into awareness.

     “It was the birth of my first child.”

     “My favorite brother was paralyzed in an accident. I had to stop and ponder what life is all about.”

    “My mother was told she had incurable cancer and she said. 'God's will be done.' I was angry at her for saying that. But I watched her struggle and find peace in those words.”

     “I walked to work one morning depressed at another day of rain. As I turned the corner, the sun broke through and lit up a trash can. Yes, a trash can! All that day, it was as if God's light enfolded me.”

      Joy or sorrow, whatever mood I'm in, my God is there with me. The utter availability of the Presence means it is infinitely able to adjust to me and to the limitations of my affectivity. I don't wait for a time when I feel better about myself.

      Now is the sacred moment. If I waste it, I lose that particular meeting with the Lord. To postpone the divine encounter until I'm more dressed up spiritually is to let this now slip away. I go in rags or in well-mended garments. In either case, the now is for transformation and for putting on the Lord Jesus.

Timelessness and the Now of the Presence

      In the eternal now there is no before or after. Everything is contained in simultaneous fulness. Our temporal nows, on the other hand, are mere threads in the ongoing fabric of time. Yet we have nothing else to weave with. In every prayer, we interlace the temporal strands of our life with consciousness of God as the eternally present one. When prayer develops, the immediacy of the everlasting penetrates the onward succession of one hour to the next.

      The eternal begins more and more to underlie our perceptions as we go about the tasks of each day. Deepening recollection takes us into this almost-timelessness where the temporal fragmentation of separate events becomes absorbed in wholeness. More and more, the unchanging radiance of the Presence shines everywhere and in everything: differentiation is all harmony, not discordant in its separateness.

      Exalted mystical experience moves us out of time and space altogether. Then we are translated into an oblivion of earthly existence while our inward attention is fastened to the divine Presence. This cannot last for long, but afterwards our perceptual antennae are much more attuned to what is unending. Mystical union of this kind is the prayer of Presence carried to its fullest experiential development. However, it may not be more valuable than other forms of God-aware- ness that keep to an ordinary and even and level. Faith and hope in the Presence always give a foretaste, slight but real, of what awaits forever.

      Mystical experience offers an inebriating draught that lifts our intuitive faculties to an all-absorbing alertness fixed on total being. But without such intoxication, we trudge along the dusty paths of everyday life and find the Presence as surely. In fact, that plodding pedestrian way doesn't have the particular risks and dangers of the mountain pinnacle.

      It is God's choice, not ours, whether the Lord meets us on the privileged heights or only on the well-marked paths of the commonplace. Our peace comes from accepting and rejoicing in whatever way the Presence is communicated. Peaks and valleys are equally graced and can yield the same deep wisdom about God.

      Still, the mystics do us a great service in sharing the unique splendor of the numinous encounter granted to them. They show us aspects of the Presence that are often veiled to travelers along ordinary roads.

The Dynamism of the Presence

      Mystical accounts in describing the Presence use untame words to convey how divine reality bursts through every category. "Wilderness” and “desert” and "abyss" are not stark terms to frighten but to take us away from the cozy God we feel too much at ease with. When Meister Eckhart speaks of the Godhead beyond God, he wants to shake us from an intimacy with God that domesticates the Lord to a too familiar orbit.

      Prayer teaches us how inadequate our ideas of God are. The Presence ultimately pushes us beyond intellectual concepts that cannot define the Lord. We move into the wordless silence of adoration. While thinking can take us only so far in prayer - and it is a necessary beginning of contact -love must propel our praying at all stages. Otherwise there is no real prayer.

      The love that reaches to the Presence expresses itself in two ways. Sometimes it is the love of fulfillment when we say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” But often, very often, it is the love of longing. “O God, you are my God whom I seek. For you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts” (Ps. 63:1).

      The primacy of the heart for prayer is based on the essential nature of our God. This Lord is no uninterested primal force. The deepest mystery of our prayer relationship is that God always yearns for us. This divine seeking is continual. unremitting. The penetration of the Presence through my whole being makes for a relationship that has no appropriate analogy in the rest of my experience. Such power comes to enlarge my capacities, not to reduce God to measurements I can be more comfortable with.

      The dynamism of the Presence takes me to depths of profound peace, blissful or dry, but I cannot use it as a quiet refuge for tranquil inertia. It creates the energy in me to meet its demands.

      Its first blessing is to enlighten me about who God is and who I am. Gently at first, it searches out my treacheries, my self-deceptions, my compromises. Its ray begins to pierce the carefully woven web of my illusions. Illumination always gives me the strength to accept this revelation of myself. The Presence is moderate and gradual in its action.

      Later it may seem the pressure of greater enlightenment is blowing out my psychic circuits. The Presence weighs upon me in heavy darkness. Only longing tells me I am praying at all. The Presence is experienced as the one-not-here. This is the paradox of Presence calling to my innermost attention in the terrible purification of felt absence. “ When my soul is downcast within me, I think of you ... Let me say to God my rock, ‘ Why do you forget me?’” (Ps. 42:6,9).

Presence and the Image of God

      The eternal artisan is no haphazard craftsman. In creating me, God shapes me with loving precision to the divine image. God-likeness permeates me wholly as I am now. It is also the basis for further divinization. My substance is never foreign matter, alien to the divine. Radical kinship with God exists from my conception. The Presence in seeking me seeks for its own.

      And I, carrying within me the outline of divine beauty, am drawn irresistibly to the infinite Original. As I respond to the Presence, I become more at-home with my own being. God created man in the image of himself; in the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).

      In the Presence I find my native land. The abyss of my self-hood, bearing features of the Lord, sinks into the abyss of the divine nature. "Deep is calling to deep”( Ps. 42:7). Glorification in transforming union with God is my destiny.

     “And we with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect, this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Sister Margaret Dorgan, D.C.M., is a member of a small contemplative community in Maine.

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