Living in the Presence: Realizing Humanity

By Vilma Seelaus

First published in Spiritual Life Winter 1995

The BIBLICAL MESSAGE of God's intimate presence to human life situates the spirituality of the Carmelite mystics. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, Therese of the Child Jesus, and Elizabeth of the Trinity guide us by their writings to a deeper realization of God's desire to partner our earthly journey. These Carmelite mystics find support today from what might seem unlikely sources. As contemporary scientists penetrate the mystery of the universe, they offer penetrating insights for deeper human self-understanding. The interconnectedness of all reality, which physicists increasingly affirm, holds profound meaning for us humans who struggle for a better way to live on planet Earth.

The mystics, supported by the scientists, help us to see both the world of matter and the world of the human spirit as involved in a single creative process of transcendence. We and the universe around us are like partners in a cosmic dance. We live with the same inner rhythm that gracefully moves us toward self-transcendence. Thomas Berry shows this transcendence at work in the universe:

Hydrogen in the presence of some millions of degrees of heat emerges into helium. After the stars take shape as oceans of fire in the heavens, they go through a sequence of transformations. Some eventually explode into the stardust out of which the solar system and the earth take shape. Earth gives unique expression of itself …in the variety and splendor of living forms, until humans appear as the moment in which the unfolding universe becomes conscious of itself.1

Berry reminds us that we bear the universe in ourselves just as the universe bears us in itself. The two are totally present to each other and to that deeper mystery out of which both we and the cosmos have emerged.

In a fascinating book, The Presence of the Past, the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake explores the possibility that memory is inherent in nature. Previous structures of activity influence subsequent similar structures of activity through what Sheldrake call "morphic resonance." This presence of the past provides a kind of memory for the present structuring in nature.2 Sheldrake's theory, applied to human life, helps to show how significant is the quality of our human presence, both to one another and to the planet that sustains us.

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Present to God, Present to All Creation

Sheldrake's theory and the mystics' reminder that the presence to God is integral to cosmic and human presence suggest a question: Could it be that among humans the God-consciousness of one generation-that is, the extent to which they live consciously present to God and in graced presence to one another--fosters the God-consciousness of future generations through a kind of "morphic resonance" in the human spirit, and at the same time determines a higher quality of human presence to planet Earth? Is each one of us and our ability to be present to others and to the world that significant to the whole of human, even cosmic evolution?

As Sheldrake demonstrates in the evolutionary process, basic elements need each other for transformation to happen. Presence calls for presence. For us as humans, being related is part of what it means to be a person. We humans are the only ones on earth who can consciously live in the presence of God and who can determine the quality of our presence to one another and to the universe. Human presence, and therefore presence to God, can be loving or hostile, concerned or indifferent. It can be felt without its object being seen. Presence is more than proximity and need not involve verbal communication; silence is a powerful form of presence--whether intimate or hostile. Just as the universe becomes present to itself in conscious human reflection, we humans bring the universe to a greater self-transcendence by our infinite capacity for presence to God.

The self-transcendence of the universe, from inanimate to animate matter, from lower forms of life to self-reflecting humans, climaxes in mystical union of the soul with God. Union with God, with one another, and with the whole of God's creation is the meaning and end of human life. The human process of self-transcendence begins at birth and continues throughout life. However, when it comes to God, in spite of an infinite capacity for God, we soon come to a place of limit. We need conditioning for God. God does just this by offering the appropriate language for human/divine communication: the spiritual language of faith, hope, and love.

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Faith, Hope, and Love: Shift in Perception

Through faith, hope and love we move from the narrow space of human understanding into the divine Presence. A radical shift in perception occurs; we begin to see through the eyes of God. The transformed soul, writes John of the Cross, becomes conscious of how all creatures, earthly and heavenly, have their life, duration, and strength in God. The soul knows creatures through God and not God through creatures (Living Flame 4:5-7).3 Living in the presence of God opens the transcendent self to see all of life in God. Paradoxically, movement from the narrow space of self-centered understanding into the divine presence is one of self-emptying. The first task of God's awakening presence is to clear the clutter, to untangle attachments in order to create space for self-transcendence to happen. A painful re-visioning of God, of oneself, of others, and of the universe takes place as the divine presence dispels illusion and reflects to the human self its true identity in Christ. Christ becomes like a mirror to the soul. In Christ, our attachments--all that is out of harmony with the divine-- are starkly and painfully revealed.

Self-emptying is letting go of attachments, not placing our self-worth in anything less than God. Attachment to creatures creates an unreal inner world of power, control, and possession. We fill our emptiness with the illusion of our own importance separate from God. We then project outward the darkness and disorder that we cannot face within. We project this darkness onto the face and actions of others rather than acknowledge our own darkness. Such negative projection inevitably pollutes the environment of human interaction. It also obscures the face of God. Unfortunately, too often ours has been a hostile presence in our world as human greed over-consumes and destroys natural resources. Our human destiny, however, is to be conscious for the universe of God's abiding, creating, and compassionate Presence.

Deep layers of doubt and darkness assert themselves here, and the choice is between transformation or despair. The very meaning of life often comes into question as faith, hope, and love are purified and the soul prepared for union with God. During this process, our words about God tend to sound hollow. Demons of doubt become subtle and invasive. The deeper our faith, the stronger are our doubts, Can we really let ourselves believe beyond what our eyes can see and our ears can hear?

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God's Invitation in Scripture

The center of biblical faith is God's presence in our midst, inviting us to the "more" of life, to divine union. In the Genesis creation story, after creating the heavens and the earth, God leisurely walks with humans in the cool of the evening on tiny planet Earth. The message is: God companions the human journey. The Exodus marks Israel's mysterious call to acknowledge this reality: the One God who claims the universe will be present to the people wherever and whenever they invoke the divine name (Ex 19:6).

Elijah the prophet is the great biblical symbol of living in the Presence. Elijah is commanded to stand on the mountain "in the presence of Yahweh." In this familiar episode, after the tumult of nature comes the sound of a gentle breeze-of utmost silence, according to one translation. Elijah wraps his face in his mantle as he stands at the mouth of the cave (1 Kgs 19:11-13).

While intimately present to us, God eludes our grasp. God can never be domesticated, manipulated, or captured in figure or form. Job initially tries to do just that. He seeks the Presence for self-justification- an egocentric aim. Job shouts to God with indignation. In a climatic moment, the Lord thunders, "Where were you when I founded the earth?" (Jb 38:4). In the face of Yahweh's majestic speech, Job's attachment to his own acquittal dissolves. He moves from the narrow space of human understanding to see the universe dramatically unfold from God before his transformed vision. Like Elijah, Job enters into deep silence before the Presence, with his hand over his mouth.4

The Dwelling Place of God

The gospels further dramatize the meaning of God's presence among us. In the beginning of John's gospel (1:38-39), two of the Baptist's disciples follow Jesus. He turns around and questions them: "What are you looking for?" They respond, "Rabbi (which means Teacher), where do you stay?" "Come and see," says Jesus. John's entire gospel responds to that question. In the last supper discourse come the full disclosure. Jesus dwells in his Abba and his Abba dwells in him. Jesus is at home in God. Through the gift of the Spirit, we too become the place of God's indwelling. John of the Cross says it eloquently:

Oh, then soul, most beautiful among all creatures, so anxious to know the dwelling place of your Beloved so you may go in search of him, and be united with him, now we are telling you that you yourself are God's dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place. There is reason for you to be elated and joyful in seeing that all your good and hope is so close as to be within you, or better, that you cannot be without him. (Spiritual Canticle 1:7)

God, enfleshed in Jesus, has a permanent home in our midst and in our hearts. "Accordingly, she [the soul]," writes John of the Cross, is drawn and carried toward this good [the divine presence] more forcibly than any material object is pulled toward its center by gravity" (Canticle 11:4). To live in the presence of God is to be faithful to the exigency of our deepest self. We are being pulled toward God into the central dwelling place as if by gravity. To resist is to deny a basic truth of our human situation. John of the Cross writes:

It should be known, that God dwells secretly in all souls and is hidden in their substance, for otherwise they will not last. Yet there is a difference, a great difference, in God's dwelling in them. In some souls God dwells alone, and in others God does not dwell alone. Abiding in some, God is pleased; and in others, God is displeased. God lives in some as in his own house, commanding and ruling everything; and in others as though a stranger in a strange house… (Living Flame 4:14)

When we are estranged from God, we are estranged from ourselves and suffer the constriction of our own narrow self-understanding. With deep penetration into the human condition, John of the Cross makes the startlingly true psychological and spiritual observation: Glory that does not glorify becomes an intolerable burden (Living Flame 4:11).

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Invitation to Refocus

When the glory within us is repressed or denied we suffer because we are out of touch with our deepest reality. The burden of repressed glory is the plight of our materialistic American culture. Eric Sharp, in The Critic, describes it well:

I think a lot of people are frustrated because they were born into real life when they really want to live in beer commercials. In the commercials, everybody always has a good time doing exciting things, and nobody ever gets hurt, tired or has to clean up afterward. There are no drunks in the beer commercial, nobody ever seems to pay for anything, and it all lasts about 60 seconds, which is the apparent attention span of a large chunk of our population.5

For this reason an increasing number of people experience frustrated desire. Money does not match advertisement-stimulated wants. The effect is increasing dishonesty in business and stealing with the conviction that these things are our due; we owe it to ourselves to have them as the advertising world insists.

Is the American Dream an illusion - an attachment which deadens the American soul and which keeps us from true greatness as a nation? In this lean time, do we have the vision to see God inviting us to refocus the meaning of our lives on more secure realities? Inordinate desire and dishonest thinking cannot withstand the gaze of the divine presence. John of the Cross writes:

Attachment to a creature makes a person equal to that creature; the stronger the attachment, the closer is the likeness to the creature and the greater the equality, for love effects a likeness between the lover and the loved. (Ascent of Mt. Carmel 1, 4:3)

Attachments lessen our capacity for God by shrinking our souls to the limitations of our attachments. At the same time, our attachments, the very things that we cling to, are the stuff of God's transforming action as we suffer the self-emptying process. John of the Cross does not idealize suffering, but he does expose the gold hidden within the darkness, suffering, and constriction of an attached heart. An inner space is being cleared for God. Energy for transformation is right within the present dark chaotic moment. The darkness of the American scene- our attachment to material possessions- can be either the darkness of despair or the darkness before dawn, a dark womb ready to give birth to a new humanity.

In Christ Proclaimed, the theologian Jozep van Beeck argues "that every human concern is capable of becoming a name, a title for Jesus and can be integrated into our surrender to him. In this surrender, human concerns are…relieved of their inherent power, disarmed by poverty, not put down by violence. They can afford to stop asserting themselves with force since they have found their justification in Jesus Christ. They become capable of being given up, capable of being shared, and capable of being taken away (pp. 165-167)…The act of surrender…to Christ…is one in which human concerns are accepted and purified (p. 183)…In Christ they are both purified and put into perspective" (p. 185). From the horizon of Christ, we see the incompleteness of all that is human in relation to our total commitment to Christ. "These very concerns," concludes Van Beeck, "become the bearers of an unsuspected perspective and the grounds for confident hope" (p. 200).6

In the presence of Christ, every human concern bears unlimited potential for life and growth. Our spirit radiates outward, toward others and toward our life situation, the love of Christ we experience within. Without Christ, we project our own inner conflicts and the entanglement of our attachments. With penetrating psychological insight, John of the Cross exposes the process of human projection:

Such is the lowliness of our condition in this life; for we think others are like ourselves and we judge others according to what we ourselves are, since our judgment arises from within us and not outside us. Thus the thief thinks others also steal; and the lustful think others are lustful too; and the malicious think others also bear malice, their judgment stemming from their own malice, and the good think well of others, for their judgment flows from the goodness of their own thoughts…(Living Flame, 4:8)

According to Carl Jung, when projection occurs we are not longer objective; we persist in a state of distorted judgment. This is more easily seen in others than within ourselves. For Jung, individuation-coming to wholeness-means detachment from valuations, judgments, and emotional ties. Emotional ties are important to human beings, contends Jung, but they still contain projections, and it is essential to withdraw these projections in order to attain to oneself and to objectivity.

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Reflecting on his relationship with his wife, Jung sees emotional relationships as relationships of desire, tainted by coercion and constraint. Something is expected from the other person, and that makes the other person and ourselves unfree. Objectivity is obscured by the attraction of the emotional relationship; persons remain hidden, as it were, from each other. Jung believes that only through objective cognition is real coniunctio [joining together] possible.7 Coniunctio is what John of the Cross would describe as passing out of self to the Beloved (Spiritual Canticle 26:14). Like the self-emptying of Christ, the self disolves in love.

The initial human project is toward self-possession: being able to stand secure before the demands of others with the necessary emotional maturity and self-esteem. Self-possession, however, is often at the expense of others and can become the center of our deepest attachments. For integration to occur, self-possession must give way to self-surrender, to self emptying love.

Therese of Lisieux

A remarkable example of the movement from self-possesion to self-surrender, from an attachment to objectivity, and from the narrow space of human perception to the divine perspective is Therese of Lisieux. As a child, her security lay in pleasing others. She says of herself, "If Celine was unfortunate enough not to seem happy or surprised because of these little services, I became unhappy and proved it by my tears."8 Therese was held bound by her compelling need to be accepted and approved by those dear to her. Her emotional attachments were her undoing at this time.

On Christmas Eve, at the age of fourteen, a remarkable event occurs. Therese disengages from emotional bondage to the freedom of self-possession. Overhearing her father's words of annoyance at her childish ways, Therese forces back her tears and greets her father joyfully. She receives the grace to separate herself from the entanglement of her emotional attachments. She lets go of her need for her father's approval and moves into the freedom of self-possession: "On that night of light began the third period of my life, the most beautiful and most filled with grace from heaven" (p. 98). She withdraws the projection of her father as the place of her security and puts distance between her father's reaction and herself as a person. The experience gives objectivity to her perception; entangling self-pity naturally dissolves in the presence of her newly found inner security (pp. 97-99).

No longer possessed by touchiness and over-sensitivity to criticism, Therese is in possession of herself. She is ready for the next step: self-emptying in self-surrender to Christ. Within Therese is room for the double portion of love she so ardently desires. This very human experience of stepping out of childish ways becomes a title for Jesus: merciful love. In Carmel, Therese becomes increasingly free to give to others what love calls for. When Therese enters the monastery, from being the center of attention in her family she becomes the last in rank in Carmel and is treated without deference.

Therese, however, although only fifteen, already sees from the divine perspective. She truly loves those she finds difficult and she returns good for evil. In Carmel, she deals with the distressing behavior she encounters in others with an understanding heart. She focuses on the inner beauty of each person, the space where God dwells. Surrendering herself to Christ, Therese moves beyond the narrow space of human understanding to see others through the forgiving eyes of Christ. She sees each member of her community, especially the most troublesome, through the lens of compassionate love.

In Therese we find John of the Cross's description of the soul transformed in Wisdom:

For she [the soul] is so innocent that she does not understand evil, nor does she judge anything in a bad light. She will hear very evil things and see them with her own eyes and be unable to understand that they are so, since she does not have within herself the habit of evil by which to judge them; for God by means of the perfect habit of true wisdom, has destroyed her habitual imperfections and ignorances that include the evil of sin. (Spiritual Canticle 26:14)

What Therese projects outward is the fruit of her love affair with God. She sees everything through the eyes of love. The instinctive emotional reactions of envy, annoyance, antipathy, and even despair--which Therese continues to feel--do not become emotional entanglements and reactionary behavior. These feelings become for Therese the raw material for a deeper penetration into the reality of God's abiding, merciful presence to her struggle.

Beyond what annoys her in others, Therese-looking through the eyes of Christ--sees in her Sisters the pain and the burden of incompleteness that they carry, and it is that to which she responds. She sees the gold hidden in the disarray of her life situation, and God's indwelling Presence makes of Therese a channel of spiritual energy for future generations. Christ continues to feed multitudes with Therese's self-offering to merciful love. Her simple, insignificant life, like the few loaves and fish of the gospel story, demonstrates the power of living in the Presence. The past that was the human Therese is mysteriously present in our collective psyche as energy for love. Love, Therese's life projection, increases love within the inherited human memory. The energies of her life are with us, like a morphic resonance, creating an increased potential in us for self-transcendence through love.

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Our Legacy

The same holds for each one of us. When we die, our legacy is not the things we can enumerate in a will. The attitudes we communicate through life are what we leave for others. Will future generations be more prone toward violence because we project suspicion, anger, resentment, and hostility? Will our efforts to put love where there is no love enable humans and even the cosmos to find love, to leap forward in self-transcendence toward its ultimate fulfillment in God?

Indifference to God's abiding presence means indifference to the intricate web of relationships that characterizes the earth, its environment, and its human inhabitants. Indifference ruptures the thread of interrelatedness and leads to all forms of violence. It also issues in mindless technology that wreaks havoc upon planet Earth. When glory does not glorify, it becomes destructive energy.

Self-transcendence necessarily entails service and suffering. Those who entrust themselves to God are to that extent no longer appalled at the prospect of self-giving nor threatened by the evil that is inflicted upon them. Others elicit our compassion: we are not held back by overconcern with ourselves. As Father Mark reflects in Andre Brink's powerful novel Looking on Darkness, "If you remain true to your nature, you can always go further."9 The future of planet Earth depends on our going further into a deeper presence to God and a more compassionate presence to one another.

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1. Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990) pp. 132-133.

2. See Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (New York: Random House, 1988).

3. All citations of John of the Cross are taken from The Collected Works of John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., rev.ed. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991).

4. Samuel Terien in The Elusive Presence: Toward a Biblical Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) offers a fine development of Presence in Scripture.

5. The Critic, Winter, 1991, vol. 46, no. 2, p. 113.

6. Frans Jozep van Beeck, S.J., Christ Proclaimed: Christology as Rhetoric (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).

7. Carl C. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), pp.296-297.

8. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1976), p. 97.

9. Andre Brink, Looking on Darkness (New York: Morrow, 1974), p. 142.

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Carmel Today.....ARTICLES

Links...To Carmelite Information

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