God’s grace: always before us and after us
The collect (opening prayer) for Mass for the 28th Week of Ordinary Time reads, “May Your grace, O Lord, we pray, at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works.” (The words at all times and always are especially important!) It is easy to ignore such prayers at Mass; they pass by quickly and are not always pronounced distinctly by the celebrant. Furthermore, we ourselves are often not focused enough for the prayers to penetrate our minds. These prayers, however, have profound lessons for us; in fact, they are meant to teach us to live as we pray. In any case, of course, God’s grace is always before us and after us, but we are not always aware of it; so the prayer can help us to welcome the grace and respond to it. What a blessing it is to know that God’s grace, His very life, surrounds us always and beckons us to draw near to Him! What a blessing it is that God ever seeks to awaken us to that grace, drowsy though we often may be! Psalm 139 beautifully expounds on this pervasive presence: “O where can I go from Your spirit, or where can I flee from Your face? If I climb the heavens, You are there, If I lie in the grave, you are there” (Ps 139: 7-8). It seems almost too good to be true that God’s tenderly caring presence surrounds us and that, along with His presence, He offers us a multitude of benefits. If only we would be ready for them!
God’s presence sometimes manifest
Sometimes it is relatively easy to recognize God’s presence and activity, at least in retrospect. Certain events would never go so well if it were not for His guidance. In September I underwent eye surgery in Mercy Hospital, about an hour away from home. I had to be at the hospital by 5:30 A.M.; so my driver and I decided to set out at 4:00 A.M. It was a true grace that I awoke particularly early that morning (I do not use an alarm) and was able to pray Vigils and Lauds before we embarked on the trip. It was a grace, too, that we found the right hospital, especially since the doctor’s office had mailed me directions to a different hospital! Other genuine graces were evident in my being called in on time (7:30 A.M.) from the waiting room, in my being given warm blankets (the room for the surgery was cold!), in my receiving thoughtful explanations from the staff, in my feeling no pain, and in the surgery’s being successful. On top of it all, Br. Hugh and I arrived back at the Archabbey in time for Midday Prayer at 11:30. The summation of the details of the whole process could hardly leave any doubt that the Holy Spirit was guiding us and that God was present to help us to respond with praise and thanksgiving.
God’s presence in darker times
However, there are times when God seems distant or perhaps His presence is perceived as oppressive. When I return to my office after a few hours’ absence and find ten messages on my phone and see the huge pile of unopened mail on my desk, I am tempted to wonder why God does not give me some relief (or a few more hours) or heal my tendency to become anxious. When my goals for the day are shredded to pieces by unexpected interruptions, I am tempted to ask God why He leaves me in such disarray. When we have chronic health problems that show no signs of improvement, we may be tempted to worry about God’s apparent indifference. When we cannot resolve financial difficulties, we may tend to doubt God’s generous love. When our prayer feels dry and unfruitful for days or even for years, then we may feel, as Psalm 88 indicates, that “my one companion is darkness” (Ps 88:19). In reality, Psalm 88 provides a beautiful meditation for people who are not experiencing God’s presence but who wish to hang on to Him and not let go. By the very fact that the psalmist is praying to God throughout the psalm, it is clear that he never gives up hope. He begins, “Lord my God, I call for help by day; I cry at night before You” (verse 2); he prays all day and all night despite the darkness. He continues by questioning God and reminding Him that he would like to proclaim His wonders but is hampered by the forces of death: “Will You work Your wonders for the dead? Will the shades stand and praise You? Will Your love be told in the grave or Your faithfulness among the dead?” (verses 11-12). He is frustrated that God seems to reject him and hide His face (verse 15) and that He seems even to “sweep down upon me” like an enemy (verse 17). In all this there is the hidden grace that keeps the psalmist communicating His misery to God and apparently hoping that God will ultimately intervene, rescue him, and embrace him anew in His way and His time.
Insights from the Holy Rule
One might say that it is a specialty of Benedictines to seek God’s presence always and everywhere. Other spiritualities may emphasize certain ministries or devotions, but the way of St. Benedict is based on being attentive to Christ in every situation and responding to His presence ever more faithfully. The whole Rule challenges us to “believe that the divine presence is everywhere” (19:1), but we are to be especially attentive to His presence “when we celebrate the divine office” (19:5). Remembering that we are being watched - lovingly - by God, we must “consider … how we ought to behave in the presence of God and His angels” (19:6). The living, active presence of God is to affect our thoughts, our words, and our behavior. The whole monastery is established as “a school for the Lord’s service” (Prol: 45). The abbot, in particular, is to be mindful of God’s presence and of His call to serve in the name of Christ; he “must always remember what he is and remember what he is called [“abba,” father, representative of Christ], aware that more will be expected of a man to whom more has been entrusted” (RB 2:30; cf. Lk 12:48). The cellarer and the monks whom he serves are to remember that the monastery is “the house of God,” in which no one should be deliberately “disquieted on distressed” (31:19). Nurturing a peaceful atmosphere in the community contributes to each individual’s peace of mind and heart and thus also to his capacity to be aware of God’s presence. Chapter 22, on the “the sleeping arrangements of the monks,” also has some provisions regarding awareness of God’s presence. St. Benedict prescribes that “a lamp must be kept burning in the room [where the monks slept] until morning” (22:4). Although the lamp may very well have had a practical purpose, it may also symbolize the challenge to live in the light of Christ even during the night, even when we are asleep. This notion is reinforced by the provision that the monks “always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given” (22:6) and then “hasten to arrive at the Work of God” (22:6). Since Christ is most especially present at the Divine Office (Work of God), we might see rising in the morning as a wonderful opportunity to encounter Christ anew. We, the Church, His bride, hasten to meet Christ the Bridegroom where He is most likely to be present. Surely, then, whatever our physical and emotional disposition might be, we ought to get up with much joy and good zeal. A wedding feast awaits us!
God’s presence calling us to obedience
Furthermore, living in God’s presence cannot be separated from the call to obedience. God is present to us not so that we might merely admire Him from afar in a static way, but so that He might transform us in His love and draw us into communion with Himself. Encountering God requires of us that we respond in faith and that we eagerly return His love. We are called each day to enter into “the battle of holy obedience” (Prol: 40) and to “run and do now what will profit us forever” (Prol: 44). The strictness of Christian life and of life according to the Rule is meant to help us “progress in this way of life and in faith” (Prol: 49). Since the abbot is to represent Christ in the monastery, he has an obligation to teach and command only in harmony with the Lord’s instructions, and the monks are obligated to receive his commands “like the leaven of divine justice” (RB 2:5) which permeates their minds. Encountering Christ always and everywhere requires that the disciple always be ready to obey and, if necessary, to change his course of action. Even when our bodies are tired and our minds feel burned-out, we must, with the help of God’s grace and of our fellow Christians, rise to the occasion of welcoming Our Lord’s loving command. Just as the monks “quietly encourage each other” (22:8) to arrive at the Work of God on time (especially because some tend to be sleepy), so we must strive as family and community to assist one another to be where we are called to be, to be fully present to what we are doing, and to abide intentionally in the presence of God.
Peace as the disposition for living in God’s presence
The communal dimension of living in God’s presence can be summarized by the word “peace.” When we have a peaceful atmosphere in the house, the members of the household will have more time and energy to be aware of God’s graces. St. Benedict urges his monks, “’Let peace be your quest and aim’” (Ps 34:15; RB Prol: 17). Disputes are to be settled quickly; “if you have a dispute with someone,” St. Benedict says, “make peace with him before the sun goes down” (RB 4:73). Part of this work of establishing peace is to make sure that goods are distributed according to need. When goods are thus given out and the monks strive to avoid a sense of self-importance (because they receive more) and a sense of distress (because they need less and receive less), then it is likely that “all the members will be at peace” (RB 34:6). Having an atmosphere of peace does not, of course, mean that things never go wrong. However, if we learn to bear our crosses cheerfully, if we avoid taking out our miseries on others, and if we refrain from murmuring, then we are doing our part to establish the peace that will help others to recognize God’s presence; and we ourselves will have greater peace in our own hearts.
Practical Responses for Oblates
What are some practical measures that may help to establish the individual and communal peace that contributes to living constantly in God’s presence? For one thing, we must begin where we are; most of us, I am guessing, probably can admit that we do a rather poor job of living intentionally in God’s presence for more than a few fleeting moments each day. If we are honest, poor, and humble about the matter, God will provide us with many graces to do better. We might begin with the Divine Office (and, of course, if we are Catholic, with the Mass, especially if we attend daily Mass). In reflecting on RB 19, we might ask ourselves such questions as: “How can we be more attentive at public worship?” and “How ‘ought [we] to behave in the presence of God and His angels’” (RB 19:2)? Whatever weariness or distractions may beset us, we can strive to be as attentive as possible. We can open ourselves to God’s presence with our voices by the care and good zeal with which we recite or sing. (We should be especially conscious of others in communal worship and strive relentlessly to be with the others who are worshiping. Let us not be individualists who stick out!) We might need to keep pulling our minds away from distractions so that they might be “in harmony with our voices” (19:7). Praying the Mass and the Divine Office well is a healthy practice for living in the divine presence always and everywhere. It is a goal to be achieved not without much struggle!
One can summarize the ultimate aim of Christian life as “[praying] always without growing weary” (Lk 18:10). Of course, we cannot say prayers always lest we never get anything else done! Still, we can aim to “pray always” by living in a Christ-centered way based on gratitude for what He has done for us in His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Almost every preface of the Mass includes the phrase, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give You thanks, Father most holy.” This exhortation, occurring shortly before the consecration of bread and wine to become Our Lord’s Body and Blood, implies that we should relentlessly seek to live in thanks and praise and in accord with God’s plan for us and not by self-centered impulses. When we are working, we can focus wholeheartedly on what we are doing and do it for God’s glory. (cf. RB 57:9.) When we are speaking with others, we can be especially attentive to what they say; we encounter Christ when we listen well and seek not to dominate conversations. When we awaken in the morning, we can hasten to pray as soon as possible and resolve to keep with us throughout the day a word or phrase that will help to unite us with God. When we go to bed, we can bring with us a brief phrase from Scripture or a short prayer or the name of Jesus as we sink into our pillow; thus we can strive to live in God’s presence even during our sleep. Little by little, we should and can learn to keep ourselves alert to God’s presence and available to receive His wonderful surprises, whether pleasant or unpleasant. God very much desires our response of love to His loving initiatives so that He may more easily draw us closer to Himself.
Conclusion: life in God’s presence as the way to heaven
The responsory for the First Vespers of All Saints Day includes the phrase, “The just shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord.” It is indeed our true joy to live in God’s presence, for that is what we shall be doing in eternity. Perhaps the word “presence” is not dynamic enough to express the wonderful and exciting nature of living in communion with God for eternity. It is the same when we pray that the souls of our departed ones “rest in peace.” The word “rest” may not seem very enticing. As I grow older, however, and feel more than ever the burdens of not being able to cope with my work and other expectations, I more and more long for “rest” from all the turmoil of this world - and of my own mind. Just as being securely and eternally in God’s presence will be far more delightful and appealing (with our purified senses) than anything we can imagine on this earth, so will the eternal “rest” involve not only freedom from earthly turmoil but also the fullness of joy that is implied by Sabbath rest. It will be our joy to worship God eternally with all the angels and saints. It will be our joy to gaze at the throne of the Lamb with shouts of thanks and praise. It will be our joy endlessly to abide in Christ’s peace and to remain ever assured of His victory as we proclaim Him worthy “’to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing’” (Rev 5:12). Amazingly, in His love for us He welcomes us to share in these infinite riches. Let us, then, practice now for this eternal “rest” by striving with all our might to acknowledge His grace-filled presence, going before us and following after us even amid our very ordinary - and sometimes traumatic - lives on earth.
In the peace of Christ and St. Benedict,
Fr. Donald S. Raila, O.S.B.,
Director of Oblates
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