When it comes to feeling God’s presence, we sometimes focus on the ways we experience God in the big emotional moments of our life where it’s a deep felt encounter. I’ve often heard people talk nostalgically of one or two “big” moments encountering God on a retreat as a teenager or a profound experience of God’s warmth and closeness in prayer from years ago. These are the moments when we may feel on fire with the love of God. I myself often remember times in the past when God seemed to touch my heart so easily through scripture and I long to return to that time. When we focus just on these moments scattered throughout our life it can seem that God doesn’t often come very close.
But God encounters us in the everyday! Toward the end of his life St Ignatius said “Whenever he wished, at whatever hour, he could find God.” At any moment he could consciously be aware of the peace and goodness of God residing always and everywhere, in his heart and in the world around him. Ignatius’ primary way of encountering this ever-present God is in God’s gifts, specifically in four ways: God’s gifts to me (the things in my life), God’s self-giving to me, God’s labouring for me and sustaining me, and God’s unceasing giving nature. Gratitude is the lens that focuses our sights on God who is always near. Ignatius believed that love showed itself more in deeds than in words. God’s love-deeds are all around us. We just have to pause and look long enough to see them. And practising gratitude helps us see the Giver.
Walter Burghardt, SJ said that “Contemplation is a long loving look at the real.” We experience God not primarily in the profound moments of life—or what Ignatius might call extreme consolation—but in the real of our lives. We often highlight Ignatius’ profound moments of divine encounter, like his battle injury or his ecstatic moment at the River Cardoner. But Ignatius’ most formative moments were likely the nitty gritty times in his life that slowly shaped him and drew him toward this ever-present God: ministering to the poor in a hospital in Manresa, in deep reflection in the cave where he wrote his Spiritual Exercises, being turned away from the Holy Land, journeying as a pilgrim on a donkey, in the spiritual conversations he often had.
If we’ve had a dramatic spiritual experience we can feel let down when we don’t encounter the divine in the same way ever again. And our faith in God shifts to the realm of the philosophical. We think and theologise about God, and discount the real “un-profound” stuff of our lives. Ignatian spirituality seeks to move us from the philosophical to the experiential, to our lived experiences and feelings and relationships.
God in Bad Things
Now our lived experiences are not always wonderful. All of us experience suffering and challenge. But for Ignatius, the question is not, Is God present?, but How is God present? God is present in all things, even in things that seem bad. Here we must know the difference between this concept and pantheism, which sees that all things are God. If all things are God then it would make sense not to believe an ‘evil’ thing is God – that would make God evil. But panentheism says that all things are in God. In other words, God is present to all things and all things are present to God. God is most certainly present to that which suffers, that which is influenced by the power of evil. If God were not present to such bad things then how could God redeem them? How could we be redeemed?
Ignatius did not believe there was a place God could not be. There is no corner of God’s own creation that God is absent from. Because God is in all things.
Again, the question—as we look lovingly at the real of our lives—is How is God present? When you ask yourself this regularly, even practicing the Examen prayer or gratitude, the more you’ll notice the moments of God’s everyday presence. I notice it in a quiet moment at the breakfast table with my children, a walk through my neighbourhood, in a tasty lunch, in a moment where someone listens to me, and even in moments of grief and hopelessness—God is still there.
Begin a practice of daily gratitude and list the little gifts. One way is to pray the Examen daily.
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