“People see only the flat surface. Their vision is two-dimensional and fixed to the ground. When you live a supernatural life, God will give you the third dimension: height, and with it perspective, weight, and volume.”
—St. Josemaría Escrivá
On Monday evenings, between dropping off one child at practice and picking up another, I have a window of opportunity to stop by a church to pray. I don’t take advantage of this opportunity often enough, but a few months ago, I decided to stop and spend some time in prayer. When I pulled up to the chapel, I happily discovered that no one else was there. I entered, knelt down, and began to pray.
Light from the fading sun was streaming through the stained-glass windows, illuminating a large painting on the wall that depicted the Flight Into Egypt. With statues of the saints standing by and a hauntingly beautiful crucifix above the altar, there was plenty to keep my eyes on while I prayed. The chapel was quiet—so quiet that I could hear my own thoughts. (Except I was sick of hearing those). I longed to have some kind of communication from God. I sat in silence for a while but heard nothing.
Keeping my gaze on the painting of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I began to say a rosary. With each Hail Mary, I pressed harder on the beads, rolling them between my fingers in an attempt to stay focused. Yet, interiorly, I felt nothing at all. Hoping to ward off distractions, I shifted my position; first kneeling—then sitting—then kneeling again. I finished the rosary and then spoke to God about the many things that were on my mind, asking Him for help with a particular struggle I was having. I shared with Him all the people and situations I wished to pray for. But I felt as if God were distant and remote.
Eventually, I sat back in the pew and stared at the crucifix. Not sure what I was hoping for— some perception maybe; some sense of something from God. I squinted my eyes so that I couldn’t see anything except Christ on the cross. I sat there for what seemed like a long time. When I finally checked my phone, I realized that I only had a few minutes to pick up my son, so I rose from the pew. I dipped my fingers in the holy water, made the Sign of the Cross, and left the chapel.
Why Don't We Always Feel the Presence of God
There are times when I talk to friends who appear to be closely connected with God, or when I read about the saints, who, in their lifetimes, seemed to have a direct pathway to Our Lord—and I feel discouraged. I, too, wish to feel the presence of God; I long to know His will. The beautiful words from Scripture are often on my soul: “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.” (Psalm 57:7)
So where are you, Lord?
I know the importance of a brave and ready heart. With three sons in the military, I have come to understand that bravery isn’t something that just happens. It is developed through training and practice and hard work. Almost two years ago our oldest, a navy pilot, was deployed for seven months to the Persian Gulf. During that time he and his squadron, as well as the entire crew on the aircraft carrier, were engaged in daily airstrikes against their targets. But even before the official deployment, they trained for months, completing “work-ups” for their specific mission.
It occurred to me that spiritual bravery is also developed over time. It takes time to foster and to develop the interior strength that eventually helps to develop a kind of spiritual fortitude. We are called to have a heart that is brave and ready, yet we can only do this when we fully surrender.
“There’s no room for idleness or complacency in trustful surrender. Self-abandonment requires an ‘active receptivity’ of the will; that is, a heart that’s courageous enough to deny its own inclinations and submit to the will of God from moment to moment.”
The fact is that nothing happens in the universe without God willing and allowing it; nothing occurs by chance in the whole course of our lives.
Conformity to the will of God is best described with the words "surrender" and "abandonment" which convey the complete denial of our self-will in order to experience God's greater and more perfect will. To surrender means to stop resisting, to submit and to hand over; to abandon means to leave all care and concern behind.
— Thy Will Be Done
We Cannot Always Rely On Our Emotions
While we might believe that surrender means a sort of passive inactivity, it involves activeness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we feel those promptings in palpable ways, but other times we barely perceive them at all. On those days our efforts at prayer feel futile. There are moments, like that day in the chapel, when I don't feel anything at all. It is good to remember that our emotions don’t always reveal what God is communicating. In fact, they can even get in the way of that communication. God is at work in me even when I am not aware of His presence. Even when I feel nothing at all.
In his book Time For God, Fr. Jacques Philippe explains that every time we call upon the Lord, we are in the midst of an encounter with God. He is always with us, even when it may feel as though He is far away:
“It is enormously liberating to know this, for sometimes we can do nothing at all in mental prayer. Really though, it doesn’t matter much, because even if we can’t do anything, God can. In fact, he is always acting in the depths of our soul, even if we don’t realize it.”
Just as those in the military prepare and draw on what they know to stand ready and be courageous, we draw on what we know about God, and on His grace given to us in so many moments every day. Each time I participate in the Sacraments; each time I pray and fast; each and every struggle—whether big or small—offered to God, is an encounter with Him. Time with Our Lord is never wasted time. While I may not feel His presence, God promises that when we call upon Him, He is there: “But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him; if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29).