The sensory experience of God's presence is a grace -- but why do some experience it and others don’t?
Invaded by a warm feeling, tears gushing forth, a voice that speaks very distinctly … Some seem to feel, sometimes very intensely, the presence of God. “In an instant my heart was touched and I believed. I believed … in such an upheaval of my being … that since then … all reasoning … has not been able to shake my faith,” writes Paul Claudel.
These sensory experiences can sow confusion in the hearts of those who have never experienced them. “Doesn’t God care about me? Don’t I know how to pray, how to love Him? Am I on the wrong path?”
“No,” reassures Fr. Matthew Aine, author of Prière de ne pas déranger: Petit manuel pour converser avec Dieu (Please Do Not Disturb: A Short Handbook for Conversing with God). “The emotional experience is not an obligatory passage for getting close to God. We can very well join Him in a more intellectual or more diffuse experience of faith, like a certainty that touches the depths of our soul.”
What is it to “feel” God’s presence? It is a gift, a mercy sent by God to help us get closer to Him. St. Francis de Sales speaks of a “a hint of heavenly delights to come” given by God to those who “enter into his service, to encourage them in the pursuit of divine love.”
St. Augustine experienced this: “I found infinite gentleness in those early days in considering the depth of your plans for the salvation of men, and I could not tire of enjoying them. Oh, what emotion I felt, how many tears I shed,” he tells in Confessions (IX, 6).
But why do some receive these signs and others not?
This feeling is not without danger
“My God, deign to give me this continual feeling of your presence, of your presence in me and around me!” implored Charles de Foucauld. “There is no rational explanation,” says Father Matthew Aine. “It is a grace that has nothing to do with our dignity or our actions. We must not be jealous of those who receive it because it prevents us from seeing what we have received, because the Lord always wants us to receive his gift.” We must welcome it when it comes, because it stimulates our prayer and makes it easier, but it is not good to seek it.
All the more so since this feeling is not without risk. The risk is to stop there, not to go any further, or to abandon everything when we no longer feel anything. “Feeling becomes the unit of measure of God’s action, of his presence and closeness. All this is very sincere, but we become self-centered. The day when emotion is no longer there, we too quickly deduce that God is abandoning us,” warns Fr. Pierre-Hervé Grosjean in his book Donner sa vie (Giving Your Life). “Love is not about feeling. The sensory dimension, although it certainly is associated to love, is not the unmistakable sign of love. Love is an act of the will. The physical resonance is not the measure of our love, but rather the will. It is therefore necessary that we recognize the gratuitousness of love,” affirms Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine from the pulpit.
Aridness, an invitation sent by God
Thus, the sensory experience of God’s presence is meant to be surpassed. “What counts is to love Him not because we feel or because He gives us something, but because it is free. If we feel something, so much the better. If we feel nothing, so much the better, because we love God not for what we get out of it, but because it is Him and He gave His life for me,” adds Fr. Matthieu Aine.
It is similar as in conjugal love, where couples must learn to pass from burning passion to loving will. To stay firm in the storm, to say “I love you” whatever the temperature inside. To God, let us give without counting, Fr. Grosjean recommends: “Sometimes we will feel his presence, often it will be more arid. But it doesn’t matter! This is not the essential question and, above all, it does not really depend on us. What depends on us is to be there. The value of our prayer no longer depends on how we feel, but on our fidelity.”
This aridness, fairly uncommon, unless it is the consequence of our indifference, is in reality an invitation sent by God to strengthen our faith. “In a bitter experience, something greater is given to us,” assures Fr. Matthew Aine. St. Bonaventure explained it very well. Deprived of sensory graces, we must act with a firmer will, “so love becomes stronger.” And in this way we learn to surrender ourselves into the hands of God, to trust Him totally.
Discovering God’s presence in yourself in a way that is deeper than just feeling
Feelings, as well as the absence of feelings, do not allow us to accurately measure our closeness to God. Feeling is always inferior to the true action of God in us. We perceive only a tiny part of it. It is like a wave in an ocean, as Fr. Matthieu Aine illustrates, “There can be a 20-meter drop, but compared to the size of the ocean, it is nothing.” And it is not because we feel nothing that God is no longer close to us. “It is the devil who makes the insinuation, as treacherous as it is suggestive, that God has left you alone,” warns Fr. Matthew Aine, who invites us “to discover the presence of the Lord in us in a way that is more interior than what we can physically feel.”
For the Jesuits, this is the object of re-reading and the covenant prayer at the end of the day: At what point did God come into my life today? A difficult decoding exercise that a priest can help us to carry out.
Let’s not forget that God is there, in us, all the time, every moment, whether we feel it physically or not. “You were inside me and I didn’t know it!” wrote St. Augustine.