This weekend at Mass we sang my favorite hymn, I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.* It evoked many joyous memories of when I first learned this song. I was in high school at the time and had joined a prayer group made up of people with whom I had come to enjoy spending time. I love the hymn not just for the good memories, but also because it has a lovely melody and the lyrics express the desire of my heart, to one day be face to face with Jesus and to see Him as He is. This time the beginning of the second verse was what really grabbed me: "I want to see the brightness of God." I think at the deepest level every one of us desires to see the light of God, that which is His real essence and being. One day we shall see this and when that day comes we will be in the joy of Heaven.
Last week I wrote about the mystics who have had mysterious intimacy with God such that they are so deeply in His presence that it almost goes beyond words to even begin to describe the experience. For them, as Adrienne von Speyr put it, heaven opens and they have an experience of union with God. There are also those who have had a vision or have seen an apparition, such as St. Bernadette who had a series of visitations by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes and was given messages for all the faithful. Those experiences are public revelations meant for the entire world because God is trying to get a message across to us; the authentic ones are always consistent with the Scriptures and our faith. Private revelations are those meant for an individual to help that one on his or her faith journey. Why God gives some people the gift of mystical experience or deep prayer experiences and seems not to give that to others is a mystery.
I believe that all of us are not only capable of having such personal experience of the presence of God, (many of the great saints attest to this, I might add), but I also think we do have them. The issue is that we do not recognize the experience. Not all experience of God is so momentous that it rocks us to our core, or is utterly life changing or is something like seeing a vision. Therefore we miss the gentle hand of God when He is very deeply present to us in the ordinary. We also think we are not worthy of any kind of revelation, (though we may secretly desire it), and so we discount that it could ever happen to us. It just seems too special for us to have something like that take place.
God does break through to all of us and so I would like to suggest that we can experience the presence of God in our daily lives if we trust that it is there and open ourselves to see it. The first thing we need is the gift of faith, which is given to us in Baptism. Rather than looking for heaven to open in a radical way, we need to trust that heaven opens in the little things that happen around us. When we experience something that touches our heart, an unexpected touch of love for example, heaven is opening. We simply need to recognize it as such. If we have a chance encounter on the street in which we are moved by kindness, heaven is opening in a new way. Or if we observe something very beautiful, heaven is opening to us. These encounters are brief, but our hearts are moved.
One such way of experiencing heaven opening is to pray with an icon. If mysticism is the opened heaven then I believe icons are mystical in nature since they pull us into God’s gaze. Praying with an icon is not simply standing in awe of great artwork. Rather it is an attitude of silent prayer which we enter into as we gaze upon the image in front of us. We allow the symbols of the icon to speak to us just as we do when we pray with a crucifix or any other holy item. We know that the icon acts as a conduit for our prayer and we enter into it as a way of entering into the presence of the holy. Remember, the subjects in an icon are “standing” in the mystery of God. They are not meant to be realistic in the sense of a portrait. Icons are filled with symbolism and mystery because they are calling us into an encounter with God through the images on the wood. We are meant to gaze upon them and let them draw us in.
God is also present in creation, in all that is around us, which is an icon insofar as creation reflects the image of God. God says through the prophet Jeremiah: “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24). God is indicating that His presence and His glory are everywhere. It is important for us to ask God for the ability to have a sense of His presence in our daily lives. He seeks us more than we seek Him, and therefore He will be happy to let us know He is there. He assures us that if we seek Him we will find Him. (Jeremiah 29:13) The key is to expect Him and to seek Him, and then to be open to God’s creativity in showing us His presence. Often the holy comes in surprising ways.
Heaven opens through the love of another person. When we give love and share love we experience a bit of the presence of God who is Love. This is heaven opening because love transforms us. Mutual love fills us with joy and fills our heart. Love also allows us to face that which is most difficult because we know we are not alone. We most often seek God’s presence when we are in suffering or in some sort of dire strait. We do not always get what we ask for when we seek a preferred outcome in such circumstances. But that does not mean that God was not present. Suffering is a mystery and so is the plan of God. But that does not mean that God is not present to us when we are in the midst of pain. Just as He was present to His own Son, Jesus, when He went through His Passion and death, and just as there was a plan in all of that, so, too, He is present with us. What is important is to trust that He is there and to accept whatever grace He gives us to persevere, as well as the comfort of His love. This is the most challenging experience we can have because when we are in pain it is difficult to be open to His presence.
If we have ever had the smallest of consolations, even the most brief sense that God was with us, we need to commit it to memory so that we can remember it in times of trouble. It is important to learn to see signs of heaven around us so that we always remember that we are not alone. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21) which means that it is not off in some faraway place up in the sky. It is within us and all around us. The forces of sin and evil want us to forget that. They want us to fail to notice God’s presence so that we feel abandoned. Therefore we need to cry out to the Holy Spirit and ask for the graces we need so that we do not lose sight of the Kingdom within and around us.
Therefore we need to look for the brightness of God all around us. We do not have to wait to be in Heaven to get a glimpse of the beauty and wonder of God. All we need to do is ask for the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Every time we have an encounter with love we are seeing the brightness of God. That does not mean God is not present in the dark. Oh yes, He is there also, waiting to meet us in mystery and to bring His light to that which is without it. But in the light of day we can also encounter heaven opening to us. “I want to see the brightness of God. I want to look at Jesus.”*
Let us ask for the grace to have awareness of the presence of God! May we have the eyes to see the brightness of God in our world and in our prayer! May we have the courage to bring the brightness of God to one another! May we have the faith to know we are in the presence of God when we least feel it! May the brightness of God bring us joy and peace! And may the presence of God be our desire and our goal! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light by Kathleen Thomerson
The photos are mine. Both were taken in South Dakota. The first is a sunset over the Badlands and the photo at the end of the entry is an aspen by a stream. The second photo made me think of the burning bush, an example of the brightness of God.
All of the icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is Mother of God Light in All Darkness and it can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/mother-of-god-gallery/product/174-mother-of-god-light-in-all-darkness
The second is Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/mother-of-god-gallery/product/168-mary-most-holy-mother-of-all-nations
The third is Holy Passion Bearer Mychal Judge and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/299-holy-passion-bearer-mychal-judge
You can purchase plaques, cards, and giclee prints, as well as other icons and images from the many, many works of Fr. Bill McNichols. With Christmas coming in two months it is a good time to think about getting a special gift for someone, or maybe for yourself. You can access his webpage through any of the above links or simply go to www.fatherbill.org.
Remember, I do not get any remuneration or any other benefit from promoting the work of Fr. Bill. I simply get the joy of sharing the treasure that is his work.
Heart Speaks to Heart