The Presence of God – Knock Novena 19th August ’13.
“There is a season for everything, from a time for giving birth to a time for dying.”
And every conceivable time under heaven is listed in that beautiful passage from Scripture, it would seem. But the Celts, our ancestors, discovered one more.
It was the ‘thin time’!
One such ‘thin time’ was the pagan festival of Samhain, when the veil that separates us from the world of the supernatural was drawn aside and the spirits from ‘this other world’ roamed freely among us and we wore masks, in fear, to shield our identity.
The moment described in the Scripture passage just read, when the burning bush made Moses acutely aware of the presence of Yahweh and the holiness of the ground on which he walked, could also be called a ‘thin time’
And here in Knock, on the 21st August 1879, the gossamer veil, that shrouds our eyes from perceiving the Divine, was removed for a brief time, to reveal the unseen but ever present supernatural world ‘in which we live and move and have our being’.
For the prophets and mystics this world of the unseen was as real as the world of the senses. And poets too tried to bring this world beyond the veil to our awareness, opening the eyes of our souls to see, as Patrick Kavanagh observed, ‘beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God breathing his love on a cutaway bog!’
And sometimes are not our own hearts stirred to see the glory of God reflected in a raging sunset or are we not moved to express our tenuous hold on the gift of life when we see the first lambs in spring, praying: ’Go mbeirimid beo ag an am seo aris!’
But for us humans, as spiritual beings, an awareness of the presence of God and the supernatural should not be confined to an occasion of splendour or to a poetic moment or even to a divine intervention. It was a pagan poet that St. Paul quoted when he described God as the Presence in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’!
In fact the wonder about us human beings is not that we can become aware of the presence of God but that as spiritual beings, and especially as believers, we are not aware of His all prevailing presence, always. Isn’t that what Fr. Cavanagh said when Mary McLoughlin reported to him that our Lady was appearing at the gable.
‘Isn’t she always here!’
In the gospel just read, Christ promised his disciples that God would be with his Church always, not just in their deliberations and struggles but that ‘the Trinity would come and make their home in the depths of our human hearts!’ ‘Be still and know!’
Perhaps we are too busy ‘to be still and know that I am God.’ In our modern world we are bombarded with stimulations. There is much of Martha in us and little of Mary. We spend so much time worrying about the future, regretting the past or escaping the present that we often fail to live in the Now. And God is only encountered in the Now.
This malady of restlessness is recognised by the secular world. ‘Mindfulness’ courses are the flavour of the moment. They try to help us live in the Now, which links up with our religious tradition that the Presence of God is found only in the Now.
Finn McCumhail asked his companions one day to state what was the sweetest sound on earth. Some said it was the clash of the sword or the roar of the stag and others said it was the song of the thrust. ‘But what do you say is the sweetest sound?’ they asked.
”It is the music of what happens!” he replied.
‘The music of what happens!’ For the Christian, that is the Now in which we encounter God. The lively Faith of our grandparents allowed them ‘to hear the music of what happens’ in every task and event of their daily lives. As a child I thought it strange to hear my grandmother talking to herself from once she got up in the morning. Later in life I was to learn that she was talking to God. These people had a prayer or aspiration for every occasion. In the morning, the crowing of the cock proclaimed for them that the Son of the Virgin was risen: ‘Ta mac na hOighe slan!’ And at bedtime they quenched the candle with a whispered prayer: ‘May God never quench to light of heaven on us!’
The flora reminded them of God’s presence. ‘They saw his face in every flower’. The fuchsia was called ‘deorai De’, the ‘tears of God’ and many flowers, like the Marigold and Our Lady’s bedstraw spoke of Mary’s presence in their lives.
The saints were their companions. St. Brigid was a great woman to hold the cow steady when being milked out in the fields. ‘God bless the work!’ recognised the sacredness of labour and the soil. ‘Ag Criost an siol, ag Criost an Fomhair!’
The deep faith of our ancestors was lived within the ever-present mystery that is our redemption in Christ. God was especially present to them in their suffering, as the man from Partry, after a night of pain could remark: ‘Ba mho pais Chriost na e!’ ‘What was it compared with Christ’s passion for us?’
With faith in the Mystery of Christ comes our paradigm of hope, namely that ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again in glory’. That wide panorama of our hope was revealed so wonderfully in the apparition of Knock, depicted here in this beautiful tapestry. It is within the ambience of that Mystery that we, as individuals and with others, ‘live and move and have our being’.
We may sometimes feel lost, not knowing where we are in God’s plan. But ‘all pathways by his feet are worn!’ We may be like the man I encountered once on that last steep assent on Croagh Patrick. As he struggled he prayed his prayer of the Now. “Mother of God!” he said. “What brought me here?” Those descending the mountain assured him, that like God, his goal was, ‘just around the corner!’
The poet tried to capture that panorama of hope within which we, as Christians live. “I see his blood upon the rose and in the stars the glory of his eyes. His body gleams amid the eternal snows, his tears fall from the skies!..His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea, his crown of thorns is twined with every thorn, his cross is every tree!”
For Moses, the burning bush was charged with the Presence of God. But every rosebush can be aflame as a symbol of God’s loving presence and every wave in the ever- beating sea is a ‘tonn cliona na trocaire’, ‘a mighty wave of mercy’, if we listen.
If we but listen! ‘Be still and know that I am God’. It is vital that we find God within,
for if he is not found indwelling within us he will not be found at all. We are told:
‘You will not find God by going to Rome if you have not found Him first at home’!
We have to make efforts to be able to listen to ‘the music of what happens’, to be aware of his Presence within us and around us! It is not easy.
I am reminded of an occasion during a day of silent prayer that I was conducting. Among the participants was a woman who ‘was not a happy camper’ as she had been forced to do the retreat by her sister. In the morning, after a period of quiet prayer, they were then asked to go outside and listen to what God was saying to them through nature. She duly reported that she heard nothing, declaring that: “You’d want to be very intelligent to hear stones speaking!” A Jesuit among the group explained, in very erudite language, what I was trying to get across. She looked at him and said:
‘Do you know, you’re as daft as he is!”
The gift of Prayer, that awareness of God’s Presence, is God’s gift to us and is not something of our own making. Nevertheless, whether it be Liturgical Prayer, the Rosary, the Jesus Prayer, Taize chant, the Prayer of the Quiet, Eucharistic Adoration or other structured prayer, we can prepare the ground and wait for the gift which is at God’s gracious disposal to give. And in this, as ever, he is a God of surprises.
At the beginning of the last century, a report by a Government official on a visit to Castlebar Mental Hospital, then called the Asylum, gave a description of its inmates assembled for a Religious Service, which was the Mass. As was to be expected, in an age when there were no pills, the rumpus created in such a gathering was loud and noisy. However, what was remarkable in the report was that, at the time of the Consecration a profound hush and silence fell on the congregation. When the Consecration was over it was back to the ruaile-buile again. God has his favourites. In our Celtic society a person with physical or mental impairment was called a ‘duine le Dia’, ( a person belonging to God), and had the same social standing as a cleric.
In our modern world we can’t recreate the past in order to practice the presence of God. We don’t milk cows in the fields any more. Indeed putting the sign of the cross on the rump of the cow with the froth of the milk would be contrary to EU health regulations. But we can be creative in reminding ourselves of God’s presence in all things. There was the woman with the monotonous job on a factory floor, akin to putting figs into the fig-roll. She transformed her life and her workplace by imaging herself measuring out a spoonful of God’s love into each item she filled. And there was the taxi-driver with deep faith, who made the frustration of being halted at traffic lights into an opportunity for saying the En Ego prayer, finding ‘Jacob’s ladder stretching between heaven and Charing Cross’. I saw a prayer recently that showed the Celtic emphasis on the sacredness of the ordinary. It begins with the description of a refrigerator, full of food. As he beholds its contents he recalls the origin of each item of food there, giving thanks to the Creator for it and the work of human hands.
Without cultivating His presence within us, the eyes of our souls will never penetrate the veil shrouding us from the world of faith and hope and love, throbbing around us.
Without prayer we will fail to discern the presence of God, ‘in times of quiet or times of danger or have the compassion to be aware of his loving presence in the heart of friend and stranger’.
Without prayer and a pure heart we will miss the presence of God in the splendour of creation, nor ‘on an April evening, when April airs are abroad, will the sheep with their little lambs remind us of the Lamb of God.’
Without cultivating the practice of the Presence of God in our everyday lives we my not see beyond the veil that is the Bread in the Eucharist or we may fail to discern the presence of an outrageously loving God in the Chalice. And when ‘Behold the lamb of God!’ is proclaimed we may miss the music of the Mystery.
In Ireland it took a thousand years of our cultural journey for the panorama and the paradigm of the ‘other world’ to change from a pagan context to one when trees and flowers, rocks and running water took on a Christian symbolism. If our culture is not re-grounded in Christian prayer today, tomorrow will create its own cultural paradigm of God, whether spelt with small or big ‘G’. For human spirituality is a hunger and a journey towards the Unknown.
For us, Christians, it is a hunger, a journey and a participation in ‘the music of what happens’ in the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen