God is with you constantly, and has been since the moment you were a darling little-itty-bitty embryo:
Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:13)
And God’s with you right now, as you’re reading this book. He’s with you at school. He’s with you on the practice field. He’s with you in the bathroom (eeeew…..but true!). He’s with you while you scarf down your nourishing breakfast of cola and corn chips (You think I’m kidding? I taught high school. I’ve seen it.)
God – is – with – you – every – second.
O Lord, you have probed me and you know me; you know when I sit and when I stand. (Psalm 139:1)
Got it. Now answer a question for me. So what?
Why does God’s gracious presence with you somehow imply that you don’t have to do anything in response?
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re with your family at dinner. It’s one of Mom’s typically fabulous meals (and you do tell her it’s fabulous, at least every once in a while don’t you? She needs to hear it, and believe me, complimenting a meal racks up a whole lot of points that just might come in handy some day.)
Anyway, dinner is great, everyone’s there together, chattering away, until a moment comes when, deep in your Tuna Tortilla Surprise, you notice that silence has suddenly descended. You raise your eyes. You see everyone at the table, from Grandpa to the baby, staring at you. Waiting. For what?
“Well?” Dad asks. “What do you think?”
Of what? What do I think of what? You can’t help but wonder.
For you see, while you were certainly physically present in this room full of very real, very lively, very loud people, somehow, you hadn’t heard a word anyone was saying.
You were way too deep in meditation – about what, we won’t ask, because we really don’t want to know.
But the fact is, your physical presence didn’t guarantee - well, presence.
You were there, but you weren’t there. You weren’t listening, you weren’t relating to anyone, and you couldn’t tell us what color Grandpa’s tie was if we offered you a million dollars. (It was green with violet polka-dots, by the way. Retro, but nice.)
So there’s lesson number one: Presence doesn’t automatically mean relationship.
Now with God, of course, the problem is all on our side. God’s never inattentive, His focus never wanders, He never turns His back, not even for a second:
Even all the hairs on your head are counted. (Matthew 10:30)
But when it comes to us – well, we might like to talk big, like we’re some sort of deep mystics, constantly in touch with God, but let’s be honest.
That’s not exactly the case, is it?
After all, if it were true that we were incredibly aware of God all the time, our lives might be just a little bit different – in a word, we’d be saints. But we’re not. We live in a way that’s more like what a mystic named Meister Eckhart described centuries ago:
God is near to us, but we are far from him. God is within; we are without. God is at home; we are abroad. (Sermons 6, “The Kingdom of God is at Hand”)
So it’s a great, comforting truth that God is present with us all the time. But unless we consciously try to plug into that presence, we’re like we were at dinner that time: sitting there kind of pathetically, in our own private space, wondering what everyone else is talking about, alone even though we’re in a room full of people.
Think of it this way. It would be very nice for a dear friend to stand in front of you telling you how much he liked you. But what impact would that have on your life if you met his presence and his affection with nothing but the most cursory acknowledgment, day after day, never responding, never sharing, never even looking him in the eye? How would your friendship grow? Would you even have a friendship?
That’s exactly the way it is with us and God. God’s always present to us in love, but we must make a conscious effort to be present to Him, too, or else we don’t really have a relationship with Him.
That’s what prayer is.
Sure, there are lots of ways to do this thing called prayer: We do it with spoken words, we do it with songs or even silently. We do it alone, we do it with others. We use other people’s words, or we make up our own. We use the Bible to help us, or we use a sunset. We come to God in joy and praise. We come to thank Him and to beg Him for mercy. We turn to Him to ask for help for ourselves and others. We come to Him to find truth and meaning, and in the end, we’re coming to Him to find ourselves. Our true selves – way down underneath the worries and needs, the people that everyone on earth from our parents to friends to advertisers tells us that we should be – we know there is a true self, made for joy and peace. The only other One who knows this true self is the One who made it , and that’s God. The journey to that true self, the self we long for isn’t that long really. It’s just as long as the journey to God, and you know how far that is, right?
Any way you choose to do it, when you’re opening your heart, turning to God, talking to Him, listening and searching, what you’re doing at that moment is acknowledging God’s presence and responding to it.
That, in a nutshell, is prayer.
Here it is in another, slightly bigger and more brilliant nutshell, fashioned by a great pray-er, St. Therese of Lisieux:
For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.(Manuscrits autobiographiques, C 25r)
So for all of our rather arrogant claims that sure, we can have a great relationship with God without actually ever, well, taking time to develop a relationship, there’s really only one thing to say, and the person who said it is another great pray-er, St. Theresa of Avila:
We are always in the presence of God, yet it seems to me that those who pray are in His presence in a very different sense.
If you’ve ever known anyone who is authentically, truly prayerful, you’ll know what St. Theresa was talking about. There’s a peace and tranquility, a real goodness that shines through a person who’s really aware of God’s presence.
When you think about it, you just have to ask: Why wouldn’t everyone, given the choice (which we are) want to live that way?
You also have to ask yourself: Given the choice (which you are), why wouldn’t you want to live that way?