“The sun lives in the heavens where God placed it. It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding. It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race. The sun rises at one end of the heavens and follows its course to the other end. Nothing can hide from its heat.” Psalm 19:4b-6
Most of us are familiar with the challenge of settling our hearts to be with God in prayer. As C.S. Lewis noted, this happens “the very moment you wake up. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job in the morning consists in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice.” Then there’s the further challenge at the end of prayer to retain the sense of God’s presence as we enter our day with its demands and distractions. By God’s grace he holds us and is present to us in spite of our awareness of him being easily dissipated. In his great mercy and provision, we are also gifted to see and know him in unexpected times and places.
Contemplative author and speaker James Finley has a beautiful and helpful expression to describe such gifts: “moments of spontaneous contemplative awakening.” In such instances the eyes of our hearts may unexpectedly be opened to God’s presence. Finley suggests that though these experiences are usually fleeting, they are glimpses into eternal realities, and they leave an indelible mark on our hearts. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that “the things that are visible are temporary but the things that are invisible are eternal” (vs 18). In moments of spontaneous contemplative awakening we may see beyond the exquisite beauty of creation and apprehend God himself.
This was the Psalmist’s experience. “The sun lives in the heavens where God has placed it.” Similarly our minds may be awakened from the “lethargy of the familiar” to sense the wonder of the rhythms of the natural order, and we see all creation as being infused with God’s presence and sustaining power (Hebrews 1:3). This kind of awakening includes seeing with new eyes the miracle and mystery of life of all kinds, especially human life: people we encounter by design or in passing, all of whom bear the image of their Creator.
Finley uses a further phrase to denote unexpected experiences of God. He describes moments in which we may encounter “a holiness in progress.” The context of this expression is an address Finley gives on the inexhaustible attributes of God, his infinite love and his eternal power to sustain all aspects of the natural world. Like the psalmist observing the motion in the heavens so we may be witness to the glorious varieties of motion in creation. Finley describes his own such experience as seeing a large flock of geese take flight from the surface of a lake.
As contemplatives we treasure and practice stillness (“be still and know” Ps. 46:10), and there is also breathtaking stillness in nature. But we may still be reminded that the holiness we seek is not ultimately static but “in progress.” God’s purposes for us and work within us are ongoing even though it may feel otherwise sometimes. We may think of Moses’ surprise experience of the burning bush (Ex 3) as an example of “a holiness in progress.” Fire is such an evocative entity – even more so if we reflect on its place in the ancient world. The bush was not consumed by the flame, and God was explicitly present. Moses had been on the sidelines and dwelling in the obscurity of extreme wilderness, both literally and figuratively. He was not likely living with much expectation. God’s message to Moses: “I see, I know, I am present, I will be with you.” While this occasion was momentous and unique for Moses as God’s choice to rescue Israel, such experiences may be part of any humble quest to see and know God in all things.
Moments of spontaneous contemplative awakening are the seeds of a deeper walk with God and they enlarge our hearts and our view of God. Spiritual director and author Tilden Edwards quotes a beloved elderly nun he knows as saying: “Only the sky is an adequate icon for God.” May we, through the practice of prayer, cultivate our hearts to be receptive to God’s unexpected initiatives within us and to see him in all things.
“And the church is his body; it is filled by Christ, who fills everything everywhere with his presence.” Ephesians 1:23.
Imago Dei Christian Community
For group discussion:
1.Can you recall/describe an experience in which you were awakened to a wonderful aspect of creation?
2.The dissipation of our sense of God following a time of prayer is natural to a degree. How do you experience this and what practices might sustain this sense of God or bring recall of his presence?
3.How do you perceive God’s “motion” or activity in your life versus the in-between times of stillness and silence?
Let us welcome God’s initiative within us to awaken, in his good time, our hearts to his glory and beauty; and seek his grace to grow in the knowledge of his nearness.