Living in the presence of God

Father John A. Kiley

The Bible employs exalted names for God like king, ruler, warrior and judge, along with other worthy metaphors like rock, fortress, shield, and refuge.

But these worthy descriptions of God clearly limit the height and breadth and depth of his exalted being. Similarly scholars nowadays no doubt think they are doing God justice when they refer to him as the “Supreme Being.” But God is not supreme in the sense that he outranks all creation in perfection. The Divine Nature is not merely an exalted degree of human excellence. God’s excellence is not of degree but of kind. God is not just a Christian version of Zeus or Jupiter reigning superlatively from a Mount Olympus. While God is above all things, he is also the ground of all things. God is distinct from creation but he also permeates creation. God is, as St. Paul writes, “all in all.” So God is not so much a supreme being as he is the supremacy of being.

The psalmist perhaps most wisely describes God when he sings: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

The psalmist rejoices that God is not simply above creation but rather God shines through creation, through the glories of heaven and the beauty of earth. The psalmist is saying that the whole world is sacramental, as it were, announcing and revealing the person and nature of God to all who will heed. Accordingly, if natural creation is revelatory about God, then the Church, God’s new creation, should be even more expressive about the character and attributes of God. The Vatican II decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium, powerfully teaches that the Church itself must be appreciated “like a sacrament,” a powerful sign and effective instrument of God’s plan for humanity and of humanity’s destiny before God.

This sacramental approach to the presence of God is much more Biblical, much more patristic, much more medieval, in fact, much more Roman Catholic than eighteenth century Deism which exalts God but then detaches God from history, from piety, from daily Providence. The philosophical concept of “supreme being” isolates God from humanity while the Conciliar teaching on the sacramental nature of religion reveals God’s nearness to man and to every aspect of earthly life. The poet Plunkett picturesquely and insightfully wrote in part, “I see his blood upon the rose And in the stars the glory of his eyes, His body gleams amid eternal snows, His tears fall from the skies.”

The Christian God is discovered everywhere. He blankets creation and envelopes his people.

Catholicism’s appreciation of the sacramental nature of Church life has its greatest evidence in the celebration of the traditional seven sacraments. Blending the human senses and Divine grace, the sacraments continue the incarnation of Jesus Christ down through the ages. The Word made flesh still interacts with human kind in a visual, audible, tactile, palatable, even olfactory manner. The Supreme Being has become a human being. On a broader level, the sacramental nature of the Church employs art, architecture, music, poetry, literature, ritual, vesture, crafts and other human ventures to reveal both the majesty and the immediacy of God. Just as importantly, the Church allows the world a glimpse into the persons and nature of God through her protection of new life, her nursing of the sick, her defense of marriage, her regard for the poor, her work for justice, her encouragement of prayer, her respect of the dead, and her missionary efforts. A papal Mass, a country church, a pair of rosary beads, a visit to a prisoner, shelter for the homeless, all speak of the true nature of God, once revealed through his Son, the man Jesus Christ, and now sacramentally revealed through his Catholic Church.

Present day American religion has been labeled “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Most Americans believe that people should be kind and helpful to one another (moralistic). Most Americans believe that religion should make us feel good about ourselves (therapeutic). Most Americans believe in God but leave him out of the picture until he is needed to resolve a problem (deism). Thus God has become a sort of cosmic Cheshire Cat grinning benignly on his kindly, contented, but oblivious creatures.

The authentic sacramental Christian, on the other hand, appreciates God to be central to his life. He lives in the presence of God. He sees history as the plan of God. He views his fellow man as the image of God. He treasures the world which reflects God. He knows sin offends God. He suffers strengthened by God. He delights in the traditions of the Church which most powerfully reveal God.