Awareness of the Divine
By John Davidson
Publisher: Science of the Soul Research Centre, New Delhi (2020)
Awareness of the Divine delves into the experience of the divine presence. It gathers passages, mostly from Western sources, referring to such experiences covering a period of more than 2500 years. The book is in three parts: it begins by examining spontaneous experiences of the divine that come “out of the blue”; it moves on to descriptions of not momentary but continuous awareness of the divine; and it concludes by reviewing ways of life and contemplative practices developed in a variety of traditions by which people strive to gain awareness of the omnipresent reality of the divine.
In the first section of the book the author assembles statements by many individuals recounting sudden experiences of the divine presence, moments in which they unexpectedly were able to perceive a divine grace that, they realized, enfolds all of us all the time but which we normally never notice. For example, the British novelist Mark Rutherford wrote:
One morning when I was in the wood something happened which was nothing less than a transformation of myself and the world, although I ‘believed’ nothing new. I was looking at a great, spreading, bursting oak. The first tinge from the greenish-yellow buds was just visible. It seemed to be no longer a tree away from me and apart from me. The enclosing barriers of consciousness were removed and the text came into my mind, “Thou in me and I in Thee.” The distinction of self and not-self was an illusion. I could feel the rising sap; in me also sprang the fountain of life up- rushing from its roots, and the joy of its outbreak at the extremity of each twig right up to the summit wasmy own: that which kept me apart was nothing…. “Thou in me and I in Thee.” Death! What is death? There is no death: ‘in Thee’ it is impossible, absurd.
In the book But for the Grace of God, J.W.N. Sullivan, a British journalist, said, “At such moments, one suddenly sees everything with new eyes; one feels on the brink of some great revelation. It is as if we caught a glimpse of some incredibly beautiful world that lies silently about us all the time.”
Many of these moments of insight occur when individuals are contemplating the beauties of nature. The author quotes the British historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle calling nature the “living, visible garment of God.” The English poet William Wordsworth said that nature reminded him of the presence that “rolls through all things.” For him this divine presence within nature was,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
In moments of awareness of the divine presence, the author says, time itself disappears; it is no longer needed; indeed, it cannot support that which is eternal. Martin Buber, an Israeli Jewish philosopher, says, “In ecstasy, all that is past and that is future draws near to the present. Time shrinks, the line between the eternities disappears, only the moment lives, and the moment is eternity.” As St. Augustine wrote in the 4th century, describing God’s knowledge: “It is not with God as it is with us. He does not look ahead to the future, look directly at the present, look back to the past…. All things which He knows are present at the same time to His incorporeal vision.”
In the second section of the book the author discusses how spontaneous experiences of the divine can awaken a longing for a more continual or “unbroken” awareness. Thomas Kelly, a 20th century Christian mystic, in his Testament of Devotion, says that, although “there come times when the presence steals upon us, all unexpected, not the product of agonized effort,” these instances create the desire in us to be “saturated with God’s own life” and to experience “the radiance of His presence” continually.
The intensity and continuity of the divine presence, however, may vary in degree and be disrupted despite our best efforts and desires. The medieval Christian mystic Walter Hilton, in Ladder of Perfection, after describing moments of divine presence, says, “Then before you realize it, He departs…. The intense awareness of His presence passes away, but the effects of grace remain as long as the soul keeps itself pure, and does not willfully lapse into carelessness and worldliness, or take refuge in outward things.” He adjures us to “desire to contemplate Him constantly with reverence, and always to feel the sweetness of His love.”
Introducing the third section of the book, the author points out that, however welcome and joyful spontaneous experiences of the divine are, the question remains: how can human beings gain awareness of the divine and make it a steady and consistent part of their lives? What spiritual practices lead to a “deeper and more permanent experience of the divine”?
A simple practice of continuous remembrance is described in the book The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a French Carmelite monk living in the 17th century. God’s presence was the primary focus of Lawrence’s life. He gradually learned to rely on a simple practice of “awareness of the presence of God” in place of formal prayer. A fellow religious practitioner said about Brother Lawrence:
His prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time unaware of anything but divine love;… when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might, so that he passed his life in continual joy.
In a letter, Brother Lawrence wrote,
There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God… Ah! if we but knew the need we have of the grace and assistance of God, we would never lose sight of Him, no, not for a moment.
Similarly, Nancy Mayorga, a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda, wrote in the 1960s, in Hunger of the Soul:
The whole purpose of life as I see it now is to practice the presence of God at every conscious moment. I used to think that such a state of mind or soul would be conferred suddenly when I succeeded in reaching samadhi or union. Now I realize that it is a habit that has to be trained into me, and that samadhi is not to be the cause of this perpetual enjoyment but the result and crowning achievement of it.
Ceaseless prayer is another form of spiritual practice that can lead to awareness of the divine. In the Philokalia, an anthology of the writings of monks from the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, one monk states, “Through unceasing prayer and the study of the divine scriptures, the soul’s spiritual eyes are opened, and they see the King of the celestial powers, and great joy and fierce longing burn intensely in the soul.” An example of ceaseless prayer is the constant internal repetition of what is known as the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” Mystics of many different traditions have taught that ceaseless prayer leads ultimately to a profound inner silence and in that silence one recognizes the presence of God. Nancy Mayorga describes surrendering to “that absolute stillness”:
More frequently now my mind is drawn to that very deep state where the presence of God is explicit, incontestable…. Sometimes His presence comes with such a quiet and tender sweetness that I find myself weeping with gratitude. When you surrender to that absolute stillness, that all-pervasive beneficent light, that inexpressibly sweet, sweet bliss, there is no doubt, no doubt at all, in your heart or in your mind, that you are experiencing God.
As Psalm 46 of the Bible teaches, “Be still and know that I am God.”