St. Francis de Sales makes a bold claim about living in the presence of God.
It is “one of the most certain means to spiritual advancement.”
He goes on to say, “I exhort you to take up this practice with all your heart and never give it up.”
We’ll see how to live in the presence of God in two parts:
- How to avoid losing the presence of God.
- How to foster this wonderful practice.
Free bonus: I created an eBook that will inspire you to take the first step in the devout life. As one reader put it, “it directly addresses the language of devotion that seems most severe and shows how manageable it really is.” Click here to get the guide, free.
We know that living in God’s presence is a good thing, but life seems to militate against it.
- children are chaotic
- commutes are too long
- bosses are unreasonable
If these stressors get too bad, they can lead to desolation, which
- makes prayer dry
- hurts relationships because of our bad moods
- can even lead us to question the Faith
“The devil uses his utmost efforts to fish in troubled waters,” wrote St. Francis.
what causes these troubled waters?
Our first answer is usually something external:
- more traffic than usual
- a last minute “ask” from your boss
- a sick or particularly difficult child
But, the trouble is always our internal reaction. This makes sense because not everyone in the traffic jam lost their cool, some people can gracefully handle annoying requests and some parents seem not to get frazzled.
While it may be possible to grant that day to day troubles are caused by our reactions, there might be a doubt in your mind because more serious troubles must follow different rules.
In the holocaust, for example, psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed that survival was largely a matter of finding meaning, which is of course an internal process independent of external circumstances.
Research on the importance of a positive outlook further confirms the testimony of Frankl. Scripture through St. Paul agrees: “All things work for the good of those who love God.”
And, Jesus himself said, “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person.” (Mt 15:19)
Then, what’s the interior cause?
Our knee-jerk reaction might be to say that the cause is an attachment or an inordinate desire or a vice, but let’s look a little deeper even though these answers are all correct in their way.
In the example of traffic on a commute, you’re riding along, experiencing a reasonable level of presence of God when you see brake lights ahead and maybe you experience:
- anger because “there’s no reason for there to be traffic here,” or
- fear at the look your spouse will give you if you arrive late…again, or
- frustration that your commute will be this long every day!
These reactions are aggravated by being trapped in a car and, if you’re on the way home, by fatigue and probably hunger.
You’ve been emotionally triggered, so you’re tense and all you can think about it the mess you’re in. Your presence of God is long gone.
Let’s see how to reduce the frequency and severity of these triggers to better maintain the presence of God.
reduce interior noise
Our interior is like any other system—it becomes increasingly complex over time unless we try to slow it down. And, we can speed up that increase in complexity because the more we put in the more there is to bounce around and trigger you.
Thank God, we can also slow it down by spending time in silence, which makes staying in the presence of God much easier because God is not in the noise, but in “a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12)
If we are not careful, even our periods of mental prayer can become sources of noise when we try to vigorously understand some pious idea or “flog” ourselves for some past sin.
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Mt 6:7)
Avoid people and situations that trigger you
While some of these interactions will be unavoidable, we can often avoid triggers with a little planning and some creativity.
For example, if face-to-face interactions with one of your coworkers always trigger you, remember to email or chat them whenever possible.
Or, if your emotional state varies significantly based on the type or number of texts that you get, check your phone less frequently so that you don’t need to deal with this trigger as much.
prepare for situations that will trigger you
St. Francis de Sales recommends a morning exercise that, among other things, includes anticipating precisely these triggers. When you know you will, for example, meet with someone who triggers you, St. Francis writes, “I will not only resolve to keep from giving him offense but I will think of pleasant words to prevent his anger.”
If you prepare, the trigger will usually be smaller and you may be able to avoid it completely because you were expecting it. This makes sense because when we know that there will be traffic on a particular road, we aren’t as upset when we’re stuck in it.
make a recovery plan
As soon as you recognize a trigger, I recommend these steps:
- Say with St. Paul: “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
- Name the emotion that you’re feeling and you will find some immediate relief.
- Begin a mindfulness exercise that is not noticeable from the outside like
- breathing in for four seconds
- holding your breath for four seconds
- breathing out for four seconds.
- Stop all non-essential activity until you regain peace.
reflect on what triggered you
When the trigger has passed and you can think about the incident without getting re-triggered, imagine yourself in the same situation. But, this time, you’re much more conscious of God and you’re able to imagine a different emotional reaction due to his care and love. Visualizations can be very effective.
Additionally, take time at the end of the day to reflect back on what triggered you. Unless the trigger was large, it may not be obvious to you what was the source of your trigger. And, even if it was large, you may have already been slightly triggered, which made the larger trigger worse. This is good data!
It’s also discernment of spirits.
Take action to reduce triggers
Choose one of the following ways to reduce the instances of triggers in your life that take you away from the presence of God.
- Add two minutes of silence to your routine.
- Commit to the recovery plan above or something similar.
- Add St. Francis de Sales’s morning exercise to your routine to anticipate problems.
- Begin reflecting on what triggered you at the end of the day.
In the next article, we’ll look out how to encourage greater presence of God.