I started an essay months ago on attending to the presence of the three persons of the Trinity, but I never got past the little prefatory note on Providence. It’s been lying around for ages, so I thought I’d just dust it off and post it. Perhaps someone might have time to give me some feedback on it.
Just as a note, I’d like to say that as I wrote this, the aspect of providential immanence I was trying to reach toward had a very maternal feel to me. In an earlier version, I had this phrased as a maternal counterpoint to the paternal character usually ascribed to the First Person. I’m interested in how all that might shake out for other people.
In this essay I want to suggest some ways to come into direct contact with the Divine Persons of the Trinity as they manifest in your own experience. I am not suggesting that it is possible to experience the kind of Divine Union described by the great saints and mystics of the church, but I am suggesting that, since we are assured by the doctrine of grace that God is constantly reaching out to us with lovingkindness, it is possible to begin a kind of intimate acquaintance with the Divine, simply by intending to and by inclining one’s attention in a correct “direction”.
My claim is that the persons of the Trinity are evident to us in their energies (following Palamas and Eastern tradition) constantly, though we may be unable to either see them or to perceive their essence. By focussing a prayerful attention on aspects of our experience of the world moment-by-moment, I believe we are able to simply notice the Divine energies. I don’t mean by this either a physical energy like light, heat or sound or one of the more esoteric energies like “chi” or “prana”, but simply a natural and obvious sense of being-in-action. I hope this will become clearer as I explain the “how” in order to escape the perils of attempting to describe the “what” which has caused so many problems in the history of our tradition.
To begin, as a preparation for attending to the Trinity, I want to direct your attention to as aspect of the Divine which is not named in the Trinity at all. We do not generally pray to this aspect of the Divine nature in the Christian tradition, which is generally seen as evidence that it is not present, but I prefer to see as evidence that it is simply radically unproblematic.
From the beginning of our life in the world we are nourished and supported by the world in many ways. Initially, we begin as the union of two key cells, the sperm and the egg, implanted in the wall of our mother’s uterus, wrapped in the placenta. Blood flows to us, eventually after birth (all being well) we begin to breathe, we take food, we are embraced by gravity, supported by the earth. Invisible to us, we are enmeshed in an ecosystem which in turn is nourished by sunlight streaming to us from the blazing nuclear reactor several light-minutes away. We are supported both actively and passively by our family and community, embedded in systems of language and culture… and so on.
It is not usual in the Christian tradition to acknowledge the immanent presence of the Divine appearing in the world as it is given to us. In fact, there is a robust thread in the tradition (in both Gnostic and Orthodox streams) of strongly suggesting that the world at best disguises the Divine so that it is unrecognisable or at worst the world is actively evil. This notion reaches its fullness in the dualistic theology of Mani via Augustine and in some expressions of Cathar thought.
I would like to acknowledge that dualistic thread and simply step around it for the purposes of this essay. It has been written about and preached for more than two millenia and I feel it requires little more from me than a nod of recognition.
There is a finer, subtler thread passing through St Francis and (in our own era) Matthew Fox that celebrates the immanent presence of the Divine and turns it into an active focus of worship. There are good arguments both theological and practical why this is a useful focus, but this is not exactly what I am saying either.
What I would like to point to is that every human being, actively pursuing a spiritual life or not, active or contemplative, of any religion or of none, is embraced, enmeshed and embedded in physical manifestation. Apart from rare moments – a sunrise, happening upon surf crashing against cliffs, moments of systemic understanding, seeing the galaxy through a telescope – we do not notice this embrace. We live our lives focussing on other concerns, sometimes we engage with a spiritual life and usually turn our attention further from the world, but it remains – our uncomplaining support and nourishment. This support is the primal gift, the radically unproblematic, natural grace of our birth.
I suggest that as a beginning to prayer, it is valuable to simply, briefly acknowledge the wonder of all this nourishment and support. As I encounter this purely immanent Presence, it seems somehow inauthentic to make it a focus of active worship, to sing songs to our embodiment or canticles to our systemic enmeshment feels odd to me.
Instead, just allow your awareness to drift to your breath. Focus on the in-breath and follow the breath into your body, your seat, your feet, the way your shoulders sit, your head. The feeling of blood rushing around the body, muscles both tight and loose, belly feelings.
After a while shift your focus to the out-breath and follow your breath out with your awareness notice the breeze, the sounds, the calls of birds or the sound of traffic. The wind in trees. The light through branches, the sun, lamps. Notice the ground as it supports your weight, the roof above you, the pull of gravity.
Notice other people and their traces. Things around you made by the hands of others, food harvested by people, systems created by people – bills, posters, water supply, electricity. Keep extending your awareness to other aspects as you notice them either via your senses or as they arise in memory (as we imagine the past) or in fantasy (as we imagine the future).
Once you have extended enough, just sit. Allow all that to pulse, beat, flow and thread around you. Gently, cultivate the emotion of gratitude: the same feeling when someone lets you go first in a queue, or when someone makes you dinner, or tells you that one fact that solves a problem.
For all of this, this great womb of life in which I draw breath and find myself, Gratitude. Thanksgiving. Gratitude.
Sit with that as long as you wish.