Shortly after his conversion, St. Augustine penned these immortal words: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unlovliness I plunged into the lovely things that you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.”
Augustine, sincere, but pathologically restless, had been searching for love and God. Eventually he found them in the most unexpected of all places, inside of himself. God and love had been inside of him all along, but he had hadn’t been inside of himself.
There’s a lesson here: we don’t pray to make God present to us. God is already present, always present everywhere. We pray to make ourselves present to God. God, as Sheila Cassidy colorfully puts it, is no more present in church than in a drinking bar, but we generally are more present to God in church than we are in a drinking bar. The problem of presence is not with God, but with us.
Sadly, this is also true for our presence to the richness of our own lives. Too often we are not present to the beauty, love, and grace that brims within the ordinary moments of our lives. Bounty is there, but we aren’t. Because of restlessness, tiredness, distraction, anger, obsession, wound, haste, whatever, too often we are not enough inside of our ourselves to appreciate what the moments of our own lives hold. We think of our lives as impoverished, dull, small-time, not worth putting our full hearts into, but, as with prayer, the fault of non-presence is on our side. Our lives come laden with richness, but we aren’t sufficiently present to what is there. A curious statement; unfortunately true.
The poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, at the height of his fame, was once contacted by a young man from a small, provincial town. The young man expressed his admiration for Rilke’s poetry and told him that he envied him, envied his life in a big city, and envied a life so full of insight and richness. He went on to describe how his own life was uninteresting, provincial, small-town, too dull to inspire insight and poetry. Rilke’s answer was not sympathetic. He told the young man something to this effect: “If your life seems poor to you, then tell yourself that you are not poet enough to see and call forth its riches. There are no uninteresting places, no lives that aren’t full of the stuff for poetry. What makes for a rich life is not so much what is contained within each moment, since all moments contain what’s timeless, but sensitive insight and presence to that moment.” Poetry is about being sufficiently alert to what’s in the ordinary.
Augustine was lucky, the clock never ran out on him. He realized this before it was too late: “Late have I loved you!” Sometimes we aren’t as lucky, our health and our lives must be radically threatened or taken from us before we realize how rich these in fact already are, if only we made ourselves more present to them. If everything were taken away from us and then given back, our perspective would change drastically. Victor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, like Augustine, also was lucky. He had been clinically dead for a few minutes and then revived by doctors. When he returned to his ordinary life after this, everything suddenly became very rich: “One very important aspect of post-mortem life is that everything gets precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things—just the very act of living, of walking and breathing and eating and having friends and chatting. Everything seems to look more beautiful rather than less, and one gets the much-intensified sense of miracles.”
The secret to prayer is not to try to make God present, but to make ourselves present to God. The secret to finding beauty and love in life is basically the same. Like God, they are already present. The trick is to make ourselves present to them. Rarely are we enough inside of our own skins, present enough to the moment, and sensitive enough to the richness that is already present in our lives. Our experience comes brimming with riches, but too often we are not enough inside of it. Like the young Augustine, we are away from ourselves, strangers to our own experience, seeking outside of ourselves something that is already inside of us. The trick is to come home. God and the moment don’t have to be searched out and found. They’re already here. We need to be here.
Karl Rahner was once asked whether he believed in miracles. His answer: “I don’t believe in them, I rely on them to get through each day!” Indeed, miracles are always present within our lives. Are we?
Used with permission of the author, Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser.