God’s Ordinary and Supernatural Presence

In With God in America, a collection of the writings of Father Walter Ciszek, S.J.—a holy priest imprisoned in Soviet camps for twenty-three years who is under consideration for canonization—a chapter entitled “The Presence of God” distinguishes between God’s “ordinary presence” throughout creation and His “supernatural presence” in a person’s soul. In the sunrise and sunset and in the course of the four seasons, God’s Divine Providence manifests its ordinary presence because “God is in the universe, supporting it, giving it the energy to go on—continually creating it, as a matter of fact.” God’s supernatural presence, on the other hand, not only effects miracles but also initiates a special bond of love between man and God: “God is present now as a person who is to be known more and loved more.” As man experiences this personal presence of God in the soul, he gains a more intimate union of love and knowledge and grows in holiness.

In simple language Ciszek illuminates this divine mystery. Using the expression “God is where the action is,” he explains how God’s supernatural presence fills the soul that is active in seeking, loving, thanking, petitioning, and knowing Him. The more action in the soul–the greater activity in man’s heart and thought in the meditation and contemplation of God– the more man senses God’s special nearness in his interior life. Comparing a baby and a saint, Ciszek offers this illuminating contrast. While a baptized baby receives sanctifying grace in the manner of God’s ordinary presence, the child is too young to think, pray, praise, honor, and deepen his relationship with God. On the other hand, the saint’s life is “where the action is.” That is, as often as the saint obeys God’s commandments, imitates Christ’s love, lives a life of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and partakes of the Sacraments, he or she experiences God’s supernatural presence: “But God’s presence is surging in the saint, because each time the saint prays (or even thinks of God), God fills that soul with evermore sanctifying grace.”  When man’s actions invite God’s presence, God rushes: “Open thine heart, and I will come in like a torrent.”

God’s movements and nearness through His supernatural presence depend on man’s cooperation, openness, and desire: “He becomes more present the more we turn to him, the more we think of him.” The stream of God’s grace awaits a simple opening to enter and flow with its riches. In this way God comes and abides in the soul in the more profound and intimate bond of friendship and love. Ciszek explains that the more man contemplates the ordinary presence of God in Nature and the universe, the greater his awareness of God’s special and supernatural presence in his own individual life. Thus the spiritual life consists of this comprehensive awareness of God’s “double presence,” His general Providence that governs all of creation and His special Providence that directs each person’s individual life in such a way that it inspires the gratitude expressed in St. Augustine’s words, “. . . you who care for each one of us as though he was your only care and who cares for all of us as though we were all just one person.”

The law of love, both human and divine, rests on this mutual giving and receiving, responding and reacting because “love demands love in return, for he loved us first” as Ciszek writes in the chapter “The Love of God.” God, then, is most energetic and dynamic in revealing His supernatural presence when man’s attention gives Him first priority and man speaks to God with mind, heart, and soul: “In your private prayers, for example, do you believe, I mean really believe, that you are talking to God: that he, the Almighty Creator of the universe is really interested in every word you whisper, every thought you have . . . ?” God waits for man’s initiative to acknowledge Him: “There is nothing but ourselves that keeps him from acting in our souls . . . .” Without action in the soul, God appears distant and remote.

The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins especially illustrates Ciszek’s reflections on God’s double presence in both its ordinary and supernatural form. In “Pied Beauty” the poet beholds the immense variety of Nature’s abundance and the unlimited expressions of beauty that fill the sky, earth, and water, marveling at the blend of hues in the heavens, the patches of color that streak the skin of animals, and the rainbow reflections of light on the trout:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Like an artist who paints, God brightens the created world with a multitude of colors that he mixes and blends in original ways that radiate the splendor of beauty’s attraction. The glow of roasted chestnuts, the brightness of birds’ wings tipped in dazzling array, the rolling contours of landscape with their different shades of earth, and the multiplicity of human talents and gifts all combine to make creation a masterpiece of inexhaustible beauty teeming with God’s entire spectrum of light.

Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough
And all trades, their, gear and tackle and trim.

As the poet beholds the pied, multi-colored diversity and fullness of colors that fill creation, he beholds God’s ordinary presence in the natural world of sky, earth, water, cow, fish, and man. This recognition of God’s presence in Nature as an artist who makes masterpieces of beauty, then, not only gives evidence of God’s existence but also declares the glory of God and manifests His supernatural presence. The wonder of beauty in all its prolific multiplicity lifts the mind to a contemplation of God’s special love for all His children. God does not merely cause, produce, or make, but “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.”  With a most personal touch God the generous Father in His love for all the children in His family creates a world abounding in beauty for their exquisite delight and pleasure. God’s goodness, love, and generosity have no limits. The contemplation of the transcendental, inexhaustible nature of beauty evokes a sense of God’s supernatural presence in the human heart that leaps for joy in the knowledge of God’s giving that overflows in copious plenty: the assortment of movements, colors, smells, and tastes that fill creation inspire an awe that marvels at

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.

The poem that begins in wonder (“Glory be to God for dappled things”) ends in knowledge and thanksgiving. The poet admiring the beauty above and below that surrounds him senses God’s ordinary presence through the experience of the eyes marveling at pied beauty and then feels the supernatural presence of God in the heart and soul giving glory and thanksgiving to the Creator and proclaiming in the final line “Praise him.”

God, then, is not only an architect who designs and an artist who adorns but a providing father who will not be outdone in generosity. As the invisible things of God are known by the visible as St. Paul explains, an awareness of God’s ordinary presence increases to knowledge of God’s supernatural presence as the mind recognizes the correspondence between the visible and invisible, sees that all effects resemble their cause, discovers the relationship between the one and the many, and contemplates the source and cause of all this beauty–the fatherhood of God who is Absolute Beauty and Absolute Goodness whose love has no end and always offers more and more.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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