We sense God in our lives in many different ways. A friend asked me the other day, "How do you take in the presence of God in the world around us, in the birds and animals and plants? How does it reach you?"
I thought for a moment and said "I have a short answer and a long one."
"Give me both," he said.
"I think I'm looking for it steadily as a first take," I said. "On more reflection, though, I acknowledge somewhat logically that God is in everything around me and this understanding floats like a presence behind whatever I'm thinking about. For instance, if I think about the mountains, a friend's story is right there on the edge of my awareness. She really loved to climb mountains, and came to have knee problems that kept her from hiking. So one day she tried to communicate with the mountains, asking them if they would heal her knees so she could be with them more often. From that point on, she said, her knee problems were gone. I think as this as an expression of God in some way.
"For so many years I've made that jump from noticing the outer appearance of things to realizing the presence of the energy within them that I regard as spiritual, that it's part of my habitual thinking. I easily visualize the grass as this swirl of electrons with massive space between them. Even though I don't see aura or spirits, I have the sense of spiritual energy as part of my way of viewing things. So why do you ask?"
He shared an experience he'd just had from hearing a co-worker's story. "We were talking today," he said, "about different world views and he told me about when he and a friend of his were on a beach south of Juneau. They found bear tracks on the beach and he began following them. The tracks went into the alders along the beach, and he pushed on through them thinking 'It would be great to see a bear.'
"Then he came to the fringe where the alders stopped and thick spruce began. At that point, he said, 'It hit me in the face that I was not welcome there.' He felt force directed at him and that it was from the bear. He was intruding on the bear's space and the bear let him know. He turned and went back to the beach."
For some inexplicable reason, my friend continued, the story had an unusual impact on him. For all the experiences he'd had and ideas he's exchanged with others, he said, "I never 'got it' like this before. It registered in me when he told me that, it hit me in a certain way, hit me differently. It had a weight to it. It's like when my friend was telling me about how sad she was that her friend left her, and I had an empathetic understanding of that. It was something like that."
The question is personal to each of us and perhaps even illuminates a quest: How does God reveal Itself to me? Not to others, to history, or to the cosmos, but to me? Not in books or in other people's stories, but to me? What outward manifestation of power or love or protection crosses the threshold of meaning so that one says "At last! The presence of God!" Some may find it in a moment of danger and rescue, or a sequence of events that forces them to consider possibilities beyond the visible.
Another friend named Jim Davis tells of when he was just out of high school and working on a firefighting crew. The crew went into the woods at times to practice when there were no fires. One afternoon they were in brush so heavy that he found it almost impossible to push through, and noticed a fallen tree. Thinking that its long trunk offered an easier path through the tangle, he worked along it until he came to a wall of branches. Leaning against them, he pushed hard and suddenly they gave way. He lurched forward two steps to find himself teetering on the log's end protruding over the edge of a cliff with a bed of jagged boulders some 30 feet below. With the momentum of breaking through the branches, he lost his balance, flailed his arms wildly and pitched forward. At that moment, he said, a firm hand out of thin air pushed against his chest to stop his fall, giving him the instant he needed to reach backward and grab for a branch.
Sitting down to calm himself later, he thought, "I am protected." Then he wondered, "But by whom?" It was the beginning of his spiritual journey, which he wrote about in his book The Rosetta Stone of God.
The sacred scriptures of Eckankar refer to this partial opening of a door in some experience of God, and notes the difficulty we face: "...An understanding of its significance does not always follow such an experience in one's life. The curtain, unnoticed, is sometimes moved aside..., so that Soul can see Its own self and thus reveal the mystery of what It truly is. Then the curtain drops in place again and a measure of oblivion descends." We are treated to a periodic opportunity to appreciate a clue, and what we do with it is up to us.
It's for each of us, personally and secretly-completely unconditioned, unmotivated, and unreinforced by others; completely reliant on our own spiritual love and hope -- to maintain our consciousness at the ready, watchful for the lifting of the curtain and prepared to move through the door that opens for us to beckon us Godward. God sends us the clues. It's for us to read them and respond.
John Jensen is a member of the clergy of Eckankar, the Religion of the Light and Sound of God.