13. Practicing the Presence of God
When Jesus said, after the resurrection, that He would be with us always, He really meant it. So did Paul when he spoke of the Indwelling Christ. "Christ," he said, "is in you." Swedenborg tells us that we each have a little vessel, high above our consciousness, in which God dwells; he calls it the "human internal," and sometimes refers to it as the "soul." Astounding as it may seem, the Lord who created the universe resides personally in that little vessel within you. If He withdrew for one instant, you would cease to exist. It is because He dwells within you that you are in His image and likeness, a human being and not a mere animal; and it is for the same reason that you will live to eternity. And if you ask me how God, who is controlling the galaxies of the stars and spinning the atoms of nature, can nevertheless be personally present within you and me and every other of His billions of children, I can only reply that He is infinite and therefore outside the limitations of time and space. To be Divine is not a quantity but a quality; whenever and wherever God is present at all, He is present in fullness.
Since the Lord is present within everybody, why are so many people apparently unaware of the fact? Because we all begin our adult lives with the spiritual degree of our minds closed. Only the natural degree is open: the area concerned with self and the world. To be consciously aware of the Lord's presence requires a certain degree of regeneration. Even a saint like Brother Lawrence in the sixteenth century had to "Practice the Presence of God." We must all do so if we are to become spiritually developed.
But how to begin? Perhaps you have already begun, and will think I am being very elementary and obvious; or you may be pleased to have the first steps described. We must all begin by getting acquainted with the Lord. I do not mean just reading about Jesus in the Gospels, though that is necessary and desirable. I mean getting acquainted with Him personally. The difference is like that between reading about some celebrity, and then actually meeting him and getting to know him as a man.
In the case of Jesus, you can get acquainted with Him first by faith. You can even start off with an innocent game of make-believe. You pretend the Lord is with you and chat with Him and pass the time of day, just as you might with a neighbor down the street. Children have lively conversations with perfectly imaginary people whom they believe to be really present. Swedenborg's parents declared that little Emanuel used to converse with angels when a child; but there was nothing remarkable about that - all children do! It is only when you grow up and become "sensible" that you lose the faculty of conversing with someone you cannot actually see. You can recover it with practice, becoming again like a little child. Get over your shyness! Don't be embarrassed by bringing God reverently into conversation, especially with your family. This is a big step for many, but one well worth taking.
To imagine Jesus as an acquaintance with whom you can chat does not presuppose any degree of regeneration or commitment; thus, we can all do it. You do not have to be committed to a neighbor to pass the time of day with him. But if you talk with your neighbor often, and he is an outstanding character, something from him is bound to rub off onto you. You find yourself comparing his standards with your own and imitating him in little ways. Even the expression "Keeping up with the Jones's" has a good side, if you take it right. You want your neighbors and acquaintances to see you at your best. And that is what begins to happen if you "make-believe" that Jesus is with you as an acquaintance.
So your regeneration commences. You start altering the pattern of your life because of what Jesus might think. You find yourself becoming committed to Him, because of the imaginary contacts you had with Him. Then a wonderful thing happens. The relationship ceases to be imaginary and becomes real! From being only a casual acquaintance, Jesus becomes a friend. "You are my friend," He says, "if you do whatsoever I command you." Once you have reached this stage, you will begin to become consciously aware of His presence: you will see Him with your inner eye. He will always be by your side. You will discuss your deepest concerns with Him, and He will answer by a sort of pressure in your thoughts, even speaking to you first sometimes and waiting for you to answer. Naturally your own ego will be dominant at the beginning; but as you test out His advice and find it good, and begin to enjoy new depths in life which you had never experienced before, the relationship becomes reversed. The "still small voice" grows into the controlling power of your life.
What a friend we have in Jesus! A divine and wonderful friend! There are many hymns celebrating this new and beautiful relationship. Swedenborg himself used to sing, in Swedish, "Jesus is my best of friends" - it is said to have been his favorite hymn. The spiritual degree of the mind is now open. Later on, as you progress further, the third or celestial degree begins to open, the degree of love. Now the Lord appears no longer in the character of a friend, and becomes a lover, in the purest and highest sense of that much abused word. "The love of Jesus, what it is, none but His lovers know."
Now it is that He appears to be no longer walking by your side, but actually dwelling within you. He slips into the place of your old ego. You willingly allow Him to take over the controls. He fills your will with His love, until it becomes His will. Your thoughts become a finite version of His thoughts. He strips down your desires and ambitions, and then bends them into alignment with the operation of His Divine Providence. Your hands, your feet, your lips, all the organs of your body, become responsive to His bidding. Your body is now His body, one of the innumerable bodies in which His Divine Humanity lives and works in this world.
The joy and satisfaction and release of this new arrangement, when He actually takes over your life, is difficult to describe, though all who have submitted to it, even for only brief periods, testify to the wonder of it. You are no longer trying to promote your self, but are imbued with the glory of the King of kings. Your own mean little business concern has been taken over by the biggest corporation in the world, the firm that built the universe! From now on, your job is the promotion of the kingdom of God. Your own name will no longer appear on the letterheads, but you will be writing under the royal seal.
The promotion of self, is it such an important thing? When you have succeeded in promoting yourself, you are still no better off. Remember the story of Alexander the Great, who is said to have burst into tears because there were no more countries for him to conquer. The story has no foundation, because in fact when he died he was projecting a campaign of conquest in western Europe. But the point is clear; he would have reached that stage eventually. The promotion of self leads to nothing but heartbreak and disillusionment; whereas, if you work for the promotion of the kingdom of God, with Jesus as your Senior Partner giving all the orders, then you will grow and blossom spiritually. Life will give you deeper satisfaction and peace the older you grow, and you will end up as an angel in one of the higher heavens. That, I am sure, is your heart's desire; but you will never attain it unless you first put yourself in training, by practicing the presence of God.