This Sunday's Gospel shows us two workaday people, Mary and Joseph receiving divine visits they neither sought nor understood, but to which they kept saying "Yes." Patricia Hofer's new book contains a reflection relevant to this powerful Advent theme:
God often visits us, but most of the time we are not at home.
In this proverb, the French touch on something about our relationship with God that has challenged and perplexed Christians from the start, from the novices to the mystics. How can we know that God is visiting us?
Describing such a visit, St. Teresa of Avila observed that "God so places Himself in the interior of that soul that when it returns to itself it can in no way doubt that it was in God and God was in it."
Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of God's presence in his soul this way: "And where he comes from when he enters my soul, or where he goes when he leaves it, and how he enters and leaves, I frankly do not know." And then he paraphrased Jesus's description of spirit in John: "You do not know where he comes from, nor where he goes."
The difficulty with these "visits" is that they are so unsubstantial and mental. Which leads me to consider [C.S.] Lewis' more scientific explanation. He blamed our imperfect communication with God on the brain, which doesn't originate the interaction but operates as a faulty "receiving set." And this sometimes also appears to be true. Certainly, nothing puts more static and distraction into my "receiving set" than the challenges of daily living - being hungry, tired, worried or sick.
Lewis' idea, however, is largely contradicted by Brother Lawrence's experience. Whether he was riding the boat to purchase supplies or busy with his kitchen chores, he wrote that he ever applied his mind "to the presence of God, whom I considered always as with me, often as in me."
That sounds true to me as well. And it is supported by [English theologian Charles] Raven who wrote that the times he prayed best were when his brain was absorbed by some mundane task, leaving "the mind free to roam." Such moments opened him to "a glory of wonder and worship... a rapture in which there was neither past nor future, a rapture full of the song of the morning stars."
To conclude this discussion on visits, I must add another person's experience, perhaps my favorite. Oswald Chambers said, "God will give us his touches of inspiration only when he sees that we are not in danger of being led away by them." For God wants us to "walk by faith, not by sight" (II Corinthians 5:7). And so, God's "exceptional moments" with us are, according to Chambers, "surprises." No need to sit in our room waiting. God knows where to find us.
As we are reminded in the Gospel for this last Sunday of Advent, God visited and surprised Mary and Joseph. Neither of them were "led away" by the inspiration, but were brought closer to God than we can imagine. Mary worshipped in rapturous song, and "When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him..."
And because they received the surprise, the surprise took flesh to visit and surprise us. "God knows where to find us."