#21 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.“
Cast from His Presence?
The story of salvation history is centered on the personal encounter of people with God. As I write this, there’s a fascinating story on the History Channel about the early civilizations in Cappadocia, Turkey and environs. It displays what is believed to be the earliest known civilization discovered in Gobekli Tepi, 200 miles away. This site is an amazing series of pillars and sculptures carved solely by stone age tools. It is estimated to be at least 10000 years old. Ordinarily when ancient sites are excavated they find the tools and items of everyday life – shards of pottery for holding food and drink or practical tools for providing foods. But this site is described as a temple, a place which is dedicated to the religious-spiritual understanding of a people, and their history. It is a probing of the deepest personal human aspects of life, and it is here that the gods (or the God) will be encountered. The knew of a Presence beyond themselves. This is the essence of the religiosity in humankind – seeking the Presence of God.
There is no spiritual life or sense of spiritual integrity unless the true[i] God is present. The presence of God implies an immediacy, and that He is personally accessible to us. In Reflection 18, I spoke a bit about this, how God is revealed as personal, particularly in our Christian understanding of the Incarnation. This presence of God is something that humans desire in their deepest religious recesses of their being.
In this reflection we hear David begging God not to be cast from His presence. What is this presence? In the preceding reflection, I mentioned the story of the Garden of Eden, and here is the obvious starting point in the story of humankind’s experience of God’s presence. It is described in Genesis 2 as intimate, and loving, characterized by walking in a sort of communion with God, in the cool of the evening. The sin of Adam and Eve shatters this communion and when confronted by God’s presence and questions about the state of his naked body and soul, he distances himself from his wife as well, blaming her. They are cast away from the Garden and all communion with Him. Paradise is lost – but worse, they are cast from the very presence of God. Their life on earth would be difficult, but also empty. There would be no intimacy with God and certainly they would feel a longing for restoration and re-entry into His presence. But the gates of Paradise were closed – guarded by the fiery sword of the Angels. David begs God not to do the same to Him because of His sin. The stakes are high!
The Hebrew Encounter: God – Hidden yet Revealed
The Orthodox Anaphora[ii] of St. Basil the Great explains the Church’s sense of how this presence was lost, but not completely,
O God, You set him in the midst of a bountiful paradise, promising him life eternal and the enjoyment of everlasting good things by keeping your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God Who had created him, and was led astray by the deceit of the serpent, he was made subject to death through his own transgressions. In your righteous judgment, O God, You exiled him from paradise into this world and returned him to the earth from which he had been taken. But You provided for him the salvation of rebirth which is in your Christ Himself. For You did not turn Yourself away forever from your creation whom You had made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of your hands, but You visited him in different ways. Through the tender compassion of your mercy, You sent forth prophets. You performed great works by the Saints who in every generation were well pleasing to You. You spoke to us through the mouths of your servants the Prophets who foretold to us the salvation which was to come. You gave us the Law to aid us. You appointed angels to guard us. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through your Son Himself, through whom You had created time.
God remained present but invisible to humankind and His presence when revealed revealed His Justice and judgment, as attested in the Bible regarding the Tower of Babel, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. But, in a special way, He revealed Himself by setting aside of the Hebrew people and entering into the Covenant with them, establishing the The Law and the ministry of the Prophets bringing His word. But He would require faith of the Israelites, and their obedience following of His Law. The biblical narrative of the Hebrew encounter with God In the desert, not so much individually and personally (save for Moses), but as a people He made His presence evident to them in many ways – in miracles like the Manna for their food, and the purification of water for their drink, and their miraculous crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. The ongoing Presence of God was manifest through His Glory (Heb. Chabad)[iii] which was the cloud which led Moses and the Hebrews through the wilderness both revealing and hiding God at various times and ways.
For the Hebrew nation, the moments of their encounters with God in history and the sustaining force of faith and the retelling of their story[iv] as God Himself commanded, would become the personal source of inspiration, drawing the soul closer to God in thanksgiving and prayer for generations. This model of encounter with God by the Old Testament saints, the sharing of the encounter story with others engendering faith and faithfulness and the celebration and passing of the story (Word of God) on would be the way that the Christian tradition also would adopt. In a similar way, the New Covenant is founded on those who came to see their encounter with Jesus, as a ‘new Exodus’ with God leading them through the Son. Faith, as we learn from St. Thomas, which is trust in God despite his ‘invisibility’ is what would render God present. For Christians this pattern is clearly manifest in the Resurrection narrative, and the command to ‘tell the others’, the rebuke for failing to believe, and then the appearances to the saints in the time and manner of God’s choosing.
But as those disciples, including Luke and Cleopas, who had that special encounter with the Risen Lord at Emmaus served the Church in a most wondrous way, by showing how the narrative of the Mystical[v] Supper on Holy Thursday would serve as the Church’s eternal means of entering into the presence of Christ by partaking of the Heavenly Eucharistic Banquet of the Glory of the Risen Lord. This mystical way of encountering the Lord, mystical like the Cloud of the Old Testament, would be the means of revealing the Unknowable One, to everyone whose heart was open to be filled with faith, whose mind sought the Word in truth, and whose actions revealed an adherence to His Way.
Why do I mention all of this?
Seeking God is path that contains a number of pitfalls. False religions (and false teachers who bear an orthodoxy only externally) can tempt one to seek experiences that effectively conjure the presence of God. This, again, is not new as its what sorcerer Simon Magus desired to do – to capture the power of the Presence of God through magic. (Acts 8:9ff)[vi] While most people see the dangers of séance-like mysticism, Christians who long to see God may seek to experience Him in ways that are not HIS ways of true revelation. This has been present since the early Church, where those who claim a personal experience or knowledge (Gnosticism) set aside the Way of Christ’s revelation to us, and focus on individualistic ‘words from God’ or seemingly divine actions/encounters in their personal lives. While there are a biblical witnesses to this sort of encounter (like St. Stephen or St. Paul), any such experience of the Presence of God requires great discernment of others (the Church) to determine the truth or falsehood and hence the source of the experience as from God, or from the Devil. Many charismatic[vii] sects today insist that people must have some sort experience with God, usually one marked by ‘speaking in tongues’ or other ecstatic experiences, that bear no semblance to the Way outlined above. These ‘encounters’ are often manifestation extraordinary happiness and joy, but at times an exaltation of self. In all cases, in the Orthodox Church, through her presbyters (priests) and those with deep spiritual experience (monastic), necessary guidance can be gained to avoid the pitfalls of a self-delusion of God’s presence.
David – The Man of Faith
David experienced the presence of God in his life, as a man who loved God and sought Him out. He was a man of prayer, the Law, and obedience to God. This is why God really made His presence felt when David fell. God’s presence became an experience of emptiness or absence. Yet God remained present to Him, even in this absence. How you may ask? I would suggest that His conscience, formed through decades of faithfulness to God, now would serve as a brilliant, and burning light – not unlike that experienced by St. Paul. It is the same God who convicts us of our sin, not simply to judge us, but to save us by leading us to repentance and conversion. Instead of the joy and peace of the sense of the presence of God, David’s spirit reproached by the searing presence of the Holy Spirit, experienced not joy, but the deepest sorrow. The Spirit alone can purify the heart – but our actions and thoughts can invite the Presence of God to be with us even in this burning way.
Do we really want this presence of God? If His presence means this deep sorrowful and painful burning in our soul? Our penitential practices in Orthodoxy are meant to seek the presence of God to bring forth this encounter, hence the Holy Fathers often speak of the gift of tears as the fruit of one’s encounter with the Living God. Perhaps this is the most authentic sign of the presence of God, leading to true awareness of Him, of others, and even ourselves. It requires faith to pursue this path and not rationalize our sins, but enter into the heart where God can be found – even in the pain of repentance.
Don’t Take it Away
There is a joy which can follow repentance and conversion which is profound. It is the Gift of Joy, a fruit of the Holy Spirit that can sustain people even when circumstances of life are filled with sorrow, tumult or confusion. As with God’s presence, it is a gift, bestowed by Him upon whom He chooses, when He chooses. Any attempt to whip oneself up into a joyful sense of God’s presence is going down a dark path, identifying God with one’s own emotional encounter of Him. And when that fades, the darkness is deeper.
The life of David bespeaks his efforts to seek the presence of God. He came to know God in joy, but also in sorrow. David begs God not to cast Him from His presence, as Adam was cast from the Garden. But, perhaps ironically, by faith – despite his sin – he believes God is still present, otherwise He would pray not to be cast out in the future. God remained with David even though he sinned, because David repented. It is suggested (I believe in some patristic texts), that God would not have cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden either – if they had repented. St. Simeon the New Theologian puts it this way,
“[Adam] tries to put the blame on GodWho had made “all things very good”…
And the woman in her turn ascribes blame to the serpent, and because both of them absolutely would not repent and fall down before their Master to ask His forgiveness, He removes them and throw them out of the royal palace, the dwellig-place of nobility – I mean Paradise – so that they must live aftewards on this earh as foreigners and exiles.” (On the Mystical Life, St. Vladimir’s Press, p.27)
The exile happens ony because they would not repent. Or perhaps the punishment rendered by God for their healing may have taken a very different form.
So when David says in Psalm 50, “Take not Your Presence from me.” he is saying not only that he longs to continue to experience moments of extraordinary joy or peace or insight, but also those moments of heart-wrenching pain. In those latter moments, we realize that our that our acts have been totally contrary to God’s will and that it is only in His mercy that He remains with us. The fiery Presence is not of the Cloud of Glory, but of the burning Conscience.
There is another promise however – that an hour is coming, when the Lord returns in glory. At that moment, Jesus, the Lamb, will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:17) Ω
[i] Entering the realm of the spiritual, one encounters not only the Truth of God, but also the darkness of demonic forces. These are not always well discerned.
[ii] This beautiful theological liturgical prayer. Authored by St. Basil the Great in the Fourth century, expresses God’s economy toward humankind in broad terms, but filled with biblical imagery. An anaphora is the prayer of offering of the gifts of Bread and Wine to become the Eucharist. The ultimate theme of the Eucharistic prayer is the restoration of humankind through the saving death and Resurrection of Christ.
[iii] The Greek renders ‘glory’ as ‘ortho’ – and this is the core meaning of the ‘ortho’ of Orthodox.
[iv] The heart of Hebrew identity and worship is the Passover narrative, which the Lord commanded to be celebrated annually in a series of remembrances and liturgical actions in Exodus 12.
[v] While the Western Church calls this the ‘Last’ Supper, the Orthodox Church describes this as the Mystical Supper because it is the gateway to entry into the Mystery of eternal life, abiding in Christ, through Holy Communion. It was actually the first supper, of the Banquet of the Kingdom of God.
[vi] It is interesting that despite St. Peter’s reproach of Simon, according to Tradition, he later became a part of the apostolic community.
[vii] In my life I have been blessed by many Christians who are Pentecostal or Evangelical who believe in Christ deeply and live according to His will as best they can while emphasizing one’s relationship with Christ personally. The dangers of self-induced ‘experiences’ of God or even His leadings in life present themselves within all faith communities of Christianity today, and Orthodoxy has had its own countless examples. The advantage that Orthodoxy has is that Holy Tradition buffers the experience of the individual, allowing for the possibility of a clearer discernment if it is sought.