The PresenceFATHER ANTONINUS WALL, O.P.
Affirming God's omnipresence, as we have done, emphasizes that God is indwelling or immanent in all things. Our day-to-day activities tend to hide this fact from us.
All religions tend to swing from one extreme in which God's immanence is affirmed in a way that threatens his transcendence, to the other extreme wherein the affirmation of God's transcendence threatens the fact of his immanence. The genius of the Catholic faith is evident in its success in affirming both aspects of the Godhead. Catholicism affirms immanence and transcendence in a balanced way that does justice to both.
This balancing of immanence and transcendence is always accompanied by tension. Most of the great doctrinal struggles in the Catholic Faith have to do with this specific tension. Indeed, this struggle for balance in affirming both the immanence and transcendence of God is at the heart of many of the tensions in the Church today.
Consider the problem of the parent standing in her children's bedroom door. Two distinctions are needed to deal with the sophisticated Catholic theological wisdom contained in their argument for not leaving their warm beds to go out in the cold and attend Mass. These distinctions are essential to the Catholic understanding of the journey of salvation.The first distinction is a clear and simple one. It is one thing to say that God is fully present to every creature in heaven and on earth. It is entirely different to say that he manifests his presence fully and equally in every creature. Clearly, all creatures reveal the creator differently. The second distinction also agrees that God, on his part, is fully present. We therefore are in his presence. The distinction does not mean that we creatures are capable of experiencing his presence. We will discuss later the way in which our capacity to experience God is awakened. Certainly, God is present to the lilies of the field and manifests his presence through them in one way. They do not, however, fully exhaust his creative power. They provide only a limited expression or revelation of that power.
God is likewise present to the birds of the air. They also provide a manifestation of his presence and power, but quite different from the one offered by the lilies of the field. Again, God reveals his presence and power in the innocence and beauty of little children. While they offer a very different and far more wonderful revelation of God's creative love, they too are only a partial manifestation of the creative potential of his love.
No one creature or collection of creatures can adequately manifest the infinite creative power and love of God. This is why Saint Thomas argues that creation calls for a seemingly infinite variety and diversity of creatures so they might accumulatively provide a more adequate revelation of this divine power and love.
The Catholic understanding is that creation is not motivated by necessity, but by a free choice of God's love to share with us his perfections. Given this understanding, the incredible multiplication and variation of creatures is the logical consequence of God's loving design to overcome the inherent limitations of created beings and provide in their multiplication a fuller revelation of his love.
Should God choose to reveal something of the infinity of his power, then the vastness of the heavens fulfills this intention. We find our minds stunned by the reality of the cosmos. In it this earth is no more than a speck of dust. Light from bodies millions of light years away reaches us humans staring out from this speck. In contemplating this reality, we begin to have a still inadequate notion of what infinity means as applied to God.
Should God wish to manifest something of the mystery of his being, the microcosm serves as a manifestation. Matter consists of tiny particles and forces that elude the most complex systems of mathematics to render them intelligible to us. From time to time scientists are convinced that they can discover all there is to know about this world, if only they could reduce it to the elements from which it is formed. To their surprise, the more success they enjoy in breaking down matter, the more complex and mysterious reality reveals itself to be. The greater their success the more humble they become before the mystery inherent in the tiniest bits of reality.
With success in physical science the words of Saint Paul begin to make more sense. "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?"
Saint Thomas describes God's work of creation as a work of divine art. Just as the artist embodies his creative genius in his artistic efforts and the efforts reveal something of that genius to us, so also God embodies his wisdom, love and power in each and every creature. All creatures provide reflections of their divine origin.
Michelangelo reveals different aspects of his genius in his Sistine Chapel, Pieta, Moses, and David. Each work reflects inadequately only part of his creativity. Similarly, God reveals different facets of his creative power in the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the vastness of space, the incomprehensibility of matter, and the miracle of children. Each provides partial reflections of his limitless power.
To appreciate something of the genius of a Michelangelo, one must gather in one place all his works and thus provide a more adequate experience of the breadth and depth of his artistic skill. Even then, since much of Michelangelo remains unexpressed in his actual achievements, the collective display would provide a still inadequate insight into his genius.
Even more dramatically is it true that the cumulative display of all God's creatures serves only as the partial, inadequate manifestation of his creativity. It reminds us that he infinitely transcends these achievements, wonderful as they are.
Michelangelo has long been dead. His work, however, continues to exist for us to contemplate because he carried it out on stone, canvas, or walls – materials that exist independently of him. While Michelangelo is no longer on earth, his Pieta is still with us because the marble on which he carved it continues to exist. It depends on the artist for its unique shape and form, but not for its existence.
In making a comparison of God's creative work to that of an artist, we should remember Saint Thomas's important qualification. When God acts – unlike Michelangelo, who is only the partial cause of his work – he is the total cause. The entire effect of his creativity depends immediately on his sustaining power, like the beam of light coming from the sun. If God removes his sustaining power, the effect cannot continue to exist.
When we contemplate the Pieta, we experience the enduring effect of the creative activity of Michelangelo that took place five hundred years ago and then came to closure. When we contemplate God's creatures, we are experiencing something of the ongoing creative activity of God.
Michelangelo is embodied in his work, and we experience his presence in that work. But he is no longer a living, creating presence. God's presence in his creative work is a living, ongoing, creating, dynamic presence. We are watching God at work as we contemplate the lilies, birds, sunrises, and children. Jesus teaches us that not a swallow falls to the ground that does not have its place in the Father's loving plan. When Saint Francis of Assisi contemplated the splendor of Brother Sun rising in the morning, he was experiencing the creative love of the Father in the very act of causing the sunrise.
It is in the context of being attuned to God's living presence, of being enthralled by our Creator's actions in history that Catholics should understand the fascination of going on pilgrimage to holy places. It is not that God, on his part, is more fully present in those places than he is in our homes. Rather, God freely chose to manifest his presence in special ways in those parts of the world. Therefore, it supports our awareness of God to go to these holy places and experience their unique revelations of his presence.
Consider, for example, the Holy Land. We go there because two thousand years ago God chose on that sacred soil to reveal his presence in a unique way by assuming our human nature and becoming one with us. He did not choose to do this in New York State or in California, but in Israel.
It helps our recollection to go to Bethlehem and Nazareth, to walk along the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked with his disciples. We sense and experience the divine presence in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus experienced his anguish. The locations where God reveals his presence in extraordinary ways take on a special significance. The significance is not, of course, because he is more fully there than in any other part of creation.
What is the relative importance of God's presence in our parish churches as distinct from his presence in our homes? What is to be said about the children in their warm beds, protesting the need to go from that warmth into the cold to get to Mass? Our churches are special, sacred places not because God is more fully present there than elsewhere.
We visit our churches because there we encounter the person of the Word of God in the human nature of Christ. Christ's presence in the Eucharist transcends God's presence found in the Holy Land, Lourdes, or other holy places.
For the children in their warm beds protesting the need to go to Mass, the response should be something like this. You are right. God is as fully present in your warm bed as he is in the parish church. But, because Christ has not yet come fully alive in you, you cannot experience his presence. Therefore, we are going to our parish church to encounter the presence of the human nature of Christ. We are going to invite God, acting through the Word made flesh, to bring Christ alive in us more fully. So we will return home, not bringing God with us since he is already here, but bringing a new awareness and responsiveness to his presence through Christ having come more alive in us.
The Eucharist is the extraordinary instrument through which God has chosen to effect the most profound spiritual changes in our lives. It is through the coming alive of Christ in us that we are finally awakened to this omnipresent God.
 God is transcendent because as creator of the universe he is independent of it and surpasses all creation. Immanence and transcendence must not be looked upon as contraries.
 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologium Part One, Chap. 102.
 Rom 11:33-34.
 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologium Part One, Chap. 102.
 Michelangelo Buonarotti is arguably the greatest artist produced by Western Civilization. There is near universal agreement that he is the supreme artist of the Renaissance. He was born in 1475 and died in Rome in 1564. His seminal works in architecture, painting, and sculpture are noted for their humanistic and deeply religious content.
 Cf. Matt 10:29.
Father Antoninus Wall, O.P. "The Presence." Chapter 2 in The Journey to God (Antioch, CA: Solas Press, 1999): 9-17.
Reprinted by permission of Father Antoninus Wall and Solas Press.
Father Antoninus Wall, O.P., a native of San Francisco, is the son of Irish-born parents, and the brother of the late Fr. Kevin Wall, O.P. Fr. Wall attended St. Ignatius prep in the Bay City and St. Mary's College of California. Entering the Dominican Order, he pursued his sacred studies at St. Albert's College in Oakland and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1950.
Fr. Wall has had a career rich in pastoral and academic experiences. He has served as associate pastor in Seattle and as Professor of Theology at Immaculate Heart and Dominican College. He negotiated the entry of the Dominicans into the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and served two terms there as President of the Dominican School. He currently resides at St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California. Father Wall is the author of The Journey to God. Father Wall may be reached by phone at 510-596-1800 or by email at email@example.com
Copyright © 2010 Solas Press
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.