Soundings of the Presence of God: My Contemplative Path

By Robert Trabold 

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2006 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Trabold, Robert. "Soundings of the Presence of God: My Contemplative Path." Quest  94.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2006):180-184.

Theosophical Society - Robert Trabold has a Ph.D. in sociology with specialties in urban issues and the religious expressions of people in transition, especially immigrants. Presently he is active in many prayer movements. His reflective poetry and articles on contemplative prayer have been published in Quest and other journals.

Reflecting on the years I have spent working and being active in the world, I have noticed a contemplative dimension to my life. Something has called me and I have felt its presence in various ways. I first became aware of the presence as a young man studying at the university. Between my busy schedule of classes and laboratory experiments, I was drawn to search out places in the different university chapels and sit in the quiet. I experienced the presence of God and from that time on, I looked for places of quiet where I could reacquaint myself with His presence. I was blessed with the Prayer of Quiet from my early years and this has never left me.

This resting in the quiet and silence grew in tandem with another aspect of my life. For the last fifty years, I have spent most of my vacations hiking in the woods and mountains, climbing the surrounding peaks to admire the beautiful views. Nature has always been a source of wonder to me. However, as I examine and reflect on this experience more closely, I realize why I have been drawn to this type of vacation. While walking through the forest or climbing the peaks, the beauty of the woods and the silence of nature provides me an opportunity where I can encounter that other presence and have an epiphany from God.

Living on the East Coast of the United States, I often hike in the Adirondack State Park of upstate New York. The park lies close to the Canadian border and the St. Lawrence Valley. The mountains and lakes of the Adirondacks have their own type of beauty, accentuated with various kinds of pine and aspen trees that make up the woods. There are times when the mountains are not crowded with hikers so that there is silence as I walk through the forest and climb the peaks. In the quiet of the forest, as the sun streams through the branches and leaves, I feel the presence of God among these beautiful things and feel His presence accompany me on the journey to the peak. Interestingly, though the forest is still and quiet, it is never empty. It is always filled with this presence.

When I walk alone, I deliberately do not talk with other people so my body and person can be attuned to the presence of God. Of course, the strenuous ascent and the sweat and labor that I must exert to reach the peak are their own distractions, but they do not disrupt the serenity of the silence of the forest or the quiet within myself.

Reaching the peak, the exhilaration of the view and experience of the winds cooling my overheated and sweaty body make me forget all the pain endured and effort made to get to the top. The time on the peak allows me to have lunch, which gives my body the strength for the long walk down. On peaks that are not so popular with hikers, there are quiet spots where I can look at the lovely view of the mountains, lakes, and valleys in the distance, and appreciate the vast spaces and heights of the mountains. I am often greeted by the sharp winds that blow in from these spaces, and at times, have the privilege of watching the hawks glide on the air currents that come up over the peaks. Depending on the day, one can watch the play of the sun and clouds as they cast shadows and sunlight over the peaks and the forest. I experience a sense of silence and quiet which pervades the grandeur of nature and the view in front of me and I feel God's presence. I am drawn to open the bible and read certain verses appropriate for the occasion:

You, the heavens, praise the Lord!

And you, sun and moon, praise the Lord!

And you, night and day, praise the Lord!

And you, mountains and hills, praise the Lord!(Daniel 3)

Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things.

(Psalm 97)

In the history of religions, men and women have been drawn to the wilderness, such as the forest and desert, to encounter God in solitude. John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early Christian monks are prominent examples in the Judeo-Christian history. I am grateful that from where I live in New York; the Adirondack Mountains are close by, so I am able to encounter God in the silence and beauty of nature.

Since I speak French, I take the occasion to visit Montreal and the St. Lawrence River valley. Beyond the enjoyment of experiencing the French speaking world, I have found my visits to the St. Lawrence River valley to be an intense spiritual experience. The river is large and its valley takes advantage of the climate, which is milder than other parts of Canada, to grow grain, vegetables, and fruit on the many farms. The river has a wonderful blue color as it reflects the north country's intensely blue sky, and its size and depth are a host to ocean going vessels on their way to and from the St. Lawrence River canal. Over the centuries, the French-Canadians have built many churches on the shores of the river that add to the beauty and spirituality of the valley; many pilgrims, even from the United States, visit these churches asking God and the Virgin Mary for assistance with the many problems of their lives.

At different times of the day, I assisted at the office of hours, sung seven times a day by the monks. The chanting exuded a sense of silence, quiet, and the praise of God. The small brochure of the monastery explains that the monks are watchers in the night waiting for God and that they encounter God through a life of silence and manual labor. Assisting at the chanting of the office allowed me to experience this silence and darkness where I could meet the Other.

My few days of hiking through the farmland around Oka and attending the chants of the monks were a two-pronged experience. The chanting of the office stimulated my experience of God in the lovely countryside, and the quiet beauty of nature helped me to appreciate the silence and peace that surrounded the chant.

The important element for me was the silence, because it led me deeper into the mystery of God and the Godhead. Meister Eckhart writes that we have to go beyond the Trinity to reach the Godhead and that in the face of the latter's nothingness, unknowability, and emptiness we sit in silence and in that silence, the Godhead manifests itself to us.

Marie-Madeleine Davy, a French writer on spirituality, in her book, Les chemins de la profondeur, puts it well:

Most deeply, that which interests me, grasps me and seduces me, it is the Godhead of whom we can say nothing. There is a total, complete, rigorous and absolute silence; in fact, one discovers, one understands, one penetrates...There is not the possibility of words; this is lived in the intensity of a secret, in the intensity of life and perhaps of death. (my translation, 187)

Another dimension to my contemplative path occurred in my middle-aged years when I encountered suffering and conflict. Many problems and trials suddenly burst into my life and I was forced to make changes in my work and lifestyle. There were times when I felt that God had abandoned me and I did not know where to turn. During these years of suffering, I slowly noticed a presence and a silence deep within me. I had never experienced a presence at the core of my being as I did then. I slowly realized that this presence was part of my faith and that despite all the problems, I had always held on to my faith. God was present at my center and a source of hope that helped me to hang on, in spite of it all.

At the end of my years of suffering and problems, I had two experiences that helped me come to grips with these trials. First, for about six months, I had a continual sense of the presence of God and that permeated through my whole person and body. At first, I did not know what I was feeling, but later I realized that I was experiencing God in a very explicit way. In all my activities and even when I was working, I could feel Him touching me and being within me. Contemplation and meditation were easy and full of consolation and I had no distractions; I just had to sit in God's presence and enjoy it. I remember when the continual presence of God seemed to diminish. It took me a while to come down from the glow that went away gradually. I believe that God gave me this experience of His presence in order to build me up after so many difficulties in my life. His presence gave me hope and consolation after going through so much.

The second experience I had, brought closure to my years of suffering, if such a thing is possible. In 2002, I made a silent pilgrimage to Spain to visit the graves of John of the Cross in Segovia and Teresa of Avila in Alba de Tormes. Teresa of Avila while fell ill while traveling and died in a small farming town south of Salamanca. I had visited the chapel where she is buried in 1982 for the first time and decided to return there in 2002. When I arrived at the chapel and visited her burial place, I asked her if she remembered me from twenty years ago. I mentioned to her that since 1982 many things had happened to me including much suffering. Immediately her famous poem "Solo Dios basta" ("Only God matters") came to mind, and I just happened to have it with me:

Nothing should bother you.

Do not let things get you down.

Keep in mind, patience

accomplishes all.

If you are with God,

you will lack nothing.

Only God matters.

(my translation)

For the few days that I was in the town, I remained in silence and would occasionally read the poem again. I believe that Teresa and her poem led me into God's presence, healing the wounds of my suffering. Since then, I often go back to the poem to strengthen my confidence in God, in spite of all the ups and down of my pilgrimage on earth.

The third movement of my contemplative life occurred recently when I began to lose interest in the usual human activities of work, art, and so on, and instead found myself withdrawing more into silence and solitude where I can touch God's presence. This tendency has become very strong and I feel it as a cultural shock. I have been a very busy person in the world with my education, work, and other activities; I have always felt the need to produce. Now on the initiative of someone else, I am leaving these things and am called to sit in silence and solitude, in a presence full of mystery and transcendence. I am now semi-retired so I can make space for this. There is a phrase in German describing this experience, "Gotteswirken ist ein wirken der stille und der nacht" ("God's works are works of silence and the night.") All my life I have taken the initiative to keep ahead in my work and activities and now someone else is taking the initiative and revealing Himself to me. With time, this cultural shock may abate, but we cannot change our human nature or history, so this tension may always be with me. John of the Cross, in his commentary on the dark night, describes this experience saying that when in contemplative prayer, God weans us away from the things and activities of the world and attach us to Himself. I am led to sit in the quiet of His presence and find peace there. In my life, I am losing something but gaining something else, and I feel the energy of this change.

In this growing tendency to seek silence and solitude, I feel fortunate that I live close to the Atlantic Ocean and many state parks on the south shore of Long Island. In my hours of solitude and silence, God is calling me to a relationship of love with Him. It is a very deep one because God is present at the core of my person and there is no one closer to me than He is. I constantly reread the two poems of John of the Cross "The Dark Night" and "The Living Flame of Love" where he beautifully describes this love relationship. In the last line of the latter poem, John says that God woos us to love Him and that is why he calls us into silence and solitude. In my frequent walks on the seashore, I am called to let God do this and grow in this love relationship.

Here again, I feel a tension in the contemplative experience. This experience of God is a mysterious one because He is transcendent and always beyond me. God will always be the Other and that is why it will always be at night as John of Cross so well describes in his poem "The Dark Night." I have to live with the tension that no one is closer to me than God, but that God is also out of my grasp. In the same vein, William Johnston writes in the book The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling that we cannot know God with our intellect but can have a relationship with Him through love. Our senses and intellect have to be emptied of created things so that God can pour His light into them. "It is impossible to see and possess God fully in this life, but with his grace and in his own time, it is possible to taste something of him as he is in himself" (60-61).

In many of the contemplative traditions, writers mention that we are called to a spiritual marriage and union with God. The imagery of a human marriage is used to help us see where God is leading us. In the Christian tradition, there are two persons who had this spiritual and interior marriage with God. On November 18, 1572, in the chapel of the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain, Teresa of Avila experienced her interior marriage with God in the presence of John of the Cross. In her book, The Interior Castle, she mentions that in a spiritual marriage, God comes and makes a special place in the center of the person where He alone dwells (261).

A French woman named Barbe Avrillot, who later became known as Mary of the Incarnation (1599-1672), on three occasions experienced a spiritual marriage with the Trinity and Jesus. On Pentecost 1625, she had an interior marriage with the Trinity. On Pentecost 1627, she experienced a spiritual marriage with Jesus, and on March 17, 1631 she had an ecstatic vision of the Trinity and a mystical marriage with them. A few years later, she took the name "Mary of the Incarnation" in honor of her husband, Jesus the Incarnation. In her letters and writings, she writes beautifully of the depth and intimacy of her union with God, the Trinity, and Jesus. She experienced the continual presence of God at the core of her person. She refers to God being present at her center as a love nest, where God and she meet. Through this union with God, she received the gift of peace which remained with her even during trials and difficulties, and she treasured it throughout her life.

The contemplative path of my life is a pilgrimage of walking with someone or rather I am being drawn by someone who is leading me on. Someone has taken the initiative to have me enter into His presence. The lives of Teresa of Avila and Mary of the Incarnation show me that our contemplative path should lead to an interior marriage with God. John of the Cross advises that we have to be silent and listen. A chance visit to el Convento de Santo Domingo, a restored monastery in Oaxaca, Mexico, left me touched by God, although I did not recognize it until I had retuned home to New York. When meditating on the pictures of the monastery, alone and silent, I was once again ushered into the presence of God. We are not in control so we have to be open and vigilant in silence. John of the Cross in his poem "The Spiritual Canticle" points to where God will lead us in our contemplative path:

Love, let us now

Rejoice and through your beauty

Travel hills and mountains

Where clear water runs;

Let's push into the wilds more deeply.

And then we'll go on up,

Up to the caverns of stone

That are so high and well hidden.

And there we will enter

To taste wine pressed from pomegranates.



Davy, Marie-Madeleine. Les chemins de la profondeur. Gordes, France: Editions Questions de, 1999. 

Johnston, William. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York: Doubleday, 1996. 

Marie de l'Incarnation. L'experience de Dieu avec Marie de l'Incarnation. Edited by Guy-Marie Oury. Paris, France: Editions Fides, 1999. 

St. John of the Cross. The Poems of St. John of the Cross. Translated by Ken Krabbenhoft. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999.  

Theresa of Avila, Saint. The Interior Castle. Translated by Mirabai Starr. New York: Riverside Books, 2003.

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