Professor Anne Carpenter, Theology & Religious Studies, Saint Mary’s College
The truly odd thing about Saint de La Salle’s statement — “let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God” — is that it has no restrictions whatsoever. Where is God present? When? To whom? Everywhere, every-when, everyone. An early Christian named Hilary of Poitiers says, “There is no place without God, nor is there any place which is not in God. He is in heaven, in hell, and beyond the seas. He is within all things; He comes forth and is outside all things. … He is not included in anything nor is he not in all things” (On the Trinity, 1,6). So the really very odd thing about Christians is that the Trinity, the God that Christians proclaim, is thought to be present to all things equally and absolutely, and yet to be contained by none of them. God is everywhere, and God escapes us everywhere and always.
Our temptation might be to imagine something like the Force, where God is spread out in things like oxygen is in air. But that is not how Catholics see it: God is entirely, wholly, particularly, perfectly present to every single time and place. Every single one. And this God is a someone, a someone particular, who is no less infinite for it. Which is part of the reason that God cannot be contained by anything: God is so perfectly particular, so perfectly a someone, that no particular thing can be mistaken for God, or confused with God. And what this means is that God can and does make every time and place, and every person, infinitely significant, since God is within that time or place or person. So, at least as Catholics understand it, you yourself arrive to Saint Mary’s with an infinite significance that is wholly yours and wholly also God’s. You need do nothing but be yourself in order to be so significant, since God is wholly present in and to such a self, which is you. The infinite quality is on God to accomplish; the “you” is yours to accomplish, and you are yours irrevocably, since God does not take back what God once gives.
So also, then, a Church, a universal Church, a Catholic Church, that is tasked with loving God must also learn to love you, to pray for you, to want you with its own, with its whole existence. And I will be honest: this Church is profound in an imperfect and ruinous way, most of the time, because it forgets that your very existence is a calling out of itself and beyond its worries. Still do you, by every struggle of your existence, call us Catholics to be more than we at present are. So also do you escape this Church, escape it with an infinite significance that this Church must attend to and learn from, to be enriched by you and enriched by the God who gives you a special kind of infinity, however small and imperfect you are, wherever your life will take you, however much you wish you knew or have yet to learn.
It is true that in your life you will face many decisions that you cannot yet know. You will become, in a sense, someone you yourself cannot yet know. And if God is present everywhere, then God is already present in these decisions and in this person that you become. For Catholics, a way to unite all that we are with all that yet escapes us is to give to God the one thing we have at present, which is ourselves. You need not be perfect. You need not be wonderful. You need not even like yourself right now. Even still: here you are. And you can give this gift, which is you. And God will, as Catholics sometimes say it, “keep” this self and also its becoming. God will imbue the infinite significance that you already are with a further infinity, an infinity doubled divinely and infinitely, which is that you, in a fit of courage, entrust yourself to a future and to a world and to a God who escape you. At the last, then, when de La Salle says “let us remember,” he means a kind of task as much as he means a memory. He means a purpose and a deed that must always be done all over again, in every moment and in every time and in every person. He means that we always escape our own hands, and so does God, who keeps us in his.
Lawrence, O.P. on Flickr.com; Brother Charles; and Wikimedia Commons