I spent last weekend at a silent retreat in a Trappist monastery tucked in the rolling hills of Kentucky. As I entered the Quiet and Solitude I had one intention: I wanted to experience God’s presence; or perhaps more honestly, I wanted to know if God is really real.
You see, there’s a part of me that still holds back. Still wonders about God and if he’s really real because I don’t want to get duped. And I don’t want to dupe myself. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find out this God-thing was a farce, like fake news, or finding out LALA Land didn’t really win best picture of the year at the Oscars.
I also don’t want create a fairy tale God. I don’t want to be an emotional hippie who needs God to be real, because if he isn’t, then maybe I’m not real either? Maybe we’re just figments of each other’s imaginations?
Those are the kinds of doubts that nag at me from time to time. And one of the reasons I went on the silent retreat was to try and lay some of those doubts to rest.
So, soon after checking in at the monastery and participating in afternoon prayer with the 25 monks who form this silent community, I went to my cell-like room, lit a small candle, and put it on the window ledge. Then I sat down in the chair next to it in the quiet. And listened.
After a few moments, I had this crazy idea pop into my head: If God is real, why don’t you ask him to blow out the candle to prove he’s present with you? It sounded like a cool way to bring my doubts to an end, and so I did. I jokingly challenged God.
I said to God teasingly, “If you are here with me in this room, if you are real, then blow out this candle.” And then I waited. Watching. Wondering.
After 10 minutes or so of staring at the candle, I realized it wasn’t going to go out.
And then I laughed at my silly attempt to try and make God reveal himself to me. Maybe I should have placed the candle in the window, slid open the glass pane, and let the breeze blow it out, I thought to myself. Ha. Ha.
But I didn’t do that.
Instead, I sat in the silence for quite a bit longer and stared at the yellow glow flickering on my window ledge. I watched the flame dance back and forth above the jar and noticed the barely visible waves of heat rising from the fire.
And then something happened—something subtle and ordinary—yet profound.
The rays from the center of the candle seemed to glow outwardly like a prism reaching toward my chest. And as they did, I began to feel the warmth of the flame inside my body just behind my heart.
I placed my hand on my chest. The warmth soothed me. It quieted my mind. And in that moment, I felt a Presence. A Knowing. I could sense God’s whisper, I am here. Now. With you. Always.
It was an experience beyond words. It felt like I was in relationship with that Presence in the room. I could feel its Love and Inner Touch. I felt safe. Peaceful. Whole.
The wisdom teachers say that the average person, if they are aware and open, has a multitude of spiritual experiences—encounters with the Divine—throughout the course of a day. Some experience God’s presence in supernatural ways like Julian of Norwich who had visions from God, or St. John of the Cross who had profound insights and revelations as he wrote from his jail cell.
But, most of us have more of a quiet presence that speaks to our heart. A gentle voice that whispers love and guidance.
And it’s that experience of God’s presence, of actually participating in an intimate relationship between God and ourselves that moves us from mere intellectual knowledge to a deeper knowing that God is real and active in our life. That deeper knowing—those experiences of God—affirm his passionate love for us and in us. God becomes Real.
My experience at the monastery was one of that quiet Presence. I didn’t levitate or have visions. I simply knew he was there and always has been. And the gift he wished to give me was inner peace. Certainty that he does exist to dispel my doubts.
One of the wisdom traditions that’s been handed down over the years teaches that the Soul has an actual physical location within our body. It’s there behind our heart. It’s a fire, a small light that burns gently within us like an eternal flame. Some call it our Center, the seat of Wisdom, others name it Christ-in-us, or the Holy Spirit.
It was that flame I felt in my chest sitting alone in the Quiet, asking God if he was real. And I can feel that flame again as I write these words. I feel its warmth. Its radiance. Its Presence.
Days have passed since the retreat, and I’m busy once again with the tasks of daily living. But, I still experience the presence of an inner light from time to time. And when I do, I often place my hand on my chest to remember what if feels like, to connect with the Light, to know it is Real.
God didn’t blow out the candle that day at the retreat. But I realized he did something more simple and profound.
He reminded me that he’s placed his Light within me, within all of us. It’s an “inner light of love” that can’t be extinguished because it dwells safely within our hearts, in our souls, and God tends it like a watchman to make sure no one or nothing snuffs it out.
Our journey is to become aware of the inner light, to receive it, and claim it as a gift from God. And as we tend the flame, stoke it as we would a campfire with daily times of solitude—sitting in the quiet, meditating, pondering, listening—we give our souls the oxygen it needs to keep our Light burning brightly so it can light the path of others around us who are still looking for their inner flame.
We are the Light of the world, scripture says. And the light is right here in our hearts. It’s the light of love, the eternal flame that allows us to experience God’s Presence and know he is Real.
—brian j plachta
I never got that kiss with Teresa. But as I reflect on that long-ago night, I realize Sister Carmella shared two pieces of wisdom I’ll never forget: to leave room for Jesus and the healing power of a smile.