The Sweet Presence of Jesus
By Glenn E. Myers, Ph.D.
O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
(Psalm 63:1, NKJV)
Have you longed for God so much that your body ached for him? What does it mean to encounter God’s presence during prayer and worship? What should we do when we go through desert times and cannot feel his sweetness?
Godly women of the Middle Ages called Beguines help us explore the answers to such questions. Beginning in the twelfth century, these laywomen formed Christian communities to pursue Christ. Here they could hear Scripture read daily, find fellowship with like-minded believers and cultivate their personal relationship with the Lord.
Sweetness of God’s Presence
In their writings, the Beguines describe their own encounters with God. Often they depict their experience of God’s love in terms of “sweetness.” The letters and poems of one Belgian Beguine named Hadewijch pulsate with love for Jesus. Hadewijch invites her readers into an intimate relationship with God who is Love. From the time she was ten years old, she experienced God’s touch in her life. She wants her readers to know God’s presence in the same way, and she bids us to leave behind half-hearted Christianity to plunge into a fervent love relationship with the Lord:
“O beloved, why has not Love sufficiently overwhelmed you and engulfed you in her abyss? Alas! when Love is so sweet, why do you not fall deep into her? And why do you not touch God deeply enough in the abyss of his Nature, which is so unfathomable? Sweet love, give yourself for Love’s sake fully to God in love.”
Mechthild of Magdeburg—a German Beguine and contemporary of Hadewijch’s—likewise calls us to a passionate pursuit of Jesus and an openness to experiencing his sweet presence:
“I delight in loving him who loves me, and I long to love him to the death, boundlessly, and without ceasing. Be happy, my soul, for your Life has died for love of you. Love him so fiercely that you could die for him. Thus you burn ever more without ever being extinguished as a living flame in the vast fire of high majesty.”
Such longing for God pervades Psalm 63 as David describes his body aching for the Lord’s presence. The same intense desire fills the lives and writings of the Beguines.
God Draws Us to Himself
Encountering God’s presence is not simply emotionalism, nor is it experience for the sake of experience. Rather, God’s touch will change our lives.
Hadewijch tells us that the sweetness of such encounters with the Lord is meant to lure us away from the false loves of the world—all the distractions and addictions that clamor for our attention. These hold no interest for us if we truly taste the overpowering presence of Jesus:
“You should always look fixedly on your Beloved whom you desire. For he who gazes on what he desires becomes ardently enkindled, so that his heart within him begins to beat slowly because of the sweet burden of love. And through perseverance in this holy life of contemplation, wherein he continually gazes on God, he is drawn within God. Love ever makes him taste her so sweetly that he forgets everything on earth.”
Likewise Mechthild asserts that God’s presence woos us away from earthly pleasures. She experienced God’s touch from the time she was young, and such encounters stole her heart from carnal distractions. It “spoiled for me all worldly sweetness,” writes Mechthild. God “let me experience such delightful sweetness, such holy knowledge, and such incomprehensible wonders that I found little enjoyment in earthly things.”
Genuine encounters with God’s presence set our hearts ablaze with love for the Lord and keep us from growing lukewarm. Mechthild writes, “Jesus, dearest Lover of mine, let me approach you . . . with deep love for you in my heart, and never let me grow cold, so that I constantly feel your intense love in my heart and in my soul and in my five senses and in all my members. Then I can never grow cold.”
When the Feelings Fade
If you have walked with God over many years, however, you know that such intensity of emotion does not last forever. Feelings fade. Springtime mellows into the long days of summer. Dry times come. New love softens into the long haul of committed friendship. So it is in our relationship with the Lord.
The lack of intense feeling does not mean that we have done something wrong. As we read the Psalms, we realize that dark and dry seasons are part of the walk with God. Although we miss the sweetness, we need not panic.
Hadewijch prepares her readers for the time when these passionate feelings and intimate encounters with the Lord dissipate. She tells us that the emotions of falling in love do not last forever. While we are certainly to enjoy emotional connection with the Lord when we experience it, we dare not cling to it.
Those who clutch to feelings and experiences are often led astray. Indeed, we find that they were more interested in having a “spiritual high” than they were in loving God. Hadewijch observes:
“For we discover in these souls that as long as sweetness endures in them, they are gentle and fruitful. But when the sweetness vanishes, their love goes too. . . . These are fainthearted folk; they are easily elated when all is sweet and distressed when anything is bitter. A small heavenly favor makes their heart exceedingly joyful, and a small sorrow exceedingly afflicts it.”
Although it is hard to release those initial feelings of being in love, we must do so. Early experiences of spiritual sweetness must give way to a more mature love that is forged in dry times. If God always pampers us, we will never grow up spiritually. Rather, he allows sweet feelings to fade so that we might develop a deeper relationship with him and more complete understanding of him. Therefore Hadewijch exhorts us to be “content to be deprived of sweet repose for the sake of this great totality of God!” We will grow into a mature relationship with the Lord, and he will ultimately reward us in full!
For Contemporary Christians
The Beguines give wise counsel to believers today. For those who are afraid of feelings, these godly mentors challenge us to open our hearts wide. Because God is personal, our hearts will be stirred in all the ways of any genuine love relationship.
For those who have enjoyed spiritual sweetness in the past but are now facing dry times, be encouraged! Virtually all great believers have passed this way. Our roots are being forced to go deeper during this drought, and we are entering a new, mature relationship with the God we love!
Buy Glenn's book: Seeking Spiritual Intimacy
Myers, Glenn. Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
2011 © Glenn E. Myers
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Learn more at Glenn's Blog: deepwellswithglennmyers.blogspot.com
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For Further Reading
Hadewijch: The Complete Works. Translated by Mother Columba Hart. In The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.
Mechthild of Magdeburg. The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Translated by Frank Tobin. In The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998.
Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200 – 1565. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Glenn E. Myers is a professor of Church History at Crown College with a specialization in the history of Christian Spirituality. His passion is introducing contemporary Christians to the wisdom, depth and vitality of spiritual leaders from the past two thousand years of the church. Receiving an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in church history from Boston University, Dr. Myers has served as a pastor, a missionary and a professor.
In 1995-1996, he and his wife Sharon ministered with CBN in Kiev. Currently Glenn serves on the board at Restoration Ministries, Inc., offers retreats and provides spiritual direction. He is a contributor to Zondervan Press’ forthcoming Dictionary of Christian Spirituality and is nearing completion of a book on the Beguines. Offering fresh spiritual water to thirsty saints today, he authors a blog: deepwellswithglennmyers.blogspot.com.
© 2009 by Glenn E. Myers. Used with permission.
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