If you are like me and grew up attending religious education classes of some sort, you may have come across the line, “If God stopped thinking about you at any instant, you would immediately disappear; you would cease to exist.” What a terrifying thought to offer the inquisitive mind of a child! The suggestion seems to be that, on occasion, either through forgetfulness or malice, God annihilates some unfortunate person or persons. But this is not true; God doesn’t even annihilate demons or the damned, much less unsuspecting third graders.
Of course, the remark is well meant, and, properly understood, it is a vivid reminder of a profound metaphysical truth, namely, that we all depend on God for both our coming to be and our preservation in being. Indeed, meditating on this truth can help us to grow in wisdom and humility, whether we are third graders or thirty-somethings.
For some reason, it seems easy for people to accept the notion that they have their origin in God, but the fact that they are preserved in existence by God at every moment never crosses their minds. The key idea here is that God’s act of creation is not a one-time event, but rather extends through time. Since God is universal cause of all things, anything that exists not only has its origin in God, but also its conservation in being. God alone exists necessarily; God alone cannot not exist. All other beings exist contingently; they might not have existed, and they depend upon God, the Necessary Being, for their continuance in existence.
The popular notion, which runs completely contrary to this, is that, once we come into being, we exist independently of God; we are on our own and autonomous. Worse yet, some seem to believe—and perhaps we all sometimes act as if we believed—that we are the cause of our own existence. As if we could ever pat ourselves on the back and say, “Good job, self, I am glad you decided to exist! What a great idea it was to come into being!” No, however much we may fool ourselves, our existence is a gift, and it is a gift that continues as long as we continue. “What have you that you have not received?” asks St. Paul. And, of course, the appropriate response is, “Nothing. Not even myself.”
There is something utterly foundational about this truth. Prior to the fact that we are able to act as genuine causes, or the fact that we can be perfected by the grace of God, there is the fact that we depend on God for our very being. The most intimate words that Our Lord spoke to St. Catherine of Siena express this same truth: “You are she who is not; I am He who is.” This is not the type of romantic language that we usually associate with a mystic. In fact, it might seem like quite an insult. The Bridegroom does not tell his mystical bride, “I love you,” but rather, “You are nothing.” In reality, however, these words are right and just. Humility consists in knowing what one truly is in relation to God, and St. Catherine was blessed to receive this knowledge directly from our Lord. Far from being an insult, these were the intimate words of the divine Spouse.
Image: Lorenzo Veneziano, Madonna of Humility