Practicing The Presence of God: Daily Life Spiritually Defined
Nicholas Herman, alias Brother Lawrence was a member of the Carmelite Order in the 1600’s in France. While that might make you think, that was a long time ago, and what could he teach me about contemporary spirituality, the answer is plenty! Particularly when it comes to having a genuine commitment to God and to the need to reduce our egos or get them out of the way, so the light of service can flow through us….
The Carmelites, then and now are known for their intense sense of devotion, and for the willingness to endure in their faith through what has been timelessly names the “dark night of the soul” which comes down to us from St. John of The Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. However, Brother Lawrence was different in that his experience of the Holy was lead by his humility and sincerity, and revealed in a candid and practical way. He did not take on those onerous practices of self denial, instead, his struggle was to see and follow God in his daily life; through his routines, chores, and daily and to develop his spiritual awareness and encourage it to grow into an intimacy with God’s reality in our daily lives.
Lawrence was neither handsome, or even generally attractive. We are given a description of him as short, thin, and lame, and as a man who was generally uneasy or uncomfortable
just being himself. Yet, with all those exterior and social obstacles, what he accomplished, what he taught and modeled for us could not be claimed by very many people in religious life: You see, his life was simple… and splendid. He was able to see God in that simplicity and he was able to find a sustaining sense of God’s presence and reality while attending to every day’s duties and responsibilities.
In the few correspondences he left behind, we are given a definition of what it means to practice the presence of God. Brother Lawrence recommends that we try to consecrate or sanctify everything we do; No matter how inconsequential it might appear to be or how mundane and routine it appears to us. His perspective is one of the Western spiritual counterparts to the Buddhist practice(s) of Mindfulness that also carries with it, a more devotional aspect… It is the more personal, heart-centered awareness of the Divine with you and working through you as you approach every facet of your lives; that it is present in every chore, each meeting, each encounter, each situation, in this time and in every place… Very simple… Very difficult!
This is clearly the opposite of needing to “get away” so you can become ‘spiritual” so it is the opposite of going on retreat… But it is also the opposite of elaborate rituals and lengthy prayers, attending formal services during Holy Days, or treating the presence of God as only being available when you are doing
something special or that it is somehow reserved or apart from the human experience, reserved for times of crisis or times of sentimental religion, like Christmas.
Brother Lawrence came to see that even within the most strict or rigid set of rules and structures within a monastic life, there really is no need for the Daily Offices, or set times for prayers, liturgies, and elaborate ceremonies. Instead, he found himself able to apply a prayerful consciousness to his everyday realities, and all the many chores and deeds that comprise the average human daily experience. In the middle of making a salad, preparing potatoes, sweeping the floor, feeding the animals or any other household routine, he could express his thoughts and communicate with God as an intimate familiar friend and trustworthy guide.
As a model for contemporary spirituality, this approach fits well within the possibilities for our spiritual awareness and growth. It is not bound by any specific rules or creeds, it does not require elaborate rituals or confessions of faith, but it does depend on one’s personal sense of commitment and consistency.
In the midst of trying to keep our lives straight and when we are caught up in the rush of daily life where we have to catch our breath, (much less hold on to any lasting sense of inspiration!) comes the sincere and simple advice of Brother Lawrence that declares that God can be found right in the middle of it all!
The irony is that our breath is and our source of inspiration are exactly what we need to catch and hold onto during each moment of each day. It does not matter if this sounds impossible because its practice is always good, always beneficial and cannot fail us. Whatever modest success we have with remembering God’s presence will be to our benefit, once a day, every moment… whenever we can, its blessings come with every attempt we make and will promote more happiness, health, and harmony for us.
There is nothing wrong or negative in being busy; boredom is far worse. The emphasis has to rest on one’s attitude towards whatever task or occupation is before us. There is nothing wrong with having initiative, having a sense of industry creativity or enjoying a sense of accomplishment. The problem is when there is an absence of God, good, grace in the process and a lack of awareness that can degenerate into materialistic striving or blind and soulless ambition. Brother Lawrence’s teachings recommend that we look toward God and cling fast to the insights that come from our spiritual guidance. We do this by keeping watch over our motives and acts, and keeping watch through prayerful reflection during our waking and working moments.
Brother Lawrence was accepted into the monastery when he was just eighteen years old; He stayed within those walls and confines and lived out his routines for some fifty years. After his early, initial awakening to the realities of God that could be found everywhere… in nature, in others, in oneself, he found that he was not sure how he could apply this awareness to his life. He felt that its one thing to have an isolated flash of recognition or insight but it was quite another thing to change- to learn to live by what he once felt was so real. Like so many people, then and today, these insights can lead one to the church ( or away from it!) and in pursuit of a spiritual vocation, widely defined. The goal of such a chase or pursuit would be to replicate those initial feelings and insights in a way that allowed him to share them with others.
Then came the rude shock. Because he was of noble birth, and had a keen intellect, he expected that the Abbot would place him in the library, or give him a scholar’s position. Instead, he was given the assignment to be a cook, a task he detested! Seeing no alternative to his dissatisfactions, and having no recourse with the Abbot, he sought to learn this tedious and unglamorous new “vocation” as a way to express his service to God and to his brother monks. He reluctantly accepted the challenges of kitchen duty, and through his own struggles and trials, he was able to turn the monotony and the everyday drudgery into a continual daily prayer- trying to see God, and talk with God throughout everything he had to do.
Have you ever tried looking or approaching your days like that? Too often, our good intentions end at spilling the coffee, or exit before we leave home! I ask: can we learn to just take a moment to consider how our lives could become a little more tranquil… How we could make each task of our day a little more loving, receptive, creative?
Clearly, I am not recommending trying to walk around with a pious angelic look on your face… or wandering around like some lost saint! I know, I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work! People think you are searching for the rest room! Such a nonchalance or adopting an overly mystical mindset is, at best, a romantic illusion. It is neither helpful to your spiritual progress nor is it anything but precarious when dealing with the outer world and all of its traffic! The practice the presence is not merely an idea that works for monks or only in monasteries. It is within the reach of us all.
The presence of God manifests through the refocusing of our hearts and minds to include an abiding sense of companionship and dialogue that will change our perceptions. This inclusion of the Divine gives us a wider view of compassion and a deeper sense of inspiration that gives shape and direction to our days.
Q: What if you have trouble praying or feel that you cannot come up with all the right words, exalted thoughts, rich, poetic, and wonderful feelings? It doesn’t really matter… To be at a loss for words or groping around for a greater sense of understanding is not so bad… simple words, even fleeting thoughts can suffice.
As Brother Lawrence recommends in his writings:
“[We must seek to serve God in holy freedom. We must do our work faithfully, without trouble, or any disquieting thoughts. We need to recall our minds to God, with an ease and a tranquility that welcomes us back to remembering, when ever our minds have wandered.” ( Universal teachings in many forms of meditation, using mantras, or in the process of watching ones internal processes…)
He completes his instruction by recommending that “whatever is before us, we can do with a renewed appreciation that we are doing it for God.”
(Wheels of Wood story…)
It is important to remember that practicing the presence of God is not some superficial form of magical thinking or positive affirmations. It is neither creating positive slogans nor some convoluted mind science. It is what it is! Developing a remembrance of God and feeling free to talk with God which has, as its result, an ability to make our communications more clear and compassionate. as we remember, these qualities transfer to our consciousness… they become our own…
We embody God through our thoughts, through our feelings and our conversations that increase our composure and grants us a greater sense of peace no matter the task ahead: changing a tire or changing a diaper! Our sense of peace and confidence, our composure and our sense of calm comes to us because whatever we are doing, we are doing for others and with God. The quality of our lives depends less on one’s own thinking as it does on the connection, communication and cooperation with God that becomes a holy relationship.
As you can easily see, the practice of the presence of God is not for the faint hearted or the weak willed; It is not for those who think of themselves first, or who are easily discouraged. It is accomplished through a diligent joy. Yes, it is easy to forget, but it is just as easy to resume and regain where you left off in your divine dialogue. The only real difference between the hallowed saint and the ordinary person is their diligence, focus, and the constancy of their efforts to achieve a divine intimacy and understanding.
Surely, there will be times when negativity and ego tendencies strive with this desire … when we will experience tension, depression, and all the rest… What happiness there is to obtain or receive in our lives is not dependent on an external
event or circumstance– It is to be found in being able to carry on a divine conversation. The practice of this relationship is like any other you cherish; It is a lifelong pursuit. in point of fact, our lives can change with a simple song, a loving thought or an easy prayer. Our highest employment, our best career move is found in remembering God.
Jesus urged us never to be afraid to ask, to knock, to pray, and to trust that God hears us. He also said that if we seek God first, all things will be added unto us. Paul said that the task of a spiritual person is to “pray without ceasing”…
So may the practice of the presence of God fill your lives with companionship and beauty, even throughout your daily routines, and may your communication with God enliven you with a greater sense of companionship and may your communication strengthen and open your hearts. ” May God fill you with faith and hope and the joy that comes from believing.”
Amen; So Be It….