Practicing The Presence and Br. Lawrence

July 14, 2009 - 2:54 pm 26 Comments

Brother Lawrence: Practicing The Presence of God

Invocation: Practicing the presence of God is the application of our spirit to God, it is the vivid recollection that God is present with us. It first can be accomplished by imagination, then it becomes a felt experience, and finally the presence is embodied, or fully understood.

Selected Reading: From Brother Lawrence to his close friend, the Abbess (1689)
Dear Reverend Mother;
We should often remind ourselves, dear Mother, that our only business in this life is to please God. What can be all the rest, except folly and vanity? You and I hay? spent more? than forty years in a religious order, trying as we might, to please God, and serve our brothers and sisters in this world. I am full of shame and embarrassment when I reflect on the bountiful grace God has given me, and continues to give me, and how I have made such poor use of it, and my progress down the path of perfection leads only a short way. Since by God’s mercy we have been given a little more time to live, let us make amends for any time lost. Let us return with complete confidence to the contemplation of God’s goodness and dwell on how God is pleased to receive us into his mercy and love. Let us renounce anything that keeps us from the love of God, or from any acts that do not honor him, or what is holy in us.

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Let us think on Him without ceasing, put our whole trust in God. Soon, we will experience the blessings of that trust, the abundance of that peace, and we will become capable of greater service and limitless love through him. We cannot avoid the dangers and reefs that life holds without first having God as a very present help. Let us ask for it continually. Through holy practice, we can practice our conversations with him, and learn of him in and through our lives. I know of no more proper prayer or no more easier method than this one. And as I practice, so do I advise. One must be acquainted with a person before loving them. To be acquainted with God one must think often about him, and when we do love, we will often feel God’s presence with us. For our heart is where our treasure is. So let us think constantly about HIM. I remain, in our Lord, your most humble servant, Brother Lawrence.

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Offertory: Friday evening I was among over 300 people who participated in a clearing and empowerment ritual with Shartse Tibetan monks. It was the ceremony of the Red Tara. I noticed their ease and lack of self consciousness as they were attentive to their tasks, while being relaxed in their relationship to the audience and to one another, sitting in their burgundy and gold robes, they were able to become reverent and to pinpoint their concentration. When the ceremony was over, they relaxed and responded to the crowd warmly.
Their methods and demeanor was another version of practicing the presence-the ritual they gave to the West was designed to promote healing and empowerment, to clear away discouragement and confusion. They gave us all a visualization on how the Holy interpenetrates daily life and existence-how God and humanity share the Cosmos. By acknowledging God’s presence in ritual, by chanting and visualization, their dialogue could help each of us support and bless one another.
I am also wearing a Buddhist red “protection cord” that each person received as a participant in the ceremony and its blessing. It is a continual reminder that we are watched over and protected by God. I would add that the symbolism of the red cord is that we are never undone, never cut loose and that we are tied to God and that our greatest protection is our connection to God.

4 Pastoral Reflection: Staying With God
Among those mystical types who have been successful at it, it is said that the practice of the presence of God can be done by anyone who is not dead, crazy or asleep. HMM.. I think they left me and my flaws out: anxiety and tension over time and making deadlines.
After being satisfied with choosing today’s topic as a good Lenten theme, I had organized everything {I wrote it all down, and was going to bring it into my secretaries on Friday morning. …And so far so good. Then Friday morning came and the alarm somehow did not go off… the shirt I chose did not fit, I could not find another that matched, so I had to change everything again, and there was a last minute phone call I shouldn’t have answered, and anxiously I flew out of the house. Driving somewhat furiously, I glanced into the back seat to realize I left all my papers for the order of service home. As irritation alternated with depression, I was driving over a hill on 128 near Beverly Farms and… there was an unusual, massive traffic snarl, backing up for at least a mile.. . Suddenly, in the midst of losing all hope that I would ever get to the church that morning, my mood broke. I remembered my topic and my reading for today… What came to me was a big laugh! I had to look at my comedy of errors and grin. …

What changed my mood was coming to the realization that I was believing that I had exclusive control of my life, and that by proper planning, I could ensure that nothing would foil my efforts or create disarray. I caught myself being preoccupied with my own agenda, my own self importance. Such egotism caused me to speed down the highway, all the while ranting to myself about how important it was that I be there right on time… I was caught up in a conspiracy of my own negative moods and reactions! Once it flashed on me that only responsibility I truly have is to remain aware of God, the mood lifted, and I was concerned for the people at the accident scene.
Once I remembered that any sense of peace and organization comes from God, and does not depend on things going just right, my reactions to life’s ordinary stresses and strains, became diminished-No, I do not believe that God made the traffic jam nor do I accept that I should not be responsible and plan my time, but the attitude and the accompaniment of staying with God lightens the burdens of ego and cancels a lot of worry and anxiety… Being in such dialogue or remembering spiritual ideals and its intimacy gave me a healthy detachment, a sense of perspective, and a good laugh that rebalanced my mood, and made me grateful for the day and opportunities that was before me.
In the spiritual discipline of practicing the presence of God, we go through three stages in our understanding. The first stage is to recollect-to remember God and recall God’s constant presence that lifts burdens and lightens one’s load. The second stage is to cultivate an ongoing conversational approach to God, through simple phrases, a chant, a song or easy prayers, creating a dialogue with God’s listening to you, and you stopping to listen to God. The third stage arrives when you can sustain this awareness despite whatever befalls you, and keep what ideas that will encourage you and brighten your relationship with the rest of humanity. It is important not to be easily dissuaded or discouraged with this approach. You will go through times and cycles when it comes effortlessly or when it appears too difficult or that you forget to do it at all! But Just like TM, Benedictine Centering Prayer, The Relaxation Response, or Vipassana meditation, you are asked to return to your task of walking and talking with God gently and persistently until the practice becomes automatic and regular part of your dally life.
[“It is said that the interior life is precisely an elevation of inner conversation. It is the transformation of intimate dialogue that everyone already holds with themselves, into a precious conversation we hold intimately with God.]”

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SERMON: Practicing The Presence;
Looking at the life and example of Brother Lawrence O.C.
Nicholas Herman, alias Brother Lawrence, was part of the Carmelite order during the 1600’s in France. The Carmelites are known for their intense spiritual devotion and as the classic school of Western spirituality best known from the writings of SSTs. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. But Brother Lawrence was different. He was humble and sincere, and more practical, more like you and me. He was less likely to engage in austere self denying practices. He was someone who earnestly would like to develop spiritual awareness, an intimacy with God’s reality in our lives.
Lawrence was neither handsome, nor generally attractive. He was short, thin, and lame, appearing at first, to be awkward and uncomfortable in being himself. Yet, with all those personal and social obstacles, what he accomplished and taught could not be claimed by very many religious or successful people: His was a simple life, made splendid, because he was able to see a grand simplicity and he was able to find and practice God’s presence in the every day’s duties and responsibilities.

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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 or mundane it appears to us. His perspective is the Western Christian counterpart to the practice of Mindfulness that carries the additional, personal, heart-centered awareness of the Divine with you into each facet of your lives; into each chore, each meeting, each encounter, each situation, in this time and place. Very simple… quite difficult.
This approach is the opposite of taking a retreat, offering formal prayers, or attending services at special holy times, as if God were a special component or slice one’s life, reserved for a special crisis or Christmas. Brother Lawrence came to see that even within the set structures of monastic life, there really was no need for a schedule of daily prayers, formal liturgies, and any elaborate ceremony.
Instead, he found himself able to apply prayer to the everyday realities all around him; that in the midst of his daily duties, he could express and communicate with God as an intimate friend and guide As a model, this approach fits well as a possibility for our spiritual growth. It is not bound by a specific creed or elaborate confession, but relies on personal commitment.
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In the midst of trying to keep our lives straight and in the rush when we can hardly catch our breath, much less hold on to some inspiration, comes the advice of Lawrence that says that God is found right in the middle of it all! The irony is that our breath and our source of inspiration are exactly what we need to catch and hold on to each moment, each day. It does not matter if this sounds impossible because it is always good and cannot fail us. Whatever modest success we have with remembering or putting together our understanding of God’s presence in our lives will be to our benefit, once a day or every moment, for it accumulates blessings in each attempt, 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 toward whatever task or occupation is before us. There is nothing wrong with having initiative, industry, creativity or enjoying accomplishment. The problem is the absence of God from the mental and emotional process, and the lack of awareness of how God’s presence supports our efforts and provides us with inspirational solutions. Brother Lawrence’s teachings recommend that we look toward God and cling fast to that spiritual guidance by keeping watch and by encouraging prayerful reflection during our waking and working moments.
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Brother Lawrence was accepted into the monastery when he was eighteen; he stayed within those walls and routines for some fifty years. After his early, initial awakening to the reality 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 in his life. He felt that it was one thing to have a flash of insight, it was quite another to change, to live by what he once felt was so real. Like so many people, then and today, these insights lead one to the church and toward considering a spiritual vocation that seeks to reproduce these feelings and insights and 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 scholarly position. Instead, he was assigned to the assist the cook- a job that he detested! Seeing no alternatives to his dissatisfactions, and having no recourse with the abbot, he sought to learn this tedious and unglamorous new “vocation” as his service to God and to his brother monks. He reluctantly accepted the challenge of kitchen duty and through his own struggle and trials, he turned the monotony and everyday drudgery into a daily, continual prayer, trying to see and talk with God throughout all that he had to do.
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Have you ever tried looking or approaching your days like that? Too often, our good intentions end at spilling the coffee, or before we leave home. But take a moment to consider, how could your life become more tranquil, How could it become more loving, receptive, creative?
Clearly, I am not recommending trying to walk around with an angelic look on your face, or wandering through the halls looking like a lost saint. I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work, people think you are only looking for the rest rooms! Such nonchalance or an overly mystical mind set is a romantic illusion, not helpful when dealing with inner turmoil or outer traffic. To practice the presence is not merely an idea that works for monks or in monasteries, it is in reach of us all.
The presence of God manifests through a refocusing of our hearts and minds to include an abiding sense of companionship and dialogue that gives us a changed perspective, gives us compassion and inspiration for our days and years.
What if you have trouble praying, or feel that you cannot come up with all the right words, exalted thoughts, rich and wonderful feelings? It doesn’t much matter, for to be at a loss for words or groping for understanding is not so bad… simple words, even fleeting thoughts at first suffice.
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As Lawrence recommends in his writings:
“[We must seek to serve God in holy freedom. We must do our work faithfully without trouble, or any disquiet. We need to recall to our minds God, but mildly, comfortably, with a tranquillity that welcomes us back to remembering, when we sense that our mind has wandered.]” In that way, whatever is before us, we can do with a renewed appreciation that we are doing it for God.
(My story about the wheels of wood)
Before I came here, I lived near the ocean, and had a wood stove.
To save money one year, I purchased three cords of wood advertised as uncut for a low price. I expected that it would come in neat chunks and that I would have to split it all- once. Well, I was at work when they delivered. …
The wood I had ordered was cut – cut into wheels from mammoth trees- approx., five feet round by one to two feet thick. Imagine my surprise when I drove in to see Paul Bunyan’s tiddlywinks strewn all over the driveway!
I called and said this must be a mistake.., but it wasn’t. I groaned many times cutting up that supply… but during the time, I talked to myself and to God a lot about the whole situation.

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It also gave me many laughs at Peter’s predicament. (It finally gave me delicious heat, so that even during the Great Blizzard, we were able to stay warm.)
Practicing the presence is not some superficial form of positive thinking, nor is it an exotic form of mind science. It is what it is: it is the sacred intention- the holy task of developing a remembrance of being with and talking to God which makes all our communication more clear and compassionate. As we remember the presence of God, those qualities we attribute to God, can become our own.
We embody God by our thoughts, feelings and conversations, and that new awareness of blessings and increased composure benefits us and all others-whether we are changing a tire or changing a diaper. Not longer will our hope or our peace come from the task or job itself, but it will come from our attitude towards doing it with God and for humanity. Such companionship and communication defeats the idea that the quality of my life depends on me and instead life and its blessings is best experienced as a WE.
As you can see, the practice of the presence of God is not for the faint hearted or the easily discouraged. It is not reserved for holy times, special days, or only when you are feeling good.
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It is a diligent pursuit a that carries joy and encouragement within it. 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 difference between the hallowed saint and the ordinary person is their diligence and the constancy of their efforts towards a divine intimacy. With our own attempts, we can come closer to God, to our true selves, to one another and experience greater harmony and flow in our lives. What happiness there is to obtain or receive is not dependent on an external event or circumstance- it is found in being able to carry and talk with God through it. The practice of this relationship, like any other one we might cherish, is a lifelong pursuit.
Everyone of us has plentiful occasions in which we could be tempted to give in to certain negative tendencies and temptations, no matter how large or small. These patterns of thought and feeling where we will experience irritation, tension, depression and all the rest, can be interrupted by recalling and remembering God’s presence, and practicing your relationship through a simple prayer, a loving thought or an easy song. Our highest employment, our best career move is found in remembering God. Whenever you find yourself warmed by a smile, or laughing at yourself, God is there.
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When troubled or tested, God is there waiting for you to offer you more hope. What results is that heartaches can heal a little faster, estranged feelings repair a little sooner, health can be restored s little quicker, and a host of other benefits accrue With your devoted interest.
Jesus recommended that we never 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 the task of a spiritual person is to “pray without ceasing”. So may the practice of God’s presence fill your lives with healing, companionship, contentment and beauty- even in the midst of your most mundane, daily routines. May your communication with God enliven your hearts, and “May God fill you with faith and hope and joy that comes from believing. AMEN

Benediction: “For all things are possible to those who believe; and all things are less difficult for those who hope; and all things are made easy for those who love.”

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