BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD


Week One: Practicing the Presence
Presence of God cover

This month I wanted to return to a book I’ve always liked – The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence (c. 1611 – 1691) was a lay brother in a monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Paris.

Brother Lawrence is well known for what he calls “practicing the presence of God.” He speaks of this practice as “a quiet, continual conversation with God” and also as “the habitual sense of God’s presence” — a habit of allowing yourself to be always with God.

Brother Lawrence says that, to draw close to God, we don’t need anything but this habit of continually conversing with him. We don’t need lots of complex practices or prayers. In fact, Brother Lawrence admitted in a letter that he had given up all spiritual practices except the ones specifically required by his office. He writes:

People seek for methods of learning to love God. They hope to arrive at it by I know not how many different practices; they take much trouble to remain in the presence of God in a quantity of ways. Is it not much shorter and more direct to do everything for the love of God, to make use of all the labors of one’s state of life to show Him that love, and to maintain His presence within us by this communion of our hearts with His? There is no finesse about it; one has only to do it generously and simply.

I’ll be honest. Brother Lawrence’s method of being with God is so simple that it sometimes seems difficult. Perhaps we are trained to expect drawing near to God to be complicated, to be a method with many steps and a steep learning curve? Or to intellectualize our relationship with God? (Guilty.) But maybe it doesn’t always have to be this way.

In a letter giving advice about the spiritual growth of a mutual friend, Brother Lawrence describes the practice:

Let him think of [God] as often as he can, especially in the greatest dangers. A little lifting up of the heart suffices. A little remembrance of God, one act of inward worship . . . are prayers, which however short, are nevertheless very acceptable to God . . .

Let him then think of God the most he can. Let him accustom himself, by degrees, to this small but holy exercise.

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The following quotation from a letter provides a good overview of how this practice might be worked out in everyday life:

[God] requires no great matters of us: a little remembrance of Him from time to time; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favors He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company; the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of.

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More quotes for us to ponder:

I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of God. For my part, I keep myself retired with Him in the fund or center of my soul as much as I can; and while I am so with Him I fear nothing, but the least turning from Him is insupportable.

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In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.

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There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because god would have us.

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The Practice of the Presence of God consists of the letters of Brother Lawrence, some of his Maxims, and four conversations with him as recorded by a contemporary, Abbe de Beaufort. You can read them here (other editions are widely available).

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For Reflection

Brother Lawrence week 1

BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND

Week Four: Give Love Away
No Man Is an Island

This is our last week exploring some of the rich themes in Thomas Merton’s classic book, No Man Is an Island.

In this book, Merton is seeking the spiritual life, which, he reminds us in the prologue, is the only real life, the most real life we can imagine or have. The spiritual life is primarily about being or existing as opposed to doing. It’s about our identity as children of God.

We don’t exist for ourselves. We exist (we “are”) for God. We also exist for others, since we love God largely through loving others. This thought leads Merton to quote the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, whence the title of the book comes: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Merton continues this train of thought in Chapter One, which is titled, “Love Can Be Kept Only By Being Given Away.” In this chapter, Merton explores what it means to love. A true love, he notes, wishes the good of the beloved over all other things.

Sometimes it seems easy to love because it gives us pleasure or satisfaction. However, to seek one’s good wholly in the good of another is a different matter. It requires loving the truth, and it demands total unselfishness.

Here are some quotes from this rich and moving chapter on love:

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Infinite sharing is the law of God’s inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves.

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The gift of love is the gift of the power and capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.

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If I am to love my brother [or sister], I must somehow enter deeply into the mystery of God’s love for him. I must be moved not only by human sympathy but by that divine sympathy which is revealed to us in Jesus and which enriches our own lives by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

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The truth I must love in my brother is God himself, living in him.

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It occurred to me that today’s post probably should have been the first in our Book of the Month for May since the theme of love is the first to be discussed in Merton’s book . .  but maybe it’s also a good way to end.

Let’s see God living in our brothers and sisters this week. Let’s give some love away, shall we?

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You can read No Man Is an Island here.

Reflection:

Merton week 4

 

 

 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND BY THOMAS MERTON

Week 3: Suffering and Contemplation

No Man Is an Island

This month, we’re reading a spiritual classic, No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton. In chapter five, Merton explores the theme of suffering. Suffering, Merton observes, comes to us because of the fall. He writes: “The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.”

How, then, is suffering made holy? Merton spends the chapter unpacking this and related questions. Again and again, he relates our suffering to the cross and also to contemplation. The chapter is so rich that I can’t do it justice here. I’ll share a few quotes with you — and then I encourage you to go read it yourself!

 

 

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To know the Cross is to know that we are saved by the sufferings of Christ; more, it is to know the love of Christ Who underwent suffering and death in order to save us. . . This explains the connection between suffering and contemplation. For contemplation is simply the penetration, by divine wisdom, into the mystery of God’s love, in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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We cannot suffer well unless we see Christ everywhere—both in suffering and in the charity of those who come to the aid of our affliction.

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In order to face suffering in peace: Suffer without imposing on others a theory of suffering, without weaving a new philosophy of life from your own material pain, without proclaiming yourself a martyr, without counting out the price of your courage, without disdaining sympathy and without seeking too much of it.

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In the end, we should seek God everywhere, even in the darkness of suffering.

You can read No Man Is an Island here.

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For reflection:

 

Merton week 3

 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND BY THOMAS MERTON

No Man Is an IslandWeek 2: Christian Renunciation

Our Book of the Month is No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton. Last week, we looked at being versus doing. In chapter 6, Merton tackles the difficult topic of renunciation or asceticism. I’m interested in this topic because the mystics and contemplatives from the past sometimes engaged in asceticism and are often misunderstood for it.

So what is Christian asceticism or renunciation? What were all those mystics up to? And what are we up to when we fast or otherwise sacrifice some of our comforts—during Lent but also at other times?

Merton writes:

Self-denial delivers us from the passions and from selfishness. It delivers us from a superstitious attachment to our own ego as if it were a god.

But Merton has a warning. Renunciation is not a matter of ruthlessly denying or perpetrating violence upon our bodies. It begins with God, not us:

It delivers us from the “flesh” in the technical New Testament sense, but it does not deliver us from the body. It is no escape from matter or from the senses, nor is it meant to be. It is the first step toward a transformation of our entire being in which, according to the plan of God, even our bodies will live in the light of His divine glory and be transformed in Him together with our souls.

Here are more of Merton’s thoughts on Christian renunciation:

There is only one true asceticism: that which is guided not by our own spirit but by the Spirit of God. The spirit of man [and woman] must first subject itself to grace and then it can bring the flesh in subjection both to grace and to itself. “If by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live” (Romans 8:13).

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Those, then, who put their passions to death not with the poison of their own ambition but with the clean blade of the will of God will live in the silence of true interior peace, for their lives are hidden with Christ in God. Such is the meek “violence” of those who take Heaven by storm.

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We cannot become saints merely by trying to run away from material things. To have a spiritual life is to have a life that is spiritual in all its wholeness—a life in which the actions of the body are holy because of the soul, and the soul is holy because of God dwelling and acting in it.

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And here’s a wonderful thought. True asceticism, as in the passages above, can lead us to love and serve other people:

To say that Christian renunciation must be ordered to God is to say that it must bear fruit in a deep life of prayer and then in works of active charity. Christian renunciation is not a matter of technical self-denial, beginning and ending within the narrow limits of our own soul. It is the first movement of a liberty which escapes the boundaries of all that is finite and natural and contingent, enters into a contact of charity with the infinite goodness of God, and then goes forth from God to reach all that He loves.

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You can read No Man Is an Island here.

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For reflection:

Merton week 2

BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND BY THOMAS MERTON

Week 1: Being and Doing
No Man Is an Island
Our Book of the Month for May is No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton (1915–1968), the Trappist monk, mystic, and writer. In this classic, Merton reflects on the spiritual life in sixteen chapters.

Chapter 7 opens with a beautiful reflection on being and doing:

We are warmed by fire, not by the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So, too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection of our own acts.

Yet we so often seem drawn to obsess over our actions and achievements (or lack thereof) and to pursue more and more of them. If left unchecked, this impulse can be damaging to our innermost selves. In this chapter of his book, Merton reminds us that:

  • we find ourselves in being, not in doing
  • we find peace in contemplating God, not ourselves
  • we find peace in being content to be “little”

I’ve pulled out a few quotes from this chapter that spoke to me. Here Merton talks about pursuing greatness and playing the comparison game. I know that game all too well; it’s something I constantly have to guard against. So Merton is really speaking into my soul when he writes these words.

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Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.

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The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am. My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do. And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men. We all seek to imitate one another’s imagined greatness.

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To counter these illusions and games, we sometimes need to remind ourselves to just be:

There are times, then, when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing. And for a man [or woman] who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform: and often it is quite beyond his power.

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Read No Man Is an Island here.

For reflection: When was the last time you sat back for a while and did nothing? How difficult was this for you?

 

Merton week 1

 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Week 5: The Way Up is the Way Down

Rohr Lent coverIn our final week of Wondrous Encounters by Richard Rohr, we’re contemplating the beautiful early Christian hymn found in Philippians 2. This is a good passage to ponder at the beginning of Holy Week because it lets us see the mind of Christ—the mind that chose to embrace death for our sake.

In many ways, the mind of Christ is not like our mind at all. Rohr writes:

God . . . has chosen to descend—in almost total counterpoint with our humanity that is always trying to climb, achieve, perform, and prove itself. He invites us to reverse the process too.

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The hymn says that Jesus leaves the ascent to God, in God’s way, and in God’s time. What freedom! And it happens, better than any could have expected. “And because of this, God lifted him up, and gave him the name above all other names.” We call it resurrection or ascension. . . Who would have presumed that the way up could be the way down? It is, as Paul says, “the Secret Mystery.”

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God draws us into Christ’s ascent, Christ’s mind, and this gives us freedom:

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. This leaves humanity in solidarity with the life cycle, but also with one another, with no need to create success stories for itself . . . Humanity in Jesus is free to be human and soulful instead of any false climbing into “Spirit.” This was supposed to change everything, and it still will.

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Scripture Reading:

Your mind must be the same as Christ’s. Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God as something to be clung to. Instead he emptied himself, and became like a slave, and was born in the likeness of humanity . . . obediently accepting even death. — Philippians 2:5-7

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May the way up be the way down for you this Holy Week.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverWeek Four: What Is Life and What Is Death?

This month at The Contemplative Writer, we’re reading Wondrous Encounters by Richard Rohr. Rohr is leading us through some Scripture meditations for the season of Lent.

The Scripture reading for yesterday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, is John 11:1-45, and its theme is key: life and death. Rohr writes:

Humans are the  only creatures who have knowledge of their own death . . . This places humans in a state of anxiety and insecurity from our early years.

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On this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, we dare to look at the “last enemy,” death. And the only way we can dare to part the curtain and view death is to be told about our resurrection from it!

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We get a foretaste of resurrection in the raising of Lazarus, from the Gospel of John. Many of us are familiar with this story: in calling forth Lazarus from the grave, Jesus conquers death! I love what Rohr emphasizes about this passage:

[I]n a final brilliant finale to the story, he [Jesus] invites the onlookers to join him in making resurrection happen: “Move the stone away!. . . Unbind him, and let him go free!” It seems that we have a part to play in creating a culture of life and resurrection. We must unbind one another from our fears and doubts about the last enemy, death.

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The stone to be moved away is always our fear of death, the finality of death, any blindness that keeps us from seeing that death is merely a part of the Larger Mystery called Life. It does not have the final word.

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Scripture Reading:

‘This sleep is not to end in death, but is instead to reveal the glory of God’. . . . With a sigh that came straight from the heart . . . He cried out in a loud voice, ‘Move the stone away! . . . Lazarus, come forth!’ . . . ‘Now, you unbind him and let him go free.’ — Jon 11:4, 34, 38, 43-44

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Even as we prepare to accompany Jesus to his own death during this Lenten season, may we always remember that he is the resurrection and the life.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverWeek 3: Could the “New” Thing Be Inclusion?

This month at The Contemplative Writer, we’re reading Wondrous Encounters by Richard Rohr. Rohr is leading us through some Scripture meditations for the season of Lent.

In one of his meditations, Rohr discusses the Scripture readings for Monday of the fourth week of Lent (Isaiah 65:17-21 and John 4:43-54). Rohr teases out two themes from these readings: the big patterns of God’s story and the wonderful message of inclusion.

About the prophet Isaiah, Rohr writes:

Prophets are seers of the big patterns; they see what is always and forever true . . . One of the big patterns is that God’s message always gets wider and more universal, despite our best attempts to limit it.

When Isaiah speaks of the “new heavens and a new earth,”

he is not so much talking about concrete particulars as he is talking about universals, the big things that are always true, and might also be true here or there.

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And what does this tell us about today’s passage in the Gospel of John, when Jesus heals the son of an outsider (a royal official and a non-Jew)? Rohr writes that it illustrates one of the big patterns of God’s story:

The circle of the biblical revelation keeps widening to create that “new earth” of Isaiah, and within a century a people who will call themselves catholic or universal. Here comes everybody! One wonders how we ever made religion into any kind of exclusionary system whatsoever when the vast majority of Jesus’ healings seem to happen to the excluded ones and maybe even the unworthy ones.

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Scripture Readings:

The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create. — Isaiah 65:17-18

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The man put his trust in the word that Jesus had spoken to him, and set of for home . . . He and his whole household thereupon became believers. — John 4:50, 53

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May we rejoice in the ever-widening vision of God this season.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverThis month on The Contemplative Writer, we’re reading Wondrous Encounters. Richard Rohr is leading us through a series of Scripture meditations for Lent.

Rohr’s meditation for the fourth Sunday of Lent (which is this Sunday) is about blindness, light, and seeing. First, Rohr diagnoses the human condition:

Because humans cannot see their own truth very well, they do not read reality very well either. We all have our tragic flaws and blind spots. Humans always need more “light” or enlightenment about themselves and about the endless mystery of God.

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Good news! The Gospel of John speaks into this condition. In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. Rohr makes the following observations (along with others) about this Gospel reading:

The “man born blind” is the archetype for all of us at the beginning of life’s journey.

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Spirituality is about seeing. Sin is about blindness, or as Saint Gregory of Nyssa will say, “Sin is always a refusal to grow.”

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The one who knows little, learns much (what we call “beginner’s mind”) and those who have all their answers already, learn nothing.

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Scripture Readings

“I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner or not, I only know this much, I was once blind, and now I see.” — John 9:25

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“I came into the world to divide it, to make the sightless see and to reveal to those who think they see it all that they are blind.” — John 9:39

May we all learn to see a little better this Lenten season.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverOur Book of the Month is Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent by Richard Rohr. In this meditative book, Rohr takes us through the Lenten season with a meditation and Scripture for each day.

One of the meditations for the second (full) week in Lent is entitled “Good Mirroring and Bad Mirroring.” In this meditation, Rohr talks about humans knowing themselves through the gaze of others.

A good parent, like God, naturally blesses the child through their receptive and affirming face. It is the eternal blessing to the children of Israel, “May Yahweh let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May Yahweh uncover her face to you and bring you peace!” (Numbers 6:25).

In the reading for the day from the Gospel of Luke, Rohr writes, we see this divine mirroring at work:

Receive God’s compassion, and you will be able to be compassionate . . . Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Give and it shall be given to you. Jesus describes a perfect reciprocity between what we have received or not received and how we will give or not give.

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Once you know that you are inside Trinitarian Love, you are connected to an infinite Source, and one is never sure who is doing the giving and who is doing the receiving. It is all Flow and Outpouring. It is you and yet it is God. Thus Jesus ends this Gospel by a wonderful image of overflowing abundance.

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Gospel Reading:

Full measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap, because the measure you measure out with will be measured back to you. – Luke 6:38

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May God’s overflowing abundance be yours this season.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.