Food for Thought #19: Spiritual Path: "Practicing the Presence of God"
Everyone thinks that the spiritual path is a wonderful thing - and it is and it is not. The truth is that "from those who have been given more, more will be expected".
At times, the spiritual path "is more glorious to them that see it... than it is to them that follow it." The wonders and demands of the spiritual life are fairly well - and very briefly - summed up by Brother Lawrence, a French Catholic Carmelite monk from the late 1600s.
Here are his words:
Belief, Hope, and Love May They Make Your Spiritual Path Smooth
"All things are possible to him who believes,
they are less difficult to him who hopes, they are easier
to him who loves, and still more easy to him who
practices and perseveres in these three virtues."
The Practice of the Presence of God
The Spiritual Maxims of Brother Lawrence
1. "We must study ever to regard GOD and His Glory in all that we do, and say, and undertake. This is the end that we should set before ourselves, to offer to GOD a sacrifice of perfect worship in this life, as we hope to do through all eternity. We ought firmly to resolve to overcome, with the grace of GOD assisting us, the many difficulties which will meet us in the spiritual life.
2. When we enter upon the spiritual life, we ought to consider thoroughly what we are, probing to the very depth. We shall find that we are altogether deserving of contempt, unworthy of the name of Christ, prone to all manner of maladies and subject to countless infirmities, which distress us and impair the Soul's health, rendering us wavering and unstable in our dispositions. In fact, creatures whom it is God's Will to chasten and make humble by numberless afflictions and adversities, as well within as without.
3. We must believe steadfastly, never once doubting, that such discipline is for our good. That it is GOD's Will to visit us with chastening, that it is the course of His Divine Providence to permit us to pass through all manner of sore experiences and times of trial. For the love of GOD to undergo divers sorrows and afflictions for so long as shall seem needful to Him. Since, without this submission of heart and spirit to the will of GOD, devotion and perfection cannot subsist.
4. A Soul is the more dependent on grace, the higher the perfection to which it aspires. The grace of GOD is the more needful for each moment, as without it the Soul can do nothing. The world, the flesh, and the devil join forces and assault the Soul so untiringly that, without humble reliance on the ever-present aid of GOD, they drag the Soul down in spite of all resistance. Thus to rely on GOD seems hard to nature, but grace makes it become easy, and brings with it joy.
Of Necessary Practices For Attaining The Spiritual Life
1. That practice which is alike the most holy, the most general, and the most needful in the spiritual life is the practice of the Presence of GOD. It is the schooling of the Soul to find its joy in His Divine Companionship. Holding with Him at all times and at every moment humble and loving converse, without set rule or stated method, in all time of our temptation and tribulation, in all time of our dryness of Soul and disrelish of GOD. Yes and even when we fall into unfaithfulness and actual sin.
2. We should apply ourselves unceasingly to this one end, to so rule all our actions that they be little acts of communion with GOD; but they must not be studied, they must come naturally, from the purity and simplicity of the heart.
3. We must do all things thoughtfully and soberly, without impetuosity or precipitancy, which denotes a mind undisciplined. We must go about our labors quietly, calmly, and lovingly, entreating Him to prosper the works of our hands. By thus keeping heart and mind fixed on GOD, we shall bruise the head of the evil one, and beat down his weapons to the ground.
4. When we are busied, or meditating on spiritual things, even in our time of set devotion, whilst our voice is rising in prayer, we ought to cease for one brief moment. Or as often as we can, to worship GOD in the depth of our being, to taste Him though it be in passing, to touch Him as it were by stealth. Since you cannot but know that GOD is with you in all you undertake, that He is at the very depth and center of your Soul. Why should you not thus pause an instant from time to time in your business, and even in the act of prayer, to worship Him within your Soul? Or to praise Him, to entreat His aid, to offer Him the service of your heart, and give Him thanks for all His loving kindnesses and tender mercies?
5. What offering is there more acceptable to GOD than thus throughout the day to quit the things of outward sense, and to withdraw to worship Him within the secret places of the Soul? Besides by so doing we destroy the love of base desires, which can subsist only among the things of sense, and of which these times of quiet retirement with GOD rids us unconsciously. In very truth we can render to GOD no greater or more signal proofs of our trust and faithfulness, than by thus turning from things created to find our joy, though for a single moment, in the Creator.
6. Think not that I counsel you to disregard completely and for ever the outward things that are around us. That is impossible. Prudence, the mother of the virtues, must be your guide. Yet it is a common error among religious persons, to neglect this practice of ceasing for a time that, which they are engaged upon, to worship GOD in the depth of their Soul, to enjoy the peace of brief communion with Him.
7. These our acts of worship are to be prompted and guided by faith. We must believe that GOD is in very fact within our Souls. We must worship Him and love Him and serve Him in spirit and in truth. He sees all, and unto Him all hearts are open, our own and those of all His creatures. He is self-existent, whilst it is in Him that all His creatures live and move and have their being. His Perfection is Infinite and Sovereign, and demands the full surrender of ourselves, our Souls, and bodies. In simple justice we owe Him all our thoughts and words and actions. Let us see to it that we pay our debt.
8. Necessity is laid upon us to examine ourselves with diligence to find out what are the virtues, which we chiefly lack, and which are the hardest for us to acquire. We should seek to learn the sins that do most easily beset us, and the times and occasions, when we do most often fall. In the time of struggle, we ought to have recourse to GOD with perfect confidence abiding steadfast in the Presence of His Divine Majesty. In lowly adoration we should tell out before Him our griefs and our failures, asking Him lovingly for the Succour of His grace; and in our weakness we shall find in Him our strength.
Of How It Is Required Of Us To Worship GOD In Spirit And In Truth
1. To worship GOD in spirit and in truth means to offer to Him the worship that we owe. GOD is a Spirit; therefore we must worship Him in spirit and in truth. That is to say, by presenting to Him a true and humble spiritual worship in the very depth of our being. GOD alone can see this worship, which, offered unceasingly, will in the end become as it were natural, and as if He were one with our Soul, and our Soul one with Him. Practice will make this clear.
2. To worship GOD in truth is to acknowledge Him to be what He is, and ourselves as what in very fact we are. To worship Him in truth is to acknowledge with heart felt sincerity what GOD in truth is. That is to say, infinitely perfect, worthy of infinite adoration, infinitely removed from sin, and so of all the Divine attributes. That man is little guided by reason, who does not employ all his powers to render to this great GOD the worship that is His due.
3. Furthermore, to worship GOD in truth is to confess that we live our lives entirely contrary to His will, and contrary to our knowledge that, were we but willing, He would make us conformable to Him. Who will be guilty of such folly as to withhold even for a moment the reverence and the love, the service and the unceasing worship that we owe to Him?
Of Union of the Soul with GOD
1. There are three degrees of union of the Soul with GOD. The first degree is general, the second is virtual union, whilst the third is actual union.
2. That degree of union which is general is when the Soul is united to GOD solely by grace.
3. Virtual union (which is in effect union though not in fact) is when, beginning any action by which we are united to GOD, we remain so united to Him by reason of that action for such time as it lasts.
4. Actual union is the perfect union. In the other degrees the Soul is passive, almost as it were slumbering. In this actual union the Soul is intensely active; quicker than fire are its operations, more luminous than the sun, unobscured by any passing cloud.
5. Yet we can be deceived as to actual union by our feelings. it is not a mere fleeting emotion, such as would prompt a passing cry, "My GOD, I love Thee with my heart's full strength". It is rather a state of Soul - if I can but find words - which is deeply spiritual and yet very simple. It fills us with a joy that is calm indeed, and with a love that is very humble and very reverent. It lifts the Soul aloft to heights, where the sense of the love of GOD constrains it to adore Him, and to embrace Him with a tenderness that cannot be expressed, and which experience alone can teach us to understand.
6. All who aspire to union with the Divine should know that whatever can gladden the will is in fact pleasing to it, or at least so the will reckons it. There is no one but must avow that GOD is beyond our understanding. To be united to Him it is needful therefore to deny to the will all tastes and pleasures, bodily and spiritual, that, being thus detached, it can be free to love GOD above all things. For if the will can in any measure come to know GOD, it can do so only through love. The difference is great between the tastes and sentiments of the will and its working, since the will's tastes and sentiments are in the Soul as in their bounds, whilst its working, which is properly love, finds its sole end in GOD.
Of the Presence of GOD
1. The Presence of GOD is an applying of our spirit to God, or a realization Of GOD as present, which is borne home to us either by the imagination or by the understanding.
2. 1 have a friend who these forty years past has been practicing through a realization of the Presence of GOD. To it he gives many other names; sometimes he calls it a simple act, or a clear and distinct knowledge of GOD. At other times, a view as through a glass, a loving gaze, an inward sense of GOD. Yet again he terms it a waiting on GOD, a silent converse with Him, a repose in Him, the life and peace of the Soul. Still, my friend tells me that all these ways in which he has expressed his sense of the Presence of GOD, come to the same thing.
3. That the Presence fills his Soul quite naturally, that it has come so to pass in this way. He says that by unwearying efforts, by constantly recalling his mind to the Presence of GOD, a habit has been formed within him. It is of such a nature that, so soon as he is freed from his ordinary labor, and not seldom even when he is engaged thereon, his Soul lifts itself up above all earthly matters. It is done without care or forethought on his part, and dwells as it were firmly stayed on GOD, as in its center and place of rest.
4. Faith almost always being his companion at such times. Then his Soul's joy is full, it is what he calls the actual Presence, and includes all other kinds and greatly more besides. Then it is he feels that only GOD and he are in the world, with Him he holds unbroken converse, asking from Him the supply of all his needs, and finding in His Presence the fullness of joy.
5. That this relation with GOD he holds in the depth of his being. There it is that the Soul speaks to GOD, heart to heart, and over the Soul thus holding converse there steals a great and profound peace. All that passes without concerns the Soul no more than a fire of straw, which the more it flares, the sooner burns itself out. Rarely indeed do the cares of this world ever intrude to trouble the peace within.
6. To come back to our consideration of the Presence of GOD, you must know that the tender and loving light of GOD'S countenance kindles insensibly within the Soul. The Soul which ardently embraces it, so great and so divine a fire of love to GOD, that one is compelled to moderate the outward expression of the feelings.
7. Great would be our surprise, if we but knew what converse the Soul holds at these times with GOD. For He who seems to so delight in this communion, that to the Soul, which would ever abide with Him, He bestows favours past numbering. As if He dreaded lest the Soul should turn again to things of earth, He provides for it abundantly. So the Soul finds in faith a nourishment divine, a joy that has no Measure, beyond its utmost thought and desire. And this without a single effort on its part but simple consent.
8. The Presence of GOD is thus the life and nourishment of the Soul, and with the aid of His grace, it can attain thereunto by diligent use of the means which I will now set out.
Of Means for Attaining unto the Presence of GOD
1. A great purity of life; in guarding ourselves with care lest we should do or say or think on anything, which might be displeasing to GOD. And, when any such thing happens, in taking heed to repent thereof, humbly begging His forgiveness.
2. The second is a great faithfulness in the practice of His Presence, and in keeping the Soul's gaze fixed on GOD in faith, calmly, humbly, lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude.
3. Make it your study, before taking up any task to look to GOD, be it only for a moment as also when you are engaged, and lastly when you have performed the same. And forasmuch as without time and great patience this practice cannot be attained, be not disheartened at your many falls. Truly this habit can only be formed with difficulty, yet when it is so formed, how great will be your joy!
4. Is it not right that the heart which is the first thing in us to have life, and which has dominion over all the body, should be the first and last to love and worship GOD? Both when we begin and end our actions, be they spiritual or bodily, and generally in all the affairs of life? It is here therefore, in the heart, that we ought to strive to make a habit of this gaze on GOD. What is needed to bring the heart to this obedience we must do, as I have said, quite simply, without strain or study.
5. Those who set out upon this practice let me counsel to offer up in secret a few words. Such as "My GOD, I am wholly Thine". Or "Oh GOD of Love, I love Thee with all my heart." Or "Lord, make my heart even as Thine". Or such other words as love prompts you in the moment.
6. Take heed that your mind wanders not back to the world again. Keep it fixed on GOD alone, so, subdued by the will, it may be constrained to abide with GOD.
7. This practice of the Presence of GOD is somewhat hard at the outset. Yet, pursued faithfully, it works imperceptibly within the Soul most marvellous effects. It draws down GOD'S grace abundantly, and leads the Soul insensibly to the ever present vision of GOD, loving and beloved, which is the most spiritual and most real, the most free and most life giving manner of prayer.
8. Remember that to attain to this state, we must control and master the senses. Inasmuch as no Soul, which takes delight in earthly things, can find full joy in the Presence of GOD. To be with Him we must leave behind our animal nature.
Of the Benefits of the Presence of GOD
1. The first benefit which the Soul receives from the Presence of GOD is that faith grows more alive and active in all the events of life. Particularly when we feel our need, since it obtains for us the succour of His grace when we are tempted, and in every time of trial. Accustomed by this practice to take faith as guide, the Soul, by a simple remembrance, sees and feels GOD present, and calls upon Him freely and with assurance of response, receiving the supply of all its needs.
2. By faith, it would seem, the Soul draws very near to the state of the Blessed, - the higher it advances, the more living does faith grow, until at last so piercing does the eye of faith become, that the Soul can almost say - Faith is swallowed up in Sight, I see and I experience.
3. The practice of the Presence of GOD strengthens us in Hope. Our hope grows in proportion as our knowledge. In measure as our faith by this holy practice penetrates into the hidden mysteries of GOD, in like measure it finds in Him a beauty beyond compare, surpassing infinitely that of earth, and of the most holy Souls and angels. Our hope grows and waxes ever stronger, sustained and enheartened by the fullness of the bliss, which it aspires to and even already tastes.
4. Hope breathes into the will a distrust of things seen, and sets it aflame with the consuming fire of Divine love. For GOD'S love is in very truth a consuming fire, burning to ashes all that is contrary to His will. The Soul thus kindled cannot live save in the Presence of GOD, and this Presence works within the heart a consecrated zeal, a holy ardor, a violent passion to see this GOD known and loved, and served and worshipped by all His creatures.
5. By the practice of the Presence of GOD, by steadfast gaze on Him, the Soul comes to a knowledge of GOD, full and deep, to an Unclouded Vision. All its life is passed in unceasing acts of love and worship, of contrition and of simple trust, of praise and prayer, and service. At times indeed life seems to be but one long unbroken practice of His Divine Presence.
6. I know that they are not many who reach this state. It is a grace which GOD bestows only on very few chosen Souls, for this Unclouded Vision is a gift from His all-bounteous hand. Yet, for the consolation of such as would embrace this holy practice, let me say that GOD seldom denies this gift to those who earnestly desire it. If He does withhold this crowning mercy, be well assured that, by the practice of the Presence of GOD, with the aid of His all: sufficient grace, the Soul can attain to a state, which approaches very nearly the Unclouded Vision."
Some Final Words from Brother Lawrence
"Let us begin to be devoted to GOD to in earnest and for good. Let us cast everything else out of our hearts so the He can possess them alone. Beg this favor of Him. If we do what we can on our part, we shall soon see that change wrought in us which we aspire after. Let us seek Him often by faith for He is within us - seek Him not elsewhere. For the more one knows GOD, the more one desires to know Him. For the deeper our knowledge shall be, the greater will be our love for GOD - equally in grief and in joy."
Brother Lawrence from "The Practice of the Presence
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