Thursday, March 11, 2010

God is with us. Are we with God?

In his writings, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a seventeenth century French monk, describes the practice of the presence of God. By keeping our hearts and minds attentive to the presence of God, we find ourselves prayerfully engaging in life and aware of God’s presence with us in all things. Life is transformed as we enter into this spiritual discipline.

There are a few challenges that consistently turn up for those who work toward practicing the presence of God. Perhaps it is helpful to know that these are age old obstacles – old enough for Brother Lawrence to mention them and then some. Brother Lawrence is totally real when it comes to admitting that the practice of the presence of God is not for the faint hearted. As he writes about the obstacles that face every practitioner, you get the sense that he has experienced all the same challenges and understands how difficult it is to be disciplined and consistent. Brother Lawrence describes many obvious and some not-so-obvious challenges, and for the most part, his answer to the problem seems to be, “Get on with it.” He doesn’t give us a chance to bemoan our problems, but rather takes the stance that there is nothing new about our complaints and we need to simply get on with business. It seems that we have all been there before.

One of the common obstacles is pride. At some point in our spiritual journey, we all have to deal with the issue of pride. We are prideful when we think we don’t need God. This is perhaps one of the first manifestations of pride. Even a two-year-old doesn’t seem to need parents and wants to do it him/herself! In our pride we don’t think we need God for anything. We will depend on ourselves. We will stubbornly take care of our own problems. We don’t need anybody! We are all like that sometimes. Somewhere along the line, this falsehood is eventually proven wrong. When tragedy strikes our lives, we find that we would rather not do it ourselves and that we would rather have someone with us as we walk through our brokenness. Somewhere along the line, the question of God comes up, even if the only question seems to be grounded in anger and the “why” of how this tragedy could have happened. We discover that we need others and that we need God. We are also prideful when we think we are irredeemable. If we say that we are beyond God’s redeeming power, not good enough to be loved, not worthy of God’s attention, we have claimed that we are more powerful than God and know better than God. This can be a deceptive trap hiding our pride or arrogance.

Our thoughts can be another obstacle to our practice of the presence of God. We are easily distracted or our thoughts simply wander about. We lack persistence. First of all, we must reject any thought, word, or action that is contrary to our practice and our communion with God. Anything that distracts or breaks us away from communion with God must be turned away. Then we must remember our practice again. Resolve once again to persist. But then we forget our practice again. After a while, we even forget our resolve to be persistent! Before you know it, we have gone through a day and hardly remembered our practice. After all, we have been busy! Or perhaps we get lazy. We think, “I’ll try again later, after I have finished what I am doing.” Or we are bored with our practice or feel like a failure. There are so many reasons why we give up! Brother Lawrence would simply advise that we get on with it. Every time we remember that we have let go of our practice of the presence of God, we simply are to return to it. There need not be any recriminations or laments. No matter how often we need to bring ourselves back to our practice, we just come back and begin again. Even after we have practiced for years and years, we will still find that we must bring ourselves back to our discipline when we forget it or put it down. If we can manage to begin again for as long as necessary, we will eventually find ourselves needing to do that less and less.

Spiritual dryness is another obstacle to our practice of the presence of God. All of us go through times when we feel far from God or perhaps it seems that God is absent. It can be very painful to have known consolations and then to have them stop. Or sometimes we feel that our prayers are empty or meaningless. We may feel like we just can’t pray at all. We may feel very far from God and alone. I have not known any spiritually attentive person who hasn’t had this experience of the journey to some degree. Often, this is a time of transition. It may mean that we are transitioning from one prayer discipline to something new. This may simply be the new normal and we are challenged to see or sense God in a new way (or not sense God at all). There are many different things that happen in these dry times – certainly, one of those things is that our faith is tested. In the complete and utter darkness, we question our faith. But somehow, when we emerge from the darkness, or sense it differently, we find our faith stronger than ever. We have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and even though we may not have known it at the time, God was with us and we emerged stronger for the journey. In the midst of this experience, how is it that we practice the presence of God? It is in these times that our persistence is most important. The presence of God may be changing in nature, but we still practice it. The nature of our turning to God may be changing, but we still turn to God. We may feel like there is no response to our turning to God, but we take this opportunity to grow in faith and trust that God is responding whether or not we can sense it. The challenges we face at times like these are the greatest we may ever encounter, but they are also the greatest opportunities for growth.

There are many other various challenges and obstacles we face in our practice of the presence of God, but most of them seem to fall into the categories we have discussed today. In our various trials, Brother Lawrence recalls us again and again to one critical response: just keep on keeping on. Persistence in the face of many different trials is one important key to success. Our obstacles are the same obstacles that practitioners have always encountered, and the simple cure is unchanged. There is nothing complicated or mysterious about it. Simply start again. As we start again, and then start again and then start again, we can trust that our efforts will be transformative in our lives.

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