Prayer and Presence

As a child in parochial school, I remember being taught the answer to the question, “Where is God?” The Baltimore catechism told us that “God is everywhere.” Of course, the class smart alecks (usually the boys) pursued the issue with questions like, Is he inside my desk? In my pocket? On the bookshelf? Et cetera, et cetera.

Well, as St. Paul said, when I was a child I thought as a child, but now as an adult, I ponder the everywhere-ness of God.

A short while ago when we celebrated Trinity Sunday, our homilist quoted the phrase, In him (God) we live and move and have our being. So, is God in us, or are we in God?

Somewhere I read that we are like a fish who, swimming in the ocean, asks himself, “Where’s the ocean?” This is like us asking, “Where’s God?” and all the time we’re in Him. Psalm 139 expresses the wonder of this discovery:

Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?

I’m so often concerned when someone in spiritual direction tells me how difficult it is to find time for prayer. My first thought is, isn’t it wonderful that these folks want to pray, feel the need to pray, know the importance of connection with this Person we know as God? I can empathize with them as this too used to be my concern and still often remains a subject for discernment. I used to envy monastics who were routinely called to prayer several times during the day for community recitation of the Divine Office. My laywoman’s “schedule,” on the other hand, is so often interrupted by some household need, or the call for personal intervention somewhere. (Truth be told, many distractions are often due to my jumping-bean mentality. More on that another time.) It therefore seemed to me that if a person really wanted to be holy and to pray always, as Scripture teaches, it was necessary to belong to a religious community. That I felt called to holiness but not to religious life became the source of much spiritual anxiety.

Then a wise spiritual director guided me to three books. One is a short collection of letters called The Practice of the Presence of God by a little-known seventeenth century Carmelite named Brother Lawrence.

Lawrence was a lay member of the order, living alongside the monks to provide various services, usually of a very humble nature. One of his regular assignments was washing dishes. A friend wrote to another about Lawrence:

In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to doing everything there for the love of God, and with prayer . . . for His grace to do his work well, he found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.

Because Lawrence focused on God being present in him while he performed the assigned chore, this menial task of washing dishes was transformed into prayer, connecting him to God. I imagine that while the monks were dutifully involved in more “important” activities, Lawrence must have been every bit as much – and perhaps more – united with the Lord while humbly washing dishes.

This same practice is taught by a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. One of his books, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, describes how to transform potentially irritating situations into peaceful acceptance. For us Christians, our awareness is turned to the unceasing presence of God.

Once again on the topic of washing dishes, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. . . Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.

The third book is by a 17th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade. Depending on the translator, its title is either The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence. This small but powerful book has long been a favorite of spiritual directors. Its message is profoundly simple: “Embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness.” De Caussade teaches that we don’t have to look for or manufacture elaborate prayer practices or penances. All that is needed is to set the eyes of our heart to recognizing all the events in our life — its challenges and delights — as gifts from God, as ways of seeing him, accepting and thanking him for all.

Practicing this “seamless” method of prayer helps us stay focused, counteracting our tendency to jump from one activity or thought to another. This is a prayer that cannot be interrupted, because the interruption itself is a call to be with Christ in a special way. This practice fulfills the Scriptural command to pray always, while maintaining a peaceful, simple and intentional acceptance of the duties of our vocation.

Fascinated as I am with the concept of our existence not only in space but also in time, I leave you with this thought: Just as God is everywhere, he IS all the time. We are limited by space and time, but God continues everywhere from within eternity. This is the wonderful and inexplicable reality of God being Present. His name is, after all, I am Who am (Present tense). He is present in the present moment, and that is where we will invariably find Him.


The Right Way

A small group of us were taking part in a discussion that soon turned to the subject of prayer. One friend remarked, sadly, that she was not praying as she ought. “Why do you think that?” I asked.

“Well,” she explained, “I’m lying on my bed. I ought to be sitting up.”

I was amazed! I found my friend’s attitude particularly sad since she was going through treatments for cancer which left her almost constantly fatigued. This was a woman who had spent decades as a member of a religious order! Somewhere, some time, someone had persuaded her that in order to pray “correctly” she needed to follow the example of Teresa of Avila who had allegedly sat up straight as a ramrod when she prayed. (Obviously, Teresa didn’t levitate then, but I kept that observation to myself.)

As it happened, I too had been struggling with a prayer issue: how to “do it right.” I felt unable to master the rather new “centering” prayer. This became a gnawing concern until I was given a spiritual director who was able to calm me with a different piece of advice from Teresa: Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Even so, it took years before I could be fully convinced that I was not praying the “wrong” way!

As time passed, I began to question the prayer practices of my favorite saints. Take Saint Francis of Assisi: I could find nothing about how he prayed. What was clear was that he kept his thoughts continually on Jesus, reading about him and his teachings. Admiring him, loving him, imitating him.

I read Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography several times. Thérèse too simply gazed constantly on Jesus. This was the Person she loved above all others. She confided to her sister that she “loved him madly!” and addressed him in the familiar form of tu, not the formal vous. Fully aware of her littleness, she thought nothing of falling asleep during the required prayer time.

Teresa of Avila is the first woman to have been named a Doctor of the Church, an honor given chiefly in recognition of her teachings on prayer and growth in the spiritual life. In her autobiography, Teresa writes this about prayer:

As I see it, contemplative prayer is simply an intimate sharing between friends. It’s about frequently taking time to be alone with the One we know loves us. If the friendship is to endure, the love must be honored and tended.

How very simple! The purpose of our life – our spiritual life – is to be fully engaged with Christ: looking at Him, listening to Him, being with Him in our daily activities; sharing with Him our hopes, our regrets – all that will let Him know we’re fully connected to Him as we would be with our dearest friend. We don’t need to rely on what others say about their prayer, which is an entirely individual matter. A growing friendship comes from a two-way conversation where we listen with the ears of our heart to what God tells us.

If we notice that we are gradually changing for the better, that we’re becoming more loving, patient, non-judgmental, and generous, then we know that God is hearing us and is acknowledging our desire for him. Then we’ll know that, in spite of our concerns, we’ve actually been praying the right way after all.