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.


Ramblings . . .

About a year ago I decided to start this blog. According to a message from WordPress, SpiritMuse now has 50 published posts. There are several more in draft form which I suppose I may use some day. At the beginning of this spiritual exercise, so many ideas were swirling around in my head that it seemed the natural and necessary thing to write them down and try to figure out what they all meant to my spiritual growth.

I confess that lately it’s been quite difficult. Ideas aren’t exactly rushing in to help me out. In describing prayer, Teresa of Avila uses the analogy of watering a garden. Sometimes we struggle with a bucket to draw up water from what seems to be a very dry well. Which is how I’ve been feeling lately — and am sure to feel again! I readily recognize that anything I write that might be worthwhile to anyone is due solely to  the Holy Spirit who is this blog’s Muse. If it doesn’t come from there, I’m just babbling.

Which is why, last week, I let the Scripture speak for itself on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Searching for a way to express the mysterious connection of Word with Bread was like fishing: I’d feel a nibble on the line and impatiently, prematurely, set the hook. Of course the thought simply wriggled free and was gone. For all I know it’s still there in the murky pond of my mind, waiting for me to clear up the debris, the busy stuff. Maybe by next year’s Solemnity I’ll be able to express something minimally worthwhile about this holy sacrament.

That’s the thing about the spiritual life: it’s all around us, but grabbing at it hardly ever accomplishes anything. On the contrary, there’s a need for  an attitude of passivity, of receptivity. For at the same time that God, the Spirit, is around us, we are IN Him.

A spiritual director once suggested that I not try so hard. That was so utterly counter-intuitive! How does one not try to achieve, to attain? Our fierce attempts are the only way to let God know that we’re really dedicated, and that we’re really serious about this adventure he’s called us to! As if God doesn’t know what to feed us, and when! We instinctively think that if we’re hungry, we’re the ones to put food into our mouth.

Not in the spiritual domain. There, we’re the nestlings with open beaks, crying for nourishment and utterly incapable of giving ourselves what we need. 

So here I am, rambling again. Some of these ramblings came to me this morning as I was cleaning off my porch, wondering if I’d be given any ideas for a post. I was wondering if I could say anything worthwhile — maybe on the topic of prayer. I was in a doing mode or, should I say, a do-it-yourself mode, in that delusional state of mind where I think I might have real answers of any value.

I started by thinking of how we need to reserve a time for quiet prayer, meditation, contemplation – whatever we choose to call our intimate connection with the Lord. Quiet solitude is essential to spiritual growth. “Maybe that’s what I should be doing instead of this unspiritual task, sweeping a porch,” say I. “There’s never enough time! ” Sorry; that excuse won’t wash.

I attempt to put order -maybe even routine- into my life. Let’s look at our day, the 24 hours each of us is given. Subtract time for sleeping and eating, including prep time, and we’re left with about a dozen hours. Continuing the math, deduct time at work where we need to earn a living (or keep doctor appointments), plus time to interact with family and friends. By the time we get to that “special” time of being alone with the Lord (if indeed we get there at all), our mind is often so cluttered with distractions that it’s nearly impossible to clear it. Like the stuff on my porch.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century Carmelite monk, knew how to handle this issue. It’s similar to the adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.

As Lawrence went about his assigned and unloved kitchen chores, he simply took the Lord with him. He saw himself always in the presence of God: he in God and God in him, praying his way through whatever “unspiritual” tasks he did throughout the day. All of it became  one seamless prayer. 

Thérèse of Lisieux did something similar in her handling of distractions. Even in a cloister there are troubling events revolving around people, situations and chores, that will simply stick to us like burs on a hiker. Typically, all this stuff comes to mind just when we most need to be quiet. Thérèse’s solution was totally practical. She simply met these distractions head on and made them the substance of her prayer. Oh, how unsophisticated!

Her patron saint, Teresa of Avila, had much deeper suggestions and explanations about prayer – which is why she was named a Doctor of the Church. “Little” Thérèse was also named a Doctor of the Church, but had a spiritual method (if you’re the type who needs a method) that was much less impressive and didn’t include levitating (such an embarrassment for Teresa!).

Ho-hum. Isn’t there a line in the Gospel that says something about becoming like little children? Isn’t there another line or two about seeking the first place at the table, being the important  one to sit at the right hand of the Lord, etc., etc.? The rest of us, lowly as we are, like Lawrence and Thérèse, just pick up the crumbs that fall from the tables of the spiritually elite.

And all of this while I was sweeping the porch. Welcome to my world!
Sweeping floor 1