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Center for Action and Contemplation

Practicing the Presence of God

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Practicing the Presence of God
Thursday, July 15, 2021

Prayer is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.  —Simone Weil, Waiting for God

One of the simplest methods of contemplation is “to practice the presence of God” as described by Brother Lawrence (1614–1691), a French Carmelite monk of the 17th century. Lawrence was a gentle and humble man who, despite his lack of education, just radiated holiness—not from the abbot’s chair but from the kitchen where he worked. I quite agree with writer Ellyn Sanna who observes, “At its heart, Brother Lawrence’s practice was simply Zen—a focus on the present moment in order to wake up, to be able to see the Light.” [1] Here are some modern paraphrases of Brother Lawrence’s “maxims,” which offer readers no real methodology, but simple encouragement to be ourselves and to be aware of God’s presence:

I don’t practice any particular prayer discipline. I have no specific technique I use to meditate. I know these methods work for many people. But for me, when I tried them, I just spent all my time rejecting my wandering thoughts, over and over. I’ve tried to practice these disciplines, but now I don’t worry about them anymore. Their only purpose anyway is to bring a person to union with God. Why should I fast or set aside particular prayer times or deny myself in some way when I’ve found the shortcut? If every moment I’m consciously practicing love, doing all things for God’s sake, then I don’t need to worry about these spiritual methods.

My thoughts are the biggest obstacles to this way of living my life. The little useless thoughts that drift through my head, making mischief, distracting me. I’ve learned to reject them as soon as I notice them. They have nothing to do with the reality at hand—nor with my eternal salvation—and once I stop paying attention to them, I can get back to communing with God.

I have abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy.

When we walk in the presence of God, the busiest moment of the day is no different from the quiet of a prayer altar. Even in the midst of noise and clutter, while people’s voices are coming at you from all directions, asking for your help with many different things, you can possess God with the same serenity as if you were on your knees in church.

I can’t always maintain my focus on God, of course. I’ll suddenly discover that I’ve barely given God a thought in a good long while. Usually what gets my attention is that I’ll notice how wretched I’m feeling—and then I’ll realize I’ve forgotten God’s presence. But I don’t worry about it too much. I just turn back to God immediately. And having realized how miserable I am when I forget God, my trust in God is always that much greater.

The Divine Presence occupies the here and now. If you are not aware of this—become so!

[1] Ellyn Sanna, introduction to Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master, 10.

Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master, ed. Ellyn Sanna (Anamchara Books: 2011), 44, 43, 52, 90, 16, 17.

Story from Our Community:
I spend much time in contemplation and am intrigued by how God’s Spirit moves within our human experience. It is a mystery I do not fully understand, but I find when I dwell in the liminal space there is a connection with the divine. This past week my sister passed. Hers was a life dominated by addiction, but God’s grace was with her through her life and at the end, when her children were able to gather around her bed for reconciliation and closure. —Ed N.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
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