Almost four hundred years ago a child christened “Nicholas” Herman was born in the Lorraine region of France. At the age of 18 he became a soldier in the Thirty Years War. He survived, but was haunted by the terrible acts he had witnessed, and he decided to devote his life to Christ. He applied for admission as a lay brother at the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Paris.
He was accepted, given the name “Lawrence of the Resurrection.” This was 1642, and he was about 35 years old. Brother Lawrence was assigned menial tasks in the kitchen, and there he worked for many, many years, chopping, boiling, cleaning, … and praying. He called himself “a clumsy lummox” and learned plenty about struggle, and falling, and then righting himself. In the eyes of others he exuded a humble holiness, to such a degree that many came to be in his presence and seek his counsel. He was not eloquent, and yet he spoke simply and forthrightly, and with a telling bluntness. But what authenticated him to so many was how he practiced what he preached, continually practicing the presence of God in the smallest of ways.i The practice of the presence of God, and how that informs our experience of time and our experience of love.
Brother Lawrence gave witness to a kind “praying without ceasing,” a mindfulness that is attentive to the present moment. I would say that his witness to us today comes as both challenge and an elixir to the scatteredness, alienation, and disconnectedness that fills our newspaper stories and academic journals: how it is that we, in this culture, can be connected with the entire world by internet or cable news and yet, at the same time, be prone to be so terribly alone, disconnected from others and bereft of life’s meaning. How can “real time” be so empty? I’ve been reading a book entitled “Connect” by Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He reports a recent study at Carnegie Mellon University that followed people for two years after they gained access to the Internet for the first time. Expecting to find evidence of how the Internet had improved interpersonal connections in these people’s lives, the authors found just the opposite! “The greater use of the Internet,” they reported, “was associated with declines in participants’ communications with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.”ii
It seems to me there’s a great danger in our being “virtually connected” all over the globe, and to be masters of multi-tasking, yet not be really and fully present in any one place. This kind of “virtual living” takes its toll physically and psychologically, but it also takes its toll on the soul. (How’s that for a new term: “soul toll”?) We embrace a theology of real presence, of the real presence of God; but that theology falls apart, it has neither integrity and nor authority, unless it is complemented by our own real presence to God… of our being there: the experience of the real presence of God by our being really present to God, living in the moment. I would say that this can only happen if we see the present moment as sacramental. Do you remember the definition of a sacrament? “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The preeminent sacrament is the present moment. Where God is most to be known, loved, and served is now, in the present moment, in the outward and visible signs of now.
In the opening prayer appointed for today – what is called a “Collect,” the prayer that “collects” the moment – there is a turn of phrase which must be heard in context: “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” It’s the running to obtain your promises that requires a ‘heads up.’ Saint Paul, in his own writings, actually uses the metaphor of “running” quite a bit. iii But, of course, that metaphor has to be interpreted in time, coming from a first-century culture where the norm of transportation was walking (unless you were very rich and owned a horse) and the norm of communication was talking (most people, of course, being illiterate). And so the spirit of Collect, our prayer about “running to obtain [God’s] promises ” is about a practice of a disciplined wholeheartedness; it’s not about pace. We, in our culture, don’t need to hear anything more about running at a faster pace. This is not about Ethernet spirituality; this is about wholehearted intentionality… about the practice of the presence of God by our being really present to God in the present moment. It’s about the practice of living in the “eternal now.” iv
Back to Brother Lawrence, the 17th century. He commended a kind of acceptance of what we cannot change in life with a calm and undisturbed evenness of mind, a kind of composure to the exposure of life, knowing that God is with us, God Emmanuel, is with you. This is a kind of abandonment to the divine providence which we can experience in the present moment. This is a mindfulness, of presuming that where life is to be found is now. It is to live as much as possible in the present moment. It’s to give up the past. I don’t mean to “give it up” as if to throw it away. I mean to give it up as an act of reverence, like we momentarily will give up the bread and wine and the altar, that it be consecrated, that it become for us a channel for the real presence of God, that we become really present to where life is, now. Our past – however good or bad it may seem – is what has gotten us to this moment, amazingly enough. Give it all up, with thanksgiving, as we do here momentarily at the altar.
As for the future (which we may eagerly anticipate or deeply dread), we need to keep our feet firmly grounded in the now. I suspect we all know what it is to be caught off balance, which makes us very vulnerable to fall. Living in the now, in the sacrament of the present moment, is to anticipate the possibility of the future, but not to lean so far ahead into the anticipated future as to become off-balanced, off-centered. To quote Jesus from Matthew’s gospel: it is to presume that the day’s own troubles (and provisions!) are sufficient for the day. That each moment, that each breath, holds the possibility of the life we most desire. The conversation you are now having is the most important thing. The cup of tea you are now cuddling is the most important thing. The walk you are walking is the most important thing. If you are washing the dishes, to wash the dishes in such a way that you are really there, and that the dishwashing, for the moment, is all you need. Happiness is not to be found when you finally rid yourself of the chore of the dishes, but actually in the extraordinary moment that the dishwashing invites. Breathe your way into the awareness of the sacrament of the present moment. Here and now is where God is to be found.
For Brother Lawrence, the practice of the presence of God, and how that informs both our experience of time and our experience of love. He speaks about the essence of God being love. We’ve been given life for the love of it. If we were to speak about our own experience of love, we could start in one of two ways. For one, we could begin a conversation about how we experience love by speaking about how we receive love. That’s one way. Another way we could speak about our experience of love is in our own experience of how we share love. (Do we wait until our ‘love quota’ is full, and then calculate what we can spare for others… or do we take the opposite tack: to take the lead in loving others, believing that what we expend will be replenished, and many times over.) The latter “tack” is the agape love which Jesus speaks and lives. To love, in the sense of agape, is to participate in God’s generosity of love, to treat another person not with any preference for our own good but as an equal. Thomas Merton called this kind of love – agape love – a matter of taking one’s neighbor as one’s other self. “Love means an interior and spiritual identification with one’s neighbor.” Our neighbor is not regarded as an ‘object’ to ‘which’ one ‘does good.’ Merton says we have to become, in some sense, the person we love.57 We emanate the love of God to others, not because of what they can do or supply for us, but simply because they exist. They, too, have been created by God, in the image of God, for the love of it. This kind of love is to practice actively taking delight in the happiness of others, rather than feeling threatened or diminished, as if someone else’s happiness could take something away from us. In this world there is no limit to happiness, which is to say, if someone else has it there’s still plenty left for the rest of us. I’ll borrow something here from the Dalai Lama. v He says that there are so many other people in this world, it simply makes sense to make their own happiness as important as our own, because then our chances of delight “are enhanced six billion to one.”
And, then, there must be love for ourselves, and we need to co-operate with God in receiving God’s love for us. To receive God’s mercy; God’s forgivenss; God’s knowledge about our own selves, whom God knows all-so-well. This is very much the spirit of Brother Lawrence, the practice what we preach and what we share with others, with our own selves. Never speak about yourself dismissively. That would be a sacrilege… and it will get in the way of God’s love for you and, through you, for others. You are one whom God cherishes, and you need to practice that, to co-operate with how God sees you and knows you. And then, one other piece about love for our own selves. Brother Lawrence, who was so thoroughly attentive to the practice of the presence of God, knew when and how not to take himself too seriously. At his core, he knew himself to simply be a child, a child of God. I’m reminded of the story that comes from the early desert tradition of monasticism, where people would flock looking for spiritual counsel from the holy monks. So the story goes, a magistrate once went out into the desert looking for Abba Moses, asking the first person he met where he could find this prodigiously devout human being. The man told him, “Oh, don’t waste your time. Abba Moses is a heretic and a fraud. He’s not any of the things people say he is.” The magistrate marched back to the city with his newfound truth, eager to despoil the reputation of the alleged holy man. Someone asked him who it was he had talked to in the desert waste, inquiring if by any chance it had been a tall black man. “Well, … yes,” answered the magistrate. “Ah,” the person told him, “that was Abba Moses himself. You met the saint at his best. He’d never make anything of his own sanctity.” Love, certainly love for our own selves, can include a little humor – not to take ourselves too seriously. A little self humor humbles a bit, which may suit us well, children of God that we are.
Brother Lawrence, this 17th century monk with such insight and such a sound practice of the presence of God, and how that informs our experience of time, the sacredness of each moment, and our experience of love, and giving and receiving love.
i See The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (Image Books, 1977).
ii Quoted from Connect by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. (Pantheon, 1999), p. 20.
iii Saint Paul speaks of running, e.g., in 1Corinthians 9:24-26; Galatians 2:2 and 5:7; Philippians 2:16.
iv A title of a book by the great theologian, Paul Tillich: The Eternal Now, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963, (from university sermons 1955–1963).
v Much help found in A Heart As Wide As the World by Sharon Salzberg (Shambhala, 1999), p. 32.
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