In these few words Jesus reveals the secret of the abundant life he is bringing into the world and which he offers to each of his disciples. This is the secret not only to our own happiness and fulfillment, but also to our fruitfulness, our ability to positively influence others by bringing them to share in the Divine Life. This is the abundant life he is offering us, a life lived in union with the Triune God, a life of untold blessings and riches, far beyond any abundance that the world can offer us.
When we pause to think of how desperately people in our world seek for happiness and of the ends to which they are willing to go to find personal fulfillment, we can wonder that such a simple path has been outlined for us. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” says Jesus. “Join your life to mine, and my life will be yours.” All that I am and have I give to Jesus, and all that he is and has he gives to me. And in this union there is joy and safety and happiness and riches beyond measure. “I came that [you] might have life,” he reminds us, “and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10)
Why is it, then, that we do not always experience this abundant life? Perhaps it is because we do not know how to abide, how to live in union with him, so that his life becomes our life, his strength our strength, his love our love. To this I say that this is something we can learn and one of the best ways to learn it is to study the lives of those who have gone before us, men and women who have learned this secret and taught it to others. There are two figures who have been most helpful to me in learning to practice the skill of abiding in union with God. Both of them offer very practical guidance for how we can remain connected to God in everyday life.
The first is Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a 17th century Carmelite monk and mystic, who practiced the presence of God in everything he did. His way was very simple: he turned everything into prayer by simply talking to God as he went about his tasks. He made it his habit to begin each task with prayer, asking for God’s grace that, while his mind was occupied with outward things, he might continue in God’s presence. As he worked, he stayed as much as possible in conversation with God, and when the task was completed, he examined himself on how he had remained faithful. If he did well, he thanked God; if poorly, he asked God’s pardon and, without giving way to discouragement, went on in the presence of God.
Brother Lawrence made no distinction between times of activity and times of prayer, claiming that he possessed God as peacefully in the commotion of his kitchen, where often several people were asking him for different things at the same time, as he did in the chapel when kneeling in prayer before the Sacrament.“We do not always have to be in church to be with God,” he said. “We can make of our hearts an oratory where we can withdraw from time to time to converse with him there, gently, humbly, and lovingly. Everyone is capable of these familiar conversations with God.”
He did everything for the love of God. It made no difference to him what he did, provided he did it for God. “In the ways of God…love counts for everything,” he said. “And [so] it is not necessary to have important things to do.”“I flip my little omelette in the frying pan for the love of God, and when it is done, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the floor and adore my God who gave me the grace to do it, after which I get up happier than a king. When I can do nothing else, it is enough for me to pick up a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
The result of this practice was a life of great joy, and of deep and abiding contentment. He found God everywhere and in everything, and so he was content in any place and with any task. “There is no way of life in the world more agreeable or delightful than continual conversation with God. Only those who practice and experience it can understand this.”
The second figure is Thomas Kelly, a Quaker educator and mystic who wrote in the first half of the 20th century. In his book, A Testament of Devotion, first published in 1941, he revealed the secret of his own spiritual practice, which was to abide in union with Christ as he went about his daily tasks: “There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once,” he wrote. “On one level, we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship, and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathing.”
“The secular world values and cultivates the first level,” Kelly said, “assuming that there is where the real business of humankind is done. It scorns, or smiles in tolerant amusement, at the cultivation of the second level… But in a deeply religious culture [people] know that the deep level of prayer and of divine assistance is the most important thing in the world. It is at this deep level that the real business of life is determined.”
Kelly warned that it may require months or even years of persistent effort to train ourselves to stay focused on God at this deeper level of being while carrying on our everyday tasks. In the early weeks, he said, we begin with simple, whispered prayers, expressing our desire to abide in God’s presence and to do everything for God’s glory. We might, for example, gently repeat a word or phrase taken from the psalms, such as “For God alone” or “My soul longs for you, O God,” as often as we think of it during the day. The conscious cooperation of the surface level is needed at first, before prayer sinks into the second, deeper level and we become more habitually oriented towards God. Later, the time comes when verbalization is not as necessary, when we learn to maintain this inner attentiveness with wordless glances and quiet breathing of invitation and self-offering.
“Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma,” Kelly taught. “A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary…” This practice of inward orientation was not for ‘special souls,’ Kelly insisted; rather, it was “the heart of religion.” And it was the secret of the inner life of Jesus himself, who lived in constant communication and dependence on the One he knew as “Father.”
Our own Rule of Life1 adds further insight into how prayer can permeate the whole of our life. In Chapter 22, “Prayer and Life,” we are reminded of the gifts “which help us to pray without ceasing”:
“The Spirit offers us the gift of attentiveness by which we discern signs of God’s presence and action in creation, in other people and in the fabric of ordinary existence.”
There is the gift of “spiritual freedom by which we surrender fretfulness and anxiety in order to be available to God in the present moment.”
“There is the gift of spontaneity, which gives rise to frequent brief prayers throughout the day in which we look to Christ and express our faith, hope and love.”
And “there is the gift of prompt repentance, which encourages us to turn to God and ask for forgiveness the instant we become aware of a fall.”
“Through these and other like gifts,” the Rule reminds us, “prayer comes to permeate our life and transfigure our mundane routines.”
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” This is the secret Jesus gives us, the secret of our own fulfillment and happiness, and the secret of fruitfulness in life. Learn this secret. Practice it every day. Cultivate a life of constant communion with God. Live in his Presence. You will find it to be a way that leads to peace and contentment, to joy and delight. There is no greater treasure in all of life than to abide in union with God.
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