With adulthood and the influence of the Second Vatican Council, with the good life that Americans have learned to take for granted, the focus on suffering seems to have lessened. Those with an eye to the social justice issues of our time, however, and awareness of the global picture have never lost that focus or concern, and they would say the rest of us just were not paying attention. But for many, the events of last Sept. 11 give a sense of how much we did not look at the big picture. Here in the United States we did not experience what many other countries have known for years, because wars have not been fought on our own soil. But in these days, there is a strong feeling that we are mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Such awareness of a hurt and broken world has become a daily preoccupation for many of us. We cannot escape from the world’s brokenness into some nook or cranny. We live amid the constant reminder of the possibility of another terrorist attack, the chaos of the corporate world and the economy, the sore spots around the globein particular the Middle East, where there does not seem any possibility of peace on anyone’s horizon. And now we face the anger and pain that is the experience of many Roman Catholics over the child abuse scandal, the clergy involvement and especially the lack of strong episcopal leadership in dealing with the issue.
How can ordinary people find a way to feel God’s blessings and a sense of peace in all of this? What measure do we have for dealing with this mess without becoming alienated or angry?
I have just finished reading a very small book about a Carmelite religious brother who lived in 17th-century France. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection worked in the monastery kitchen and shoe shop. He was very simple, very plain-spoken; yet many people of his day, including priests, superiors of religious communities and lay men and women, sought him out for advice and spiritual direction, which his superiors allowed. Not only did people come to see him but he wrote letters to them, many of which are included in the book. He had one very simple message: God’s presence is in us at all times and places, in everything we do.
Brother Lawrence himself learned to reflect on that as the core of faith and of spirituality. He told people to work at it on a daily basis, constantly reminding themselves that in whatever they were doingwashing dishes, sweeping the floor, working in the gardenGod was with them. It sounds so simple and yet it is a great tool, I think, for us today. Not only is God present in the Eucharist; God is present in every moment of every day of our livesin one another, in people we don’t know, in persons with whom we disagree, in those we may even consider enemies. He is present in whatever we do.
If we had such a strong sense of God’s presence, it would ease much of the anxiety and tension that is so much a part of our lives. To attain that strong focus, however, would require us to turn off the television, to spend time in silence, to look at people with a new sense of their sacredness. This is a tall order, one that will take a lifetime of prayer and reflection to develop. But it is what is asked of us as Christians, it is our challenge as disciples.
In a foreword to The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, the Rev. Henri Nouwen writes: In the midst of a society marked by fragmentation and alienation Brother Lawrence’s life and thoughts offer a real source of healing.... Brother Lawrence’s advice to walk constantly in the presence of God is not just a nice idea for a seventeenth-century monk, but a most important challenge for our present-day life situation.... One of the most stimulating aspects of this precious book is Brother Lawrence’s deep conviction that praying is not saying prayers, but a way of living in which all we do becomes prayer. For him it was a practice that permeated every moment of his day. He felt that his work in the kitchen and his occasional trips were in no way less prayer than his hours in the church. Everything we do is done to the glory of God.
It does take courage to greet each day with a fresh face. In our time, with so much bad news each morning, it behooves us to have some shield that protects us from despair and pessimism about life, about our world, about the futurea shield that helps us face the day.
God is no less present to us in bad times than in good. In fact, when things are very difficult, I believe God may be even more deeply involved in our lives, may be even closer to us. We all have had experiences that we could have never survived without grace, but it is easy to forget that providential dimension once we get past those difficult times. The constancy of God’s presence, reminding ourselves of this over and over, is a reassuring and calming way to face the world. Believing God is with us should help us realize that nothing evil can really touch us.
Perhaps through all these hard times, we will find that our faith is strengthened, that we become more caring, more compassionate persons, more aware of the gift of God’s presence every moment of every day of our lives.
Since reading this book, I have found myself on several occasions thinking about God’s presenceand it made a great difference. Looking at another person and being conscious of that truth makes me aware of the sacredness of that person in a new way. It would be wonderful to sustain that thought for a long period, but such a practice takes time and workand grace. But just doing it briefly was for me a very powerful experience.
The first occasion was when I was near a person who is mentally ill; it was difficult to deal with her because I could not get away from her talking and persistence in keeping me there. I looked at her and remembered this idea of God’s presence, and then I saw her in a new way, as someone very precious to God.
Another occasion was when I went to Mass and a widow, whose husband died very unexpectedly and at a young age, came and sat with me. It was such a gift to me for her to do that and I treasured her presence. I know that she is still feeling his death keenly, and it is hard for her to get out and do things. Her sitting beside me made me aware of God’s presence.
The next time was remarkable because it was so unexpected and so simple. One afternoon recently, I had to take my car to be serviced. It was an emergency and when I arrived, they were busy beyond belief. The parking lot was full of cars, some double-parked. There was someone waiting in the outer room. One of the owners, Scott, was on the phone. I handed him my keys and sat down. I hadn’t brought anything with me to read so I just sat there and reflected. A man came in, stood there and waited. He waited five minutes, maybe ten. He didn’t get upset, never asked where the manager was; he just stood and waited. He did ask me how long I had had my car, went on to tell me he and his wife had had theirs a long time and found this place after bad experiences with other service stations. He commented what excellent service this place gave him. Then Scott came in, asked the man a few questions and they went outside.
In a minute or two a lady came in; she stood there and waited, five, ten minutes. Scott came back, told her her car was ready, so she could go on vacation. This led to a conversation about trips and family reunions. Just as the woman left, a second man appeared, with his wife right behind him. She had followed him there to pick him up. Again waiting, a long time. Jim, the other owner, came in, greeted the man and asked him if he had a list for him. I noticed how kind and caring both Scott and Jim were. It was late in the day, and they must have been frazzled. The phone kept ringing, and they were answering questions, finishing jobs. Jim took the second man to the back. A third man appeared in the door and stood waiting. Scott returned and took him around the building. At that point one of the mechanics came in with the keys to my car, announcing it was ready.
During the drive home, I thought about the excellent service these men give their customers’ carsbut more, the excellent care and service they give to the cars’ owners. What a rich experience of God’s presence in the world, one that is probably a part of daily life; but we don’t always have the eyes to see it. I wondered whether I noticed it only because I wasn’t reading a book or talking to someone? Why were these waiting customers so courteous? Was it because of the way the two owners treated them as a part of their usual routine? Perhaps it was all of those things. What is significant, for me, is that I took the time, and then the thoughts of Brother Lawrence’s formula came to mind. There was the reality.
With enough practice, such reflection could become as automatic as breathing. There are countless examples of such experiences in everyone’s life. We tend to focus on people’s rudeness, on the lack of concern, and don’t pay attention to everyday moments of care and courtesy and love. God’s presence is with us, all the time, everywhere. If we believe that, nothing can frighten us or hurt us or destroy us.
This formula Brother Lawrence recommended is timeless. He struggled for years to make it habitual in his own life. It is wonderful too for us as a focus for our daily lives, through the minutes and hours. If, as a beginning, we do it for just a few minutes daily, we will ultimately reap the fruit of such prayer: first peace, then joy.