Quiet comes to rest beside me

Entering into God’s silence,” is Merton’s theme for Monday of the first full week of Lent. He says, that in silence we

are formed and prepared so that [we] may speak what [we] have heard.

And doesn’t this resonate with all of us who spend our time here in this virtual space? We share our experience and our reading and our revelations with others, in hopes of offering words, sharing stories, which might help someone else to find their way.

But silence, Merton says, and time apart from others is necessary for all of us.

At church yesterday our priest spoke about a similar theme, discussing Jesus’ time in the desert – in desolation, in silence, tempted and tried. Like Jesus, he said, during these quiet times God teaches us how to distinguish His voice — that voice planted like a seed deep within us at the moment of conception — from all the other voices that might ring in our ears.

I wrote a poem years ago — 40 years ago now — I was so young then and immature. Yet, even then, I knew that while I kind of liked the words…the way they sounded together…the sense that they said something important…I knew, even then, I didn’t really understand them or what they meant, even to me. It went like this:

Night sounds begin and light
becomes a shadow of a shadow
As dark isolation settles with a chill.

 

Breath won’t come. “Don’t go
…Don’t leave me here alone!!”
Wandering, lost,
Separate from all but One.

 

Then quiet comes to rest beside me,
And the crowd from the inner room
Pushes to be free.

What does it reveal about that girl nearly a half century ago? Fear of being alone.

I used to hate being alone. The silence when I was alone was never silent. When I was little, being alone scared me in that ghost-and-hobgoblin sort of way. As I got older, I just didn’t know what to do with silence and alone-ness.

By the time I wrote this, I had begun to catch just a faint glimmer. When I wrote that “quiet comes to rest beside me,” I always thought that when I really finally understood whatever this this work is that is mine to do in this life, that the line would read “quiet comes to rest within me.”

Still, now when I am silent and talking with God, I have a strong sense of His coming to rest beside me, His quiet loving presence cleansing me and making me whole again.

And even though there is a peacefulness associated with the experience, there is an incredible excitement. The crowd — all those unformed feelings and partial thoughts and gentle urgings — they rally up within me in a sort of freedom song in which I catch a glimpse of the person He intended me to be. They demand my attention, insist that I free them from my own anxieties and fears and expose them to the Light of His grace.

Guilty secrets and Lenten fasting

Lenten fasting is not a tradition that I’ve ever participated in. I never thought it held much for me. And yet, not ever having tried it, how exactly do I to know that? So this year, I’m in.

Thomas Merton in Seeking God In All Things says that fasting is not just about losing weight or toning our bodies (I could use some of both) in preparation for Easter. He says that as we bring our bodies into subjection, along with our spirit, our participation in Christ’s burial and resurrection becomes more tangible.

So, this Lent, in addition to participating in the church’s fasting regimen along with others, I have identified one particular food that I want to avoid. It’s a bit embarrassing to talk about…one of those guilty secret things…it’s a stupid…ok, it’s fat-free whipped cream…like Cool Whip?

There, I said it. There are some days when I just eat it right out of the container, standing in front of an open refrigerator. For me, it’s become one of those guilty pleasures. I know it’s mostly just high fructose corn syrup; that I’m often using whipped cream as a palate-moderator after a spicy meal (I’m not prepared to give spice up…yet); that often I’m just wanting a sugar hit.

I’ve come to crave just a couple of spoons full so potently each afternoon around 3:30 (must be a low sugar point of my day, or something) that, if I’ve run out of it, I will venture to the store for the sole purpose of buying more.

Well, as you can see, I would probably be more accurate if I just admitted that I want to unfasten this particular food’s hold on me. As basically harmless as this whipped cream probably is in the whole scheme of things (I really don’t eat a lot of it at any one time…she whines…and I’m not particularly overweight or unhealthy), it will be empowering to feel God’s aid and comfort in helping me control my physical body and this particular craving.

Even as I write this, I find the whole idea of giving this food up just a bit daunting. I’m going to forego it entirely at the bottom of each afternoon and replace it with water or maybe even something else sweet, but not the whipped cream. I might still have a small portion after dinner in the evenings. I’ve found in the past that moderation or reprogramming (with these types of sweets) can almost be more difficult than complete abstinence.

I’ll let you know how this goes. When I think about doing this on my own, I’ve truly not been certain I’m up to the challenge. But with God’s help, controlling my body and its cravings seems more possible.

What are your plans for Lent? Are you doing something special? How to you feel about fasting and denial during Lent? Talk to me!

(Re) forming habits – One day at a time and be gentle with yourself

Learning to feel God’s presence, I think, is similar to learning to form (or reform) any new habit. You do it over and over until it becomes second nature.

When you forget, you acknowledge your forgetfulness, maybe you think about how to avoid messing up in the future, and you move on.

Forget the on-going self-recrimination. The error was in the past. Your acknowledgment of the error (and your request for forgiveness?) were both in the past, too. So should be your concern. Tami at Lessons by Heart talks about her view of this here.

Practice, Practice, Practice

After a while (as my musician-husband always reminds me – practice will make permanent, if not always exactly perfect), God’s presence with you, His grace and continual blessings –maybe even His voice — will be clearer and felt more fully, substantiating each time the validity of your practice.

In his first conversation with Fr. Joseph de Beaufort, Brother Lawrence put it this way. He said:

That in order to form a habit of conversing with GOD continually, and referring all we do to Him; we must at first apply to Him with some diligence: but that after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty.

And from his first letter he described that:

…by often repeating these acts, they become habitual, and the presence of GOD is rendered as it were natural to us.

One day, one baby-step at a time.

Mags Blackie, author of Rooted in Love, in her recent post ‘Start With Today‘ offers this advice on forming or reforming habits:

Making changes in our habitual patterns can seem like an insurmountable hurdle…

I have found that when I am in such a bind that the best way to approach it is to forget about the future. I simply make a choice for today. Today I will exercise; or today I will pray; or today I will forgo alcohol; or today I will eat more fruit and veg.

My additional suggestion: Be gentle with yourself

I have found that being gentle with my own expectations of myself is important, especially when I’m trying to embark on some new project.

There’s always the possibility that I’m just being lazy, unfocused and procrastinating. But more often than not (for me, anyway) what can seem like self-made obstacles, forgetfulness, or procrastination (not unlike that described here by Angie over at Family Answers Fast), about my to-do list can obscure an underlying, nagging sense of ‘not-readyness.’

For me, procrastination is almost always a signal that God isn’t fully on board with my plan. In these situations, He most often has another plan waiting for me just around the bend that is more perfect than any I might have conjured up.

My suggestion: One day at a time and be gentle with yourself.

Practicing His Presence

So what does all this have to do with practicing God’s presence?

Just this: When we’ve begun to find a certain ease with experiencing God’s presence with us, procrastination begins to seem less like avoidance or laziness on our part and more like spending time in a holy waiting room, as we assure ourselves that we haven’t gotten out ahead of His light.

He might begin by giving us a holy desire – one so compelling that it can’t be ignored – and we find we are literally catapulted out of whatever stuck-state we’ve been in. We might find ourselves wanting to work through the night or to bound out of bed each morning just to welcome a new day.

When we experience His presence as we go about our daily errands and responsibilities, we will begin to hear His voice, sense His nudges and direction, feel more clarity that we are following His way…all with the happy outcome that our time ends up being spent more productively.

It might even seem that He expands the amount of time we have available for our work.

By feeling God’s presence, we allow His love to sooth our fears of unworthiness and replace them with confidence in how to move forward.

In short, if we allow Him, He will give us the all the tools and energy and time and enthusiasm we need in order to achieve the projects or create the new habits He has planned for us.

One step at a time in His perfect time, He’ll show us an easy, direct route to His plan for us.

Doing all things with God, Doing all things for God

Brother Lawrence is a gift from God (drawing from Wikipedia)Brother_Lawrence_in_the_kitchen

He name is reasonably familiar – to people who know it. But, for many Brother Lawrence is an obscure figure.

Not much is known about him. Still, what we do know is of such value to faith seekers that there’s a part of me that wants to dedicate this whole blog to him and his teachings.

Figuring out how to honor his teachings will be left for another day. Today, I want simply to introduce him to you and reflect on what is, in my mind, his overarching lesson.

Born Nicholas Herman

Born in 1611 as Nicholas Herman in the northeastern corner of France’s Lorraine region, Brother Lawrence grew up in poverty during the height of the Protestant Reformation, just ahead of Europe’s devastating Thirty Year’s War, which was spurred by the religious and political tensions of the time.

This description from Wikipedia provides a good quick impression of Brother Lawrence:

“Despite his lowly position in life and the priory, his character attracted many to him. He had a reputation for experiencing profound peace and visitors came to seek spiritual guidance from him. The wisdom he passed on to them, in conversations and in letters, would later become the basis for the book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Father Joseph de Beaufort, later vicar general to the Archbishop of Paris, compiled this work after Brother Lawrence died. It became popular among Catholics and Protestants alike…”

I first heard about Brother Lawrence nearly 30 years ago in a sermon given by a minister in the Unity Church of Christ. He told the story of Brother Lawrence’s time working in the lowly tedium of a priory kitchen.

Haven’t we all experienced as tedium, tasks like fixing meals, cleaning dishes, running errands, washing laundry. They can all seem so trivial. Something to be ‘gotten through.’ Why on earth, we might wonder, would we consider them worthy of God’s time or attention?

All things with God, all things for God

And yet, for Brother Lawrence all tasks, even the most menial stoop to pick up a piece of straw from the ground, offered an occasion to serve God.

Doing everything throughout the day – household chores, business responsibilities, relationship tending – for the love of God was Brother Lawrence’s singular objective in life.

Father de Beaufort describes how Brother Lawrence approached his work in their second “conversation: ”

“in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of GOD, and with prayer, upon all occasions, for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy, during the fifteen years that he had been employed there…”

And in their fourth conversation:

“…the most excellent method he had found of going to GOD, was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of GOD.”

He goes on to quote Brother Lawrence:

“The time of business,” said [Brother Lawrence], “does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”

Some time after I heard about Brother Lawrence, I finally acted to buy a copy of The Practice of the Presence. It quietly sat on my bookshelf for years gathering dust and eventually became part of the great purge that I discuss here.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was again reminded of him and the attitude he brought to his life, that my heart was finally fully captured by his lessons. (Procrastination? Or God’s grace in the fullness of His time?)

How simple is too simple?

These practices – his practices – are so simple that they are easily shunted aside, overlooked, disregarded as too simple, possibly, or too trivial to be effective. And so, we go about our day over-complicating our search for God.

God’s not just there with us when we pray and call upon Him. He’s with us each minute waiting for us to acknowledge Him and invite Him into our experience.

He’s here right now, as I write this text. He’ll be with me in a minute or two when I get up to make another cup of tea. He was with me earlier when I put in a load of laundry.

When I keep my mind trained on His presence with me as I perform all of my tasks throughout the day, I immediately feel the joy that Brother Lawrence describes, knowing that God — my partner in all things — is with me waiting for me to notice His presence, to experience His loving embrace.

Fr. James Martin SJ, in his excellent book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, discusses the Jesuit form of prayer in which one imagines being part of the stories in the Bible.

Imagining God sitting next to me as I write, or in the car as I run errands, allows me to feel His presence. And once felt, to be washed clean in the glow of His light, able to bring a more loving heart and a more receptive spirit as I go about my day.

Meditation 11 – Gratitude awakens humility

Have you no joys to tell Me? Why not confide to Me your pleasures? Tell Me what has happened since yesterday to console you, to make you happy, to give you joy. An unexpected visit has done you good; a fear has suddenly been dispelled; you have met with unlooked-for success; you have received some mark of affection – a letter, a present; some trial has left you stronger than you supposed. All these things, My child, I obtained for you. Why are you not grateful? Why do you not say, “I thank You”? Gratitude draws benefits, and the benefactor loves to be reminded of his bounty.

God loves our gratitude. For me, gratitude is accompanied by a strong sense of humility.

Much of our culture doesn’t reward humility. I have worked for many years in a career where individuals become “subject matter experts” or SMEs. Even those who don’t promote themselves this way in the beginning can eventually be affected, drinking the koolaid and taking their pumped up biographical descriptions seriously. Others will further inflate SME credentials in order to promote their own personal agendas, their own value.

In meetings filled with inflated egos there’s often little room for God or humble recognition of His goodness and might.

So, what’s joyful about this particular recognition? It is this:

After so many years toiling in this particular field, staying centered on Him in the midst of all the self-promotion was a challenge I wasn’t always successful in meeting.

But God is good.

Through His grace can I now — finally — awake each morning remembering Him first and, upon remembering, feel an almost overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude for His presence in my life. Just that.

Remember to say good morning each day to God. Acknowledge His presence with me. Invite Him into my day.

Because in doing so, I can’t help but take the additional mental steps to acknowledge Him as the source of my being, the architect of any success I might enjoy, the origin of my existence and my ability.

Thank you, Father, for the grace to remember You each day.

Only as You allow me to remember You, am I able then to acknowledge Your role in my life. Credit You for all the ways in which You have blessed me. Give You thanks.

And through all these, to feel consumed with humility for how meager my contribution would be without Your blessing.

Driving with God

“I’m glad you’re with me today, Father.”

I’m always with you, my dear. I’m glad you’re aware of me today.

“This imagining thing that Fr. Martin suggests…well, I guess it was St. Ignatius who earlier suggested it for understanding more about Christ…isn’t something I know much about, Father. It feels so presumptuous to imagine You here with me. Can we just be quiet here together for a while?”

I know. There’s not any need to talk. We can just drive together.

A few minutes later.

“I have a question, Father.”

Only one?

“Ha! I don’t know when or if to go public with the blog I’m working on for You, WWMB. I don’t want to put it out there, if it is not what you want from me. Or if You believe I’m/we’re not ready. Or, if I somehow might do something wrong or say something that might lead another person to go astray. What should I do, Father. And when.”

Do you believe that I led you to the writing that you’ve been doing?

“Yes.”

Do you believe that I use things and people to my own purpose? And is my purpose good?

“Yes…and, of course!”

What is your fear? Are you concerned about what I might do with your work, who I might bring to your web blog, or are you concerned about whether something you do might be wrong or weakly reasoned or uninspired? How much of what you’re feeling is ego?

“Okay…I think I get where You’re going. You’re in control. But …(Angel: Really? What on earth are you doing, arguing, questioning God? Shhh, I’m new at this. He understands!) …what if I start the blog and then my work schedule gets in the way? What if I don’t maintain the blog, and, as is true for so many others, it just falls by the wayside and withers?”

What if?

“So, you’re suggesting that if I continue to follow Your lead, either outcome is …well, if not worthy, then at least redeemable…something? Or that You can still work with stuff, even incomplete stuff, if You choose…That what I learn about myself and about my relationship with You may be as important as what I lead others to learn about You and that in the end, it’s all up to You anyway?….hmph!”

A little later:

“I love you so very much, Father.”

I love you, too.

A bit later yet:

“WOW! How do You DO that? The sun shining through the mist, the snow-capped mountains, the fog lying along the ground in the valley. And the colors today are iridescent! What a day You have made for our drive! Thank you, Father!”

It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

And again later:

“Father, do You feel sadness or remorse for the world. Are You concerned about the state our world is in? How does that work for You? It seems like You, as awesome God, would be, should be kind of above it all…unaffected by all the sin and greed and deceit and hatred that exists in our world. And yet, You love us and care for us. How does that work?”

I don’t so much feel those things, as I understand them. I was there. I lived among you. I felt the things you’re feeling… your human emotions – love, anger, joy, sadness, remorse. I know how your pain feels. I try to help you use the pain you’re experiencing to strengthen you in your quest to find me. I rejoice with you when you take even the smallest step toward me.

“Don’t You ever tire of all my whiney doubts and questions? How am I possibly worthy of Your presence here in the car with me, talking to me and painting beautiful scenes for us to see as we drive along?”

I’m always here ready to talk and to listen, painting beautiful vistas. I’m always present with you. It’s nice to have you here present with me. We should do this more often.