Last week I began a series on Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a Carmelite monk who lived and served in the 17th century at a monastery near Paris.
The only writing of his that survived is, “Practicing the Presence of God.” This very slender book has one section with notes made from four conversations Brother Lawrence had with his superior in the monastery. The superior felt the remarks in the conversations were very valuable and so he wrote them down. The 2nd section includes fifteen letters Brother Lawrence wrote to close acquaintances. The 3rd section presents what Brother Lawrence called his “spiritual maxims.” Please do not be fooled by the brevity of the book. As with all spiritual masters, there is great spiritual depth compressed into deceptively short passages.
Last week I wrote some cautionary notes about the sharply self-denigrating comments Brother Lawrence occasionally made that are of the kind which appear frequently in Medieval and Counter-Reformation Catholic books. I suggest people note such comments but not to be so turned off by them that they miss out on the very important insights Brother Lawrence offers elsewhere. At some point I will return to additional cautionary notes about some of Brother Lawrence’s other spiritual perspectives. But for now I want to explain why I think Brother Lawrence’s form of practice is an important counterpoint to Greek Orthodox contemplative prayer which I wrote about at length in February and March.
Here is the primary reason:
Greek Orthodox contemplative prayer calls for a continual repetition of the name of Jesus either as a single word or in a mantra such as “Lord Jesus have mercy on me.” (Those of other religions would adapt this form of prayer to their own words or imagery.)
This repetition is to be practiced not only during meditation, but throughout every moment of the day.
What I find to be very helpful about this suggestion is the reminder to maintain a dedicated focus on prayer and adoration throughout the entire day. I know from personal experience that this degree of steadiness of practice in a devotional context is indeed highly efficacious. But I do think such a strong commitment to continual practice may only be suited for the special environment of a monastic setting. For example, in a monastery the work of the day tends to be fairly simple and repetitive acts like making woven baskets, or brewing beer, or baking and packaging cookies. I can see how it would be possible to maintain the repetition of the Jesus Prayer mantra in this context.
But I believe there are significant obstacles for a modern tradesman, or industrial worker, or administrative personnel, or someone in one of the professions to constantly repeat a mantra or sacred word as they go about a busy day. I concede it is possible for someone to maintain a mantra in such contexts but it can be awkward, draining, and even jarring at times to try to do so.
But I believe Brother Lawrence’s practice of maintaining an awareness of God’s presence in the midst of work activities may be a far more viable alternative to the proposition that one repeat a mantra throughout their work day.
My reasoning for focusing on these different methods is to explore how Christians, and those of other God centered faiths, can put into action St. Paul’s counsel to “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 16-18)
Indeed the Buddhist practice of mindful awareness of all moments is another way to fulfill this important counsel. In many ways Buddhist mindfulness practice is simpler than either the Greek Orthodox Hesychastic prayer or Brother Lawrence’s “Practice of the Presence of God.” It is simpler because, on one level, what is asked for is a continual clarity of awareness of the body and the mind as well as whatever is happening nearby. For busy modern people a simple but clear mindful awareness of each passing moment is a great way to maintain one’s meditation practice during the active hours of their day.
But for those whose meditation practiced is centered in a relationship with God, the labors of maintaining one’s focus throughout the day will be significantly different than it will be for the Buddhist Vipassana or Zen practitioner. I am not saying it is better. Rather I am highlighting the simple fact that maintaining continual awareness and engagement of a living relationship with divine life is different than the moment-by-moment mindfulness practice of Buddhist meditation which in most traditions is a non-theistic, or atheist practice.
For the God centered practitioner I believe the challenge is how to maintain a sense of connection with God in the midst of the active hours of one’s life, while still being able to meet the responsibilities of a demanding modern job.
More on the specifics next week. (Or, please feel free to call. I would be glad to talk with you about any of these forms of practice to see what, if any, of these subjects is relevant to your life.)
Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” host of Meditationpractice.com
will at meditation practice dot com (spelled out to limit spam)