Five weeks ago 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.
Please read the posts of the past week or two (or preferably the entire series) for more background. As always in my comments on any topic, people are encouraged to adapt to their chosen tradition of faith or atheist philosophy those insights they find to be relevant and to set aside the rest.d
This post touches on a more general perspective that is central to the teachings of Brother Lawrence and other important writers such as St. John of the Cross. Like many aspects of the mystical tradition this general consideration can be more than a little perplexing, at least it is for me. Here is some background:
What attracted me to meditation was the prospect of high states of peace and rapture I read about in books. In my late teen years I was inspired by Herman Hesse’s “Siddartha”, and Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.” In my mid-thirties, when I became interested in Christian spirituality, I was deeply moved by the middle chapters of William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience” and, to my great surprise, by the great Catholic narrative-St. Teresa of Avila’s “Autobiography.” Still later in life, in my mid-fifties, I found the Buddhist teacher Bhante Gunaratana’s commentary on the Jhana practices in the late chapters of his book, “Eight Steps to Happiness,” to be another seminal influence.
In short I was chasing after altered states of consciousness such as what St. Paul called, “…the peace that surpasses all understanding.” (Phillippians 4:7)
I have heard many stories of what are called “Peak Experiences” of great peace and joy told by many ordinary people in various groups I have attended. In truth I have found that the number of people who experience such exalted states is quite a bit higher than most may presume. Indeed when people think of mystic states of consciousness, and the “presence of God” often it is such states of great peace and rapture they have in mind. Most teachers of meditation do nothing to dispel this notion.
But Brother Lawrence and St. John of the Cross are very clear on this point.
The spiritual path is not about having special consolations as proof that God is present.
Comments such as the following by many teachers are common: “If such high states of consolation arise, that is great. Enjoy them as they arise and let them go when they pass.”
The real goal of Catholic mysticism is not high states of peace and rapture however wonderful and important such experiences may be. The real goal is to deepen faith to the point that one remains fully open to God’s life and will and cooperative with God’s grace whether there is any felt experience of God or peace one way or the other.
Central to Brother Lawrence’s approach to the spiritual life is to be fully present and accepting of God’s will and the conditions of one’s life that are not amenable to change moment by moment.
But given the way spiritual books write about high states of bliss or altered consciousness it is understandable that one would say, “Yes that is what I am after too.”
The difficulty is that God’s life, will, and presence manifests in very different ways to different people. For most of us God’s gifts are not some dramatic “peak experience.”
Rather the gifts manifest in other way’s that are not as dramatic, but equally profound and meaningful.
Coming to realize that an absence of “peak experiences” does not relegate you to a second class status as a meditator or spiritual seeker is important, at least if has been so for me.
Surrendering, really letting go at deeper and deeper levels to God’s will means learning to be open to the gifts you are given. Also to see over time there are more expansive dimensions to the gifts you have been given than you may have first believed.
Paradoxically, letting go of the outcome of your dedicated efforts with meditation practice, this surrender and detachment and non-striving, will bear unexpected fruit. Those states of peace, love, sacred beauty, and insight that are available to you will become more and more refined and sustaining over time.
And these experiences will arise even as you do incredibly tedious and ordinary things such as scouring pots with baked on grease and fat in a busy monastery kitchen as Brother Lawrence did or as others do in modern houses for the homeless.
More next week.
Please send in your stories. I would love to hear from you.
will at meditation practice dot com ( Spelled out to avoid spam)