Six 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.
Last week I began to reflect on the way Brother Lawrence wrote about his teachings on surrender in his daily efforts with meditation. The general direction of his comments is to encourage a person to surrender the outcome of their efforts with meditation.
In the context of his theme “Practicing the Presence of God” one aspect of the surrender teachings is to surrender the outcome of whether a person has any felt presence of God in any particular moment or not. In short try to not be too discouraged when there are no peaceful, mellow feelings arising from your efforts.
Certainly everyone prefers those times when there is a strong sense of the sacred beauty of the living presence of God in their heart. But to only have faith in God and that God is present when there is such confirming evidence would, in Brother Lawrence’s view, indicate a superficial understanding of both practice and faith.
Many people are willing to have faith that God exists in the midst of good fortune. But the deeper vocation is to sustain one’s faith in God, and open their heart and mind to God, in the midst of boredom and “spiritual dryness” as well as those times of real trials. When one is able to do the latter, as well as the former, they will have progressed a great distance towards their ultimate goal even if the “rewards” of their efforts are not immediately evident at first.
With this note we enter into the most difficult part of meditation practice for anyone who believes in a benevolent God. This issue is also one of the central themes of my book, “The Simple Path of Holiness.”
How can we talk about such issues as “Practicing the Presence of God” when troubles are piling up and faith is crumbling into doubt, or more seriously, turning into real despair, or anger at God.
Quite understandably, atheists and cynics will think any of these efforts to be nothing short of ridiculous. No one could blame them for such sentiments. Rather these efforts are for those who want to deepen their faith or those who are trying to see if there is a way to have faith in God in the midst of yet another violent age.
For me the answers begin with not getting stymied by old errors and comments such as “God has a plan for each life, it is just that we cannot understand that plan.” If someone is beaten and raped there simply is no way to see this is somehow part of God’s plan for their life. I think clearing away such confusing perspectives is an essential reform of the traditional theologies of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings however disruptive such a reform may be.
In short, a central theme of my entire life and vocation is to come up with better ways to think about the search for God’s presence exactly when it seems that God has abandoned the innocent to a wasting sickness, or cruel exploitation, or the savage violence that sometimes breaks out in this world.
My first suggestion is this: if there are times for you when it seems God is near, or may be near, make the conscious choice to open your heart and mind to experience this presence more intimately. Over time this will give rise to more and more experiences of the felt presence of divine life. With this stronger foundation of personal experience, it is more likely you will be able to maintain your faith when troubles start to pile up.
But when troubles do start to mount can you notice when faith begins to crumble and doubt begins to arise. Can you be clear when doubt has arisen and notice if fear and anger are also arising.
When doubt, anger and fear arise there are several choices. The most common is to be swept along by the surge or these powerful feelings and resort to old patterns of reactivity. This, lamentably, is what I often do.
The most uncommon choice is to see if you can quell through skillful practice the surge of doubt, anger, and fear and say something like this:
“God I believe you are here somewhere. Help me to see or feel where or how you are present in the midst of these troubles.” Keep repeating this if you are willing to do so and see what, if anything, you find.
This series of steps is what I refer to as the research work of meditation or as the preparatory exercises of unconditional faith.
Can you develop sufficient strength of mindful awareness and skillful action to diminish surging emotions such as doubt, anger, fear, shame, greed, aggression, and the like?
Can you develop the sufficient ability to clear the mind of any answers you feel are bad attempts to explain the numbing contradiction between the teachings of a loving God juxtaposed with the reality violence and suffering in the world?
Can you be intrepid enough in your faith to search with an open heart and mind to see if you can somehow make direct contact with God, or at least through faith in God, in the midst of suffering?
If you can make direct contact with God in the midst of suffering, can you find ways to draw upon the resources of divine life which are present but hidden- in ways that are analogous to the way a tree draws water and nutrients from the soil and sunlight? Can you search for new and creative ways to diminish the suffering in your life and the lives of those around you?
Please let me know what you think. It would help me out a great deal if you were willing to try these concepts out and to tell me what you find when you do.
more next week.
will at meditation practice dot com ( Spelled out to avoid spam)