Sunday, May 4, 2014

Practicing the Presence of God

Many of the most influential people in the history of the Church were humble souls who simply were seeking to follow the will of God.

Such a man was Nicholas Herman.

He was born around 1605 in Lorraine, France to poor parents. As a young man, he was always enthralled by the beauty of nature. One day, during a walk in the countryside on a winter morning, he looked at a bare tree and reflected on how, without leaves and fruit, it was much like a soul without God. At that moment, he decided to commit his life to serving God.

However, with not enough resources to pursue an education, he decided to enlist in the army. During a battle with Swedish forces, he was wounded. He would limp badly the rest of his life because of the injuries he sustained.

Unable to continue in the army and failing at other jobs he tried, he finally decided to fulfill the commitment he had made to God on that winter day and, in 1640, he joined the Carmelite order in Paris, talking the name Brother Lawrence.

Being a humble man with little formal education, he never was ordained a deacon or priest. Rather he served his community as a lay brother working in the kitchen. It was there amidst the pots and pans that he would develop a method of prayer that would inspire millions of Christians. It came to be called, “the practice of the presence of God.”

His simple method of prayer involved nothing else than keeping in mind throughout the day that he was in the presence of God. He described it as a continuous, unbroken conversation with his heavenly Father. It did not necessarily involve reciting formal prayers or even using words at all. Rather, he kept his mind and heart focused on God throughout the day whether he was in the chapel or the kitchen, whether he was on his knees during Mass or bent over a sink washing dishes.

Keeping in mind that God was always at his side brought a total transformation to Brother Lawrence’s life which became immediately evident to his brother monks. He went from being a sullen man plagued by guilt and lacking self-confidence to a person radiating peace and joy. His fellow monks began asking him what had caused such a change in him, and he shared with them his simple way of prayer. In time, many people from all over would make pilgrimages to the priory to learn from Brother Lawrence how to practice the presence of God. Then, in 1693, his abbot, Joseph de Beaufort, collected his letters and personal interviews and had them published under the title, Spiritual Maxims. It came to influence millions of Christians - Catholics and Protestants alike - and is still available today under the title, The Practice of the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence, a simple man with little formal education, whose only talent was cooking, was used by God to draw millions of people into a more intimate, spiritual communion with their Heavenly Father.

The success of this method of prayer is rooted in its simplicity. We all can practice it no matter what level of education we have or how advanced we are in the spiritual life. It is a simple matter of keeping in mind that Jesus is always at my side. No matter where I am or what I am doing, the Lord never leaves me. As we grow in our awareness of His presence, we begin to experience a deep sense of peace and joy. As with Brother Lawrence, we are transformed and people begin to notice.

In today’s gospel, two disciples of the Lord come to experience for themselves the truth that Jesus is always with them. Like Thomas whom we heard about last week, these two men were heartbroken. They had traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus believing He would reveal Himself to be the King of Israel. Instead they witnessed His crucifixion and death. Even with news that He may be raised from the dead, they had given up hope and were going home.

On the road, Jesus appears at their side. However, they are unable to recognize Him just as they were unable to recognize the hand of God at work through Jesus’ suffering and death. Jesus is not put off by their despair or by their lack of recognition. Instead He continues to walk with them, explaining the Scriptures and comforting them until their despair is dispelled and they are finally able to recognize Him once again. Now, enlightened by Jesus, they can return to Jerusalem with the other disciples to celebrate together the truth of His resurrection.

Whether we realize it or not, Jesus walks with us every moment of our lives. When times are good, He shares our joy. When times are bad, He carries and strengthens us. No matter what choices we make or where we choose to go, there is no time that Jesus abandons us.

If we can recognize Him walking with us, then our lives will be filled with peace and joy. And it really is as easy as reminding ourselves from moment to moment that Jesus is walking with us.

If that truth still seems too incredible for us to believe, all we have to do is ask Jesus to reveal Himself to us just as He did to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

There is no secret to the spiritual life. Though it takes discipline and effort, it is not difficult. It is as easy as making friends or falling in love. The only difference is that the friend we fall in love with is Jesus. Let us be aware of His presence in us and among us not only in this holy place but wherever we may go. Then fear, despair and loneliness will be a thing of the past making way for the peace, joy and unfailing hope that only God can give.

(image by Marisol Sousa)

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