Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 3)

The Practice of the Presence of God is, to most readers, a little-known Catholic spiritual classic from the late 17th century. It is brief and somewhat unusual, insofar as the model it presents for the spiritual life is quite simple and direct, devoting little attention to the sorts of the concerns that tend to dominate most Christian (and not only Christian) spiritual literature.

This tiny gem was written by a French Carmelite lay brother. As it would happen, one of the first religious communities I seriously considered joining in my youth — I was still in high school at the time — was a small group of strict-observance Carmelites in rural Minnesota. Perhaps this was because of my superficial acquaintance with those great Carmelite mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Perhaps it was the attractiveness of a life so completely and unreservedly dedicated to a spiritual ideal that inspired me. Life took me along other paths, but I still regard those mystic-saints highly. Perhaps one day soon I’ll return to their writings, engaging them not as the boy of certainties that I was in my youth but as a man who has had the grace to experience something of life, who has known doubt and uncertainty intimately and at length, who understands from the inside what failure, difficulty, and despair are.

Not surprisingly, The Practice of the Presence of God (PPG) is cloaked in the language and theological scaffolding of a particular moment in the history of the Catholic Church. To many this will be an obstacle. For my part, I am attempting to give a fresh read to the text, exploring points of commonality with the Buddhist spiritual tradition, and proposing a synthesis that is useful and sensible to me. I leave it to others to judge the actual value of what I write. The work I offer here is an initial, provisional attempt — it will need thoughtful revision at some stage in the future.

You can find a link to a translation of the complete original text here.

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Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
Third Conversation, 1666

The impulse for this spiritual endeavor arises from the conviction that it is a most noble and beneficial pursuit.

Distractions and failures of mindfulness are not important and need not cause bother, for once recognized they help us return to our spiritual focus with renewed confidence and fresh insight.

Trust in the One who inspires the spiritual journey is the greatest honor we can offer and is a source of grace and strength.

Let us have trust and confidence that the path is not futile, even when we cannot see a way out of the darkness we might experience.

We perceive and experience the reality of our spiritual journey in detached moments, not in its totality; therefore our judgment is limited in usefulness at times and always provisional.

As we develop spiritually, we may begin to experience the present moment more fully and in ways we don’t always understand; the past and the future take on a different significance.

When our minds wander, as they will, through our own effort and by some special grace they will return to the present moment or to our object of concentration.

As we cultivate attitudes of love/loving kindness and compassion, they will assist us in our attempt to dwell more fully in the present.

Sometimes, this dwelling in the present takes curious forms: crying out, spontaneous singing, and strange, impulsive dancing. (Confer Buddhist mudra.)

Ordinary, daily activities are often of more use than explicitly spiritual activities.

Periods of dryness, confusion, self-doubt, and even despair will occur to anyone on a spiritual path for any length of time; confidence in our innate capacity for spiritual transformation and letting go of worries and anxieties, though not easy, will benefit us in difficult moments.

It may be the case that at the beginning of our spiritual path we need to devote ourselves to certain disciplines, teachings, and practices; however, those are merely tools: love is the one thing that is truly necessary.

We do well to recognize that some spiritual practices and disciplines may be harmful or hinder us, above all if they impede the expression and development of loving kindness and compassion.

Neither skill nor knowledge are absolutely necessary; rather, a devoted heart is the one needful thing. (Confer Sayings of Eihei Dogen: “The study of the Way does not rely on knowledge and genius and cleverness and brilliance.”)

~BT Waldbillig
December 27, 2016