Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 4) … First of Two Posts

[revised 1/6/17]
Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
Fourth Conversation, 1667

Our dear Brother Lawrence communicated his spiritual experience within the conceptual framework available to him as a 17th-century white European Roman Catholic Christian French male Carmelite monk. Naturally those elements of his identity leave a mark on his spiritual teaching, but we do well to recall that spiritual realities are neither defined nor bound by the particular limitations that we bring to them. However, our communication regarding spiritual realities is very much bound and defined by our limitations.

A Buddhist reading Brother Lawrence might think this Christian monk has nothing to offer. But if a Buddhist comes to Brother Lawrence with something of an understanding of the epistemology, anthropology, cosmology, etc. that shaped the mind of Brother Lawrence, he or she might recognize embedded within the monk’s teaching ideas that quite closely resemble bodichitta and the bodhisattva ideal.

Now, I’m not trying to reduce the differences between the Christian and Buddhist theological and mystical traditions so far as to say there are no real, consequential, meaningful differences. Still, to my estimation the differences are quite easy to perceive while the points of connection require greater intellectual acuity and benefit from personal acquaintance with lived spiritual practice.

We should be mindful that great historical spiritual figures like Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad the Prophet did not subscribe to the philosophical systems you and I take for granted. Likewise, our experience is quite alien and far removed from the lived reality embodied in such teachers.

Meditation and Synthesis to follow.

~BT Waldbillig
January 3, 2017

A New Way of Thinking

“These mountains that you are carrying,
You were only supposed to climb”
~Najwa Zebian

We tend to live our lives in a habitual way. We have a certain understanding of who we are and how the world works. Our habitual manner of living our habitual lives gets us through most of whatever we encounter, but sometimes we realize that we need to engage life in a new, different, fresh manner. We need, in the words of Pope Paul VI, a novus habitus mentis — a new way of thinking.

I was raised with a certain respect for military service and for those who dedicate themselves to the public good in the military and law enforcement. When I was young I gave myself to service in the Church, but my father served honorably in the US Marine Corps, three of my uncles as well as several cousins all performed military service, and my brother-in-law is a former police officer. Over the past few years I’ve also had the good fortune to meet a number of former military personnel through nonprofit work.

Something that has always impressed me about, say, a Marine or a cop, is the ferocious focus on the mission at hand, whatever it may be, with little or no thought as to the personal cost or risk. There’s essentially no room or time for considerations such as, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘How will I be rewarded?’ or ‘What are the chances of success?’ or ‘Will my work be appreciated by my commanding officer?’ The cop or the Marine simply executes his or her role in the mission, attentive to the well-being of the other members of the team or platoon, etc. Anything else is distraction.

For someone journeying along a spiritual path, a similar attitude is useful.

Most of us learn religion or faith or spiritual practice in this way: If we adhere to certain tenets (faith), perform good acts (virtue) and avoid wicked deeds (sin) we’ll be rewarded (heaven or some such thing). It’s the sort of mentality an exhausted parent employs to get misbehaving children in line. Now, I’m not saying this approach to the spiritual life is bad or wrong or useless; however, it’s not the only way of understanding and living one’s spiritual path.

That’s precisely why I’ve returned to a little book I first read when I entered seminary back in 1993 and haven’t touched since then. Somehow, despite changing continents and moving home several times, this tiny tome has stayed with me. The book, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, was written in the second half of the 17th century and provides a surprisingly refreshing antidote to the transactional religion of our day. You can read my commentaries here, here, and here.

As Brother Lawrence reminds us, it’s entirely healthy and traditional to live one’s spiritual life and follow one’s spiritual path without worries for the rewards and punishments of some world-to-come. Belief that the spiritual life is in itself good and useful, as well as beneficial to others, inspires many people far more than Heaven-and-Hell discourses.

Each of us could be a little more like a US Marine or a Carmelite monk. The world would be a better place for it.

~BT Waldbillig
January 1, 2017

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

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 2)

Written in the second half of the 17th century by a French Carmelite lay brother, The¬†Practice of the Presence of God is divided into three sections: Section One, comprising accounts of four personal conversations; Section Two, comprising 16 letters to various individuals; and Section Three, comprising six “maxims”, or brief reflections.

To begin, I plan on commenting upon each of the conversations individually. I may group together several letters or several maxims when I reach those sections. We’ll see what works best.

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)
Second Conversation, 1666

Lex suprema amor: Love is the inspiration, path, and goal of our spiritual endeavor.

As most of us cannot fully and perfectly love all beings, we do well to love those who are closest to us: ourselves and our family.

This practice (love of self and family) is more important and useful than imitation of those the world regards as virtuous, holy, wise, etc.

Let others worry about reward and punishment, heaven and hell, and the like, for our endeavor is too important, difficult, necessary, and universal for such considerations.

Let us commit ourselves completely and with[out] hesitation to whatever part we might have in our common endeavor, even if it entails the loss of whatever it is that we most cherish or hope for.

The One who set us upon our path is the Silent One: as few of us can penetrate the silence, we must content ourselves with words.

As the Psalmist tell us: Those the world regards as little are not lesser beings than those than those the world regards as great.

We do well to remember that few of us will see the good fruit of our shared mission.

That which we have received [from those who came before], we must hand on [to those who are yet to come].

Bonum est diffusivum sui: A single tree possesses power sufficient to sanctify an entire grove.

~BT Waldbillig
December 18, 2016

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 1)

Using a Roman Catholic spiritual classic from the 17th century, I’ll explore possible common strands in Christian and Buddhist mysticism, and offer my own particular synthesis. It’s all very much an experiment for me, so we’ll see what becomes of it.

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)
First Conversation, 1666

Each of us has the capacity, the potential, and the ability to awaken.

For some this happens in youth when the mind is less attached to a fixed perception of reality.

For others it occurs later in life as a fruit of experience, both positive and negative.

Spiritual awakening inserts a moment of discontinuity into our experience of life; this is frightening and disorienting.

Our expectations will always be upset; both positive and negative elements of life are transformational; even insignificant things, or moral evil, or failure, or deliberate pursuit of what we hold as antithetical to awakening.

Christian concept of providence and Buddhist concept of karma are similar and overlapping; both providence and karma can bring about spiritual advancement and awakening in circumstances we regard as unlikely or impossible.

The Middle Path and the Practice of Virtue (in medio stat virtus) — neither of which necessarily bring about awakening — provide the [only] helpful framework of spiritual teaching to describe a process-reality which is not — to the experience of an individual — consistent, predictable, or logical.

Useful tools are also obstacles; hindrances are also beneficial instruments.

We are neither purely passive nor purely active in the process of awakening.

The nature of human intellect is both helpful in the process and our greatest obstacle: it leads us toward but then blocks our experience of the simplicity, directness, and absence of mediation that mark awakening; this is why so-called lower animals might experience awakening more readily than us (i.e., dog); perhaps other beings [creatures] we regard as lacking in intellect and will (i.e., tree) are capable of awakening.

It may well be that in an experience of awakening the only sensible course of action is to continue on for some time in what we would regard as our pre-awakened way of life if there is no clear and spontaneous insight into that which are becoming; an awakened person might resemble precisely what we regard as unawakened, spiritually dead, damned, hopeless, or lost.

Faith and confidence are useful in the process: in ourselves, the process, the experience, the cause of awakening (for Christians, God).

This is not to say that change and transformation do not or will not occur; we simply don’t know what they actually look like; this is why there is no one model or ideal to imitate or accommodate.

Tension, contradiction, and irreconcilability are therefore also part of the process-experience: between our goals, ideals, and purpose and that which we perceive and experience.

Therefore, even those we consider as unawakened or spiritually dead are our teachers, alongside those who have entered into higher spiritually transformational states

~BT Waldbillig
December 15, 2016