The theme this month is that of encountering God in everyday life.
To introduce the theme I would like to tell you a story.
Susan is a contemplative. She rises every morning at 6am. She goes downstairs to the kitchen and opens the back door to let the dog out. Whilst the dog is doing what a dog needs to do, Susan sees to her ablutions before she sets about preparing breakfast and packed lunches for her two children and her husband.
By 7am the house is in a state of pandemonium. If the children are not squabbling they are bleating that they can’t find the other trainer, or that their P.E. kit is still dirty in their school bag and is needed that day. Susan’s husband can be heard crashing about the house pulling together all he needs before leaving the house for work. He appears at the kitchen doorway proffering a shirt that needs ironing. Susan wordlessly points him in the direction of the iron and ironing board.
Breakfast passes in a flash, dishes are piled, coats are on and by 8.15 they all leave the house. The dog breathes a sigh of relief! He too, is a contemplative.
You see, in spite of the clamour and the rush, since Susan rose that morning she has noticed things, and noticing things is what makes a contemplative.
When she let the dog out she noticed it had been raining and she was glad of it as the lawn was looking dry and sad. She noticed that raindrops had clung to the washing line and shone in the early morning light like multicoloured glass beads. She noticed that the sight them gave her a moment of joy. She noticed how the dog greeted her so warmly and so trustingly. As she got ready for the day she noticed the fragrance of her shower gel, a birthday gift from her daughter. As she prepared breakfast she noticed the aroma of the coffee. She noticed the relief on the face of her younger one when the errant trainer turned up from behind a pile of clothes on the bedroom floor. …and her day had barely begun.
She noticed God’s presence and she turned to God in thankfulness and praise. She was thankful it was Friday! She was grateful for the rain. She praised God for the raindrops that clung to the line…not in long flowery phrases.. but in a glance in God’s direction (using her inside eyes). Susan is a contemplative.
We all have a contemplative inside us. As I said last month, encountering God is about being more God aware but, here, I go one step further, and suggest it is about trying to see everyday life the way we imagine God sees it.
Susan may not have read a wonderful little book by a 17th century uneducated lay cook in a French monastery called Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. It is called The Practice of the Presence of God.
Brother Lawrence had discovered how to enjoy a profound awareness of God, moment by moment, even in the midst of busyness and distraction. Though he spent most of his time working in the kitchens, he tried to practise the presence of God in all things. “The time of business,’ he said, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.”
We might wonder how Brother Lawrence achieved that. His writings, and reports of conversations with him, suggest three aspects.
Firstly, he firmly believed that God is close to us, far closer than we are aware of. In order for us to start practising the presence of God, he said, “we need only to recognise God intimately present to us”.
Secondly, he tried to give himself a sense that God was with him always by talking with him. Lawrence suggests speaking to God “frankly and plainly, imploring His assistance in our affairs, just as they happen”. In fact, he explicitly says that “it is not necessary for being with God to be always at church” but rather we can “make an oratory of our heart wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility and love”.
He later notes that everyone is capable of this kind of dialogue with God. We’re sure he would add that our faster paced world today need make no difference. The more we attend on God, the more natural it will seem to us and it will gradually become habitual.
Thirdly, whatever task Brother Lawrence was doing he tried to think of himself as being about ‘God’s business’. He tried to make the love of God the end of all his actions.
For Brother Lawrence, we don’t need to change the content of what we’re doing to become holy. Instead, we should do “for God’s sake” that which “we commonly do for our own”. Brother Lawrence’s approach is particularly attractive because you don’t need to do anything special. You don’t need to be anyone brilliant. You don’t need to go anywhere different to find God. God is already with us, we just need to notice him!
Prayer is the mutual expression of our relationship with God. It is never a one-sided thing. Even as God gazes on us, we gaze on God. As we speak to God, he listens to us. As God speaks to us, we listen with the ears of our heart. I call this ‘letting God catch our eye’ or of glancing in God’s direction. However, if we find we cannot let God catch our eye we might ask ourselves why not.
In my experience there are a few common reasons why we avoid eye contact with God.
One is because of the shame and guilt of serious sin in our life which is blocking our relationship with him.
Another reason why we may be avoiding eye contact with God is because we are afraid that he might ask something more of us – or something less! Another possible reason is that we are angry with God who seems not to answer our prayers. Well, here we are in Lent: a good time to consider why we cannot let God catch our eye.
If it’s sin then it might be a comfort to know that the Greek word for sin, hamartia (ἁμαρτία), means ‘to miss the mark’ (an archery term). We can comfort ourselves with the thought that we were aiming in the right direction but we missed the mark.
If sin is the problem we can make our confession. The late great Archbishop Michael Ramsey said that in the Church of England there are two ways to make your confession: to your bedspread or to a priest. Remember, Christians are not meant to carry a burden of sin and that to ruminate on past and forgiven sin is self-indulgent. However, accepting God’s forgiveness may not be that easy either.
Remember Susan, the contemplative in that story I told a few minutes ago? Susan’s day would be filled with challenges. She will forget the presence of God a lot of the time. She will say or do things that she will regret: perhaps be impatient with traffic delays or frustrations on the school run. Who knows! But Susan will end her day with a little private time. She will take a long warm bath and she will look back over the day recognizing that she is in the presence of a God who loves her unconditionally.
She will carry out an exercise which dates back to the 16th century, to the days of St Ignatius of Loyola, who called the exercise the Examen. It is more than an examination of conscience. It takes into account all that has been consolatory as well as all that has been desolatory in the the period of time under review. It is a bringing before God of everything, both the good and the not so good.
Ignatius wrote this: “By consolation I mean that which occurs when some interior motion is caused within the soul through which it comes to be inflamed with love of its creator and Lord…under the word consolation I include every increase in hope, faith and love, and every interior joy which calls and attracts one toward heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, by bringing it tranquillity and peace in its Creator and Lord.”
He says that: “By desolation I mean everything which is the contrary, for example, darkness of soul, turmoil within, an impulsive motion toward low or earthly things, or disquiet from various agitations and temptations. These move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. One is completely listless, tepid, and unhappy, and feeling separated from our Creator and Lord.”
Susan, like many contemplatives, has learned to connect with God in everyday life and to hold in balance what is consolatory and what is desolatory.
As she relaxes into her bath she lets God bathe her with unconditional love, and she recalls the consolations of the day: the warm greeting of the dog, those raindrops on the washing line, the aroma of the coffee, smiles and kisses exchanged with her family.
She will recall, too, those moments of impatience and frustration on the school run, the irritation of junk phone calls, that row with the gas people about the boiler problem…..and she will allow both the consolation and the desolation of the day to rest in God, as he catches her eye in loving understanding.
Now I can’t offer you a warm bath but I can offer you an excerpt from a piece of music: a setting of psalm 51, familiar to us in Lent. As you listen to this composition, Miserere, by Allegri, you might like to try the Examen. Choose a period of time to review.
Maybe the last twenty four hours, the week past, the year past, whatever works for you.
You may wish to gradually broaden your reflection, recalling what has been consolatory and desolatory in the lives of those you love, or in terms of the world at large. Remember to begin by owning God’s loving presence and remember to balance both consolation and desolation.
I find it helpful, with this piece of music, to oscillate between the two: consolation when the treble voice soars and desolation when the deeper voices come in.
© Raymond Tomkinson
5 March 2017