The idea that the presence of God is something I can practice never occurred to me until I stumbled upon Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of The Presence of God. A lay brother in a Carmelite order in Paris, Brother Lawrence’s writings were compiled posthumously. He was especially known by other brothers for his uncanny ability to see God in everything. The title phrase of his book also serves as a great summary of centering prayer, the contemplative life, and the Christian mystical traditional in general.
We may be told that God is always present everywhere when we first learn of religious concepts, but the capacity to truly experience and feel God’s presence is something that usually takes a lot of practice. Moreover, it is often something I feel unable to develop myself, even with lots of practice- something that only arrives through Grace alone after all my own efforts have been exhausted. Christian tradition reminds us of the fundamental truths of God’s immanence, but, as is often the case in the spiritual journey, the simplest lessons are usually the most difficult to fully grasp.
Priests like Thomas Keating have suggested anchoring oneself in a sacred phrase or sacred word when we find our own thoughts drifting during silent prayer. One of the most powerful sacred phrases to use, I think, is one that reminds us of God’s presence in the here and now. I sometimes use, “God is here now.” I could even use a longer phrase to drive the point home, if my ego is especially jumpy and resistant to the idea of God’s presence. I could repeat silently a few times, “God is here now, with me, in this room.” Eventually, the mind seems to learn what you tell it. The difficulty lies in the fact that the structure of our daily lives conditions us to be thinking ahead, wondering about what to do next, wanting to make the most of our time. Sitting still can seem like laziness to an ego conditioned for productivity. This is why focusing on your physical location in silent prayer (with eyes open in this case) can keep thoughts from wandering into a non-physical location (imagination, future, worry). After all, we are not trying to go meet God somewhere else: He is already here with us in this moment.
Imagination can work for you or against you. I seem to have grown up with the idea that to imagine something means that you are pretending something that is not real, is real. But imagination can also be a way of convincing yourself what you already know to be true. Or, to put it a different way, aligning your imagination with the truth of God’s word can lead to a genuine spiritual experience. Imaginative exercises mirroring biblical concepts are put forth in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and while these methods may start off with a conscious image that seems to come from you, the practice often becomes something much more than that. Many practitioners of imaginative prayer find it the surest way to have a powerful encounter with the divine and a entry point into authentic Christian Mysticism.
The same works in regards to imagination with my previous example about centering prayer. One can know, intellectually, that God is present in the room with them, but the notion may not seem quite real. However, by consciously imagining God in the room, with the help of the sacred phrase, “God is here now, with me, in this room,” one can truly believe it and experience it. One’s silent prayer routine can then be a daily testimony to the Miracle of the ordinary.
The next time you have ten minutes to sit quietly, try simply repeating the phrase silently to yourself, “God is here now, with me, in this room.” You may feel an overwhelming Grace before you realize what happened.