Lenten Reflections: More Than Spirituality? Practicing the Presence of God*

Guest Essay by Br. Curtis Almquist,
Society of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge, MA

If the notion of a “spiritual practice” claims your attention, something meaningful is going on within you in your relationship to God. Something has awakened in you a desire to give some of your much-in-demand energy to the life of your spirit. This is wonderful.

And yet, is it necessary? In your rhythm of life, if you find yourself struggling to focus sufficient time, on a daily or regular basis, on your relationships with family and friends, a good diet, adequate rest, physical exercise, stimulation of your mind, enjoyment of a hobby and pastime, a volunteer activity …  and a “spiritual practice,” then you may have inadvertently put your relationship with God in a box. If you find yourself “making time for God” in the schedule of your day or week, your practice might be impoverished. It’s not that you need to give more time to your spiritual practice; but rather that you might need to broaden your sense of what a “spiritual practice” is. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read, “In [God] we live and move and have our being” – all of the time.  There is no “spirituality” demarcation.

The concept of spirituality or a spiritual practice does not seem to have been in Jesus’ vocabulary. Jesus lived his whole life in God’s presence. Whether Jesus was alone in the wilderness or amongst the multitudes; whether he was sharing a meal or healing a wound, whether he was praying or comforting or confronting, whether he was walking or sleeping, Jesus lived the entirety of his life practicing God’s presence. And Jesus gave his life for us to live our own life “abundantly.” He did not speak of our living an “abundant spiritual life”; rather, Jesus gives us the promise of his presence, and power, and provision in the whole of our life – the whole shebang.

Jesus models for us what this abundant life can look like in his own relationship with the God whom he called “Father.” Jesus claimed his own “oneness” with God, and Jesus invites us into a parallel relationship with himself. He prayed to God that we be one with him: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” This unity with God extends into every corner of our lives. It has no limits. The adjective “spiritual” – spiritual life or spiritual practice – is much too small. We have been given the gift of life, all of which we are invited to practice in God’s presence.

A French monk of the 17th century is one of my heroes. This is Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691), who had been a young soldier in the Thirty Years War. He survived a near-fatal injury that left him quite crippled and in chronic pain for the rest of his life. He had no formal education and was, by his own estimation and others’, quite clumsy. He entered the Carmelite monastery in Paris, where he became the cook.

Brother Lawrence was soon sought after by monks and outsiders alike, not because of his culinary abilities but because of the beauty of his soul. He practiced the whole of his life in the presence of God, and his countenance teemed with God’s light, and life, and love. We read in a testimony compiled after his death, that he was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and 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 tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.” This is not spirituality; this is the practice of the presence of God in all ways and in all times.

Where the term “spirituality” may be of helpful and creative use is in our doing some linguistic mining. The English word “spirituality” comes from the Latin spiritus: breath. In the Vulgate – Saint Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible – the Latin word spiritus is used to translate the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma, both translated as “the breath of life, the Spirit of God.”

Knowing that the English word “spirituality” draws its pneumatic force from God’s Spirit, and that God’s Spirit is linguistically described in the scriptures as “breath,” the pattern of our own breathing really opens a passageway of experience. We breathe in-and-out, in-and-out, in-and-out, in-and-out… continuously, for as long as God gives us breath. In the beginning – as we read in the Genesis creation account – God breathes into our nostrils, and we become a living being.  To be alive on this earth we must breathe unceasingly, and that is as true of the soul as it is of the body. Let your breathing be as an invitation from God, the assurance of God’s presence and sustenance. Take Jesus at his word that he is with us always, to the end. Within this past year I have companioned several beloved people as they breathed their last breath and died. I have taken great comfort in their being ventilated by the Spirit as they moved nearer into God’s presence, from where their life began.

Practice the presence of God. This is the only “spiritual” practice we need. And we need it very deeply, to our core. Let your breathing be a living, ongoing reminder of the closeness of God’s presence with you all of the time: in your waking and sleeping, when you are still and when you are on the move; in times of great gladness and in times of great stress; when you are working, or weeping, or laughing, or waiting. Pray your precious life by breathing in God’s presence. God is with you always, as close as your breath.

 


*From: Cowley, Epiphany 2022 (48:2), December 27, 2021: Society of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge, MA, used with permission.