Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 5, 2021.
I have been re-reading a little book I first read a long, long time ago in high school. It is called THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD by a Catholic monk by the name of Brother Lawrence. The practice he recommends is simply this: to keep one's heart and mind on God at all times. As simple and obvious as that may be, Brother Lawrence, in his disarmingly innocent way, speaks powerfully of the blessings that come when you stand always in awe and love, in heart and mind, in the Divine Presence.
This has a direct bearing on today's Gospel reading. The wicked servant begs his Master for a reprieve from his debts and he gets more mercy than he could ever have hoped for. As he begged he focused solely on the Master and received what he asked for.
But the mercy he received he does not share with his fellow servant for when his brother servant begged the wicked one was focused solely on his own self-interest. He does not remember the Master's extreme compassion and so he becomes judge and jury and executioner for his brother servant. A lot of people’s prayers are self-centered and not Christ-centered.
What if this wicked servant had remembered the generosity of his Master? If he had, I am sure the result of this story would have been a paying forward of his Master's kindness and he would not have suffered the punishment that came to him when his sin was exposed.
This is the point of practicing the presence of God: that we will not be distracted by our selfish desires. That we will always remember the extravagant mercy the Lord has invested in us.
How do we keep the remembrance of God in the midst of our busy lives? It is very simple. It takes only a moment to re-awaken the memory of God. With a deep and conscious breath and a little shift in consciousness we can be instantly in His presence. For God is not ever far away, although sometimes we may feel an absence. It is our awareness that has shifted away in those moments, not God.
As Brother Lawrence writes, "Let us go inside ourselves and break down the flood barriers which hinder it (that is remembrance of the Divine Presence). Let us make a path for grace."
It is also very simple to make practicing God's presence our default setting. Susan Salzberg puts the solution into a simple dictim, "Mindfulness is easy. We just have to remember to do it." Mindfulness of God is easy. We just need to practice remembering him. And the more we practice, the more we acquire the ability to remember. It is not rocket science. As we practice we become. Or as the Elder Thaddeus famously wrote, “Our thoughts determine our lives.” That is how we make a path for grace.
It is as simple as this, stop for a moment throughout the day and think of God. Even a second will do. Give your mind and heart a break from the anxieties of life and take a moment to rest in him. I like this little Buddhist saying, “Let everything be as it is and rest your weary mind.” We might change that a bit and say something like, “Let everything be as it is, give thanks and rest in the Lord’s loving presence.”
The problem, of course, is that our minds wander. What else is new? They’ve been doing that practically without fail all our lives. No problem! Like training a little child or a puppy, when they wander away, we gently and compassionately redirect them to where they need to go. Gradually they get it. We must treat our wandering minds just the same way. Gently and compassionately redirecting our minds back to God. After a while we will discover that this conscious act of redirection will become more and more unnecessary. We will simply remember more and more without the effort it took when we first began the practice. It is a matter of remembering God as often as we can until forgetting him becomes harder and harder to do.
St. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the church at Phillipi, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
When it boils down to it, there is only one essential request, one needful thing to pray for and that is to be one with God, one thing to look for and that is his kingdom, one thing to long for and that is God himself.
You might ask, “Father, how do we with all the distractions of our busy lives, keep our minds on God?” We can do so with a little adjustment in thinking. Instead of the God "up there," he is the God "in here" and everywhere. He is a part of every aspect of our lives whether we know it or not. It takes only a moment to recognize this. It takes only one second of remembrance to keep ourselves conscious of God. The moment we are in, the person we are with, the task we are performing and we ourselves, are all in God. So our full attention to every moment is an act of devotion.
Here are two quotes from the good Brother Lawrence that you may find helpful.
"I make it my practice only…to persevere in His holy presence. I do this simply by paying attention to, and directing my affection to, God. I call this the actual presence of God. It is an habitual, silent, and secret communion of the soul with God."
"Sometimes I consider myself as a stone before a sculptor, who is making a statue. I present myself to God, and I desire Him to make His perfect image in my soul, and make me entirely like Himself."
After practicing the remembrance of God for who knows how long, Lawrence writes, "suddenly I found myself changed."
It is like a seed planted in the earth that germinates and grows with the sun and rain and all of a sudden bursts free of the soil. How, we cannot say. When we can never know. For it is God alone that makes it happen and all in his own perfect time. Fr. De Chardin encourages us to “trust in the slow work of God.”
After giving a talk to college students about the benefits of silent prayer and meditation, a young Carpatho-Russian priest who had been present, asked if he could speak with me. We found a moment to talk. He said that he had gradually moved away from formal prayers and found himself sitting quietly before his icons at home each day. “Is that ok?” I am not a master of prayer for sure and I am not quite sure why he asked me, but I replied as I best knew how, “That, dear Father, sounds perfect to me.”