Mystics and therapists agree: The practice of God’s presence is good for you

Mystics and therapists agree: The practice of God’s presence is good for you July 29, 2019
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Photo Credit: Small and Beautiful Flickr via Compfight cc

The practice of God’s presence in Christian tradition stretches back to beginning of the faith. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonian disciples. “In everything, give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). These are a few variations on the internal practice of keeping in constant touch with the indwelling Christ as the source of one’s life. This practice seems to have been the mainstay of the early Christian communities. 

It was Brother Lawrence who popularized our modern concept of practicing the Presence. Writing in the seventeenth century, he said, “I possess God as much in the busyness of the kitchen with multiple people calling for my attention as I do when on my knees before the blessed Sacrament.” Lawrence didn’t arrive at such overwhelming God-consciousness overnight, but through the daily discipline of attuning his mind to the overtures of the indwelling Spirit. They don’t call it a “practice” for nothing, you know.

Other people have written about this practice through the centuries, from Catholic mystics Jeanne Guyon and Francois Fenelon to Protestant missionary Frank Laubach and Quaker educator Thomas Kelly. Each of their experiences are unique, yet they all ring with the same vibrant note of spiritual discovery. 

LIFE FROM THE CENTER

Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center… Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. He is at the helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well. ~ Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

Like Brother Lawrence, Thomas Kelly didn’t arrive at this wonderful reality all at once. Undoubtedly, he knew what it meant to lead a frantic, troubled life. In fact, Kelly writes that as a young man he was fraught with anxiety. His distressing inner turmoil culminated when he failed to pass the oral test for his doctorate dissertation due to a memory lapse. Following the emotional impact of that experience, Kelly embarked upon a new life “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) which, in terms familiar to Robert Frost readers, “made all the difference.” 

When Kelly writes that life is “meant” to be lived from a divine Center, he implies that life is often not what it should be–indeed, that we are not often what we should (or could) be. Tragically, the ultimate meaning of human existence has been relegated to the sidelines in most people’s lives. This separation, with its resulting brokenness, is what the Christian tradition refers to as sin. Call it whatever you want, but the fact is that most people live broken, divided lives.  

HEALING THE DIVIDED SELF

Psychotherapists suggest that every individual is a collection of multiple sub-personalities, or a “society of mind.” Therapeutic models such as the Internal Family System (IFS) distinguish these internal aspects of our makeup in various ways, whether as firefighters (the parts that try to protect us from pain), exiles (the broken parts we are ashamed to acknowledge), or managers (the parts that try to suppress our exiles).

Furthermore, they tell us that though our various “parts” share a common history, they rarely communicate with each other–hence the concept of the “divided” self. This condition is especially true of people with severe trauma. The process of becoming whole, then–or what we might call salvation, practically speaking–involves the mindful re-integration of our various “selves” into a healthy, unified whole. 

Professional practitioners of the inward journey further propose that somewhere beneath the surface of our divided selves is an “undamaged essence” that is “calm, confident, and secure” (see The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. Van der Kolk) The latest findings of neuroscience also support this claim. They lament, however, that most people — far from being able to live from this Center — are hardly even aware it exists. Healing, we are told, comes by finding and prioritizing the leadership of this Center above all other voices that seek to control our lives.  

But what is this undamaged essence beneath the surface of our divided selves? Here is where the mystics step in to declare: The “undamaged essence” at the center of our being is nothing less than the indwelling Christ — humanity’s long forgotten source of Life, and indeed our only “hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). St. John of the Cross agreed with Paul when he wrote that “human health consists in the continuous and conscious experience of God’s presence.” Pray without ceasing? Yes, indeed!

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. ~ Jesus

Traditional English translations of Matthew 5:48 are unfortunate in their use of the word “perfect,” for the original language conveys something more like our “complete,” “mature,” or “whole.” In other words, Jesus wasn’t admonishing his disciples to be flawless according to our modern understanding of perfection. Rather, he was calling them to a life of wholeness — to become complete as God is complete. This is the same end Paul had in view when he told the Colossians that his goal was to present everyone “perfect” in Christ.  

Becoming whole is a process that begins with the soul’s initial turning to God and proceeds on the same continually renewing basis (this is the practice of repentance and faith). The recovering sinner learns, little by little, to live from a new, divine Center of being. And as she goes, like the lepers who obeyed Jesus’ instruction to present themselves to the priest, she is healed (Luke 17:15-18). 

HOW TO ABIDE IN CHRIST

So, begin with the simple realization that there is within you an eternal element. Call it consciousness, or the Spirit, or the True Self — call it whatever you want — but recognize its presence. Acknowledge the fact that you have lived separate from this Source, an Edenic exile from the place wherein God dwells and waits to walk with you, but that the good news is you may return to this fellowship at any moment. Indeed, you will need to return again and again, for this life, as noted in the Christian tradition, is one of continuing faith and repentance. 

Make time each day to center yourself and consciously “abide” in this place. Employ whatever meditative practices aid you in this endeavor. Be still, and know. As you learn to turn aside from the busy restlessness of your wandering mind, you will find that there is an altogether different kind of activity taking place in the unconscious undercurrent of the Spirit, and that “the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). 

This is your home, your source of Life, and the eternal spring of living water. The more you return to this place, the less you will ever need to leave it, until one day, along with Lawrence and Kelly and all the others who have enjoyed this divine communion through the ages, you will know in your own heart what it means to “abide in Christ.” In that day, the Gospel will have achieved its end in your life.

About Joshua Lawson
Josh Lawson is a pastor, writer, and small business owner. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cat Gryffin, which is short for Gryffindor. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at www.patreon.com/JoshuaLawson. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • davidt

    Yes and absolutely not depending..

  • Claudia Crowley

    1. All this is very good, but what about “spiritual but not religious” people? From what source are they going to get the vital information you talk about in this post – in words and concepts they can accept? From their therapists? That won’t go far enough.

    2. Irreligious mystics as well. They’re out there and how are they going to come to this knowledge? People do have experiences of what is usually called “God” no matter their background. How will they handle it? Where are they going to learn the disciplines you talk about here? Where are they going to find community? There is a Facebook group called Irreligious Mysticism: SBNR & More (disclaimer: I started it) for discussion of these issues outside the traditional religious context. I think I can internally translate religious language into something I can understand (although “understand” and “know” aren’t very accurate), but people new to the subject may not even try.

    3. Everyone needs to know what you’re saying in this post. How are people outside a Christian faith tradition going to react to your terminology like “the Christ within”? By rejecting it to a large extent and unfortunately throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the concepts as well as the language. I’ve done it myself in the past. Strongly rejected what I thought was obvious self-deception and avoidance of the real world. Now I see it’s the opposite. You’re talking about something real, basic, and true, and to dismiss it is to deny the foundation of spirituality and to cut yourself off from perception of reality in creation as well.

  • Care to elaborate?

  • Great points, Claudia. To be honest, I’ve learned a lot in this area over the past few years from a friend of mine who does not identify as a Christian. He demonstrates a certain spiritual intuition that can be troubling for Christians who assume they own exclusive rights to the spiritual life. For myself, I write in these terms because I am a Christian and because this blog is located on a “Christian” channel. But I hear what you’re saying and I am open to suggestions. I’m still trying to sort through a lot of this myself.

  • madalyn baumstark

    I now realize that when I first heard Puccini and wept, it was mystical!

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “Mystics and therapists agree: The practice of God’s presence is good for you”

    Mystics? Since no one so far has proven that any supernatural god exists, the opinions of mystics can be dismissed.

    As for therapists, name them & provide their degrees. Do they say “the practice of God’s ( the upper case G indicates the god of the Bible) presence? Or do they say that belief in some sort of spiritual ( whatever THAT means) guide is good for you if you believe you need it?

  • C_Alan_Nault

    You used the phrase “spiritual intuition”. Can you elaborate & clearly define what you mean by spiritual? I ask because every time I see or hear someone use the word spiritual & ask them to define it, they always give different vague answers

  • C_Alan_Nault

    What do these mystics & “therapists”say about Wiccans or Hindus practicing the presence of their deities? Is that also good for them?

  • Hmm, that’s a good question. Typically, when I used that word I’m referring to anything pertaining to the inner life — i.e. the psyche, or “soul” of human beings. That’s hardly comprehensive I suppose, but it’s what comes immediately to mind. I’ll have to give more thought to a concrete definition, although I admit it would be tough. The spirit is like the wind, I think — you see its effects but you don’t see it.

  • I tend to believe that God is one. Therefore, if those hypothetical Wiccans or Hindus are in touch with said God, I think that would be a good thing.

  • kyuss

    can you demonstrate that any sort of “spirit” or “gods” exist?

  • C_Alan_Nault

    ” Typically, when I used that word I’m referring to anything pertaining to the inner life”

    So you are defining a vague word that you have not defined clearly with a vague phrase you have not defined clearly.

    “the psyche, or “soul” of human beings”

    Your statement is meaningless. Here are the definitions of those words:

    https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/psyche

    The human soul, mind, or spirit.

    I agree that the human mind exists, is that what you are referring to? No one has presented evidence for the human soul or spirit ( whatever that means, if you are attempting to define spirituality by saying it is spirit you are going to fail).

    https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/soul

    The word soul has numerous definitions. Did you mean definition #1 at the link provided? “The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.”?

    If so, your statement can be dismissed until someone proves this immortal soul actually exists.

    “The spirit is like the wind, I think — you see its effects but you don’t see it.”

    In fact, if you wanted to be more precise in your language, you would have said:

    “We can demonstrate that the wind exists by showing you the effects it causes. I cannot demonstrate that the spirit even exists, but I am claiming it exists and claiming that it is the cause of these effects.”

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “I tend to believe that God is one.”

    Is one what? If you are talking about the god of the Bible, you must be rejecting the idea that Jesus is also god.

    “Therefore, if those hypothetical Wiccans or Hindus are in touch with said God, I think that would be a good thing.”

    In other words, if people of other religions & with other deities are also in touch with/worshiping your deity, you are OK with it? How magnanimous of you.

    I suppose if a Hindu told you that your god is just your interpretation of a manifestation of one of their deities, you would have no problem with that definition.

  • Nope.

  • Seems like you’re making certain assumptions in search of an argument. If so, I’m not your guy.

  • Nice!

  • You’re right. Thanks.

  • kyuss

    i’ll give you points for being honest. very refreshing.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    The assumption here is yours,when you say ” if those hypothetical Wiccans or Hindus are in touch with said God, I think that would be a good thing.”.

    I merely pointed out that these ( a you called them)”hypothetical Wiccans and Hindus would likely say that when you are in touch ( whatever that means) with your god you are actually in touch with one of their gods (or goddesses).

    The fact is since you,these Wiccans, and the Hindus ( we can also add the followers of any other religions) all have an equal amount of evidence to present for your deities, all beliefs in any deity or deities is equally valid.

  • madalyn baumstark

    Any time you are unexpectedly overwhelmed by beauty, words, music, dance, art, nature, I believe it is mystic. God, the Universe, the Force, the Really Real, Whatever, is moving through all that is, and you. Any time you find yourself, again unexpectedly, saying wonderful things to people in need of the hearing, it is that same cosmic, eternal voice using yours in a particular moment. We need just recognize those moments for what they are!

  • kyuss

    can you explain why I should, as “Paul” suggests, pray without ceasing – if you can’t actually demonstrate that prayer actually does anything?

  • Katy Malone

    I agree with the senitment of this piece. However, before I share it, I would like some extra references – scientific ones to go along with the scriptural ones.

  • I can “demonstrate” the effect that contemplative prayer has on my own life, but I doubt that’s the kind of demonstration you’re referring to. It can be quite subjective, especially when viewed from the outside.

  • fractal

    Good piece, but why push the “Christ” thingy?

    Mystics know that this experience is available to all humanity, regardless of your spiritual path, or lack of one.
    Isn’t it time to go beyond petty labels, and admit that the Sacred is beyond any one holy book or doctrine?

  • fractal

    The champs of meditation, the Eastern philosophy crowd, suggest that it is a process of “unlearning”, not learning or proving anything.

    What that brings is clarity.
    Pretty hard to measure.
    You just have to try it—or not.

  • kyuss

    that sounds like a bunch of nonsense – profound sounding nonsense – but nonsense nonetheless.

    How do I go about “unlearning” something? and how do i decide what to “unlearn”?

  • kyuss

    define what you mean by “Sacred”.

  • fractal

    Perhaps that isn’t the correct question.

    First—who is this “I” who thinks is in charge of what “I” learn and unlearn?

    “You” have all sorts of assumptions about the nature of reality, based on your culture, your earliest impressions, the kind of body you have—which regulates sensation/perception for you individually…
    And the deepest assumptions you have center around your “ego self”, which is busy explaining the world to you, telling you how you fit in, which labels to wear…

    There is a Buddhist guided meditation called “The High Path With No Rails”.

    You begin by ascending a philosophical mountain path, while asking yourself the question “Who Am I?”
    You may answer something like: “I am KYUSS, an American male”.
    So, you set down that identity by the roadside—the sun is getting hot, and your ego-pack is heavy…You have a long way to go.

    Who Am I?
    “I am (for instance) an engineer and a gardener”. Set that part of yourself aside, an ascend up the path as it winds around…
    Who Am I?
    “I am the father of my children and a good provider”. This isn’t essential to your sense of self; set it aside—it will be here when you descend…
    Who Am I?

    “I am a homo-sapien with an opposing thumb”. But the path is getting very steep, and that identity is very heavy—let it go and continue—let the mind breathe easier as it has less to defend and assert.
    Who Am I?
    “I am my thoughts”.
    Are you?
    Thoughts come and go and change…and the path is getting very narrow, with steeper cliffs—can you continue awareness without taking your thoughts so seriously?

    Just keep going…How many parts of “ME, MYSELF I” can you set aside, so you can better see the essence of “Self”?

    And then set that “essence of Self” aside too!
    And keep going…

    Just one little way to “unlearn”.

  • fractal

    If one were to dismiss all opinions which have no proof—how would we have theories to investigate?
    Isn’t the essence of rationality, to investigate that which has no proof?

    And if there is no way currently to measure and “prove” something—couldn’t the fault be with our methods or tools?
    Is it logical to assume that something is untrue, simply because we don’t yet have a handle on it?

    PS—Mystics have experiences. The experience is always deeply emotional, and shows one the “Bigger Picture” from one perspective or another. It is about relationship, connection, unity and it feels divine—that is the best word for it.
    It isn’t something that naturally lends itself to scientific inquiry, anymore than your feelings of fatherhood as you hold your newborn, is.
    This is a different kind of intelligence; the kind that makes gestalts, creates art, writes poetry—do you even understand that there are other kinds of intelligence, besides deductive reasoning?

  • fractal

    The Sacred is the center of a unified experience, when you apprehend the connectivity and essential “oneness” of everything.
    Sometimes it can feel very impersonal, insightful and clear; other times it has a very personal feeling and you feel like you have finally come home to yourself.
    You weep with gratitude, and can’t believe your luck in stumbling upon this!

    There are few words in English to describe mystical experiences; you need Sanskrit for that.
    But the feeling!
    Your heart actually blooms in your chest, you relax totally as you realize you really are safe, because you are connected to an eternal essence, beyond time and space. What you thought was important shifts as your grasp on “reality” is shaken loose, and your perspective adds a new dimension.
    Seriously!
    You feel grace moving thru you from the inside/out.

    I know it sounds goofy.
    I get it; I thought so too.

    Might help to think in terms of higher states of consciousness, and leave the Big Daddy In The Sky icon behind. It is totally unnecessary and just gets in the way.

  • kyuss

    nothing that you just typed actually means anything. it’s like reading deepak chopra; drivel intended to sound meaningful and deep while conveying no actual meaning or information.

  • kyuss

    again – reading that was almost painful.

  • fractal

    I know.
    See, unless you have had a mystical experience, you can’t possibly get it.
    Just gotta be there.
    I stumbled into my first few, unknowing.
    It’s like seeing a brand new primary color for the first time—you can’t dismiss what you clearly saw, but how in the world do you explain it to anyone else?

    Not trying to talk you into anything—you asked.
    Like I said, your stance makes as much sense as anything else—from a materialistic POV.
    Try to keep an open mind.
    Some very sane people know about this; but they don’t talk about it much, because^^^.

    You might try the High Path though—what do ya have to lose but your ego identity?

  • fractal

    Mystics aren’t that concerned with “talk” and “ideas” and “I think” and “I told”.
    They “experience”.
    And their experiences have common threads running thru them, which connect them to one another.
    Whatever you imagine—it is incorrect.
    Mystics everywhere feel right at home with one another—they know the limits of an icon, and what lies behind it.

  • fractal

    Mystics don’t really care about “beliefs” either…
    Or “assumptions” and “hypotheticals” for that matter…

  • fractal

    If you wrote a knowledgeable paper on particle physics, it would sound like drivel to many a layman.

    The information conveyed is not about deductive reasoning.
    This is about using a different part of your mind, in a different way.

    As i said; no reason at all for you to “believe” anything I say; I would not want or expect you to…
    But someday, if you stumble into an experience of mysticism, you will remember people trying to talk to you about it…
    And you will laugh because you finally get the cosmic joke.