This article is an excerpt from The Wellspring of Worship (Ignatius Press, 2005).
If we consent in prayer to be flooded by the river of life, our entire being will be transformed; we will become trees of life and be increasingly able to produce the fruit of the Spirit: we will love with the very Love that is our God. It is necessary at every moment to insist on this radical consent, this decision of the heart by which our will submits unconditionally to the energy of the Holy Spirit; otherwise we shall remain subject to the illusion created by mere knowledge of God and talk about him and shall in fact remain apart from him in brokenness and death. On the other hand, if we do constantly renew this offering of our sinful hearts, let us not imagine that our New Covenant with Jesus will be a personal encounter pure and simple. The communion into which the Spirit leads us is not limited to a face-to-face encounter between the person of Christ and our own person or to an external conformity of our wills with his. The lived liturgy does indeed begin with this “moral” union, but it goes much further. The Holy Spirit is an anointing, and he seeks to transform all that we are into Christ: body, soul, spirit, heart, flesh, relations with others and the world. If love is to become our life, it is not enough for it to touch the core of our person; it must also impregnate our entire nature.
To this transformative power of the river of life that permeates the entire being (person and nature), the undivided tradition of the Churches gives an astonishing name that sums up the mystery of the lived liturgy: theosis or divinization. Through baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit we have become “sharers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). In the liturgy of the heart, the wellspring of this divinization streams out as the Holy Spirit, and our individual persons converge in a single origin. But how is this mysterious synergy to infuse our entire nature from its smallest recesses to its most obvious behaviors? This process is the drama of divinization in which the mystery of the lived liturgy is brought to completion in each Christian.
The Mystery of Jesus
To enter into the name of the holy Lord Jesus does not mean simply contemplating it from time to time or occasionally identifying with his passionate love for the Father and his compassion for men. It also means sharing faithfully and increasingly in his humanity, in assuming which he assumed ours as well. In our baptism we “put on Christ” in order that this putting on might become the very substance of our life. The beloved Son has united us to himself in his body, and the more he makes our humanity like his own, the more he causes us to share in his divinity. The humanity of Jesus is new because it is holy. Even in its mortal state it shared in the divine energies of the Word, without confusion and in an unfathomable synergy in which his will and human behavior played their part. Jesus is not a divinized man; he is the truly incarnated Word of God.
This last statement means that we need not imitate, from afar and in an external way, the behavior of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel, in order thereby to effect our own divinization and become “like God”; self-divinization is the primal temptation ever lurking in wait. On the contrary, it is the Word who divinizes this human nature, which he has united to himself once and for all. Since his Resurrection his divinehuman energies are those of his Holy Spirit, who elicits and calls for our response; in the measure of this synergy of the Spirit and our heart our humanity shares in the life of the holy humanity of Christ. To enter into the name of Jesus, Son of God and Lord, means therefore to be drawn into him in the very depths of our being, by the same drawing movement in which he assumed our humanity by taking flesh and living out our human condition even to the point of dying. There is no “panchristic” pseudo-mysticism here, because the human person remains itself, a creature who is free over against its Lord and God. Neither, however, is there any moralism (a further error that waits to ensnare us), because our human nature really shares in the divinity of its Savior.
“Man becomes God as much as God becomes a man”, says Saint Maximus the Confessor.  Christian holiness is divinization because in our concrete humanity we share in the divinity of the Word who married our flesh. The “divine nature” of which Saint Peter speaks (2 Pet 1:4) is not an, abstraction or a model, but the very life of the Father, which he eternally communicates to his Son and his Holy Spirit. The Father is its source, and the Son extends it to us by becoming a man. We become God by being more and more united to the humanity of Jesus. The only question left, then since this humanity is the way by which our humanity will put on his divinity–is this: How did the Son of God live as a man in our mortal condition? The Gospel has been written precisely in order to show us “the mind of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5);  it is this mind with which the Holy Spirit seeks to fill our hearts.
According to the spirituality of the Church and according to the gifts of the Spirit given to every one, each of the baptized lives out more intensely one or other aspect of the mind of Christ; at the same time, however, the mystery of divinization is fundamentally the same in all Christians. Their humanity no longer belongs to them, in the possessive and deadly sense of “belong”, but to him who died and rose for them. In an utterly true sense, all that makes up my nature–its powers of life and death, its gifts and experiences, its limits and sins–is no longer “mine” but belongs to “him who loved me and gave himself up for me”. This transfer of ownership is not idealistic or moral but realistic and mystical. As we shall see, the identification of Jesus with the humanity of every human person plays a very large part in the new relationship that persons establish with other men; but when the identification is willingly accepted and when our rebellious wills submit to his Spirit, divinization is at work. I was wounded by sin and radically incapable of loving; now Love has become part of my nature again: “I am alive; yet it is no longer 1, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:20).
The Realism of the Liturgy of the Heart
The mystical realism of our divinization is the fruit of the sacramental realism of the liturgy. Conversely, evangelical moralism, with which we so often confuse life according to the Spirit, is the inevitable result of a deterioration of the liturgy into sacred routines. But when the fontal liturgy, which is the realism of the mystery of Christ, gives life to our sacramental celebrations, in the same measure the Spirit transfigures us in Christ.
The Fathers of the early centuries tell us that “the Son of God became a man, in order that men might become sons of God”. The stages by which the beloved Son came among us and united himself to us to the point of dying our death are the same stages by which he unites us to him and leads us to the Father, to the point of making us live his life. These stages of the one Way that is Christ are shown to us in figures in the Old Testament; Jesus fulfilled the prefigurations. The stages are creation and promise, Passover and exodus, Covenant and kingdom, exile and return, restoration and expectation of the consummation. The two Testaments inscribed this great Passover of the divinizing Incarnation in the book of history. But in the last times the Bible becomes life; it exists in a liturgical condition, and the action of God is inscribed in our hearts. Knowledge of the mystery is no longer a mental process but an event that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the celebrated liturgy and then brings to fulfillment by divinizing us.
Brother Lawrence never wrote a book. After his death 15 of his letters and recollections of conversations with a colleague were gathered and published. Protestants as well as Catholics recognized the treasure that his life and counsel represented for Christians. John Wesley even included his work in the Christian library he published for his converts.
On the following pages we give an adaptation and paraphrased summary drawn from the letters, with some modernization for ease of comprehension. Sometimes we have combined similar thoughts from various letters. Hopefully your appetite will be stirred to want to read the whole, unedited comments. Most libraries would have an edition.
I did not find my way of approaching God in books on the spiritual life or from the experience of others. For example, I was talking a few days ago with a very devout person, and he told me how the spiritual life was a series of stages. First one begins with servile fear. Then one grows into the hope of the eternal life. This leads to the realization of pure love. Each of these has its own different steps, but at the end one arrives at a blessed state.
That isn’t the way I went about it or understood it. In fact this kind of approach discouraged me. So when I devoted my life to God, I simply made a resolution to give myself completely to him the best way I knew how by turning from my sinfulness and seeking to love him.
At first I followed the normal pattern of observing the regular times set apart for devotions and kept my mind on thoughts of death, judgment, heaven, hell and my sins. This I did for some years. And I applied my mind towards God not only in the hours of prayer and devotion but throughout the day, even in my work, always believing that God was with me and in me.
So this is the way I began. But I have to tell you that for the first ten years I found it very difficult. I thought that I was not as devoted to God as I should be. My past sins seemed to be always pressing in on my mind. I fell often but would then get up again. It seemed sometimes as though everything, even God himself, was against me.
A Sudden Breakthrough
Throughout all this I still trusted God but at the same time wondered if I had to look forward to these troubles and struggles for the rest of my life. Then something happened suddenly that changed everything, and my troubled soul found a profound inward peace. Ever since that time I have simply walked before God in faith, with humility and with love and I apply myself diligently to do nothing that might displease him. I do what I can and then let him do with me whatever he wants.
So how can I describe what goes on in me? I am perfectly at peace with my situation. I want nothing but what God wants in things both great and small. I would not even take up a piece of straw from the ground if I thought he didn’t want me to but would run to pick it up out of love for him if that is what he wanted.
I have put aside all set procedures for devotion and seek only to continue in his presence. I keep myself there by giving heed to what I pay attention to and by my fond regard of God. This brings a sense of God’s actual presence that is constant and silent but at the same time a secret conversation of my soul with God. This brings me great joy and inner rapture. Sometimes I feel such an overflowing sense of God’s presence that I have to deliberately find a way to restrain and subdue myself when others are nearby.
So What Have I Learned?
It has been 30 years now that I have had full confidence that my soul has been with God, and there are a lot of details I could spread out before you, but let me just tell you how I look at myself before God, my king. First of all I have to admit that I consider myself the most wretched person. I am full of sores and corruption, and I know that I have committed all kinds of offenses against my king. I truly feel bad about this and openly confess to him my wickedness and ask for his forgiveness. Then I simply place myself in his hands so that he may do whatever he wants with me. And here is the amazing thing that I find: this king is full of mercy and goodness. He does not chastise or condemn me as he might. But it is as if he comes and hugs me, full of love and has me eat at his table. He even serves me with his own hands and gives me the key to his treasures. He loves to talk with me and take pleasure in my company. He makes me feel as if I am truly his favorite.
Being at the Bosom of God
So you can see why my practice of devoting attention to God along with my passionate love for him produces such satisfaction. Even an infant at its mother’s breast can’t match it. So I hesitantly call it a state of being at the bosom of God because it is so inexpressively sweet and pleasant. Yes, there are times my thoughts wander because of something that happens or through my own weakness but when I recognize it I immediately redirect my attention to God. The thought sometimes comes to me that I am like a stone in the hands of a sculptor who is making a statue. I like to think of God as the sculptor shaping me into his image.
There are times in prayer when I find my spirit lifted up before God and kept in his presence without any effort on my part. I know some will say that this is a state of inactivity, delusion, and self-love. I will concede that it is a kind of Holy inactivity, but I cannot accept that it is delusion or self-love — because the soul that enjoys God in this world is looking for nothing but God himself. So if this is delusion then I think it God’s job to remedy it. As for me I am content to let him do with me whatever he pleases. I only want to do what he wants and give him all I have.
Yes, there are times when one can get away from the divine presence. When that happens God recalls us — sometimes even when we are absorbed in our regular day to day activities. When we become aware of such prompting from God, then we must respond with a lifting of our heart to him, or by an affectionate thought of him, or by simple words to him expressing our love.
It is my conviction that the practice of the presence of God is the center of the spiritual life. Whoever truly practices it will soon become spiritual. But to truly practice it, the heart must empty out everything else so God alone may possess the heart and do whatever he wants with us. There is nothing in all the world that we can find in life more pleasant and joyful then a continual conversation with God. Those who never experienced it cannot understand. But it is not for the pleasure to be gained that we should seek God’s presence but pursue it out of love for him and because God wants us to.
If I were a preacher I would above everything else preach the practice of the presence of God. If I were a spiritual director I would advise the same. So necessary I think it to be — and so easy, too.
If we really knew how much we needed the grace and assistance of God, we would never let him out of our sight. No, not for a moment.
No Fear, Holy Freedom, Avoid Excess
While I am with him there is nothing that I fear. The practice of God’s presence is not physically exhausting. But at the same time we should deny ourselves some other legitimate pleasures in order to more fully devote ourselves to him. I do not mean by excessive disciplines. Remember we serve God in a holy freedom. Also keep in mind that he expects us to carry out our everyday responsibilities without trouble or disquiet.
It is not necessary to be in church to be with God. We may make an altar of our heart to which we can go from time to time to converse with him in meekness, humility, and love. When we make him the center of our life and attention, then even the sufferings we endure can be seen in a positive way and provide a certain satisfaction. The paradox is this: With God even suffering can be pleasant but without him even life’s greatest pleasures can be as a cruel punishment.
We must learn to grow in God’s presence by a process. It is step-by-step. Don’t be locked into rigid formulas or rules or particular forms of devotion. Don’t try to go faster than grace. One does not become holy all at once.
“We cannot expect to escape the many dangers around us without God’s help. So we need to pray to him for his help continually. How can we pray to him without being with him? How can we be with him if we do not think of him often? And how can we think of him often unless it is a holy habit in our lives? You may think I repeat this too much. But this is the best and easiest way I know. We must know before we can love. In order to know God we must often think of him. When we come to love him, we shall also think of him often for our heart will be with our treasure.
“So think of God all the time — during the day, at night, in your daily work, even in your leisure time activities. He is always nearby. Don’t ignore him. If you had a friend nearby, you would not ignore him when he came to visit. Why then would you neglect God? In short, do not forget him. Think of him often. Adore him continually. Live and die with him. As a Christian this is our job and calling. This is what we are here for. It is glorious!
How to Look at Pain and Sickness
I do not pray that you will be delivered from your pains, but I do pray sincerely that God will give you strength and patience to bear them as long as he pleases. The world, of course, cannot understand this. They see no good at all in sickness and pain. But those who understand that sickness can be used by God to advance his purposes can find in it great sweetness and true consolation. In fact, we can go so far as to say that God is sometimes nearer to us in sickness than in health. He can use diseases of the body to bring healing to the soul.
God knows what we need, and all that he does is for our good. If we really knew how much he loves us, we would be ready to receive anything from his hand, the good and the bad, the sweet and the bitter, as if it didn’t make any difference. So be satisfied with your condition even if it is one of sickness and distress. Take courage. Offer your pain to God. Pray for strength to endure; adore him even in your infirmities !
“I do not know what God is going to do with me. I am happy all the time and bear with whatever comes my way. I know I deserve the most severe discipline, and yet I find that I am filled with joy continually, joy that is sometimes so great I can scarcely bear it.”