How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, towards Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established. An inner, secret turning to God can be made fairly steady, after weeks and months and years of practice and lapses and failures and returns. It is as simple an art as Brother Lawrence found it, but it may be long before we achieve any steadiness in the process. Begin now, as you read these words, as you sit in your chair, to offer your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to Him who is within. In secret ejaculations of praise, turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be. Keep contact with the outer world of sense and meanings. Here is no discipline in absent-mindedness. Walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. Keep it up throughout the day. Let inward prayer be your last act before you fall asleep and the first act when you awake. And in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that ‘those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep’.
Thomas R Kelly, 1941 (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.22)
Simple though Brother Lawrence called it, the practice of the presence of God is a lifelong discipline, in which we become caught, I think, rather than deciding on it, as maybe a New Year’s resolution. Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” but always towards the source of all that is.
This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)
As Quakers, our practice is above all silence, and it is through that silence that we may find a way into our “simple attention” that we had perhaps not suspected, for it is not much spoken of in the literature of inner prayer, even among Friends. Elfrida Vipont Foulds, writing in 1983, said,
I read that I was supposed to make ‘a place for inward retirement and waiting upon God’ in my daily life, as the Queries in those days expressed it… At last I began to realise, first that I needed some kind of inner peace, or inward retirement, or whatever name it might be called by; and then that these apparently stuffy old Friends were really talking sense. If I studied what they were trying to tell me, I might possibly find that the ‘place of inward retirement’ was not a place I had to go to, it was there all the time. I could know the ‘place of inward retirement’ wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, and find the spiritual refreshment for which, knowingly or unknowingly, I was longing, and hear the voice of God in my heart. Thus I began to realise that prayer was not a formality, or an obligation, it was a place which was there all the time and always available.
The heart knows its own true North. It is only we, living as we do in our minds, our busy-ness, our acquisitiveness and our anxieties, who lose our bearings.
Pierre Lacout (God is Silence, 1969) writes:
In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out…
God is there. But there is still silence. And the more God is there, the more there is Silence. Only those who try out this way of silence know how many shades of meaning this word can include, how much variety, how much mystery.
If we but turn our attention away from “subtle argument and clamour” into the “place of inward retirement”, back into our own stillness, we haven’t to do anything, but merely allow the compass of our heart to swing true North, the source of all that is, and our own destination.