Each life has its unique challenges and callings. Some are called to make a difference in the world through politics, business and other endeavors outside the home, some are called to make a difference inside the home and other lives are combinations of infinite variety. But the end game is the same-to live a happy life and, hopefully, to make the world a better place for our having been here. This is what we all want, regardless of age, position, education, political leanings or degree of wealth. Spiritual practices throughout the world offer a path aimed at fulfilling this promise.
There are few places one can find a simple path to a rich life better illuminated than in the work of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Parisian lay Catholic monk. At the age of 18 Brother Lawrence had an awakening. While looking at a bare tree in winter he realized that this same tree, through the grace of God, will be filled with green leaves and fruit without any outside effort. This awakening turned Brother Lawrence towards God and led him to a new life as a Carmelite monk. His awakening brings to mind expressions of Zen awakenings, such as Lingyun Zhiqin’s peach blossom realization:
For thirty years I have looked for a sword.
Many times leaves fell, new ones sprouted.
One glimpse of peach blossoms,
Now no more doubts-
Brother Lawrence was born poor, uneducated and uninterested in espousing theories or debating fine points. Because he was uneducated, when he became a monk he was given the lowly task of tending the monastery kitchen. As he did his chores, love of God fueled devout attention to each task. His prayer was:
Lord of all pots and pans and things…
Make me a saint by getting meals
And washing up the plates
This little verse offers a glimpse into how practicing the presence might look for the homemaker. There is not a lot written about the simple practice of fully entering the moment in daily life, perhaps because the practitioners of this homey spiritual artform are not as interested in leaving marks as are their more intellectual brothers and sisters. But we can find footprints in the poetry and stories left behind from various traditions.
17th century Europe was a time filled with power struggles, wars, debts and perpetual unrest, a tumultuous time like our own. It was in this challenging climate that Brother Lawrence led his simple life of continually turning towards God in all activities. He did not let chronic pain from a disability he endured while young deter him. He did not let what he deemed unpleasant tasks, such as travelling to negotiate and collect wine for the monastery, deter him. He continued to practice through the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Some might call Brother Lawrence’s practice mindfulness. But his practice had a very different texture than our 21st century Western version of mindfulness. As opposed to raw mindfulness, Brother Lawrence’s mindfulness was infused with joy and awe and a sense of something bigger than himself. He felt, “That in this conversation with God we are also employed in praising, adoring, and loving Him incessantly, for his infinite goodness and perfection.”
Eastern spiritual practices, upon entering the West’s mainstream, met a highly materialistic society. Mindfulness practice became a mental exercise to deal with physical and emotional pain and a method to encourage moment to moment awareness. This interpretation of mindfulness practice has real value, both physical and psychological, but is often devoid of the unpredictable mystical elements of love, gratitude, surrender and reverence. The danger of leaving the mystery out of mindfulness practice is that it can devolve into an attempt to control or run away from our life rather than surrendering to life as it is and finding joy therein.
In order for our happiness to not be dependent upon conditions we need to ballast our lives in something greater than the changing winds that sweep us here and there. For Brother Lawrence that ballast was God. How do we, the sons and daughters of a materialistic culture, surrender, trust, and open our hearts when we are unable to summon up a heartfelt belief in some form of God?
Although the concept of God is a classic and powerful way to connect with the mystery, and has been of great value to mystics throughout the ages, our embrace of the mystical doesn’t need to be tied to that word or, for that matter, to religion. Thankfully, the mystical does not depend on religion, or religious terminology, for its expression. Mysteries are ubiquitous. Religion at its best is a culture’s container for the truth that is everywhere and in everything. This truth resides in the question, who am I? It resides in the fact that we are alive, thinking and communicating beings. It resides in the mystery of what happens when we die and how we were born into this life, this family, this culture. It resides in the mystery that this planet has developed such a variety of life forms, that we are made of stardust, that realizations can leave us in a state of awe and connect us with all other life forms. Walt Whitman wrote:
A blade of grass is the journeywork of the stars.
All the biggest questions and the greatest influences of our lives are mysteries. To gain the greatest benefit from our practice we need to be willing to let go into the awe and mystery that resides is in every blade of grass and acknowledge that we are both insignificant and essentially significant, that we are a small, essential aspect of something greater than ourselves.
The essence of everyday practice is to see the miracle in everything we do, whether we’re washing dishes, making love, filling out paper work or reading to a child. The challenge is to remember that life is a gift, to not take our unique and essential life for granted, to trust its unfoldment, and remember that there is wisdom at work that is larger than we can possibly comprehend. When we bring that sense of awe and surrender into our daily mindfulness practice we can begin to see the miracle in each dirty dish.