Embodying the Words of Thomas Kelly

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Some wannabe disciples of Brother Lawrence (like me) are baffled by quotes like this from a book of his teachings, The Practice of the Presence of God:

Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave him not alone.

What does that mean? How? I tried praying his prayer:

O my God, since thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech thee to grant me the grace to continue in thy presence; and to this end do thou prosper me with thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.

I tried, but the prayer did not work for me. I was pretty sure I needed more specific instructions.

In January 2019, I made several random resolutions that, when put together, led me to a better understanding of how to “practice the presence” of the Divine in my life. First, I decided to read something short and spiritual, so I got out my old copy of A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. Second, I decided to stop using disposable pens, so I got out an old fountain pen that my Dad made for me, and I bought a bottle of ink. Third, I decided to use the pen; instead of doing all my writing with a keyboard, I would do some by hand. Then, just about that same time, in meeting for worship, my inner guide told me to use my “gifts” to deepen my spiritual life.

I am a reader and writer by profession, and these are my gifts. I have honed those skills and technologies throughout my life, so I assimilate and internalize ideas best by reading and writing about them. I decided to practice lectio divina and scriptio divina – sacred reading and writing – because they are devotional practices that build on my gifts.

I started reading “The Light Within,” the first section of Thomas Kelly’s book. I like that part the best, but I confess that I don’t understand it because the words are descriptive and lyrical. After reading each paragraph, I copied it out word for word into a pretty journal I had found at a thrift store. I am a compulsive buyer of unwanted journals; it felt good to open one and write in it with a fountain pen. I wrote each paragraph on a page as nicely as I could, telling myself that mistakes and smudges didn’t matter.

Reading the paragraphs occupied my eyes and brain; writing them involved my eyes, brain, arm, hands, and fingers. Somehow, the extra mind/body processing helped me understand Kelly’s lyrical words better. Inadvertently, by the end of March, 2020 – when the Covid pandemic struck with force – I had established a routine that would get me though a longer isolation than I had imagined.

During the weeks and months that I was alone in my office, lectio and scriptio divina grew more embodied as I explored ways to sink into words and meanings. To slow down, I read silently, but I “heard” the phrases and words in my head with intonation. I read at first for meaning, then again for a sense of the paragraph and sentence structure, and then once more for the structure and etymology of the words.

Soon I was also reading aloud, listening to the sounds in the syllables and words. When I was alone, I made a lot of noise by my sacred reading and listening. I read with exaggerated intonation and hand gestures, and sometimes rhythmically in chant. I didn’t exactly memorize the passages, but I got to know them very well. While I was walking aimlessly around my neighborhood, I reconstructed the meanings of the passages in my head. At times, I tried to match my steps to the
words I recollected.

At the same time, my experiences of sacred writing evolved. The fountain pen made my scrawled letters, smudges and all, look expressive on the page. I wrote the reconstructed phrases as I remembered them after my neighborhood walks. Sometimes I wrote what a sentence or paragraph meant in my own words. Sometimes I wrote what I was reminded of, or associations I had from the past. Reading and writing this way is called meditatio.

Often I imagined that I could ask Thomas Kelly a question about a passage or have a conversation with him. I wondered how a particular passage might affect my life journey going forward. If these imagined conversations led to an insight, I put that into words on the page. Ancient monks and nuns called this contemplatio, the contemplative stage of lectio divina.

Ultimately, I got to pages 38-39 in “The Light Within.” They are Kelly’s specific instructions to practice the presence of the Divine. After lectio, scriptio, meditatio, and contemplatio, I found that the words on those pages flooded my unconscious while at worship. Not quickly, but eventually, I experienced a glimmer of a felt sense that prayer was part of my body in my lifeworld. That was the start.

Now, when I become quiet in my mind and body, I welcome Kelly’s words into my body in what the ancient Christians called oratio. I choose one phrase as a sacred mantra to use as a focus. I center down to the quiet place beneath the words and let them sink into me. When intrusive thoughts distract my attention, my sacred words lead me back to center. As Kelly describes, “turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be.”

I sometimes feel like I am living on two levels, as Kelly suggested, carrying embodied prayer with me wherever I go, whatever I do. My practice is far from perfect, but Brother Lawrence’s words make sense to me now. “There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.” ~~~

Barbara Birch is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, CA (PacYM). Besides lectio divina, her interests include the embodied spirituality of early Friends, its relevance to Quakers today, and Friendly Twelve-Step recovery.

The Words of Thomas Kelly

The following paragraphs are drawn from “The Light Within,” found in Testament of Devotion, (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 1941), 38-39, used by permission.

“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 of our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward 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.

“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. The first days and weeks and months are awkward and painful, but enormously rewarding. Awkward, because it takes constant vigilance and effort and reassertions of the will, at the first level. Painful, because our lapses are so frequent, the intervals when we forget Him so long. Rewarding, because we have begun to live.

“Lapses and forgettings are so frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. Our occupations are so exacting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer for forgiveness and begin again, just where you are. Offer this broken worship to Him and say: ‘This is what I am except Thou aid me.’ Admit no discouragement, but ever return quietly to Him and wait in his presence.”

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