Originally published in Clerestory Anthology
Some people are what I’ve heard called “high capacity.” They can attack a to-do list during the day, hustle on side projects into the night, then wake up the next day again and — somehow — manage to do it all again. I tried to bully my body into their ranks once. I opened multiple timelines on TweetDeck. I wrote long, thoughtful responses to commenters on Facebook, scrupulously keeping track of who liked what and speculating about their character. I sometimes did things simply for the ‘gram. I even read the nested replies.
Let the reader understand.
I chased an ideal of productivity common to life in our always-on technological society. If I was going to produce value, I had to consume and digest more. More unmissable prestige TV, more great podcasts, another must-read article, one more can’t-miss follow. My practice was unsustainable. Not only did trying to consume and understand all the things increase my anxiety and general fatigue, but it also didn’t produce the value I thought would be the reward for my sacrifices. Even when I tried to turn all that hustle to good ends, the results didn’t satisfy — it was never enough.
And at the same time, it was too much.
The pandemic brought with it an opportunity to consider how untenable this particular brand and internet-connected striving was. The first lockdown helped me acknowledge the weight of weariness that had accumulated and how my coping mechanisms only added to the noise, failing to restore. Backyard birdwatching displaced lunchtime Netflix. Evening walks started filling the space I’d often surrendered to “one more episode.” I picked up a seed catalogue. I planted a small garden and watched things grow.
In short, I tried to make space for practicing the presence of God.
With some help from Brother Lawrence, the 17th Century French monk whose sayings and letters comprise The Practice of the Presence of God, I tried a very different sort of meditation. Instead of emptying the mind, Brother Lawrence suggests we draw closer to God by acting with purpose in all we do. That purpose? To please God and enjoy him, plain and simple. So, I was ruthless in eliminating the background noise of modern life. I turned off notifications, greyed out my phone’s screen, and gave up on filling every silent moment with podcasts or background sitcoms. In his book Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble describes how “human beings have a tremendous capacity to distract ourselves from ourselves.” Add in the whirlwind of technological distraction endemic to modern life, and I was doubly determined to resist and find quiet. I desired to be more receptive to God’s voice and — I hoped — be more at peace.
Yet, despite the wisdom of resisting distraction, Brother Lawrence’s faith didn’t require great sacrifice and penance or elaborate prayers to approach God. On the contrary, because God is not only available but desires to be near to his children, for this reason, “we ought to act with God in the greatest simplicity, speaking to Him frankly and plainly, and imploring His assistance in our affairs just as they happen.”
These were words to which I was ready to give intellectual assent. “Yes, God loves me,” my head says. “I know because the Bible tells me so.” But I’ve always had trouble bringing him my frivolous needs, and that’s just what most of my needs have always felt like — petty and unnecessary. I couldn’t come close to achieving what those high-capacity people seemed to accomplish, even when I did my sacrificial utmost. So, I made great efforts to be present, carve out solitude, and limit the channels through which people could make demands of me. For me, practicing the presence of God quickly became a means to an end, and the end often left God out of the equation entirely.
Then, my daughter was born.
Her arrival was not quiet, and her demands could not be sidestepped. The weight and wonder of becoming a father had to be managed amidst moving house and a pandemic curfew. In short, my attempts to be productive by finding my peace were blown up completely. My scrupulously kept planner now bears two brief summations scrawled across a blank spread: "The months that weren't."
As new parents are fond of saying, time stopped meaning anything at all. All was changing, feeding, waking, cleaning, checking, worrying, and sometimes sleeping. Then, almost unnoticed, something started happening. My baby daughter brought me to a place I'd never been. I was too tired, too out of my depth. The whole experience was too much, too wonderful. I was tapped to my limits; then, I moved beyond them. What was recovered in those intense first months was something much closer to the heart of Brother Lawrence's practice. For Lawrence, pleasing God was part of enjoying him, and the enjoyment wasn't incidental, not some happy accident of service.
If existence is a gift, then gratitude is the proper response. And there's much to be grateful for — even when I might wish to be other than I am.
As I write this, my daughter is trying very hard to walk and master fine motor skills. In her zeal, she often tumbles. And when she works at picking up something she definitely shouldn't eat, she sometimes thrashes her hands about in frustration. On one such occasion, my wife shared an observation about toddlers from a Montessori book she was reading. "That makes sense," I remarked, "since her desires probably won't match her capacities for a while."
"Oh, shit." — that was me. I wanted more than my capacities could answer for. Without mercy, I asked more of myself than I could give.
But here’s the thing about parenting, work, and all of life. We are faced with overwhelming and often unending tasks, whether raising a child, praying for the lost, or just washing the dishes. And yet it’s possible to be thankful in the face of these incessant demands; of this life. When I watch my daughter (feeding her, cleaning her, and comforting her again and again), I must wrestle with the fact that she exists at all. What extravagance that I’m permitted to behold her, much less hold her!
After establishing the stakes of modern distraction, Alan Noble offers a practice to resist the deadening effects of an inward turn toward the self. He describes a double movement
“in which the goodness of being produces gratitude in us that glorifies and acknowledges a loving, transcendent, good, and beautiful God. Simply put, the double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbour.”
This double movement applies equally to moments of difficulty and circumstances far from perfect. It’s possible because the goodness we offer gratitude for isn’t the comfortable “good” of fortune but of being. The hard thing and the good thing are one, like the challenges of doing valuable work and loving people, or the crucible of caring for a whole human, however tiny. In realizing this, I stumbled upon the proper practice of the presence of God. Unlike me, Brother Lawrence was far less concerned about finding his peace or using his relationship with God to accomplish more (and more) great works. Unconscious of what was happening, My baby girl pulled the double movement out of me. With eyes to see, I was able to thank God for the whole of it — of her — and beg his mercy, peace, and his presence most of all.
Be near, Father.
My daughter will grow, and her capacities will only increase. But like every person, her desires will outstrip her capacities somewhere, and so she — like her father — will have to ask God to remake her heart to desire goodness more than greatness.
It will not be easy. Even so, I will tell her:
Your father has a Father,
Who loves you more than he.
He is for you; He has been waiting for you
And he will be near to your heart now,
Go — be at peace.
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