One of the little prayers I say each day is by Dag Hammarskjold recorded in his diary and published after his death in the book Markings. He wrote: “If only I may grow: firmer, simpler — quieter, warmer.” These are remarkable words by a former Secretary General of the United Nations. He was a skilled international diplomat and had deep spiritual insights. His prayer has become mine too; and on a recent visit to Chichester Cathedral in England, in the quiet of Morning Prayer, the Eucharist, and Evensong, I felt the meaning of this prayer. It is an expression of being in the presence of God as we are. For me this prayer in that place was a moment when the Mystery of God was felt in an intimate way in contemplative prayer.

Before leaving England I picked up a little book by Tich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has devoted his life to generate peace and reconciliation. Opening the book at random, I turned to the fourth chapter entitled, “We Have Arrived.” It felt like the chapter had been written for me, for at Chichester in prayer it was as if I had arrived. As As Tich Nhat Hanh wrote in this chapter, “We all have the tendency to struggle in our bodies and our minds. We believe that happiness is possible only in the future. That is why the practice ‘I have arrived’ is very important. The realization that we have already arrived, that we don’t have to travel any further, that we are already here, can give us peace and joy. The conditions for our happiness are already sufficient. We only need to allow ourselves to be in the present moment, and we will be able to touch them.”
In our religious life we tend to think of our lives as being on a journey to the nearer presence of God. This is true in many ways. But when we are on a journey we haven’t arrived at the destination — until the end. One only rests from time to time. Somehow happiness is still somewhere in the future. Saintly enthusiasts often attempted to hasten this process by indulging in all sorts of spiritual contortions including penance and self-denial to eliminate the baggage of human nature to achieve spiritual happiness. The trouble with that program is that it doesn’t work. We are gifts of God’s creation and have to learn how to accept and love our human nature as we are. God is not just out there somewhere in the future in some spiritual embodiment. God is present where we are, in our humanity, at the present moment. At whatever age we may be, the future is now. It is in the present moment that the presence of God is experienced and enjoyed. We can become firmer, simpler — quieter, warmer, if only for a moment when the miracle of God’s presence touches our soul.
In moments like this we may want to remain in silence; or a song may arise within us, and with the psalmist we might “sing the glory of God’s Name; sing the glory of his praise;” declare “how awesome are God’s deeds!” (Psalm 66: 1-2) While I love music, it is often a song of silence that is singing in my heart, when God’s presence is felt in the present moment. The struggles of our bodies and minds can become quiet. We don’t have to do anything. We just have to be. Relax. Forget control. Enjoy God’s visit.
This column was originally published on August 25, 2016.