Letters by a Modern Mystic
By Frank C. Laubach. Compiled by Constance E. Padwick.
Publisher: Mansfield Center, CT: Martino Publishing, 2012.
In the years 1930 to 1932, Frank Laubach wrote a series of letters to his father detailing his efforts to develop a practice of remembering the presence of God at all times. He writes candidly of both successes and failures as he strove to remain in an unbroken state of remembrance throughout his waking hours, and he describes vividly the effect that practice had on his life. Letters by a Modern Mystic is a compilation of excerpts from those letters, presented in chronological order. It was first published in 1937.
At the time of the letters Laubach was living on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, serving as a Christian missionary. The first letter, written in January 1930, looks back over the previous year, which he describes as “the lonesomest year, and in some ways the hardest year, of my life, but the most gloriously full of voices from heaven.” That year, while living alone, away from family and friends, among people whose language he had not yet learned, he had begun what he called his “experiment of filling every minute full of the thought of God”. Although he felt he had largely fallen short of his ideal so far – and he resolved to work harder at it in the coming year – yet, when he looked back at the past year’s “marvellous experiences of the friendship of God”, he believed “it would have been impossible to have held much more without breaking with sheer joy.”
The people of the island were Muslim, and Laubach found “living in the atmosphere of Islam”, with its emphasis on submission to the will of God, a “tremendous spiritual stimulus”. He began to see that “submission is the first and last duty of man”. He wrote: “I am disgusted with the pettiness and futility of my unled self. If the way out is not more perfect slavery to God, then what is the way out?” He began to focus his efforts on surrender to the divine will: “trying to live all my waking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice”, essentially asking wordlessly, “what, Father, do you desire done this minute?”
Laubach went through ups and downs in his efforts to remember God. As he wrote: “If this record of a soul’s struggle to find God is to be complete, it must not omit the story of difficulty and failure.” His letters often record his “failures”, as his attention scattered into distraction. Laubach recognized that he had undertaken something “hard, harder than I had anticipated. But I resolved not to give up the effort.” In one letter, as he stopped and considered his many failures, Laubach poses two questions, which he answers: “(1) Can it be done all the time? Hardly. And (2) Does the effort help? Tremendously.”
Describing his state of mind before he began this “experiment,” he writes, “I never lived, I was half dead, I was a rotting tree.” Even though he often failed in his efforts, he still found that ever since he “resolved, and then re-resolved” that he would remember God moment by moment, “it was as though some deep artesian well had been struck” in his soul. Since that time of firm resolution:
Every day is tingling with the joy of a glorious discovery. That thing is eternal. That thing is undefeatable. You and I shall soon blow away from our bodies. Money, praise, poverty, opposition, these make no difference, for they will all alike be forgotten in a thousand years, but this spirit which comes to a mind set upon continuous surrender, this spirit is timeless.
He described the effort of remembrance: “This concentration upon God is strenuous, but everything else has ceased to be so. I think more clearly, I forget less frequently. Things I did with a strain before, I now do easily and with no effort whatsoever.”
I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in little things is what so astonishes me, for I never have felt it this way before. I need something, and turn round to find it waiting for me. I must work, to be sure, but there is God working along with me…. I seem to have to make sure of only one thing now, and every other thing “takes care of itself”, or I prefer to say what is more true, God takes care of all the rest. My part is to live this hour in continuous conversation with God and in perfect responsiveness to his will. To make this hour gloriously rich. This seems to be all I need think about.
He began to notice that his effort to remain aware of and responsive to God’s presence charged even his physical surroundings with a sacred atmosphere.
The most important discovery of my whole life is that one can take a little rough cabin and transform it into a palace just by flooding it with thoughts of God. When one has spent many months in a little house like this in daily thoughts about God, the very entering of the house, the very sight of it as one approaches, starts associations which set the heart tingling and the mind flowing,… so in this sense one man after the other builds his own heaven or hell.
He discovered that “God loves beauty. Everything he makes is lovely. The clouds, the tumbling river, the waving lake, the soaring eagle, the slender blade of grass … beautiful craft of God!” He often climbed to the top of a hill near his house to watch the sunset, and many of the letters are filled with his awe-struck attempts to describe what was wrought by God’s paintbrush.
Soon he began to notice that “people outside are treating me differently”.
Obstacles which I once would have regarded as insurmountable are melting away like a mirage. People are becoming friendly who suspected or neglected me. I feel, I feel like one who has had his violin out of tune with the orchestra and at last is in harmony with the music of the universe.
Although, as a Christian missionary, he might have been expected to be trying to convert the local people to Christianity, he found that he had no interest in “changing the name of their religion”. He found that there was no real difference between what it meant to be a good Muslim or a good Christian. Both meant living in remembrance of and obedience to God. His work among the local people centred around literacy. The local language had no written form, so he devised one and set about teaching the skills of reading and writing. As he worked to share this much-needed skill with them, he only wished that he would “see God in them”, and they would “see God in him”.
As he continued his inner work of remembrance, he gradually began to believe it really could be possible – eventually, with effort – to remain “in constant touch with God”. He wrote:
I cannot do it even half a day – not yet, but I believe I shall be doing it some day for the entire day. It is a matter of acquiring a new habit of thought. Now I like God’s presence so much that when for half an hour or so he slips out of mind – as he does many times a day – I feel as though I had deserted him, and as though I had lost something very precious in my life.
As he continued, his belief that “the thing can be done by all people under all circumstances” grew to certainty. In fact, he saw his “experiment” as proving this truth. There was nothing special about him: if he could do it, then anyone could do it.
How I wish, wish, wish that a dozen or more persons who are trying the experiment of holding God endlessly in mind would all write their experiences so that each would know what the other was finding as a result! The results, I think, would astound the world. At least the results of my own effort are astounding me.
Interestingly, after his time in the Philippines, Laubach went on to become an internationally renowned expert on literacy. The system he had developed for teaching reading and writing to the people of Mindinao turned out to be effective in other places where the local language had no written form. Throughout his long career, Laubach never lost his belief that the practice of continual remembrance of God was possible for anyone who resolved to do it. In 1953, decades after the letters in this book, Laubach published a hugely popular brochure called “A Game with Minutes” in which he explained the “game” which begins with trying to remember God one second out of every minute.
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