September 2006

Practicing the Presence of God


The path to soul-balance and inner calm

Glenn F. Chesnut

© Copyright 2005 by Glenn F. Chesnut.   Taken from The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program:  For Believers & Non-believers, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (San Jose: iUniverse, 2001), the first half of Chapter Five, "Two Classical Authors of A.A. Spirituality." From the Hindsfoot Foundation website at   This material may be copied and reproduced by others subject to the restrictions given at

Richmond Walker, author of the AA classic Twenty-Four Hours a Day

Richmond Walker

The second most popular A.A. author in total book sales, second only to Bill W. himself, was Richmond Walker. He was a man from the Boston area who managed to get sober in 1939 in the old Oxford Group, but then went back to drinking two and a half years later. He joined A.A. in May of 1942, and finally found lasting sobriety there. In 1948 he wrote the book of daily meditations called Twenty-Four Hours a Day, which for many years was the basic meditational book for all A.A.'s. Hazelden offered to print it for him in 1954, when the job of distributing it all over the country became too big for him to handle by himself. It is still widely used by A.A.'s and A.A. groups today.


One of the principal spiritual goals, Richmond said, was attaining a kind of soul-balance. We put our lives into a kind of quiet rhythm where we alternated between working in the world and retiring back for quiet moments with God (Jan. 15):
  I will learn soul-balance and poise
       in a vacillating, changing world.
       I will claim God's power and use it . . . .
As long as I get back to God
       and replenish my strength after each task,
       no work can be too much.
It is the time when I am by myself, in quiet communion with God, which gives me the power, when I go back out into the tasks of everyday life, to wear the world as a loose garment (Mar. 29):
  I must live in the world and yet
       live apart [from the world] with God.
I can go forth from my secret times of
       communion with God
       to the work of the world.
To get the spiritual strength I need, my inner life
       must be lived apart from the world.
I must wear the world as a loose garment.
       Nothing in the world should seriously upset me,
       as long as my inner life is lived with God.

Seek inner calm in order to
do good and avoid evil

Allowing too much resentment and fear to upset my soul prevents me from living my life as it ought properly to be lived -- serving as a channel for God's spirit -- and doing God's work in the world (Jan. 26):
  I will try to keep my life calm and unruffled.
This is my great task,
       to find peace and acquire serenity.
I must not harbor disturbing thoughts.
       No matter what fear, worries and
       resentments I may have,
I must try to think of constructive things,
       until calmness comes.
Only when I am calm can I act
       as a channel for God's spirit.
Too much resentment and too much fear are far more dangerous to me than any external threat whatsoever:  Uncalm times are the only times when evil can find an entrance. (Feb. 21)
  I will be more afraid of spirit-unrest,
      of soul disturbance,
of any ruffling of the mind,
      than of earthquake or fire.
When I feel the calm of my spirit
      has been broken by emotional upset,
then I must steal away alone with God,
      until my heart sings and
      all is strong and calm again.
Uncalm times are the only times
      when evil can find an entrance . . . .
I will try to keep calm,
      no matter what turmoil surrounds me.

God inside, God outside, God above

In the great spiritual teachings of the world -- Europe, Asia, ancient times, the middle ages, at all times and places -- we find some people seeking the divine or sacred within their own souls. Others have sought the divine in the world around them. Yet others saw the great power as far above and infinitely removed from both ourselves and the physical world around us:  ancient Greek Neo-Platonic philosophers, Hindu religious thinkers like Shankara, and some Christian spiritual teachers too, like St. Bonaventure for example, said that we had to free the mind of all external sense impressions, all internal thoughts and concepts, and all thoughts even of the self, before we could achieve the vision of the ultimate transcendent ground.

Now it should also be said that some of the best of these spiritual teachers said that all three routes led to the same divine power, and that we could take any of these routes, or even all three of them, to seek out contact with that higher power.

Trapped in a box of space and time

In some passages, Richmond Walker seems to have chosen the third route, placing his higher power far above and behind the universe and all that is in it. Using Kantian philosophical language, he talked about the way our minds are locked within a box of space and time, with God (who is infinite and eternal) existing outside that box. Our human minds, by their very nature, attempt to structure all the universe in terms of myriads of physical objects (sense phenomena) set at specific locations in three-dimensional space, moving sequentially through chronological time, and rigidly obeying natural laws -- that is the only way we can ordinarily think at all. Since God in his essential nature necessarily has to lie outside that framework, he is therefore normally blocked from our direct perception (Mar. 24):
  We live in a box of space and time, which we have manufactured by our own minds and on that depends all our so-called knowledge of the universe. The simple fact is that we can never know all things, nor are we made to know them. Much of our lives must be taken on faith.  
So we cannot "point out where God is" in the same way we could point our fingers and say, "You see that really tall mountain-top behind you? That's Pike's Peak, the top is 14,110 feet above sea level, almost three miles high." We also cannot fit God smoothly into our laws of physics, because these laws deal with finite physical objects.

God must touch me with his
spirit for me to know him

So how can I have any kind of knowledge of God at all, or contact with him? Richmond Walker says that I must start by blocking off the world of external sense perceptions: I must begin by remembering that God is not a physical object out there in the external material world. I cannot measure his length, weigh his mass, describe his color or shape, or draw a picture of him. What I feel when his spirit touches mine can therefore only be described in metaphors or analogies or symbolic language (Mar. 10):
  My five senses are my means of communication with the material world. They are the links between my physical life and the material manifestations around me. But I must sever all connections with the material world when I wish to hold communion with the Great Spirit of the universe. I have to hush my mind and bid all my senses be still, before I can become attuned to receive the music of the heavenly spheres.  
We don't have any good words in English for describing what is happening when God touches us, although some of the German philosophers and theologians of the nineteenth century developed some technical terms for talking about this. We "feel" God (the German word for feeling is Gefühl) rather than sense him as we would a physical object. We apprehend him as a hint, an intuition, the awareness of a presence (where the German word for this is Ahnung). Richmond Walker described it as a spirit-consciousness or a spirit-touch. It is a very subtle thing in the sense that it is over on the fringe of normal consciousness. It is not some overwhelming ecstatic washing away of normal consciousness, but a quiet feeling which touches us gently (Apr. 27 and Feb. 27):
  We know God by spiritual vision. We feel that He is beside us. We feel His presence. Contact with God is not made by the senses. Spirit-consciousness replaces sight. Since we cannot see God, we have to perceive Him by spiritual perception. God has to span the physical and the spiritual with the gift to us of spiritual vision. Many a man, though he cannot see God, has had a clear spiritual consciousness of Him. We are inside a box of space and time, but we know there must be something outside of that box, limitless space, eternity of time, and God.

This is the time for my spirit to touch the spirit of God. I know that the feeling of the spirit-touch is more important than all the sensations of material things. I must seek a silence of spirit-touching with God. Just a moment's contact and all the fever of life leaves me. Then I am well, whole, calm and able to arise and minister to others. God's touch is a potent healer. I must feel that touch and sense God's presence.
Sometimes Richmond described God's spirit as being like a deep, flowing river of peace and healing (Jan. 5 and Jan. 3):
  I believe that God's presence brings peace
and that peace, like a quiet-flowing river,
      will cleanse all irritants away.
In these quiet times,
      God will teach me how to rest my nerves.

His spirit shall flow through me and,
      in flowing through me,
      it shall sweep away all the bitter past.
In his meditation for April 6, he described it as acting like the warmth of the sun touching a little flower. Elsewhere he described God's spirit as something we can "breathe in" as a breath of fresh air (Mar. 13): "Gently breathe in God's spirit," he said, "that spirit which, if not barred out by selfishness, will enable you to do good works." If we take pains to dwell near God, the power of his spirit will automatically be quietly absorbed into us at a level below our conscious awareness (Jan. 23).

Take time alone with God

To make this work, I must take time alone with God on a regular, scheduled basis (Feb. 14):
  I must keep a time apart with God every day. Gradually I will be transformed mentally and spiritually. It is not the praying so much as just being in God's presence. The strengthening and curative powers of this I cannot understand, because such knowledge is beyond human understanding, but I can experience them . . . . My greatest spiritual growth occurs in this time apart with God.  
If something happens during the day which throws me into unmanageable resentment or fear, then I must also go off someplace where I can be alone and spend a few minutes alone with God (Apr. 15):
  I must keep calm and unmoved
      in the vicissitudes of life.
I must go back into the silence
      of communion with God
      to recover this calm
when it is lost even for one moment.
I will accomplish more by this calmness
      than by all the activities of a long day.
At all cost I will keep calm.
      I can solve nothing when I am agitated.

The prayer without words

In order to enter this place of peace and calm, I need to stop most of the inner dialogue within my mind. When the kind of people who need a twelve-step program get upset, their minds become filled with nonstop arguments. Some people refer to this as "holding a committee meeting in my head." One part of my mind says "do this" while another part says "no, do that." One part of my mind obsesses anxiously about all the things which could go wrong in the future, while another part obsesses bitterly about bad things that happened in the past. I devise endless theories, and try to analyze everything to death.

When I go off to take some time alone with God, I need to stop this. What Richmond Walker was talking about was a kind of contemplation which some of the early Christian spiritual writers called the prayer without words (Jan. 7): "In silence comes God's meaning to the heart . . . . God's word is spoken to the secret places of my heart."

This sounds a little bit like the Hindu technique called transcendental meditation, but that particular technique was designed to cut off all emotion, all feeling, all real contact with the world of sense impressions. Richmond Walker was describing something totally different, with a subtle but rich, and in fact, extraordinarily powerful feeling tone.

You can do what Richmond was talking about while you are looking at some beautiful flowers in a vase, or walking through the park, or sitting in an easy chair just enjoying feeling relaxed and comfortable. You're not trying to cut off all emotions and feelings. Instead, you're letting yourself feel loved, and surrounded by peace and calm, and warmed by the glow of the spirit. You're letting yourself feel something moving through you, healing you and washing out all the disturbing elements. And if you look at the things around you, and feel a feeling of enjoyment and appreciation, and even gratitude towards the divine creator of these things, that just makes it work that much better.


Richmond Walker said that what he was talking about would not work without faith. Hebrews 11:1 said that "faith is the foundation upon which hope can be built, the way we evaluate the truthfulness of things we cannot see" with our physical eyes. Love and trustworthiness and compassion are things that are perfectly real, but they are not physical objects where we can describe what color they are, or how much they weigh, or how many inches long they are.

So Richmond described faith in this sense (Mar. 28) as "the confidence in things unseen," a confidence that there was a "fundamental goodness and purpose in the universe." Faith meant (Apr. 22) "a belief that God is the Divine Principle in the universe and that He is the Intelligence and the Love that controls the universe."

Without faith, I can go off and be alone all I want, and I will feel no presence but my own. Without faith, I will then return to my work in the world and still be as irritable and anxious and upset as I was before. So I must develop some kind of faith. Once I have faith, this technique will start working, and resentment and (particularly) fear will start to melt away (Jan. 21):
  I will take the most crowded day without fear.
I believe that God is with me,
      and controlling all.
I will let confidence be the motif
      running through all the crowded day.
I will not get worried,
      because I know that God is my helper.
Underneath are the everlasting arms.
      I will rest in them,
even though the day be full of
      things crowding in on me.
When we begin working the twelve steps, our faith is always very small. But if it is great enough just to try a few of things that are suggested to us, we will see that some of these actually work for us. And so, the next time, our faith will be a little stronger (Apr. 17):
  I gain faith by my own experience of God's power in my life. The constant, persistent recognition of God's spirit in all my personal relationships, the ever-accumulating weight of evidence in support of God's guidance, the numberless instances in which seeming chance or wonderful coincidence can be traced to God's purpose in my life. All these things gradually engender a feeling of wonder, humility and gratitude to God. These in turn are followed by a more sure and abiding faith in God and His purposes.  

The Friends of God

The bible describes people like Moses and Abraham as the Friends of God, and tells how Moses used to talk with God "as a man talks with his friend." By the time people have been in the twelve step program for a while, many find themselves talking to God all day long inside their heads. They discover, to their surprise, that God does not strike them dead if they sometimes swear at him and ask him, "Why did you do that?" Not only do they talk to God about what they're doing, at some level they sense what God is saying back to them. "Why do I have to do this? Oh, O.K., because it's the responsible thing to do, and I'll feel good about it after I've done it."

Richmond Walker makes the very interesting suggestion that God may enjoy being friends with me just as much as I enjoy being friends with him (Feb. 6):
  God finds, amid the crowd,
      a few people who follow Him,
just to be near Him,
      just to dwell in His presence.
A longing in the Eternal Heart
      may be satisfied by these few people.
I will let God know that I seek
      just to dwell in His presence,
to be near Him, not so much for teaching
      or a message, as just for Him.
It may be that the longing of the human heart
      to be loved for itself
is something caught from the
      great Divine Heart.


So we become friends with God, and we talk with God during the day. And somehow, we often know at some level what God is saying back to us. We discover, in fact, that by regularly spending time alone with God, we can receive guidance from him, at least to the extent of knowing what is the next right thing to do. But as I keep on doing that, one step at a time, and if I also look carefully to see the direction of God's providential leading, I will end up being guided even in the big things which take weeks and months and years to accomplish (Feb. 5 and Mar. 14).
  I must trust in God and He will teach me. I must listen to God and He will speak through my mind . . . . There will be days when I will hear no voice in my mind and when there will come no intimate heart-to-heart communion. But if I persist . . . God will reveal Himself to me.

Persevere in all that God's guidance moves you to do. The persistent carrying out of what seems right and good will bring you to that place where you would be. If you look back over God's guidance, you will see that His leading has been very gradual and that only as you have carried out His wishes, as far as you can understand them, has God been able to give you more clear and definite leading. You are led by God's touch on a quickened, responsive mind.
This becomes smoother and easier for us "as our consciousness becomes more and more attuned to the great Consciousness of the universe" (Apr. 23).

Eternal Life

Richmond Walker interpreted the words eternal life in what modern theologians call the Johannine sense. He believed that God had prepared a place for us in his heavenly realm after our death, but the phrase eternal life also referred, even more importantly, to our ability to participate here and now in the eternal life-force, the creative power which continuously brings life into being within this universe (Jan. 25):
  I do not look upon this life as something to be struggled through, in order to get the rewards of the next life. I believe that the Kingdom of God is within us, and we can enjoy "eternal life" here and now.  
When we commune with God, and come in contact with his eternal divine calm, and come to rest in him, we ourselves participate in that eternal love and acceptance and peace (Mar. 17):
  The eternal life is calmness
and when a man enters into that,
      then he lives as an eternal being.
Calmness is based on complete trust in God.
Nothing in this world can separate you
      from the love of God.
Where is the Kingdom of Heaven? The Kingdom of Heaven is within us and among us. Open your spiritual eyes, and see where you are, and where you can be.

This is the fundamental spiritual awakening produced by working the twelve step program. The good life can be here and now. I can feel at ease and simply at home in that grand harmony of life that extends through both earth and heaven. I can deal with trouble and disturbance and real fear and real grief without losing my head and feeling overwhelmed with blind panic. I can learn when to hang tight and when to let go. I can regain the quiet center of peace and calm within. I can regain my own soul.

A warning from the
unwritten tradition

A word of warning needs to be inserted here. To fully understand the spiritual teaching of any spiritual discipline it is necessary to go, not only to the formal written texts which the founders of that movement published, but also to the tradition which developed among the early members explaining how the rules and suggestions and principles were actually interpreted and carried out at a practical level. Within this tradition it was eventually discovered that something needed to be added to what Richmond Walker had said about serenity in the Twenty-Four Hours book. Submarine Bill often phrased it like this when he spoke about this part of the teaching of the good old-timers:
  When I first came into the program, I thought serenity meant going around never feeling any kind of disturbance or upset of any sort, a kind of perfect inner peace all the time. What I think serenity is now, is when you're wading through shit up to your chin, and you tip your head up so you can breathe, and you can keep on doing what has to be done.  
In other words, you use your program so you can keep cool enough to continue making the best decisions that it is actually possible to make. You may feel hurt or frustration or disgust or grief, or a number of other very painful and unpleasant emotions. But you keep your inner sense of soul-balance. You don't take out your frustrations on other people around you by attacking them, or playing blaming games ("It's all your fault we're in this situation," and so on and so forth). If other people are behaving badly -- selfishness, gross irresponsibility, totally egocentric attitudes -- you try to work around it as best you can, and you keep your own side of the street swept clean, no matter what the other person is doing. You look for positive solutions, and try to move things that way as much as the other people and the situation itself will allow it. The fullness of serenity means keeping your soul-balance, keeping centered, even amidst that kind of emotional maelstrom.

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