Brother Lawrence: The Practice of the Presence of God
The long history of Christianity has seen many powerful and influential men and women. These people have shaped theology, lead denominations and movements, and instituted change. This column is not about any of these. It is about a simple man whose early life was so unimpressive that scholars disagree as to his birth year: 1605, 1610, or 1611. Yet his spirituality impressed so many that all agree on his death year: 1691. His given name was Nicolas Herman, but he is known as Brother Lawrence.
The little of his life that is known consists of this: he was poor and illiterate as a youth; he became both a soldier and footman; he joined a Carmelite monastery in Paris; he served in the kitchen for fifteen years; and he died at the age of eighty. Plus—and this is why he is remembered—he claimed to have enjoyed the constant companionship of God. While his life events are little remembered, the title of the small book which contains his wisdom might be familiar: The Practice of the Presence of God. [Available for free on the internet; just type in the title.]
This volume consists of four conversations between Brother Lawrence and his friend Abbe de Beaufort and fifteen letters which Brother Lawrence wrote. Within the fifty-two pages of this work, we learn how he was able to rest in the presence of God continually.
When Brother Lawrence came to the monastery he was placed in a position which he dreaded: kitchen staff. He acknowledged that he was clumsy; he told Beaufort that "he was a great awkward fellow who broke everything." And he did not want to work in the kitchen. But "in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God, and with prayer, upon all occasions, for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy, during fifteen years that he had been employed there." Brother Lawrence’s one passion was to focus on God, and he was able to do this in the repetitive and messy job of working in the kitchen for fifteen years.
But how was he able to do this? Quite a few people recognized his ability to dwell unwaveringly with God, and many came to learn from him. His advice was as simple as this: train your mind to focus on God. Listen to some of his advice: "We should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s presence by continually conversing with Him. . . . [I]t was a shameful thing to quit His conversation to think of trifles and fooleries." "Useless thoughts spoil all . . . the mischief began there; but that we ought to reject them as soon as we perceived [them]." Therefore, he could say, "In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees [during Communion]."
That Brother Lawrence found joy only in what he received from God is clear in a letter he wrote in the last year of his life: "We have but little time to live; you are near sixty-four, and I am almost eighty. Let us live and die with God. Sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us while we are with Him; and the greatest pleasures will be, without Him, a cruel punishment to us." And in the last week of his life he ended his letter with this: "I hope from His mercy the favor to see Him with[in] a few days."
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