When I was a teenager, I spent one summer washing dishes and busing tables at Gifford’s Ice Cream Parlor in Silver Spring, Maryland. I can still remember the relentless smell of melting ice cream mingling with the soapy scent of dishwashing detergent.
It was pretty disgusting.
Honestly, I couldn’t eat ice cream all that summer. The thought of it made me queasy. I spent my afternoons and evenings up to my elbows in half-eaten chocolate sundaes with melted cream, deflated cherries, and soggy sprinkles. Thankfully, in time I recovered. Ice cream isn’t a problem anymore (though my doctor and my wife might disagree).
Anyway, I had reason to remember that summer when I picked up a copy of The Practice of the Presence of God by an obscure Carmelite named Nicolas Herman, better known as Brother Lawrence.
Centuries ago, Brother Lawrence crafted a simple but profound form of spirituality that has captivated generations of believers. I think it offers us a model for making prayer not only one part of our lives but really the greatest part. Practicing the presence of God transforms the very act of living into an enduring, ongoing prayer—a way to pray without ceasing.
An Uninspiring Start. Nicolas Herman was born in France in 1614. He was wounded in military service, and while recovering, he decided he wanted to become a monk. When he was twenty-six, he entered the Order of Discalced Carmelites in Paris as a lay brother and took the religious name of Lawrence.
It was not what anyone might consider glamorous. He worked in the monastery kitchen, cooking meals for the friars. In later years, he turned to sandal making. That was about as exciting as his life got.
It was busy, it was tedious, it was . . . uninspiring.
Brother Lawrence found life in a monastery not nearly as uplifting as he expected. He prayed, he meditated, he spent hours in silence. And none of it really fulfilled him. Instead, he developed his own unique form of spirituality by training himself to practice being in God’s presence. And it happened just by doing the dishes. As he wrote,blockquote> I gave up all devotions and prayers that were not required and I devote myself exclusively to remaining always in his holy presence. I keep myself in his presence by simple attentiveness and a general loving awareness of God that I call “actual presence of God” or better, a quiet and secret conversation of the soul with God that is lasting.
Brother Lawrence died in obscurity at the age of seventy-seven, and the slender book he left behind is a small but beautiful treasure. It amounts to his own sort of “rule,” a guide for all who want to turn everyday living into an ongoing prayer.
The Adaptability of Prayer. Of life in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence wrote,
The times of activity are not at all different from the hours of prayer, for I possess God as peacefully in the commotion of my kitchen, where often people are asking me for different things at the same time, as I do when kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
To this day, Brother Lawrence remains a vital witness to something many of us neglect or overlook: prayer is infinitely creative and adaptable. It can—and should!—involve all of what we are. We pray to the Lord as his creation, as incarnate beings who toil, struggle, rejoice, and, yes, work. Want to “pray without ceasing”? Begin by making every act, every gesture, every task a form of prayer. Give it to God. Offer it at the sink, in the garage, on the bus, in the garden, in the cubicle behind a pile of papers waiting to be filed.
Any work, offered with love to the Lord, can be a prayer if we intend it to be. Really. Answering the phone, tending the garden, typing a term paper, balancing a checkbook, changing a diaper, bandaging a wound—all this and more are part of God’s infinitely wondrous and imperfect world.
We can do more than just perform these tasks. We can pray them.
When I was growing up, my mother had a small prayer plaque hanging over the sink in our kitchen. “The Kitchen Prayer” speaks to the devotion of Brother Lawrence and the everyday piety that so many of us strive to live.
Klara Munkres, a retired schoolteacher from Savannah, Missouri, wrote the prayer. She died in 1971, and though most people have never heard of her, countless people know her words, excerpted below.
Lord of all pots and pans and things
Since I’ve not time to be
A saint by doing lovely things or
Watching late with Thee
Or dreaming in the dawn light or
Storming Heaven’s gates
Make me a saint by getting meals and
Washing up the plates.
Klara Munkres was on to something—capturing the serenity that can come from doing anything and everything for God.
Giving Ourselves to God. Brother Lawrence, five centuries earlier, understood that to pray without ceasing is not as difficult as it may sound. He mastered the theology of presence, the gift of being present to God, and turned that deep awareness into a minute-by-minute practice. His secret? “I apply myself diligently to do nothing and think nothing which may displease him. I hope that when I have done what I can, he will do with me what he pleases.”
It sounds simple enough, but the challenge is huge. It is the work of a lifetime—which, when I was a teenager, was the way I felt about washing dishes at an ice cream parlor.
But the benefits of the kind of lifelong prayer described by Brother Lawrence last longer. And the scent is infinitely sweeter.
Deacon Greg Kandra is a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Brooklyn. He blogs at patheos.com and serves as the multimedia editor for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
His new book, The Busy Person’s Guide to Prayer is available at wau.org and amazon.com.