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Practicing the Presence

A moment-to-moment exchange of love.

By: Patricia Mitchell

Practicing the Presence: A moment-to-moment exchange of love. by Patricia Mitchell

As the Carmelite monks chanted psalms in their church across the courtyard, the head cook labored in the monastery kitchen.

There, against the background hiss of boiling water and the steady beat of his knife against the chopping block, stood a middle-aged man—a lay brother whose duties prevented him from joining the others in prayer. Some people might have resented being left with stacks of dishes while other monks were praying, but not this fellow. As he saw it, everyday duties were no hindrance to what he identified as “the holiest, most ordinary, and most necessary practice of the spiritual life.”

His name was Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. And even amid the stresses and distractions involved in preparing a meal for a hundred people, he was delighting in God’s presence and speaking with him as he worked. This “practice of the presence of God,” as he called it, is the reason we know Brother Lawrence today.

As a lay brother, Lawrence had the humblest position in his seventeenth-century Paris monastery. Nonetheless, his approach to prayer—formed and tested in the heat of the kitchen—is a priceless legacy that continues to touch thousands of people.

Alert to God. The serene joy of this humble cook reaches us today through just one small book—The Practice of the Presence of God—that presents some of his letters, conversations, and “spiritual maxims.” It speaks wisdom to those of us who tend to identify with busy Martha, “distracted by her many tasks,” rather than with Mary, the sister who chose “the better part” of sitting attentively at Jesus’ feet (see Luke 10:38-42).

In Brother Lawrence, whose inner focus on God made every activity a prayer, Martha and Mary are reconciled. Whatever he did, in every moment of the day, Lawrence sought and found the Lord. His success is our blessing, for his words can teach us how to live in the presence of God no matter how busy we are or how many responsibilities we hold. He shows us how to incorporate our prayer and our work and how to make our often-disjointed lives into a seamless whole that is pleasing to the Lord.

Graces of Conversion. While Brother Lawrence’s ability to stay centered on the Lord was extraordinary, there was nothing out of the ordinary about his life. What we know about it comes from a eulogy written by Joseph de Beaufort, a priest who happened to meet Lawrence during a visit to the monastery. We know the date—August 3, 1666—because Beaufort was so impressed with the cook’s spiritual depth that he went home and took notes on their conversation. It was the first of many contacts.

Brother Lawrence was born Nicholas Herman in Lorraine, an independent duchy now in north- eastern France, in 1614. About his childhood, Fr. de Beaufort mentions only that Lawrence’s parents were “upright people who led an exemplary life” and who gave their son a great reverence for God.

The most significant event in his early life took place when Nicholas was eighteen. It happened one winter day, as he looked at the bare branches of a tree and marveled that new leaves would soon appear, with flowers and fruits in bloom. This simple reflection became a profound insight into God’s providence and power—a “special grace of conversion” that caused the young man to fall in love with the Lord.

For reasons unknown to us, however, Nicholas entered not religious life but the military. With his region caught up in the bloody Thirty Years’ War, Nicholas became a soldier and saw action before being captured and charged as a spy. He was released and rejoined his troops but suffered an injury during a siege in 1635.

As he convalesced at his parents’ home, Nicholas had time to think about his life. Says Fr. de Beaufort: “He reflected often upon the perils of his profession, the vanity and the corruption of the century, the instability of men, the treason of the enemy, and the infidelity of his friends.” The result was that he decided to “give himself wholly to God and to repair his past conduct.”

Out of Darkness. Not knowing exactly how to pursue this goal, Nicholas tried living as a hermit. He had been inspired by the example of a wealthy man who gave away his possessions to pursue a life of solitary prayer. But this was not his own calling, Nicholas quickly realized. He was too young in the spiritual life to live without a community and a rule of life to keep him on a steady course.

An uncle who was a Carmelite friar encouraged Nicholas to join a monastery, but the young man was frightened by the idea of permanent vows. Procrastinating, he did a brief, unfortunate stint as a valet—as it turned out, he told Fr. de Beaufort, he was “a clumsy lummox who broke everything.” Finally, in June 1640, he applied for admission as a lay brother at the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Paris; two months later, he took the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.

The young man had found his place, but it would be another decade before he found the peace that came to characterize him. During this time, he experienced intense interior turmoil. Though already beginning to discover the “practice of the presence of God” and experiencing the Lord’s nearness, Lawrence felt radically unworthy. His sins were always before him, and he began to wonder whether his experiences of God were an illusion. He even wondered whether he might be deluding and damning himself. In this time of “bitterness and thick darkness,” de Beaufort wrote, “faith alone was his support.”

One day, Brother Lawrence faced the fact that this suffering might not ever lift during his mortal life. With greater courage than he had ever had to exercise on the battlefield, he accepted the sacrifice. Trusting in God, he resolved to endure the trial “not only for the rest of his life but even for all eternity, if it so pleased God.” Whatever happened, he would “remain in the presence of God with all the humility of a useless but faithful servant.”

At that moment, Brother Lawrence told Fr. de Beaufort, “I found myself changed all at once.” After ten anguished years of hanging on and staying in God’s presence by sheer faith, his eyes were opened. God had given him a ray of light that ended his fears and pain. “My soul, which had always been in turmoil till then, experienced a deep inner peace, as if it had found its center and place of rest.”

A Saint in the Kitchen. Brother Lawrence was convinced that any Christian—no matter what their occupation or experience of the spiritual life—could make great strides by developing their awareness of God’s loving presence. “If I were a preacher,” he said, “I would preach nothing else than the practice of the presence of God. If I were a spiritual director, I would recommend to everyone that they continually converse with God, because I believe it is so vital and even easy to practice.” As it seemed to him, if you take this approach, “you become spiritual in no time”!

A realistic person, however, Brother Lawrence acknowledged that “you don’t become a saint in a day.” As he admitted to de Beaufort, he himself had found it difficult to stay continually in God’s presence in the beginning. But he kept at it. Whenever he realized that he had passed some time without remembering the Lord, he simply repented and took up the practice again.

His simple approach to God brought Brother Lawrence a serene and joyful peace. We see him in the kitchen, gracefully handling the inevitable stress of being head cook for a monastery of a hundred hungry men: “I turn my little omelette in the pan for the love of God. When it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground, and adore my God, who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king.”

“Loving God with All My Heart.” After fifteen years in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence was assigned less demanding work in the shoe repair shop. Probably because of an old war injury, he had gone lame in one leg—a condition that caused him great pain for some twenty-five years and eventually degenerated into an even more painful leg ulcer.

His physical sufferings increased toward the end of his life. Through it all, Fr. de Beaufort observed, Brother Lawrence maintained “the same serenity of soul that he had retained in the most vigorous health.” During his third and last illness, he remained joyful and pleased that he could suffer for the love of God.

He also was fearless about the prospect of dying. Disregarding his suffering, he told one brother, “I am doing what I will do for all eternity. I am blessing God, praising God, adoring him and loving him with all my heart. That is our whole profession, brothers, to adore God and to love him, without worrying about the rest.” Peaceful and lucid to the end, Brother Lawrence died on February 12, 1691, at the age of seventy-seven.

Guide and Friend. Long before he died, Brother Lawrence was appreciated for his wisdom and sanctity. Not only the other monks benefitted, but also the workers, beggars, visitors, and people he used to meet while out running errands for the monastery. Fr. de Beaufort spoke for them all when, in his eulogy, he described Brother Lawrence as someone who “spoke freely and with extreme kindness”—a person whose very presence “gave confidence and made you feel immediately that you could reveal anything to him and that you had found a friend.”

Determined not to let Lawrence’s influence die with him, de Beaufort wrote his eulogy and gathered up every scrap of information he could find—sayings, notes, and sixteen letters (Lawrence had destroyed many others). Although an odd assortment, this collection was eventually published as The Practice of the Presence of God, a spiritual classic that has managed to transcend denominational lines. As one Protestant writer put it, Brother Lawrence “belongs neither to Catholicism or Protestantism but to all who try to make Jesus King of their daily life.”

Brother Lawrence speaks to us all because his way of consciously abiding in God’s presence is not a theoretical devotion, nor one that can be practiced only in cloisters. Said Fr. de Beaufort: None of us can fulfill our calling to love and adore God “without establishing with God an interchange of love that gives us access to him at every moment, like children who can scarcely stand without their mother’s help.”

Like little children, we need to be reminded often of God’s great love for us and his desire to be with us always. Brother Lawrence can be our inspiration as we go through each day, practicing the presence of the Lord at every moment and in every situation.

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