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, “worried about many things,” 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.
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.” He admitted that 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. He had gone lame in one leg—probably because of an old war injury—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 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 benefited but also the workers, beggars, visitors, and people he used to meet while out running errands for the monastery. In his eulogy, Brother Lawrence was described 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.”
Fr. Joseph de Beaufort wrote a eulogy for Brother Lawrence 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. Beaufort: none of us can fulfill our calling to love and adore God “without establishing with God an inter-change 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. Especially for those of us “Marthas,” 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.
Patricia Mitchell is the Content Editor of The Word Among Us magazine.