Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him? – Brother Lawrence in Maxims.
This summer in Christian Devotional Classics (Evangelical Seminary), I presented on Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (c. 1614 – 1691) and The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life. Considering the importance of this work to a number of people I have spoken with, future posts are already in concept — if this is a project of interest, please email me.
In the first part of this teaser post is a rough timeline of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection’s life. In the second part is a week of reflections on “What does The Practice of the Presence of God have to say to us today?”
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (c. 1614 – 1691)
Birth through Military Service
- Born Nicolas Herman in Herimenil, Lorraine.
- ~100 years after Martin Luther nails the Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg Church as an invitation to debate (October 31, 1517).
- Family without money for education, some “home-schooling”
- His Uncle Jean Majeur was a member of the Discaled Carmelites
- Some education by a parish priest (Lawrence)
- 30 Years War (1618-48): A young soldier (1629)
- Near fatal injury to his sciatic nerve (1635)
- Crippled and in chronic pain remainder of life.
- Gazing at a barren tree one winter while in the army, “saw for the first time the majesty of God’s grace and the constancy of God’s providence. He imagined himself like the tree, waiting for the life that God would inevitably bring in season” (1628).
- Sought direction after returning home with war injury (1635)
- A “footman who was clumsy and broke everything.”
- Drawn to a Carmelite monastery in Paris (1640)
Carmelite Service and a “life well lived”
- Vita Apostolica movement of the 12th – 13th centuries founded on Mt. Carmel. Grew in 16th century as part of the Spanish Counter-Reformation and also in 17th century France.
- Incarnational spirituality.
- Imitating Christ and the disciples in radical poverty.
- Brother Lawrence served fifteen years as a cook, then worked in the sandal repair shop serving 100 friars. But he never stopped helping in the busy kitchen.
- A lay brother (no Latin) remembered for intimacy in relationship with God.
- A way of life of walking in God’s presence with a joyful spirit and shunning attention. In communion with God, like the experience of Eucharist, when washing dishes.
- The Practice of the Presence of God compiled after his death.
- Joseph de Beaufort, counsel to the Paris archbishop, published Brother Lawrence’s letters in a small pamphlet. This was followed by the release of The Practice of the Presence of God which included four conversations with Brother Lawrence.
- A lay brother (no Latin) remembered for intimacy in relationship with God.
- Brother Lawrence
- simply and beautifully explains how to continually walk with God – not from the head but from the heart.
- left the gift of a way of life available to anyone who seeks to know God’s peace and presence; that anyone, regardless of age or circumstance, can practice – anywhere, anytime.
- left the gift of a direct approach to living in God’s presence that is as practical today as it was three hundred years ago.
- died in 1691, having practiced God’s presence for over forty years. His quiet death was much like his monastic life where each day and each hour was a new beginning and a fresh commitment to love God with all his heart.
- popular for those seeking counsel AND continues to be among Catholics and Protestants (e.g., John Wesley, A. W. Tozer).
Historical and Theological Context:
- Early Modern period of Europe
- Scientific Revolution
- Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal
- The General Crisis: widespread conflict and instability:
- Black Death: regular outbreaks of the plague across Europe
- 1665 Great Plague in London, 1666 Great Fire in London
- The Church
- The Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
- Vita Apostolica movement of the 12th – 13th centuries.
- Elijah as an inspiration of living a “simple,” prophetic life, including hearing God in a whisper after conflict on Mount Carmel (I Kings 19:11-13).
- A simple, pure Way of Life: Radical imitation of Christ, his disciples, and Mary the Mother of Jesus.
- Three Doctors of the Church:
- John of the Cross (1542 – 1591) . . . Teresa of Ávila (1515 – 1582) . . . Thérèse of Lisieux (1873 – 1897)
- Part of the strength of the Counter Reformation, but hit a wall in France about a century after Brother Lawrence’s passing with the French Revolution (1787-1789).
- In the midst of the 30 Years War (1618-1648) across Europe, initiated by Roman Catholic vs. Protestant “powers.”
What does The Practice of the Presence of God have to say to us today?
Daily Reflections for the course of the week from which you pick up this post. The material is drawn from drafts I posted on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall as part of a class on Christian Devotional Classics at Evangelical Seminary. Click here for a free copy of The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life via the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Please email me know if you use the second section to stimulate campus discussion (e.g., brown bag lunch discussion group). I am particularly interested in suggestions on revisions for use in that context.
1. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (Nicholas Herman, c. 1614 – 1691). According to the brief biography by Abby Zwart for Christian Classics Ethereal Library:
Brother Lawrence is one of the most admired and imitated sons of the Catholic church. He worked for a time as a soldier before entering the Discaled Carmelite Prior in Paris. Lawrence was uneducated, and so had to enter the monastery as a layman. He worked in the kitchens and as a cobbler there for the remainder of his life.
For Deeper Reflection: Have you read “Practice of the Presence of God”? If so, do you think Brother Lawrence’s simple lifestyle, responsibilities, and words of “The Practice of the Presence of God” is what engages reader? Or is it something intangible, the very presence of God? Both woven together in some manner? If you haven’t read “Practice of the Presence of God,” I encourage you to take few minutes to read this short piece.
2. When I shared with my wife that Brother Lawrence lived in the continual presence of God filled with joy and peace, my wife asked, “Did he have children?” Do you think that it is possible to live with the joy and peace evidenced by Brother Lawrence in the context of a family or how about outside of a monastery (e.g., most educational institutions today)? Note: My wife clarified by saying that she has peace in the spiritual sense, but not always in the temporal sense. Joy comes a lot easier to her. Below’s a quote from Brother Lawrence:
“I have quitted all forms of devotion and set prayers but those to which my state obliges me. And I make it my business only to persevere in His holy presence, wherein I keep myself by a simple attention, and a general fond regard to GOD, which I may call an actual presence of GOD, or, to speak better, an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with GOD, which often causes me joys and raptures inwardly, and sometimes also outwardly, so great that I am forced to use means to moderate them, and prevent their appearance to others.” – Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life.
3. “Not a rule set.” “A reader’s digest.” Yesterday, when I gave a presentation on Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (c. 1614 – 1691) in a seminary class*, several classmates shared barriers to reading/receiving from The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life.
For Deeper Reflection: I found one student’s expectation of finding “a rule set” in a short book by someone who obviously has it all figured out, a helpful insight regarding the importance of our lens in reading religious/spiritual writings. How true that many times we long for a “silver bullet” to bring us closer to God instead of growing in our relationship with God as a whole person, i.e., head, heart, and hands, through daily life as part of the Body of Christ (across time/geography) drawing from the Word, Spirit, the Biblical story, and various practices/traditions with discernment. Will special moments happen? Yes, but as with other complex relationships (e.g., parents, spouse, children, supervisors, classmates, professor), there is not a “silver bullet.”
Another classmate shared how easily we disregard “reader’s digest” material and seek something more complex/deep. This was no doubt the case for those who only give attention to “scholastics.” But just because a piece is written simply and has a distillation of what one has heard in other contexts, does not mean that it lacks wisdom. An example was given of an older farmer in a classmate’s local congregation who had little education, but was sought after by many for his wise advice – a similar story to Brother Lawrence in his little education, popularity as a source of advice, and love for God in “simple”/mundane jobs (washing dishes, repairing sandals).
How do you set aside academic readings and receive from other writings? I’m not talking about material which is not well written, developed, or considered, but “simple” writings such as “The Practice of the Presence of God”, which provide perspective on daily life, even one’s relationship with God? Is there space in your daily, weekly, monthly, annual calendar to do such? Do you have a sounding board for what you learn, even ‘hear’, during times of quiet consideration (possibly even meditation . . . contemplation . . . reorientation . . . restoration of vision/direction for the daily life lived in the “Presence of God”). One classmate shared that while an undergrad, he started praying line by line as he programmed webpages. His relationship with God is “continual”, providing insight through difficult challenges. I find this to be the case physically, intellectually, emotionally, relationally, what a joy to know that God is present AND engaged in every moment of life (even the typing/reading of this post). To God be the glory!
3. St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556)* and Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (c. 1614 – 1691). Although Nicholas Herman (Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection), had some form of “home-schooling” by a parish priest (Lawrence) and a connection to the Discaled Carmelites through his Uncle Jean Majeur, his parents did not have enough money for sponsoring an education. In 1629 to provide for basic needs, Nicholas entered the French military.
During his entry, the French were engaged in the 30 Years War (1618-48), which covered Europe with violence and instability. Nicholas’ involvement ended when he received a near fatal injury to his sciatic nerve (1635). He was crippled and in chronic pain the remainder of his life. When reading of his war injury and entering of a religious order, I was struck by the similarity to St. Ignatius of Loyola.
But upon further consideration I saw a significant contrast between Brother Lawrence and St. Ignatius. St. Ignatius pushed forward with education to become a priest. He founded The Society of Jesus with zeal, surrounded by brothers following him and the endorsement of a pope he had already been serving in mission. Brother Lawrence entered the simple life of practicing the presence of God in the midst of manual labor (i.e., washing dishes and repairing sandals) and never became a priest, humbly serving in the background. Furthermore, Nicholas’ ‘call’ from God occurred before, not after his war injury. When gazing at a barren tree one winter, he “saw for the first time the majesty of God’s grace and the constancy of God’s providence. He imagined himself like the tree, waiting for the life that God would inevitably bring in season” (1628).
With much personal and then additional editing, St. Ignatius turned his religious experience, mentoring, and leadership into a significant religious resource, i.e., The Spiritual Exercises. One cannot miss the contrasting style/approach of St. Ignatius, a man from a noble family and a passion for heroism on the battlefield, brought to his writing from that of a simple man who dwelt in the presence of God in the background, the mundane.
Joseph de Beaufort, counsel to the Paris archbishop, collected writings by Brother Lawrence and assembled The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life after Brother Lawrence’s death. Do you resonate with one of their journeys or are they too different from your own in 21st century higher education in the United States? Does one of their approaches to a life of devotion more guide/inform (or you desire to more guide/inform) your daily life?
* For the Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) post, click here.
4. How do you interact with the stories of others? With one’s own story? As I mentioned yesterday, Brother Lawrence (c. 1614 – 1691) was in chronic pain throughout his 40+ years in manual labor in a religious context. He washed dishes and repaired shoes at a Discalced Carmelite Priory in Paris, France.
My professor commented that I gave Brother Lawrence’s war wound (1635, during the 30 Years War) to the sciatic nerve and the results of it more attention than previous presenters. Her comment brought to mind not only how important the real life and historical context of the writer is in understanding/reading the material, but also the real life and historical context of the reader/presenter in interacting with and re-presenting the material.
My first exposure to Brother Lawrence was the encouragement to live an idealistic life of following Christ with joy, even when doing chores. “Just do it!” Is such a perspective without knowledge of the person who wrote it, what makes The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life, “timeless?”
No, as we’ve seen Brother Lawrence’s journey is much richer than such a generality (and personally I’ve found “Just do it!” does not pan out). This former soldier’s life wasn’t attractive to members of his community because of “a smile on his face,” many of us can do that. But instead Brother Lawrence evidenced a joy-filled peace which rested in Christ even in the face of the difficulties he had faced and was still addressing when they met him – something which many of them struggled to comprehend. Brother Lawrence enjoyed offering his daily life to God because he knew that his daily life was a gift from a loving God. Yes, my attraction to this thread of his life/story comes from my own growth in this area as I have faced continuing physical challenges: personal, with one of my daughters, and through a number of people engaged in health care (providers and receivers of care in a variety of contexts).
Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him? – Brother Lawrence
5. Does Brother Lawrence (c. 1614 – 1691) represent one who truly offers head, heart, and hands in love to God? Do you consider The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life to be just that — the best rule of holy life? Some have shared with me this perspective. In an on-line search I came across “Notes and Questions for Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1611-1691); The Practice of the Presence of God (1693, French; 1724, English)” by Robert Harris. He articulates this position well:
This book is about much more than constant devotion to God or unceasing prayer—though it is about those things. It is also a book about integration—of mind and faith, life and worship, thought and prayer, even physical and spiritual (for Brother Lawrence was brought to the spiritual through the physical). . . . — http://www.virtualsalt.com/lit/lawrence.htm. Accessed 8/2/2013. 9:46 pm.
Do you agree/disagree with this “reading” of Brother Lawrence? Or do you find yourself, like me finding Brother Lawrence favoring the “heart” over the mind in the framing of life/habit? Or is it as some have pointed out to me a chicken versus to the egg conversation and it’s all inextricably wrapped up together?
6. Have you entered times of prayer as Brother Lawrence describes in the Second Letter? Do you find his answer to the charges of inactivity, delusion, and self-love sufficient? What response would you give to Brother Lawrence’s request, if he asked for your opinion? How does your “academic” training, perspective, community affect your perspective on prayer?
“At other times, when I apply myself to prayer, I feel all my spirit and all my soul lift itself up without any care or effort of mine; and it continues as it were suspended and firmly fixed in GOD, as in its centre and place of rest. I know that some charge this state with inactivity, delusion, and self-love: I confess that it is a holy inactivity, and would be a happy self-love, if the soul in that state were capable of it; because in effect, while she is in this repose, she cannot be disturbed by such acts as she was formerly accustomed to, and which were then her support, but would now rather hinder than assist her. Yet I cannot bear that this should be called delusion; because the soul which thus enjoys GOD desires herein nothing but Him. If this be delusion in me, it belongs to GOD to remedy it. Let Him do what He pleases with me: I desire only Him, and to be wholly devoted to Him. You will, however, oblige me in sending me your opinion, to which I always pay a great deference, for I have a singular esteem for your reverence, and am yours in our Lord. — Excerpt from Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God – The Best Rule of Holy Life. Second Letter. Accessed 7/28/2013.
About the author:
Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the Northeast Regional Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). For a number of years, the Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine was the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!