Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection lived as a monk in the Carmelite Discalced order in the 17th century at a monastery near Paris. He is nowhere near as well-known as other Carmelite luminaries such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, or St. Therese of Liseaux.
Perhaps the reason for this is he did not leave extensive writings. But it may just be due to the random course of history. But the writings and method that were handed down are among the priceless treasures of the world’s contemplative literature. The only book we have of his is, “The Practice of the Presence of God.”
This slender book, well under 100 pages, was assembled by Abbe Joseph de Beaufort in 1692, the year after Brother Lawrence died. Abbe de Beaufort was the superior in the monastery where Brother Lawrence lived and served.
It consists of 4 conversations Abbe de Beaufort had with Brother Lawrence and 16 letters Brother Lawrence wrote to people who sought his counsel.
Before proceeding, as is the case with many similar notes in many Catholic writings on contemplative prayer, some of Brother Lawrence’s comments will probably strike progressive modern readers as being quite unwholesome. Unless you feel such comments as the following are somehow to the point, please do not be deterred by scattered passages where he writes sharply self-abasing comments.
For a good example of what I am referring to please note this quote from Brother Lawrence, “I regard myself as the most wretched of all men, stinking and covered with sores, and as one who has committed all sorts of crimes against his king.”
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence, an Image Book published by Doubleday New York 1977 page 55
It is true that he quickly moves on to write very positively, “But this King, filled with goodness and mercy, far from chastising me, lovingly embraces me…..(and) gives me the key to his treasures and treats me as his favorite.”
Ibid page 55.
Still, to me the language and imagery in the first quote passes beyond the point of merely being unhelpful. Rather I think it is destructive. I hope that comments such as the first quote do not turn you off so much that you miss the rest of what is being presented. While it is easy for me to see why this might happen, I hope it does not.
What is so valuable about Brother Lawrence is the pure simplicity of his most positive comments and the level of dedication he brought to his practice of meditation which was not conducted in the kind of peace and quiet one often associates with monastic life. Rather his job in the monastery was in the kitchen which is a work environment as hectic and stressful as the work settings many of us modern people have to bear with as well.
This is not a monk or nun who had the luxury of long periods of silence and solitude free from worldly cares. Rather he had to find away to maintain his search for peace amidst the clamor of preparing 3 meals a day for a community. If you have ever needed to prepare meals for a dozen or more people 3 times a day for a few days let alone for many decades, you will know what I am referring to.
It is the fact he was able to attain such heights of spiritual insight and experience in the midst of a stressful job that is so relevant to those of us in our very busy day and age. For this is the challenge many of us face as well. How can we sustain a dedicated awareness of God in the midst of our busy days? Once the limited times of silence in meditation are over how can we maintain our practice during the morning commute let alone during the rest of the hours of work and family and civic responsibility?
I suggest you start with Brother Lawrence’s letters rather than the four conversations. It will only take a few pages of the letters to get a sense of the depths of his devotion and surrender to the God of his understanding. It will also only take a few pages to understand the benefits he gained by such a persistent and carefully cultivated practice of radical faith.
By the way I bought a copy of “The Practice of the Presence of God” for $7.95. It is an incredible bargain.
More next week
Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” host of Meditationpractice.com
will at meditation practice dot com (spelled out to limit spam)