83F38372-0179-482C-9A6D-F38DC4B03336The monk at prayer’ (detail) – Edouard Manet, 1865 – WikiArt

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A little lifting up of the heart suffices.
A little remembrance of GOD, 
one act of inward worship
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~ Brother Lawrence

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From the remote time of the seventeenth century in Paris has come a voice whose freshness and intimacy struck a chord in many a spiritual seeker throughout the generations. The man behind it was a lay brother working in the kitchen of a Carmelite monastery in the French capital. He was born Nicolas Herman in 1614 in the region of Lorraine, but took the religious name of Lawrence of the Resurrection. What a miracle that the writing of this simple lay brother found its way down to us. But although a remarkable journey, it is understandable that it did so. For the words of this humble, hardworking man, all occupied to his cooking activities, show a mountain of dedication to God. His simplicity and softness, combined to an undefeatable and spontaneously joyful practice, is a deeply valuable gift passed down to us.

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Sometimes I consider myself there as a stone before a carver, whereof he is to make a statue; presenting myself thus before GOD, I desire Him to form His perfect image in my soul, and make me entirely like Himself. 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.”
~ Brother Lawrence (Second Letter)

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Nicolas Herman grew up in a poor peasants’ family and joined the army as a young man. He fought during the Thirty Years War, was taken prisoner, and ended up being lame as a result of serious injuries. Deeply affected by his painful experience, he took refuge first as a footman, and then sought the peace of a hermit’s life, but to no avail. Touched by a profound spiritual experience in his teens, he decided to enter in the Carmelites Order when he was twenty-six, and never looked back. Brother Lawrence spent the rest of his life in this Parisian community. His quiet and friendly presence was soon noticed, as was his unabated dedication to god. Some of his letters and conversations were later compiled by the cleric Father de Beaufort, and formed the now famous book called ’The Practice of the Presence of God’. Father de Beaufort recalls: “Lawrence was open, eliciting confidence, letting you feel you could tell him anything… Once you got past the rough exterior you discovered unusual wisdom, a freedom beyond the reach of the ordinary lay brother“.

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The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
~ Brother Lawrence (Fourth Conversation)

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The practice that Brother Lawrence favoured all his life was of a dumbfounding clarity. God is a presence that can be accessed by repeatedly going to, and abiding as, the simple awareness of our being, before the appearance of every objective and fleeting experience that one may have. We are not our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, but the very quality of presence that is aware of all of these. To recall and feel in ourself this simple reality is at the core of this practice. “I renounced, for the love of Him, everything that was not He” does he write in his First Letter, to which he adds in the Third Letter: “Nothing is easier than to repeat often in the day these little internal adorations.” God is not remote from us. Consciousness in its purest form is the close and intimate presence that lies at and as the very core of our being. Brother Lawrence repeated: 

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He is within us: seek Him not elsewhere.” 
~ Brother Lawrence (Fifteenth Letter)

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Towards the end of his life, Brother Lawrence took on the job of repairing sandals. His reputation grew. His quiet and loving presence continued to draw towards him many people who were looking for guidance. In the Fourteenth Letter, he advised: “Knock, persevere in knocking, and I answer for it that He will open to you in His due time.” As for his simple and yet luminous practice, he was very clear and asserted in one of his Letters: 

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Were I a preacher, I should, above all other things, preach the practice of the presence of GOD; and, were I a director, I should advise all the world to do it, so necessary do I think it, and so easy too.”
~ Brother Lawrence (Fifth Letter)

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Although forgotten in France, the writings of Brother Lawrence found a better echo amongst the Protestant world and beyond, where his gentle practice and message spread and found countless ears. His writing is filled with a loveliness and utter simplicity that touched the hearts of many a spiritual seeker. He makes sure that we feel in our hearts that “There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with GOD.” Alternately, with words full of poetical images, he describes his inner experience and practice, gently shows the way, imparts some subtleties of the path, or asserts an inescapable truth. 

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My most useful method is this simple attention, and such a general passionate regard to GOD; to whom I find myself often attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at the mother’s breast.”
~ Brother Lawrence (Second Letter)

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Lawrence died in 1691 in the monastery where he worked and found the presence of God in his heart. I am presenting here some excerpts chosen in the sixteen Letters contained in his book ’The Practice of the Presence of God the Best Rule of a Holy Life’, a text that is shared under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License. As Brother Lawrence himself wrote in the Fourth Letter: “Let us profit by the example and the sentiments of this brother, who is little known of the world, but known of GOD, and extremely caressed by Him.”

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(First Letter)

I renounced, for the love of Him, everything that was not He; and I began to live as if there was none but He and I in the world.”

I worshipped Him the oftenest that I could, keeping my mind in His holy Presence, and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him.”

By often repeating these acts, they become habitual, and the presence of GOD rendered as it were natural to us.”

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(Second Letter)

The King, full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastising me, embraces me with love, makes me eat at His table, serves me with His own hands, gives me the key of His treasures; He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a thousand and a thousand ways, and treats me in all respects as His favorite. It is thus I consider myself from time to time in His holy presence.”

As for what passes in me at present, I cannot express it. I have no pain or difficulty about my state, because I have no will but that of GOD, which I endeavor to accomplish in all things, and to which I am so resigned that I would not take up a straw from the ground against His order, or from any other motive than purely that of love to Him.”

While [the soul] is in this repose, she cannot be disturbed by such acts as she was formerly accustomed to, and which were then her support, but which would now rather hinder than assist her.”

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.”

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(Fourth Letter)

We are to be pitied who content ourselves with so little. GOD, saith he, has infinite treasure to bestow, and we take up with a little sensible devotion, which passes in a moment. Blind as we are, we hinder GOD, and stop the current of His graces. But when He finds a soul penetrated with a lively faith, He pours into it His graces and favors plentifully: there they flow like a torrent, which, after being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.”

Yes, we often stop this torrent by the little value we set upon it. But let us stop it no more; let us enter into ourselves and break down the bank which hinders it. Let us make way for grace; let us redeem the lost time, for perhaps we have but little left. Death follows us close.”

We must, nevertheless, always work at it, because not to advance in the spiritual life is to go back. But those who have the gale of the HOLY SPIRIT go forward even in sleep. If the vessel of our soul is still tossed with winds and storms, let us awake the LORD, who reposes in it, and He will quickly calm the sea.”

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(Fifth Letter)

There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with GOD. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because GOD would have us.”

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(Sixth Letter)

I keep myself retired with Him in the fund or centre of my soul as much as I can; and while I am so with Him I fear nothing, but the least turning from Him is insupportable.”

I do not say that therefore we must put any violent constraint upon ourselves. No, we must serve GOD in a holy freedom; we must do our business faithfully; without trouble or disquiet, recalling our mind to GOD mildly, and with tranquility, as often as we find it wandering from Him.”

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(Seventh Letter)

He requires no great matters of us; a little remembrance of Him from time to time; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favors He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can.”

Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company: the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of.”

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(Eighth Letter)

Hold yourself in prayer before GOD, like a dumb or paralytic beggar at a rich man’s gate. Let it be your business to keep your mind in the presence of the LORD. If it sometimes wander and withdraw itself from Him, do not much disquiet yourself for that: trouble and disquiet serve rather to distract the mind than to re-collect it: the will must bring it back in tranquility.

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(Ninth Letter)

Let us repair the lost time: let us return with a full assurance to that FATHER of mercies, who is always ready to receive us affectionately. Let us renounce, let us generously renounce, for the love of Him, all that is not Himself.”

Let us think of Him perpetually. Let us put all our trust in Him. I doubt not but we shall soon find the effects of it in receiving the abundance of His grace, with which we can do all things, and without which we can do nothing but sin.”

How can we pray to Him without being with Him? How can we be with Him but in thinking of Him often? And how can we often think of Him, but by a holy habit which we should form of it? You will tell me that I am always saying the same thing. It is true, for this is the best and easiest method I know; and as I use no other, I advise all the world to do it. We must know before we can love. In order to know GOD, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure. This is an argument which well deserves your consideration.”

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(Tenth Letter)

Pray remember what I have recommended to you, which is, to think often on GOD, by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you: leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you: why then must GOD be neglected? Do not then forget Him, but think on Him often, adore Him continually, live and die with Him.”

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(Fourteenth Letter)

However great the sufferings may be, receive them with love. It is paradise to suffer and be with Him; so that if in this life we would enjoy the peace of paradise we must accustom ourselves to a familiar, humble, affectionate conversation with Him. We must hinder our spirits wandering from Him upon any occasion. We must make our heart a spiritual temple, wherein to adore Him incessantly.”

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(Fifteenth Letter)

Let all our employment be to know GOD: the more one knows Him, the more one desires to know Him. And as knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and more extensive our knowledge shall be, the greater will be our love: and if our love of GOD were great, we should love Him equally in pains and pleasures.

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Excerpts by Brother Lawrence (1614-1691)

Painting by Édouard Manet (1832-1883)

Accompanying text and photo by Alain Joly

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Bibliography:
– ‘The Practice of the Presence of God the Best Rule of a Holy Life” – by Brother of the Resurrection Lawrence (Nicholas Herman) – (Project Gutenberg)
– ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ – by Brother Lawrence (Trans. by Ryan Moore and Josh Jeter) – (Riven Press Classics)
– ‘Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master’ – (by Anamchara Books, a Division of Harding House Publishing Service, Inc.)

Websites:
Brother Lawrence (Wikipedia)
The Practice of the Presence of God (Wikipedia)
Édouard Manet (Wikipedia)

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4 thoughts on “The Practice of the Presence of God

  1. What a delightful synchronistic event this morning. I receive daily e-mails from Richard Rohr, and his topic was also Brother Lawrence…the first I have heard of him. I will certainly look into him further. Thank you for this.

    Like

  2. What a saintly person brother John was!He found the lord and felt His presence even in cooking and cobbler’s job.There is no hierarchy in one’s vocation..One’s attitude and inner purity takes you to His abode.
    Thank you Alan and it is always elevating to read your posts.

    Like

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