The devotional life of Brother Lawrence

The influence of a seventeenth-century Carmelite lay brother who practiced the presence of Christ reaches down into our day.

Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is associate professor of theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

During my college years I wandered into a Presbyterian church, and in the foyer I spied something that has had a lasting impact upon my life. I saw there a literature rack, well stocked with pamphlets and booklets. The title of one caught my attention: Brother Lawrence: His Letters and Conversations on the Practice of the Presence of God. I did not know who Brother Lawrence was, but those words seemed to promise something I wanted.

I took the little booklet with me, and as I read it, many of its phrases and maxims sank into my mind and continued to linger there, even though later I nearly forgot about the book for many years. I read it again recently and found myself once more profoundly moved and deeply affected.

Who was Brother Lawrence? He was a young man named Nicholas Herman, born in Lorraine during one of the times when that territory belonged to France. He was a simple, unlearned peasant, who described himself as "a great awkward fellow who broke everything."

He was converted at the age of 18. "In the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the providence and power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul." He said "that this view had perfectly set him loose from the world, and kindled in him such a love for God that he could not tell whether it had increased during the more than forty years he had [since] lived."

In 1649, when he was middle-aged, he entered the monastery of the Barefoot Carmelites in Parts, as a lay brother. After his novitiate he was put to work in the kitchen as a cook and a washer of pots and pans; it was a line of work he naturally detested, but he welcomed it because he expected that the mortification of it would be good for his soul. But things turned out differently.

The Discalced, or Barefoot, Carmelites were a branch of the Carmelite order that followed a strict rule of abstinence from flesh food, absolute poverty, and much solitary meditation and prayer. Brother Lawrence "had desired to be received into a monastery, thinking that he would there be made to smart for his awkwardness and faults he should commit, and so he should sacrifice to God his life, with its pleasures; but God disappointed him, he having met with nothing but satisfaction in that state."

"In the beginning of his novitiate he spent the hours appointed for private prayer in thinking of God. . . . By this short and sure method he exercised himself in the knowledge and love of God, resolving to use his utmost endeavor to live in a continual sense of His presence, and, if possible, never to forget Him more. . . . When he had thus in prayer filled his mind with great sentiments of that Infinite Being, he went to his work appointed in the kitchen (for he was cook to the Society). There having first considered severally the things his office required, and when and how each thing was to be done, he spent all the intervals of his time, as well before as after his work, in prayer."

A man's religion can be better than his theology. In Brother Lawrence's case, he simply didn't have much theology; he had difficulty following theological discussions and was usually bored with them. So he concerned himself only with knowing God, not with knowing theology.

His order prescribed set times of prayer, and set prayers to be said. Brother Lawrence obediently observed the times, but he gave up on the specified prayers, for they seemed dead to him. He didn't get much benefit from the set times either, and declared that "he was more united to God in his ordinary occupations than when he left them for devotion in retirement, from which he knew himself to issue with much dryness of spirit." So he said, but of course we do not know what his life would have been like if he had not had regular times of special devotion.

He found no value in penances and mortifications, felt no need of spiritual directors, and believed that the only remedy for sin was simple faith in God's forgiveness by the blood of Jesus Christ. He declared: "Many do not advance in Christian progress because they stick in penances and particular exercise, while they neglect the love of God, which is the end." But it was not a question of human merit, for he said plainly: "The greater perfection a soul aspires after, the more dependent it is upon Divine Grace." Even his turning to God in prayer he acknowledged to be solely the work of God in him; his devotional practices, he said, "are to be imputed solely to the mercy and goodness of God, because we can do nothing without Him, and I still less than any. But when we are faithful to keep ourselves in His holy presence, and set Him always before us, this not only hinders our offending Him and doing anything that may displease Him, at least willfully, but it also begets in us a holy freedom, and, if I may so speak, a familiarity with God, wherewith we ask, and that successfully, the graces we stand in need of." In one of his letters he wrote: "God has many ways of drawing us to Himself. He sometimes hides Himself from us; but faith alone, which will not fail us in time of need, ought to be our support, and the foundation of our confidence, which must be all in God."

His devotional method, simply put, was this: "That we should establish in ourselves a sense of God's presence by continually conversing with Him." In other words, he put into actual practice Paul's maxim "Pray without ceasing"!

Brother Lawrence's experience had a visible effect, and others began to notice. One who knew him described it this way: "As Brother Lawrence had found such comfort and blessing in walking in the presence of God, it was natural for him to recommend it earnestly to others; but his example was a stronger inducement than any arguments he could propose. His very countenance was edifying; such a sweet and calm devotion appearing in it could not but affect all beholders. And it was observed that in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. The time of business,' he said, '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 never wrote a book. What I have quoted comes to us from two sources. The abbe M. de Beaufort, grand vicar of Cardinal de Noailles, archbishop of Paris, came to know of Brother Lawrence and sought to discover from him the secret of his joy. The old cook told the grand vicar that if it was his desire to serve God sincerely, he could come to visit as often as he pleased, without any fear of being troublesome; but if not, he ought no more to visit him. The grand vicar had several conversations with him, and was so impressed with the profound simplicity of what this dedicated man said that he wrote down afterward all that he could remember.

Brother Lawrence began to get a reputation for being a spiritual adviser, some thing for which he personally had not much use. He told the grand vicar that he "had no occasion to consult with anybody about his soul" and "that when he had attempted to do it, he had always come away more perplexed." Nevertheless, others wrote to him for spiritual counsel, and he answered their letters faithfully. We have a collection of these letters from the last decade of his life (he died in 1691, at about the age of 80). The year after his death the grand vicar published his conversations and letters in two little volumes, and it is a selection from these which have been translated into English and published in a booklet. No one knows how many times it has been reprinted, or in how many editions, but it has been a blessing to all kinds of people.

Like his contemporary John Bunyan, Brother Lawrence went through an anguished period early in his Christian experience during which he felt he was lost. This is the way he spoke of it in a letter:

"The apprehension that I was not devoted to God as I wished to be, my past sins always present to my mind, and the great unmerited favors which God be stowed on me, were the matter and source of my sufferings. During this time I fell often, yet as often rose again. It seemed to me that all creation, reason, and God Himself were against me, and faith alone for me. I was troubled sometimes with thoughts that to believe I had received such favors was an effect of my presumption, which pretended to be at once where others arrive only with difficulty; at other times, that it was a willful delusion, and that there was no salvation for me.

"When I thought of nothing but to end my days in these times of trouble and disquiet (which did not at all diminish the trust I had in God, and which served only to increase my faith), I found myself changed all at .once; and my soul, which till that time was in trouble, felt a profound inward peace, as if it had found its center and place of rest."

But I have not yet brought into focus that feature of Brother Lawrence's religion that causes us to thank God most for him: He practiced the presence of God by making every action of his daily work an act of worship. Everything he did in the kitchen or elsewhere, he did for the love of God. And he used to talk to God this way: "When he was about to undertake some thing, he said: 'Lord, I cannot do this unless Thou enables! me,' and he testifies that then he received strength more than sufficient. When he had failed in his duty, he simply confessed his fault, saying to God, 'I shall never do otherwise if Thou leavest me to myself; it is Thou who must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.' Then he gave himself no further uneasiness about it. 'If I fail not, then I give God thanks, acknowledging that the strength comes from Him.' "

Once he was sent to Burgundy to buy some provisions for the Society, a task that was very unwelcome to him; he had no expertise in business and was lame. But "he gave himself no uneasiness about it, nor about the purchasing. ... He said to God, 'It was His business he was about,'" and afterward he found it very well performed.

"Our sanctification," he said, "does not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God's sake which commonly we do for our own." "The most excellent method he had found of going to God was that of doing our common business with out any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of God." "We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed." "We can do little things for God. I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of Him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before Him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."

"As he proceeded in his work he continued his familiar conversation with His Maker, imploring His grace, and offering to Him all his actions." "Thus," said he, "by rising after my falls, and by frequently renewed acts of faith and love, I am come to state wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of God as it was at first to accustom myself to it."

But Brother Lawrence well understood human frailty and the difficulty of forming the habit of practicing the presence of God. In a letter he gave this gentle counsel: "He lays no great burden upon us: a little remembrance of Him from time to time; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sorrows, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the benefits He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles. He asks you to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him 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 think.

"To be with God, there is no need to be continually in church. We may make an oratory of our heart wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less. He knows what we can do. Let us begin, then.

"We cannot escape the dangers which abound in life without the actual and continual help of God. Let us, then, pray to Him for it continually. 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 unless by a holy habit of thought which we should form? . . . 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." Such was the gentle counsel Brother Lawrence sent to a weak soul. And so would he counsel us, knowing that most of us need only the courage to begin with God and the courage to keep on even when we fail, knowing that God forgives us and accepts us and accepts our poor offerings, and knowing that so sweet is that fellow ship that we will develop with God that, as in his own experience, our chief joy will be to hold continual converse with God and to do all that we do only for Him, renouncing with a single heart all that is not His.

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Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is associate professor of theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1981

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