Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Practice of the Presence of God (RR)

by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection

Started and Finished: 15 November 2007

"How can you read stuff like this?" asked my youngest daughter as she handed me the copy of Practice she'd found for me. I didn't reply. Nor did I bother reminding her she'd only just finished her own epic two year sojourn with the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. I knew she was only teasing me.

The Practice of the Presence of God is a book you have to be open to. Without the requisite receptivity, its pearls of wisdom would be wasted. But with the right frame of mind and heart, it is the perfect book.

Perfect in that while it can be read in one hour; mastery of its central concept requires a lifetime. Well, at least for this soul. And a very long lifetime at that. And I write that without the least trace of humility, remorse or even chagrin--as a simple statement of fact. Indeed, growth in virtue does require total commitment and extended preparation time.

Our humble author, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, assures us that his own journey along this path toward 'practicing the presence of God' took him many years as well. So, despair should not deter one's efforts.

I like that the word 'practice' is used in the title, and indeed throughout the book, because it recognizes the fallibility in human nature. We will have to creep, crawl, stumble and fall many times in this effort before we will ever be able to actually walk in God's presence. That is Brother Lawrence's goal -- and presumably the goal of any self-professed Christian: to actually walk hand-in-hand with Our LORD. In the meantime, He carries us.

Brother Lawrence and his solitary legacy bear much in common with Father De Caussade and his work, discussed in an earlier post.

Both men were post-Reformation, French religious, from rather obscure backgrounds, who left us one primary work of spiritual insight comprised of meditations and letters collected postmortem. Few hard facts can be substantiated about either man -- even such basic information as definitive dates of birth and death, although we do know approximate dates. Both were extremely humble men who -- given their own preference -- would have lived quiet lives far away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of society; but they were not given that chance. God had need of their services and so He called these two holy men out from their peaceful solitude to minister to their neighbors.

Brother Lawrence lived and worked most of his life at the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites on the rue de Vaugirard in Paris, where he spent many years working in the kitchen. He died in 1691 at around 80 years of age. A year later his Abbot collected what could be found from Brother Lawrence's letters, spiritual writings and recorded conversations, put them together and this comprises what we know today as The Practice of the Presence of God.

Unfortunately, upon publication, Practice became associated with the controversy of the day, the heresy then causing so much bitter debate, Quietism. Although it is beyond the scope of this article and the abilities of this writer to discuss the theological aspects of Quietism, it is important to understand that one tenet of this heresy bore a similarity to Brother Lawrence's principle theses, complete abandonment to the will of God, and therefore was used by advocates of the Quietist heresy to justify their position. As it would be some years before this struggle could be resolved, especially in France, Practice suffered the taint of guilt by association -- albeit a slim association at best -- and fell into disfavor in the country of its birth. Fortunately for us, our book was picked up by other Christian denominations and carried to other countries where it has spread around the world. Since its initial printing, Practice has been always been available in one form or another and now can even be found in many versions on-line.

The first section of the book consists of four dated conversations where Brother Lawrence describes what it is that led him to the realization that pursuing the 'Practice of the Presence of God' was the best way, indeed the only way, to follow Christ. These are not conversations as most Americans today would categorize conversations, but more like a Shakespearean soliloquy, with the little monk giving his thoughts on how he came to know that putting God first, last, and always, was the only way to live. And really that is Practice in a nutshell. I could stop writing here and you would have the book. Except that as simple as it is write -- or say -- such words, anyone who has really tried to live them knows, it is not that easy.

In the next section of the book, we are given sixteen of Brother Lawrence's letters--mostly written to a nun, but also one to a priest and several to a lay woman. All of these further elucidate how one is to advance along the path toward our ultimate goal, full and total communion with God. The book concludes with a group of Brother Lawrence's maxims.

What Brother Lawrence teaches through Practice is that no matter where we are, or what we are doing, we can and should be in God's presence at all times. But how to achieve this state, you may well ask? Although he answers this question in many different ways throughout the book, probably the most clear-cut answer lies here:

"Having found different methods of going to God and different practices to attain the spiritual life in several books, I decided that they would serve more to hinder than to facilitate me in what I was seeking--which was nothing other than a means to be wholly God's. This made me decide to give all to gain all; so after having given all to God in satisfaction for my sins, I began to live as if there were no one in the world but Him and me." (p73)

On the surface, such an approach sounds very simplistic, or even selfish. However, the same day I read those words of Brother Lawrence, I read almost the exact same idea expressed by another Carmelite from 200 years earlier. In describing the transforming union that a soul undergoes when it finally achieves oneness with God, St. John of the Cross writes, "And here lies the remarkable delight of this awakening: the soul knows creatures through God and not God through creatures." (p189, Fire Within, Thomas Dubay, S.M.)

Indeed the life of Brother Lawrence is testimony to his writings; his single-minded concern for God, far from leading him away from love of people, brought him closer to them. Only through a greater love of God, can we ever hope for a fuller love of all of His creation.

My first recorded acquaintance with Practice was May of 2004--at least according to the little bookmark card maintained inside the front cover of my ragged paperback copy. Recently I read and listened to the book again. I wish I could say that reading Practice was enough, or even writing about it. But they aren't. It takes much more than that. Nevertheless, I shall continue to do both, because I see great wisdom in this little book and at least reading it keeps the idea foremost in my mind.

'I must know, love and serve God in this world that I may gain the happiness of heaven.' (Baltimore Catechism)

But even more than that, to be happy in this life, Brother Lawrence tells us is only possible with God as our one and only purpose, end and goal.


"That all things are possible to him who believes, more so to him who hopes [still more to him who loves], and most of all to him who perseveres in the practice of these three virtues. That the end we ought to propose for ourselves in this life is to become the most perfect adorers of God we possibly can, as we hope to be His perfect adorers through all eternity."

~~Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection from "The Practice of the Presence of God"

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