The Practice Of The Presence Of God
Friday Book Pick: The Practice of the Presence of God by Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection
The Church has never been tempted by what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” If you, like most of us moderns, are prone to a preference for all things new, today’s “book pick” might challenge your bias. Having been written, or rather compiled, in the 17th century, it is neither modern nor “original”—qualities highly esteemed by those with a bias toward the novel. Lewis applied the term chronological snobbery to people who hold that the thinking, writing, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present because of a bias that the people of the current time period have a superior intelligence than people of times past. If that were true, one would have to wonder why there has been no improvement upon the Pythagorean Theorem (proven around 530 BC), or why the famous equation of general relativity (E=MC²) is as valid today as it was in 1905 when Einstein published it, to name only two obvious examples of past brilliance unimproved upon. If being closer to the present day, month and year on a timeline made a thing “better” than what preceded it, then a modern saint would be superior to an ancient one. What of the Church Fathers? What of the Apostles? The new isn’t necessarily superior to the old. That said, now for the book.
The Practice of the Presence of God has seen many editions and many translations in the more than three centuries it has been in print. Both Catholics and Protestants recognize it as a spiritual classic. It contains the thought, the teaching, and the practical spirituality of Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection (1611-1691). Br. Lawrence, christened Nicholas Herman at baptism, joined the Carmelite Order in Paris after a long inner struggle to decide his life’s course. Before finally entering the monastery, he had tried a more reclusive life as a hermit (generally not advisable for beginners), and before that, he had tried his hand at being in the military and, therefore, was unable to avoid fighting in the brutal Thirty Year War. When Nicholas finally made it to the threshold of the monastery and submitted himself to the Gospel life therein, he found a way to be with God always. He found a means of constant contact no matter what work he was doing. In a way, Br. Lawrence’s method of maintaining closeness to God was a precursor to the “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also a Carmelite, which would come in another 200 years.
First, Br. Lawrence was a man of deep faith. Even before the monastery, he was a man in whom the Faith was alive. “What we need is to make our faith come alive,” says Br. Lawrence. “It is a thing worthy of pity to have so little faith, and instead of taking faith for our rule and conduct, to amuse ourselves with little devotions that change every day. Making ourselves come alive is the very spirit of the Church and is sufficient to bring us to a high degree of perfection.” His faith was the rich soil from which the spirituality of practicing the presence of God grew.
His method of prayer—if you can call it that—is not complicated; in fact, it is quite simple (simple is not the same as easy, remember). Assigned to the kitchen for three decades, he lived much of his religious life amid the pots and pans. For a soldier who had no special predilection to the culinary arts, this could have been a significant disappointment and a source of inner struggle; and very likely it was, at least at the beginning. But Br. Lawrence did not allow his environment and his circumstances to prevent him from becoming a contemplative. He developed the habit of continuous conversation with God by practice. To converse familiarly with God in a habitual way, one must first of all believe that God is near, that He is close. And one must desire to commune with Him and be willing to work at it. “At the beginning, we must somewhat apply ourselves to forming the inner habit of conversing continually with God and ascribing to Him all that we do. But after being careful to do this for a short time, we feel ourselves awakened by His love without any difficulty.” Br. Lawrence seems to have been “awakened by His love,” and this allowed him to accept his kitchen assignment, preparing every meal and washing every pot, for love of God. And working thus, he developed a tranquil spirit like the “weaned child” of Psalm 131. Furthermore, he became a highly sought-after mentor in the spiritual life.
Half the book is comprised of letters written to people (mostly Mother Superiors) who wanted to know his secret to sanctity. In charity, Br. Lawrence wrote letters explaining in simple terms what he had habitually been doing: calling to mind the presence of God, conversing with Him in a familiar way—naturally and honestly, bringing God into the mundane, the difficult, the times of dryness, and the disappoints and failures of life…. Whatever the circumstances of the moment—it mattered not at all; because they became an occasion to seek God and to adore Him, using words in the beginning, and later, when words were no longer needed, by the interior posture of concentrated receptivity. “The holiest, most universal and most necessary practice in the spiritual life is the presence of God.” Br. Lawrence declares. This “way” of his is described, along with its effects, in simple terms by way of the letters and notes that comprise this little treasure of a book, which was compiled after his death. Being aware of God, and being with Him in one’s innermost self is the heart of the teaching of Br. Lawrence. This book has been a guide for centuries; it is old; but the truths within it have the potential to open up a new life within every person who ventures to practice the presence of God. Mother Clare, CFR