He name is reasonably familiar – to people who know it. But, for many Brother Lawrence is an obscure figure.
Not much is known about him. Still, what we do know is of such value to faith seekers that there’s a part of me that wants to dedicate this whole blog to him and his teachings.
Figuring out how to honor his teachings will be left for another day. Today, I want simply to introduce him to you and reflect on what is, in my mind, his overarching lesson.
Born Nicholas Herman
Born in 1611 as Nicholas Herman in the northeastern corner of France’s Lorraine region, Brother Lawrence grew up in poverty during the height of the Protestant Reformation, just ahead of Europe’s devastating Thirty Year’s War, which was spurred by the religious and political tensions of the time.
This description from Wikipedia provides a good quick impression of Brother Lawrence:
“Despite his lowly position in life and the priory, his character attracted many to him. He had a reputation for experiencing profound peace and visitors came to seek spiritual guidance from him. The wisdom he passed on to them, in conversations and in letters, would later become the basis for the book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Father Joseph de Beaufort, later vicar general to the Archbishop of Paris, compiled this work after Brother Lawrence died. It became popular among Catholics and Protestants alike…”
I first heard about Brother Lawrence nearly 30 years ago in a sermon given by a minister in the Unity Church of Christ. He told the story of Brother Lawrence’s time working in the lowly tedium of a priory kitchen.
Haven’t we all experienced as tedium, tasks like fixing meals, cleaning dishes, running errands, washing laundry. They can all seem so trivial. Something to be ‘gotten through.’ Why on earth, we might wonder, would we consider them worthy of God’s time or attention?
All things with God, all things for God
And yet, for Brother Lawrence all tasks, even the most menial stoop to pick up a piece of straw from the ground, offered an occasion to serve God.
Doing everything throughout the day – household chores, business responsibilities, relationship tending – for the love of God was Brother Lawrence’s singular objective in life.
Father de Beaufort describes how Brother Lawrence approached his work in their second “conversation: ”
“in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of GOD, and with prayer, upon all occasions, for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy, during the fifteen years that he had been employed there…”
And in their fourth conversation:
“…the most excellent method he had found of going to GOD, was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of GOD.”
He goes on to quote Brother Lawrence:
“The time of business,” said [Brother Lawrence], “does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter 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.”
Some time after I heard about Brother Lawrence, I finally acted to buy a copy of The Practice of the Presence. It quietly sat on my bookshelf for years gathering dust and eventually became part of the great purge that I discuss here.
It wasn’t until recently, when I was again reminded of him and the attitude he brought to his life, that my heart was finally fully captured by his lessons. (Procrastination? Or God’s grace in the fullness of His time?)
How simple is too simple?
These practices – his practices – are so simple that they are easily shunted aside, overlooked, disregarded as too simple, possibly, or too trivial to be effective. And so, we go about our day over-complicating our search for God.
God’s not just there with us when we pray and call upon Him. He’s with us each minute waiting for us to acknowledge Him and invite Him into our experience.
He’s here right now, as I write this text. He’ll be with me in a minute or two when I get up to make another cup of tea. He was with me earlier when I put in a load of laundry.
When I keep my mind trained on His presence with me as I perform all of my tasks throughout the day, I immediately feel the joy that Brother Lawrence describes, knowing that God — my partner in all things — is with me waiting for me to notice His presence, to experience His loving embrace.
Fr. James Martin SJ, in his excellent book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, discusses the Jesuit form of prayer in which one imagines being part of the stories in the Bible.
Imagining God sitting next to me as I write, or in the car as I run errands, allows me to feel His presence. And once felt, to be washed clean in the glow of His light, able to bring a more loving heart and a more receptive spirit as I go about my day.