Essay / On This Day

Lawrence of the Resurrection on Practicing the Presence

Today (February 12) is the day in 1691 that Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection died. He is remembered for the spiritual writings which have been published as The Practice of the Presence of God, and he is famous for describing how to commune intimately with God while working hard in the kitchen.

He was born in 1614 as Nicholas Herman in Hériménil, France, and after fighting in the Thirty Years’ War he joined a Carmelite monastery. His early years in the monastery seem to have been haunted by his sense of inadequacy. He wanted to be a perfect monk, totally giving himself to God. But rather predictably for a young man with such high standards, he fell into disappointment and despair: “The fear that I had not given myself to God as I desired, my sins always present before my eyes, and the great graces God gave me were the sum and substance of all my woes… It seemed to me that creatures, reason, and even God himself were against me, and that faith alone was on my side.” The particular form this despondency took, and the language he expressed it in, were characteristically Roman Catholic: He got an attack of religious scrupulosity. It’s a “young monk” thing that books on Catholic spirituality are full of tips about.

Then two remarkable things happened.

First, he got over it. He accepted the presence of God and learned how to live in consciousness of it moment by moment. Most people who write about this sort of thing offer techniques, usually techniques falling somewhere along a spectrum from mechanical through gimmicky to unsustainably emotional. But Lawrence didn’t have a method and doesn’t teach a technique. People who have learned from him call his way “the methodless method.” He just.. sort of… started recognizing that all his menial labor was carried out in the presence of God. He says “We must keep our eyes fixed on God in everything we say, do or undertake. Our goal is to be the most perfect adorers of God in this life as we hope to be throughout all eternity. We must make a firm resolution to overcome, with God’s grace, all the difficulties inherent in the spiritual life.” And if you ask how, he pretty much says, “Didn’t I just tell you?”

Second, his work became helpful and popular to a vast audience. François Fénelon might have been the first big name to help spread the word about him, but John Wesley kick-started Lawrence’s popularity among Protestants. And The Practice of the Presence of God has been popular ever since, a simple classic on the spiritual life. Some people have received an important spiritual stimulus just from hearing the title of the book. And to be honest, there isn’t much more in the little book than an imaginative and receptive heart could think of just from hearing the title. That’s not an insult; it’s a recognition of the utter simplicity of this stream of spirituality.

So go practice the presence of God. And do the dishes, already.

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