During the Fall 2018 sessions of Adult Faith Formation the group read and discussed Brother Lawrence’s book, “The Practice of the Presence of God”, one of the classic texts of western spirituality. Fr. Alan’s chapter-by-chapter commentary is posted below.
“The Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence – Fall 2018
Session One: The Practice of the Presence of God, Part 4 – October 21, 2018
Nicholas Herman was born around the year 1614 to a peasant family in Lorraine, a region in eastern modern-day France. He fought in the Thirty Years War, but had to retire from military service due to an injury. Eventually, he entered the Discalced Carmelite Priory in Paris, where he took the religious name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
As a layman in the Priory, he performed manual labor and other utilitarian duties. He was renown during his lifetime for his piety and demeanor. His writings were published after his death in 1691.
During the years immediately following his conversion experience, he struggled with doubts about the possibility of forgiveness for his sins. Eventually, he was freed from “difficulties with the devil and the world” and “acquired a prudent firmness which gave him a strong determination to follow God”. (p. 76)
Speaking about his path to encountering God, Brother Lawrence said, “People seek methods of learning to love God. . . Is it not much shorter and more direct to do everything for the love of God, to make use of all the labors of one’s state in life to show Him that love, and to maintain His presence within us by this communion of our hearts with His?” (p. 80)
This semester’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God is the collection of Brother Lawrence’s wisdom about living in God’s presence at all times. The book and its contents are very simple but very profound; from the time of its publication, it has been considered one of the classic texts of western spirituality.
We began by reading Part Four, the end of the book. This was done in order to put Brother Lawrence and his ideas in their proper historical perspective. He lived in the century following Ignatius of Loyola and came from a socio-economic background that was very different from Ignatius’. Coincidentally, both men were soldiers and both had conversion experiences after forced inactivity following battle injuries. There are some significant differences between the thought of Ignatius and that of Brother Lawrence, but there are also some points of convergence. In both the writings of Ignatius and the spirituality of Brother Lawrence, humility in one’s relationship with God is of the utmost importance.
In order to bridge some of the cultural divide between Brother Lawrence’s life in the seventeenth century and the twenty-first century, in which we live, I will add a few comments each week from Poverty of Spirit by Johannes Baptist Metz.
Johannes Baptist Metz was a student of the late twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner. He used Rahner’s Heideggerian critique of neo-scholasticism to produce a pragmatic theology that emphasized the need to cultivate compassion for others, especially for the suffering.
In the Foreword to Poverty of Spirit, Metz wrote that “becoming a human being involves more than conception and birth. It is a mandate and a mission, a command and a decision. We each have an open-ended relationship with ourselves.” (p. 3) This statement is equally applicable to the life of faith. Being a Catholic requires much more than merely being baptized; neither is it the case that Baptism automatically leads to faith. The new life offered by Baptism is open-ended in that it requires conscious effort in order to fulfill one’s Baptismal vows and there is always the possibility of failure.
According to Metz, human freedom is the lifelong project of accepting and approving the particular, historical, finite life that is entrusted to each of us. This project necessarily involves the possibility of sin, that is, of rejecting the reality of one’s life. (p. 4) For this reason, there is a type of self-love that is required in order to live the Christian Faith. Metz said, “Our self-acceptance is the basis of the Christian Creed. Assent to God starts in our sincere assent to ourselves, just as sinful flight from God starts in our flight from ourselves.” (p. 5)
The pre-requisite for the love of God described by Brother Lawrence is the acceptance of oneself as a merely a creature, prone to the limitations imposed by existence in a finite universe.
Session Two: The Practice of the Presence of God, Part 1, Conversations 1 & 2, – October 28, 2018
Today’s reading consists of notes written by Brother Lawrence’s biographer following two visits to the Priory.
Again, we see some points of similarity between Brother Lawrence’s teaching and the thought of Ignatius of Loyola. Brother Lawrence counsels that one should remain constant during periods of dry prayer. “We should take advantage of those times (dry periods), to practice our determination and our surrender to him.” (p. 11)
His biographer wrote that, “Brother Lawrence wasn’t surprised by the amount of sin and unhappiness in the world. Rather, he wondered why there wasn’t more, considering the extremes to which the enemy is capable of going.” (p. 12) Brother Lawrence was also sensitive to sin in his own life. “That is my nature,” he would say, “the only thing I know how to do.” (p. 15) Brother Lawrence pointed out, however, that to obsess about one’s sinfulness was counter-productive for the life of faith. He said that “we should reject any thoughts that distract us from serving the Lord or that undermine our salvation.” (p. 16)
This attitude stands in sharp contrast to more common opinions of the time. Martin Luther considered human nature to be beyond hope of reform. For Luther, human sin was an insurmountable obstacle and a cause for constant worry.
Catholic theology at the time was no less pessimistic about human nature than Luther. Luther proposed “grasping the alien grace of Christ” as the only means to salvation. By contrast, Catholic theology proposed a lifetime’s worth of penance, indulgences, and atonements for one’s sins. Essentially, the only difference between the Catholic and Lutheran positions was the length of time required in order to secure one’s salvation.
Brother Lawrence’s opinion was much more faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures and the Creeds. His biographer wrote that, “Brother Lawrence said that he was always guided by love. He was never influenced by any other interest, including whether or not he was saved. He was content doing the smallest chore it he could do it purely for the love of God.” (p. 13)
The first chapter of Poverty of Spirit by Johannes Metz offers a helpful perspective on this first section of The Practice of the Presence of God. Metz says that in the Incarnation, God accepted fully the poverty of spirit that is the human condition. He wrote, “The cross is the sacrament of poverty of spirit, the sacrament of authentic humanness in a sinful world. It is the sign that one human being remained true to his own humanity, that he accepted it in full obedience.” (p. 14)
Brother Lawrence’s admission the unavoidable nature of sin (“That is my nature, the only thing I know how to do.” p. 15), was not an act of pessimism or resignation. His acceptance of the human condition was an act of faith in God; he trusted fully that God would grant the forgiveness that human nature needed.
Session Three: The Practice of the Presence of God, Part 1, Conversations 3 & 4 – November 4, 2018
Conversations Three and Four are a continuation of the notes written by Brother Lawrence’s biographer following visits with the Brother at the Priory. The biographer continues with the previous theme of loving God in all things.
He wrote that Brother Lawrence “confided to me that the foundation of this spiritual life was the faith that revealed to him the exalted position of God.” (p. 18) This theme runs throughout the Scriptures. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with various iterations of the command to give God the praise that is due to God. Exodus says, “My strength and my refuge is the Lord, and he has become my savior. This is my God, I praise him; the God of my father, I extol him.” (Ex. 15:2) In the Psalms, we find prayers such as, “Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to my God while I live.” (Psa. 146:1-2) This central aspect of Jewish belief informed Jesus’s preaching and his personal faith. At one point, he prayed, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” (Mt. 11:25)
The Scriptural injunction to give God the praise that is due to God provides another illustration of the inadequacy of Reformation and Counter-Reformation spirituality. The Reformers and the Catholic reaction against them portrayed God as to be feared, appeased, and probably, distrusted. The Scriptures and Brother Lawrence portray God as welcoming, trustworthy, and solicitous toward believers. The great failing of recent Catholic spirituality is that it promotes a false image of God.
Brother Lawrence said that, “some people go only as far as their regular devotions, stopping there and neglecting love, which is the purpose of those devotions.” (p. 20) Religion, when reduced to being nothing more than a set of devotional practices, is false religion. “He said that our sanctification does not depend as much on changing our activities as it does on doing them for God rather than for ourselves.” (p. 23) Brother Lawrence’s biographer wrote that after this experience of God “became secure in the depths of his heart, he was easily able to do all his actions for the love of God.” (p. 18)
Session Four: The Practice of the Presence of God, Part 2, Letters – November 11, 2018
Part 2 is a collection of letters written by Brother Lawrence and addressed to various individuals. In the letters, Brother Lawrence provides instruction about the practice of God’s presence and how to accomplish it in one’s life.
There are two common complaints about prayer: that it is too difficult to practice because of the many distractions in life and that it is often interrupted by such distractions. Brother Lawrence’s advice about these two complaints is simple. About the first complaint, he wrote, “It isn’t necessary that we stay in church in order to remain in God’s presence. We can make our hearts personal chapels where we can enter anytime to talk to God privately.” (p. 36) About the second, he wrote, “Another way to prevent the mind from wandering away from God during prayer is to train yourself to dwell in His presence all day long.” (pp. 46-47)
Distractions in prayer are normal and to be expected. Praying successfully, then, requires that one find an effective strategy for dealing with the inevitable distractions. Brother Lawrence’s advice about dealing with distractions is very similar to the instruction given in The Cloud of Unknowing that one should lift up one’s heart to God in humble love. While distractions in prayer are unavoidable, they can be tamed somewhat by developing the habit of turning constantly back to God.
Brother Lawrence gives some very practical and very compassionate advice about the effort required to create the habit of living in God’s presence. He wrote, “This does not mean that you have to suffer in this endeavor. No, God must be served with holy freedom.” (p. 35) Johannes Metz also addresses the issue of human freedom and its interaction with God. He wrote that, “In drawing us to the Divine self, God sets us free.” (Poverty of Spirit, 20) Reformation and Counter-Reformation spirituality portrayed the spiritual life and obedience to God as something essentially foreign to the human spirit. Brother Lawrence was very convinced that perpetual communion with God in one’s thoughts and intentions was a natural activity that anyone could master. Rather than being an activity in which we struggle against our nature, the life of faith is the activity that strengthens and completes our nature.
Session Five: The Practice of the Presence of God, Part 3 – November 18, 2018
At this point in the book, Brother Lawrence has repeated the same message in about as many different ways as are possible. This third part of the book consists of some repetition of earlier statements and some previously unwritten ideas. There are a few of these that I’d like to address.
Brother Lawrence wrote, “First of all we need to be considerate of God.” (p. 58) By this statement, he means that we must constantly remind ourselves to attend to God’s presence in our lives. I would add one further clarification here. It matters how we give our attention to God’s presence. Constant begging of favors from God is less than considerate; God is to be worshiped primarily through our praise rather than our petitions.
On page 60 of the book, he wrote, “We must do everything with great care, avoiding impetuous actions, which are evidence of a disordered spirit.” I think this provides a helpful perspective on the issue of practicing the awareness of God’s presence throughout the day. Daily responsibilities can distract from the attention given to God unless one takes Brother Lawrence’s advice to “do everything with great care.”
The section titled, “How to Adore God” speaks about the necessity of practicing the awareness of God’s presence until it becomes a habit. As with any skill, prayer will only be easy when it has been practiced for a sufficient amount of time to become habitual behavior.