Brother Lawrence & The Practice of the presence of God
I Thess. 5:17, Phil 4:4-7, Eph 6:18-20
As a young Christian in my 20’s I was introduced early to various Christian biographies. I read the stories of people like “Praying Hyde” and “David Brainerd” and “George Mueller” and I read all the books written by E.M. Bounds who shared with his readers the stories of those who spent hours upon their knees, devoted entire nights in prayer, and fasted and prayed 40 days & 40 nights. They were called Prayer Warriors, and I wanted to be like them.
Never happened! I struggled for years trying to pray well, so usually began my prayers apologizing to God for my poor prayer life, if it could be called that! I felt more guilty about my praying than anything else in my life. Oh I prayed every day, but rarely sustaining it very long before distractions took over. I became one of those despised “minute men” who could pray for a minute or two, but not for an hour. So I joined the thousands of the guilt ridden followers of our Lord. It was the counsel of a man called Brother Lawrence who has helped me more than any to pray. Can I tell you his story?
For 300 years he has been called Brother Lawrence. His real name was Nicholas Herman. He was born in 1611 into a peasant family. He was uneducated and untrained to any profession. He was part of the large servant class of his day.
When he was 18 years of age he had an unusual experience of the grace of God. On a midwinter’s day, he saw a dry and leafless tree standing gaunt against the snow, waiting for the arriving of new life in the spring. The poignancy of that sight struck Nicolas to the heart. That tree was him; a dry and leafless twig. But he also sensed, with the coming of spring that tree would bloom into life, which served as a promise of a new beginning for him too. The leafless tree brought him to penitence and faith as he yielded his life to God.
For the next 30 years he served as a soldier and then as a footman in a wealthy home in French Lorraine. But Nicholas was a large awkward fellow, clumsy and ungainly. He was accident-prone. Things did not improve with age. At 50 years of age he felt so bad about himself, he decided to enter a monastery. He said, “in order to be punished for my clumsiness.” He presumed that he was committing himself to prison for his crimes. He was about to be surprised.
For as he entering the monastery he says that God disappointed him, for it was not like prison, for he found great satisfaction there and not penal servitude and severity. God did not punish him for his sins, but as Nicolas writes:
“The King, full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastising me, embraces me with love, makes me eat at His table, serves me with His own hands, gives me the key of His treasures; He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a thousand and a thousand ways, and treats me in all respects as though I were His favorite.”
In the monastery a new life began for him. He was given a new name, “Brother Lawrence”, and for the rest of his life and for the rest of human history, that would be the name by which he would be known.
While in the monastery his major tasks were performed in the kitchen, washing pots and pans and dishes. That was his task for his first 15 years there. Those years were a rotation of prayers and pots and pans. He called himself “the servant to the servants of God.” Listen to his reflections on the first decade of his life inside the monastery.
I must tell you that for the first 10 years I suffered much. The anxiety that I was not devoted to God as I wished to be, my past sins always present to my mind, and the great unmerited favors which God did me, were the matter and source of my sufferings.
He goes on a few lines later:
When I thought of nothing but that I would continue all my days in these troubles … I found myself changed all at once; and my soul, which ’til that time was in trouble, felt a profound inward peace, as if she were in her center and place of rest.
Ever since that time I have walked before God, simply, in faith, with humility and with love, and I apply myself diligently to do nothing and think nothing which may displease Him. I hope that when I have done what I can, He will do with me what He pleases.
He writes in the same letter these words: “In short, I am assured beyond all doubt that my soul has been with God for more than thirty years.”
What was the thing that changed him from being a guilt ridden Christian to a liberated lover of God? He had discovered a way to “the practice of the presence of God.” Brother Lawrence had found the secret of holding himself in the presence of God; not only when in the chapel, but in the scullery among the greasy dishes and in the clatter of the kitchen. He found himself close to God in the seven official times of prayer each day, but also in the in-between times he sensed the nearness of God. Whenever he found that his mind had strayed from that awareness, he didn’t berate himself, but thanked God for waiting for him, and resumed his conversation with God.
He says to his vicar on one occasion:
“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter 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.”
His conviction was that anyone could live life with the awareness of the presence of God throughout each day.
Brother Lawrence’s quiet joy began to affect the other members of the monastic community. The tranquility of his life in the middle of the hectic flurry of his busy days serving them, was a mystery to them. They came to him for counsel on how to cope with life. Soon he is being visited by local clergy who find in Brother Lawrence such peace that they want to know the secret for themselves. Then bishops and church dignitaries come to visit him, and listened to the simple and simplifying advice. It is always the same: “Just practice the presence of God!”
His vicar Monsignor Beaufort asked Brother Lawrence to meet with him and tell him how this practice had come to him. And in 4 conversations and an exchange of 15 brief letters Brother Lawrence, never dreaming or desiring that they would become public, told his vicar the story of his journey. After his death, having lived for 80 years, the Bishop decided to publish his recollection of the conversations and letters he had received so that the whole church could benefit from the wise counsel of a simple brother. For more than 300 years the church both Catholic and Protestant has been blessed with some of the best advice outside of the scriptures.
These thoughts are all collected in a book called The Practice of The Presence of God. It is one of the shortest of books to read, but one with insight that can be momentous.
But objections come to mind immediately. Fine for him. He lived in a simpler time, he lived in a monastery. His work didn’t demand the energy and concentration that our work does. He didn’t have family matters needing his attention. He didn’t have production quotas to meet. What he managed to do is not possible for us.
Perhaps so. But he was not as naive as we are prone to think. His little book is called “The Practice of the Presence…” A pianist is only proficient at the art of playing after considerable practice. Was it Rubenstein who talked about that need in his life every day? “If I fail to practice one day, I know it. If I fail to practice two days, my critics know it, if I fail to practice three days, my audience knows it.”
If that is true of piano playing, Brother Lawrence was sure that it was just as true in praying. The art of prayer is learned in the day-by-day attempts. It can be practiced so that it becomes more and more a part of life. It can become a holy habit which could replace the unholy ones!
But how do we do it in the busy-ness of our days? Let me tell you the story of Mary.
The story of Mary reads this way. Her last name is unknown. She was the housekeeper of a fairly significant clergyman. One day there was a meeting of local ministers at the parsonage. They were involved in a heated debate on the text in I Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing“. After a long and rather warm discussion they decided to have one of them write a paper on the issue and present it at their next meeting.
It was then that Mary intruded. She had been overhearing the debate and the conclusion. “Why, that is one of the easiest verses in the Bible” she exclaimed.
With some condescension her employer asked, “Well Mary, can you pray all the time?”
“Oh yes,” came the quick response.
“But Mary, you are far too busy to do that.”
“Oh but sir, the more I have to do, the more I can pray.”
That paradox immediately piqued the interest of all of them. “Tell us how you do it.”
Then came the remarkable answer.
- “Well sir, when I first open my eyes in the morning, I pray, ‘Lord, open the eyes of my understanding’;
- and while I am dressing, I pray that I might be clothed with a robe of righteousness;
- while I am washing, I ask to have my sins washed away,
- As I begin work, I pray that I may have the strength for all the work of the day;
- while I light the fire, I pray that new life may be kindled in me.
- While preparing and eating breakfast, I ask to be fed with the bread of life and the pure milk of the word.
- As I sweep the house I pray that my heart may be swept clean of all its impurities.
- And as I am busy with the little children, I look up to God as my father, and pray that I may be childlike, and so on throughout each day.
- Everything I do gives me a reason to pray.”
“The more I have to do, the more I get to pray.” That was the discovery of Brother Lawrence
John Wesley’s Story
But the story of John Wesley is also instructive. We know more about John Wesley than any other person in history. He lived a very public life so that he was well known to British society. He kept a journal of the years of his ministry, which he published from time to time. But he also kept a set of diaries which he wrote in a self-created code. For 200 years those diaries could not be read. But at the turn of this past century by dint of hard work and guesses the diaries were decoded and became understandable. The things that Methodical Wesley had not intended anyone to read, were finally deciphered and we got to look at the man behind the image.
There have been few persons as productive as Wesley. He preached 40,000 sermons, produced over 600 books, rode over a quarter of a million miles on horseback, and helped launch one of the greatest beneficent revolutions the world has ever seen. He found the strength to work 18 hours a day without fatigue or burn-out.
Wherein lie the secret of his strength? The diaries tell us not only that Wesley was a man of action, but they tell of a man of prayer and deep devotion. Wesley measured out his days in 15 minute intervals. He was a Methodist in a thousand ways. Time was too important to be wasted.
Which brings us to his remarkable practice. He had his personal devotional time at the start of every day as we would expect. Like Martin Luther before him, the more he had to do, the longer he would pray in those morning hours.
But it was how he used the rest of the day that was remarkable. Every hour on the hour he would stop to talk to God. We stop for a coffee, he stopped to pray. He would close out every hour with prayer committing the last hour to God, asking for His blessing on his work, and intercede for any concern that had arisen during that hour. Then he would take the approaching hour and commit that also to God asking for His leadership and wisdom. Wesley was practicing the presence of God. No hour of his day was without the acknowledgment of God’s presence.
But How do we do it?
Practice is the key word. A clock striking the hour can become a reminder to draw ourselves consciously into the presence of God. A red traffic light can be the trigger to remind us to pray. As you watch the news on TV use the occasion to pray for the persons or events described. Whenever any person is mentioned in conversation or simply comes to mind, we can pray for them.
When I was teaching in Moose Jaw the young people of the church were scattered throughout the different high schools of the city. But they had made a covenant with each other. Every time a school bell rang for them to switch classes, while they walked to their next class they would pray for each other.
We may find ourselves outgrowing the need for reminders as we gain more skill in the practice of the presence of God.
There is an old hymn that nudges us in the this direction.
Take Time to be Holy by William D. Longstsaff
Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.
Take time to be holy, let Him be thy Guide;
And run not before Him, whatever betide.
In joy or in sorrow, still follow the Lord,
And, looking to Jesus, still trust in His Word.
Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul,
Each thought and each motive beneath His control.
Thus led by His Spirit to fountains of love,
Thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.