“Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing.”
“We should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with him.”
(Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God)
St. Augustine was a theologian and bishop, Julian of Norwich was a visionary locked in her cell, and St. John of the Cross was a monastic reformer and poet but, you may be pleased to know, the fourth Christian mystic we will meet on this Lenten journey, was a cook. He would have fitted well into Volmoed, so today without further ado or even waiting to check it out with the Trustees, I declare Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) our patron saint.
Born Nicholas Herman, Brother Lawrence was a soldier for eighteen years before he became a treasurer to the King of France. But since the age of eighteen he had a great sense of God’s loving guidance in his life in all its aspects. This, in turn, awoke in him a great love for God, which led him to make the love of God the end of all his actions. That was the reason why he eventually decided to become a monk because he thought he could then spend his days in prayer and contemplation. So he joined a Carmelite monastery in Paris. He did not want to be like Martha, distracted by the busyness of everyday life; he desired, rather, to be like Mary and spend quality time with Jesus in quiet contemplation.
So you can imagine how annoyed he was at first when the Abbot decided that he was not to spend his days in quiet contemplation, but to work amid the noise and clutter of the monastery kitchen. Unlike Mary whose example he craved, he had to become Martha and busy himself with ensuring that there was wine in the cellar and food on the table. But it was precisely in that busy schedule of daily life, , that Brother Lawrence learnt to practice the presence of God irrespective of where he was or what he was doing. And that is the heart of what mysticism is about: a deep awareness of the love of God in the midst of our daily lives despite its distractions and busyness. You can be Martha and still choose the better part that Mary had. In Brother Lawrence contemplation and daily work are brought together. Contemplation is not an escape from reality and the daily round of necessary activity; it is a way of engagement with God in the midst of our inescapable responsibilities.
Brother Lawrence did not have the time to write books or poetry like some of the other great mystics, but he did keep a notebook of his sayings and thoughts, and he also wrote many letters, all of which were found in his cell after his death. These were collected by the Abbot of the monastery. He also collected notes of conversations that various people had had with Brother Lawrence, and published all of these in a very small book which he called The Practice of the Presence of God. This slender volume has had a remarkable influence over the centuries, and continues to be published in a variety of languages. You might call it “every person’s” guide to mysticism, for you don’t have to be a saint, priest or recluse to do what Brother Lawrence did. The Christian life, Brother Lawrence is telling us, is an ongoing loving conversation with God. What we simply have to do is daily practice the presence of God in our lives like a pianist who daily practices the piano. Loving God requires daily practice.
Of course, this is not easy, and in some situations it might be difficult. After all, as Bonhoeffer once said, you don’t normally think about God when you are cuddling up to your wife or husband in bed! But even if you do, it is unlikely that a rugby player will be practising the presence of God in the middle of a scrum even if a soldier might do so in the heat of battle facing possible death. But in the normal round of life, in our relationships, in our daily work, and especially in times when life gets tough, or anger takes hold of us, or envy and greed, being mindful that God is present and loves us will make all the difference to what we say and do. Difficult, of course, but that’s why we have to practice the presence, or get into the habit as it were.
Like most of us, Brother Lawrence had periods of spiritual dryness when he found prayer difficult. But that did not mean that he stopped practising the presence of God, whether at daily prayer in the monastery chapel or at daily work in the monastery kitchen. So he learnt, as he tell us, “doing little things for the love of God,” because God “regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” It did not matter that he had to peel potatoes while other monks were busy in the library or deep in contemplation. What mattered was doing his work out of love for God. “The time of business,” he wrote, “does not … differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen… I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”
Brother Lawrence did not follow any set method of prayer and contemplation, his method, he said, was “simple attention…and a general passionate regard to God; to whom I find myself attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at a mother’s breast.” Like an infant who cuddles up in the embrace of his mother, he sensed that he was continually being embraced in the warmth of an infinite love that nourished and gave him life. In a letter to one of his friends who was a soldier, Brother Lawrence writes:
We have a God who is infinitely gracious, and knows all our wants…He will come in his own time and when you least expect it. Hope in him more than ever; thank him for the favours he does you, particularly for the fortitude and patience which he gives you in our afflictions; it is a plain mark of the care he takes of you; comfort yourself then with him, and give thanks for all.
That is practicing the presence of God. If God is the love that embraces then practicing the presence of God means daily giving thanks, daily placing our trust and hope in God, daily seeking to love others, not just those who are close to us, but all those we encounter. Practicing the presence of God means learning to forgive, learning to serve the needs of others, learning to do what is right, learning to be compassionate and doing justice. Like a pianist who daily practices in order to master his music, so the Christian who follows Brother Lawrence’s example, daily practices love for God through practicing love even in the kitchen.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Lent 4 23 March 2017