Brother Lawrence on the Presence of God - Part I

Source: District of Asia

“I turn my little omelette in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, Who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king.” These are the simple self-revealing words of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a Discalced Carmelite, who spent thirty years in a kitchen “which he hated,” and incidentally became an authority on the practice of the presence of God. Brothers and Sisters in the kitchen, give ear to a fellow-cook who found God present. among your pots and pans!

His Life

Brother Lawrence's name in the world was Nicholas Herman. He was born in 1611 at Hérimini in Lorraine of Catholic parents who grounded him well in basic religious principles. As a youth he seems to have been first employed as a footman to Monsieur de Fuibert, treasurer of a savings bank, and on his own admission was “a clumsy lout who used to break everything.” When war came, he joined the army of Lorraine. He was suddenly captured by some German troops, accused of being a spy, and was on the point of being hanged when his coolness, courage, and indifference to death finally convinced his captors of his innocence and they released him. Later, fighting against the Swedes, he was seriously wounded, being carried half dead to his home nearby. Though the wound healed eventually, it put an end to his army career.

Always a serious-minded youth, although he admits that he did not come through his soldiering morally unscathed, Nicholas Herman now decided to take up spiritual warfare, and after an acute interior struggle, placed himself under the direction of an uncle, a Discalced Carmelite. Forthwith he made some real advances on the road to perfection, but somewhat hastily made up his mind to follow a hermit's life of solitude. With a like-minded young nobleman, who had renounced the world, he retired to a lonely, desert place; but after a few months of isolation he was convinced that this manner of life was not suited to a beginner in perfection such as he was. Of a volatile, impetuous, impressionable nature, he felt he needed a more stable, orderly, regulated life. He went to Paris and asked to be received among the lay brothers of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. He passed the preliminary probations, received the habit, and took the name of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.

As a Carmelite novice he made rapid progress in virtue. He was assigned to the humblest tasks of the monastery, 1 tried by every sort of contradiction known to experienced novice masters, and came through them all with flying colors in spite of some very depressing interior difficulties, which clung to him for years after his novitiate was over.

His profession made, he was detailed to duty in the kitchen. Thirty years he held this important monastery post, to which was added that of buyer for the community, though he always protested he had “no head for business.” Towards the end of this long span of years his work had to be lightened because he was now lamed by an ugly ulcer on his leg caused by sciatica, from which he had been quietly suffering for some twenty-five years. Finally he had to give up the kitchen altogether and spent the remainder of his life doing “shoe-repair work” for his discalced brethren!

Throughout his long career Brother Lawrence was an alert, top-notch worker. His brethren used to say that he regularly did the normal work of two men, yet withal was hardly ever seen to bustle or rush things unduly because he did his work calmly, peacefully, steadily, and efficiently. His general character was not severe, but rather on the genial side. He was extremely kind, patient, and cheerful, especially when the going was hardest. Consequently it is not surprising that he won the esteem, confidence, and love of all with whom he came into contact. People liked him chiefly for his uncommon common sense.

His spiritual life was just as simple and unostentatious. It centered about the continual practice of the presence of God and the prayer that spontaneously flowed from it, prayer which the Brother himself described paradoxically as “a mute, familiar conversation with Him.” By means of this exercise faithfully adhered to and perfected through the years, and by the practice of the virtues it presupposes, such as faith, humility, penance, and mortification, he reached a very high level of spiritual life. A bit contemptuous of human learning, he was skilled in divine wisdom and could impart it simply but effectively to others. That is why he was consulted on the spiritual life by so many devout layfolk, religious, priests, and even bishops. He taught and adapted to the needs of others what he had found so beneficial in his own spiritual life, namely, the constant practice of the presence of God, so that he might rightly be called its apostle. As he once wrote: “If I were a preacher, I would preach nothing else than the practice of the presence of God; and if I were a director of souls, I would urge it upon everyone, so necessary and even easy do I believe it to be.” He called it “the shortest and easiest way to arrive at Christian perfection, the mold and life of virtue and the great preservative from sin.”

Brother Lawrence's last year of life was marked by repeated illnesses, all of which he bore bravely, even heroically. Succumbing finally to an attack of pleurisy, he died as quietly as he had lived, on Monday, February 12, 1691, at nine o'clock in the morning. He was eighty years old.

While his religious brethren stood about his bed waiting for the end, Brother Lawrence was asked by one of them what he was doing at the moment. Answering, the brother spoke his last words, which may be taken as the epitome of his whole life. “I am doing,” he said, “what I will do for all eternity. I am blessing God, praising Him, adoring Him and loving Him with all my heart. That is our profession, Brothers, to adore God and to love Him, without bothering about the rest.”