Brother Lawrence’s Way of Love
Seventeenth-century France was a time filled with power struggles and social unrest. Of all the shining lights of that century, few spoke with the simplicity and humility of a lay monk whose quiet presence resided in the heart of turbulent Paris. More than any other of his day, Brother Lawrence understood the holiness available within the common bustle of daily life.
Most of what is known about Brother Lawrence comes through the efforts of Abbe de Beaufort, the Cardinal de Noailles’s envoy and investigator. By 1666, word of Brother Lawrence’s wisdom had caught the cardinal’s attention, and Beaufort was directed to interview the lowly kitchen aide. Upon ascertaining that Beaufort’s interest was genuine and not politically motivated, Brother Lawrence granted four interviews, or “conversations,” in which he describes his way of life and how he came to it.
Born to peasant parents in Lorraine, France, Nicholas Herman (his given name) grew up in great poverty. To guarantee himself food and a small salary, he decided to join the army. During this period, Herman had an experience of supernatural clarity that set him on a unique spiritual journey.
In the depths of winter, Herman looked at a barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, waiting silently and patiently for the sure hope of summer abundance. Gazing at the tree, Herman grasped for the first time the extravagance of God’s grace and the unfailing sovereignty of divine providence. Like the tree, he himself was seemingly dead, but God had life waiting for him, and the turn of seasons would bring fullness. At that moment, he said that leafless tree “first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God,” and a love for God that never after ceased to burn. Sometime later, an injury forced his retirement from the army, and after a stint as a footman, he sought a place where he could live within his limitations. He consequently entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Paris as Brother Lawrence.
Lawrence was assigned to the monastery kitchen where, amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bidding of his superiors, he developed his rule of spirituality and work.
In his Maxims, Lawrence writes, “Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set-up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of Him?”
The issue was not the sacredness or worldly status of the task, but the motivation behind it. He retreated to a place in his heart where the love of God made every detail of his life of surpassing value. “I began to live as if there were no one save God and me in the world.” Together, God and Brother Lawrence cooked meals, ran errands, scrubbed pots, and endured the scorn of the world.
He admitted that the path to this perfect union was not easy. Lawrence spent years disciplining his heart and mind to yield to God’s presence. “As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties.”
It is said of Brother Lawrence that when something had taken his mind away from love’s presence he would receive “a reminder from God” that so moved his soul that he “cried out, singing and dancing violently like a mad man.” You will note that the reminders came from God and were not his own doing.
From the “Conversations”
Brother Lawrence told me he had always been governed by love without selfish views. Since he resolved to make the love of God the end of all his actions, he had found reasons to be well-satisfied with his method. He was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him only and nothing else, not even His gifts.
He said that useless thoughts spoil all–that mischief began there. We ought to reject useless thoughts quickly and return to our communion with God. In the beginning he had often passed his time appointed for prayer in rejecting wandering thoughts and falling right back into them. He could never regulate his devotion by certain methods as some do. At first, he had practiced meditation but, after some time, that went off in a manner of which he could give no account.
Brother Lawrence emphasized that all physical and mental disciplines and exercises were useless, unless they served to arrive at the union with God by love. He had well-considered this. He found that the shortest way to go straight to God was by a continual exercise of love and doing all things for His sake.
Brother Lawrence said that the worst that could happen to him was to lose that sense of God which he had enjoyed so long. Yet the goodness of God assured him He would not forsake him utterly and that God would give him strength to bear whatever evil He permitted to happen to him. Brother Lawrence, therefore, said he feared nothing. He had no occasion to consult with anybody about his state. In the past, when he had attempted to do it, he had always come away more perplexed. Since Brother Lawrence was ready to lay down his life for the love of God, he had no apprehension of danger.
Brother Lawrence said that many do not advance in Christian progress because they stick in penances and particular exercises while they neglect the love of God which is the end. This appeared plainly by their works and was the reason why we see so little solid virtue. He said there needed neither art nor science for going to God, but only a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him and to love Him only.
Brother Lawrence spoke with great openness of heart concerning his manner of going to God. He told me that all consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we know does not lead to God. We might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him with freedom and in simplicity. We need only recognize God intimately present with us and address ourselves to Him every moment. We need to beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful and for rightly performing those things which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them and giving God thanks when we have completed them.
Brother Lawrence felt it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action, as by prayer in its time. His own prayer was simply a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time aware of nothing other than Divine Love. When the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and thanking Him with all his might. Thus, his life was a continual joy.
It was observed that, even in the busiest times in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty or loitering, but did each thing in its turn with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. “The time of work,” said he, “does not with me differ from the time of prayer. 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 a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.”
Letters from Brother Lawrence
I have ceased all forms of devotion and set prayers except those which my state requires. I make it my priority to persevere in His holy presence, wherein I maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God. Or, to put it another way, it is a habitual, silent, and private conversation of the soul with God. This gives me much joy and contentment. In short, I am sure beyond all doubt that my soul has been with God above these past thirty years. I pass over many things that I may not be tedious to you.
At other times, when I apply myself to prayer, I feel all my spirit lifted up without any care or effort on my part. This continues as if my soul was suspended yet firmly fixed in God like a center or place of rest.
I know that some charge this state with inactivity, delusion, and self-love. I confess that it is a holy inactivity. And it would be a happy self-love if the soul, in that state, were capable of it. But while the soul is in this repose, she cannot be disturbed by the kinds of things to which she was formerly accustomed. The things that the soul used to depend on would now hinder rather than assist her.
I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of God. For my part I keep myself retired with Him in the depth and center of my soul as much as I can. While I am with Him I fear nothing; but the least turning from Him is insupportable. This practice does not tire the body. It is, however, proper to deprive it sometimes, nay often, of many little pleasures which are innocent and lawful. God will not permit a soul that desires to be devoted entirely to Him to take pleasures other than with Him. That is more than reasonable.
I do not say we must put any violent constraint upon ourselves. No, we must serve God in a holy freedom. We must work faithfully without trouble or disquiet, recalling our mind to God mildly and with tranquility as often as we find it wandering from Him. It is, however, necessary to put our whole trust in God. We must lay aside all other cares and even some forms of devotion, though very good in themselves, yet such as one often engages in routinely. Those devotions are only means to attain to the end.
I do not advise you to use many words and long discourses in prayer, because they are often the occasions of wandering. Hold yourself in prayer before God like a dumb or paralytic beggar at a rich man’s gate. Let it be your business to keep your mind in the presence of the Lord. If your mind sometimes wanders and withdraws itself from Him, do not become upset. Trouble and disquiet serve rather to distract the mind than to re-collect it. The will must bring it back in tranquility.
One way to re-collect the mind easily in the time of prayer and preserve it more in tranquility is not to let it wander too far at other times. Keep your mind strictly in the presence of God. Then being accustomed to think of Him often, you will find it easy to keep your mind calm in the time of prayer, or at least to recall it from its wanderings. I have told you already of the advantages we may draw from this practice of the presence of God.
God knows best what we need. All that He does is for our good. If we knew how much He loves us, we would always be ready to receive both the bitter and the sweet from His Hand. It would make no difference. All that came from Him would be pleasing.
The worst afflictions only appear intolerable if we see them in the wrong light. When we see them as coming from the hand of God, and know that it is our loving Father who humbles and distresses us, our sufferings lose their bitterness and can even become a source of consolation.
Let all our efforts be to know God. The more one knows Him, the greater one desires to know Him. Knowledge is commonly the measure of love. The deeper and more extensive our knowledge, the greater is our love. If our love of God were great we would love Him equally in pain and pleasure.