Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) is best known for the useful little book, based on his writings, compiled after his death, The Practice of the Presence of God and his Letters and Spiritual Maxims. Brother Lawrence was a monk in the monastery of the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites in Paris. The order was founded in sixteenth-century Spain by Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross (who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul). Mother Tessa Bielecki, who wrote the fine Foreword to a new edition of Brother Lawrence (published by New Seeds, 2005), also compares Brother Lawrence to “another Carmelite saint closer to our own era, the nineteenth-century Thérèse of Lisieux, famous for her ‘Little Way,’ the way of childlike simplicity, the way of the ordinary. ‘We ought not to be weary,” Brother Lawrence assures us, “of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.’
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was born in Albania and given the name Agnesè Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, actually chose the name Teresa after Thérèse of Lisieux, and of course some of her words echo the words of that Thérèse and of Brother Lawrence: “We can do no great things; we can only do little things with great love.”
Lacking formal education, Brother Lawrence, although “he had a natural aversion to it,” was assigned to cooking and cleaning in the monastery kitchen. But it was there that he learned to “turn the cake that is frying in the pan for love of Him”.
In “the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things,” Brother Lawrence discovered prayer in the midst of work, so that he began, while washing dishes, to “possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.” Indeed, his Pilgrim’s Prayer is a simple one: “Lord of all pots and pans and things…make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!”
For Brother Lawrence, and for many of us, God is to be found in the most ordinary duties, in the most menial tasks, so that the “way” in which we perform those tasks becomes a “living hymn to the glory of God.” Resolving evermore to abide in the presence of God, “I went straightway to the place which duty had marked out to me—the kitchen.”
Prayer in the midst of “business,” in the midst of daily life, was his path: It “is a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times.” He cautions us against “trivial devotions,” and suggest that we not “scrupulously confine [ourselves] to certain rules….”
The consequences of his practice? “This practice of the presence of God is somewhat hard at the outset, yet pursued faithfully, it works imperceptibly within the soul most marvelous effects; it draws down God’s grace abundantly, and leads the soul insensibly to the ever-present vision of God, loving and beloved, which is the most spiritual and most real, the most free and most life-giving manner of prayer.
Mother Tessa Bielecki tells us in her forward that: “In our highly self-conscious, even narcissistic era, the example of Lawrence’s self-forgetfulness may be his most important teaching. ‘Instead of vainly dwelling upon the present anguish of his mind, as do most troubled souls,’ Lawrence consoled himself with thoughts such as this: ‘Let what may come of it, however many be the days remaining to me, I will do all things for the love of God.’”
His is not a doctrine of “good deeds,” or of salvation achieved through such. It is not a doctrine at all. Instead it is a commitment to love God in every moment, in every action, in every gesture, until we are alive in the presence of God. The presence of God, writes Mother Tessa Bielecki in her Foreword, is a gift “given to all, if we are but ready and disposed to receive it.” Mother Tessa Bielecki, incidentally, is the co-foundress of the Spiritual Life Institute, a modern Carmelite community with retreat centers in Colorado and Ireland. She is the author of Holy Daring, Teresa of Avila; Ecstasy and Common Sense, and Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings.
Would that we could live our lives so that at the end someone might say, as Mother Tessa Bielecki says of Brother Lawrence: “He was beloved equally of those of the most contrary temperaments. He wished well to all, without respect of persons.”