Practicing the Presence of God — Spiritual Reading

This Sunday in our Credo discussion on prayer, I mentioned a book that I have found personally to be very helpful in my own prayer life. That book is The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence. I wanted to share with you a bit more about this treasure of spiritual wisdom, to hopefully encourage others to make use of this little volume in their own prayer life.

Who Was Brother Lawrence?

Brother Lawrence was a 17th century Carmelite monk from France. He was born Nicholas Herman and served briefly as a military soldier. But in 1666 he entered monastic life and took the name “Brother Lawrence.” He was only 18 years old, and had had very little education.

His entering the monastery was prompted by a religious experience he had while observing a dry, lifeless tree in the snow one winter, and reflecting upon the new life the tree would experience in the spring. From that moment on he longed to enter into the mysteries of God. He remained in the monastery until he died at the age of 80.

He developed a reputation for spiritual wisdom, and for being someone who exemplified in his life St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). Though he never left the monastery, people seeking spiritual guidance would occasionally be permitted to visit with him. Some wrote down their recollections of the advice he offered to them. These recollections, along with a few surviving letters of his, are what constitute the text of The Practice of the Presence of God.

A Simple but Profound Faith

The book is not long, nor is it difficult or high-minded. My edition is just over 100 pages and can fit into a back pocket. If anything, the difficulty with this book is that it can easily be read too quickly. One could finish it in just a couple of sittings. But I believe that would be a mistake.

Even though the text is simple, the spiritual wisdom found therein needs time to percolate. My recommendation in reading it is to treat is as lectio divina or sacred reading. Make your reading a prayer. Read just until you find a passage that speaks to you — that you feel like underlining or highlighting. (It won’t take long). Then stop. Read that passage again and spend time meditating upon it. Let your mind and spirit digest the wisdom of the passage as you go about your day. Don’t bite off too much at once.

The first time I read The Practice of the Presence of God I devoted an entire summer to it, and it really benefited my own prayer life. I still go back to it when I feel that I need a spiritual boost.

Here are just a few of my underlined passages, to give you a taste of Brother Lawrence’s spiritual practices.

On Suffering in the World

That as for the miseries and sins he heard of daily in the world, he was so far from wondering at them that, on the contrary, he was surprised that there were not more, considering the malice sinners were capable of; that, for his part, he prayed for them; but knowing that God could remedy the mischiefs they did when He pleased, he gave himself no further trouble.

First Conversation

On Repentance

That when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to God, I shall never do otherwise if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my falling and mend what is amiss. That after this he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

Second Conversation

On Work

That our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own… That the most excellent method he had found of going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of God.

Fourth Conversation

On Occasions of Prayer

“That time of business,” said he, “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.”

Fourth Conversation

What God Requires of Us

He requires no great matters of us: a little remembrance of Him from time to time; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favors He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company; the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of.

Seventh Letter