People of the Books: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

One of the less-than-great things about being an introspective type (also about being a human in general) is that you have to face up to the fact that sometimes, you’re a bit of a jerk.  Well, you may not be, but I am.  Sometimes, I’m an unimpressed stick in the mud who really doesn’t like holy types because they’re flat as characters, or I’m jealous, or maybe it’s just a bad day.

I had this kind of reaction when I read Sister Freaks, that these super-Christians are people I just can’t relate to.  And Brother Lawrence is definitely, in many ways, a super-Christian; the whole of the book is talking about his holiness, his patience, his endurance, his embrace of suffering, yada, yada, yada.  I mean, cool for him, but not really relatable to people like me who consider playing hooky from work meetings because we would rather sit in the living room and watch the snow.

But that’s one of the things I had trouble with in this book; so much of it isn’t Brother Lawrence, but stuff about Brother Lawrence.  The short biography was helpful, because I didn’t know that much about this oddly famous 17th century monk when I got started.  But the Eulogy by the Abbé of Beaufort, the Conversations that Lawrence had with the same abbé, and the letters collected from Lawrence to various other people are just a collection of saintliness that I couldn’t hang on to—everything he said was perfect, everyone seemed to either adore or at least respect him, and it was as if he never got mad at anything.  Not that nothing bad ever happened to him, but that there was never that moment of just losing it in frustration.

I don’t get that.  I’m not, in the least, like that.

But then I got to the Spiritual Maxims and the Way of Life that really were Lawrence’s own musings, and I connected.  When you hear someone’s own words, not when they’re trying to sound great in a letter or trying to guide a specific person, but just talking about what matters and how sometimes, things suck, and you have to figure out how to get past or through that—that’s what I can get behind.  Lawrence’s simplicity and sheer dedication to holding on to a God he often doesn’t understand is something I can relate to wholeheartedly.  It’s the text that happens once you get past all of the awestruck people who want to revere him that you get to see that practicing the Presence is an all the time, moment-to-moment thing that may get easier, but never quite becomes automatic. It’s a journey, not a task, and reading Brother Lawrence’s words on it was what made this book worthwhile. The translator did a fantastic job of rendering the French into very accessible English without getting in the way of the earnestness of this long-dead monk who, no matter what the eulogies say, was just a guy looking for God.

Especially as we begin Lent (which is a pretty intense time period, as this is kind of where it starts for me), I need this reminder that it’s not about being saintly, but about being present, and acknowledging the Presence that doesn’t wait for holidays or certain liturgical time periods.  It’s about this wrestling, this waiting, this listening and acting, this extremely human attempt to live within the Divine that is in the snow, the kitchen work, the cold feet and the getting-out-of-bed-for-work-anyway days.  That kind of practice is hard, and acknowledging that is part of it, I think—but oh, how worth it it is.


Rating:  3.5/5 stars

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