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Becoming Aware of God’s Presence

The kitchen bustled with activity. People dashed about preparing food for the large group to be on hand for dinner that evening. The fire had to be tended. The bread kneaded. The soup pot stirred. In the midst of the maelstrom, Lawrence worked completely at peace as if he was sitting in the monastery chapel in prayer.

            This is how is fellow monks remembered Brother Lawrence. He himself said of his work, “The time of business 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 [worship].”

            Lawrence was named Nicholas Herman by his parents at his birth in 1648. Nicholas was poor and received no formal education. As a young teen, he worked as a footman and soldier. In the winter of 1666, Nicholas saw the bare limbs of a tree standing out against a world shrouded in snow. He knew with certainty that in a matter of months, the tree would once again sprout leaves, then flowers and fruit. The certainty of that little resurrection had a profound affect on the teenager. He knew that God was faithful and could be counted on in all things.

            Nicholas went to the group of monks known as barefoot Carmelites and took the name Lawrence in joining that religious order. Lawrence would later say that he had hoped in joining the monastery that he could sacrifice his life to God, but God had disappointed him sorely as Lawrence had nothing but pleasure from his life as a monk.

            In the beginning of his time with the Carmelites, Lawrence tried various means of prayer known to the monks, but he always found his mind wandering off to other things while he was to be in prayer. Then as time passed Lawrence began practicing the presence of God in all places. This meant that Lawrence tried to keep at the forefront of his mind that God was present with him wherever he was, whatever he was doing.

The ongoing knowledge of God’s presence began to change Lawrence visibly over time in the eyes of those who lived with him. They noticed that Lawrence, who always seemed busy with the work of the monastery, nonetheless had a deeper inner peace, a divine light within that was unmistakable to all who encountered him.

            Times of prayer in the chapel were something Lawrence did for the sake of his superiors, but he found he did not need them as those times in the chapel were identical in his spirit to the times at work, for in both times and places he was deeply aware of God’s presence. Lawrence learned how to live out the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Thessalonica, “Pray without ceasing.”

            None of this means that Lawrence was a perfect man, or considered himself better than others. He just lived his life as before God. When he made mistakes, which he did, he would ask for God’s forgiveness and would endeavor not to repeat the error.

            Brother Lawrence’s ongoing life lived before God reminds me of a professor my freshman year of college. One morning he looked out on the classroom and told us that he felt sorry for us. We were young and had so much energy to consume in meeting one another, dating and the search for companionship.

The professor told us that he and his bride of more than 40 years had sat together in the living room the night before for several hours without saying a word. She first graded papers then knitted, while he read a book. The whole time he was thankful for her presence and companionship, yet not a word needed to be spoken between them. The connection between them was all the more intense for their years together.

This image of husband and wife together with no words yet a mutual comfort, offers to me a picture of what Lawrence describes in his writings. Simply by continually reminding himself that God was present at all times, he was able to transform everything he did into a prayer. Well-baked bread was an offering of thankfulness back to God as was a well-cleaned pot after soup had gotten stuck to the bottom of it.

Lawrence wrote only a few letters, which are preserved to this day, but a fellow monk interviewed Lawrence not long before his death to learn the secret behind the elderly man’s calm devotion to God in all circumstances. These, together with his letters, are preserved in the little book, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” which I recommend to those who want to encounter Lawrence’s wisdom more directly.

His words are needed today perhaps more than in the 17th century kitchen where Brother Lawrence worked. For few of us have the time we would like to have for prayer, yet each of us can make everything we do a prayer if we practice God’s presence in all times and places.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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