LAWRENCE OF THE RESURRECTION
by Very Rev. Camilo Maccise, OCD; Superior General
In the joy of celebrating the centenaries, feast days and other memorable occasions within the Order, there slips from the memory, no doubt, other historical Carmelites dates, worthy of remembrance. Among these there is a date dear to our friars and nuns in France, where the Teresian Carmel has borne many fruits of sanctity. To be precise, on the 12th of February 1691, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection died in our monastery in Paris, which is at the present moment the seat of the Catholic Institute.
II. BROTHER LAWRENCE OF THE RESURRECTION (1614-1691)
There must be few among us who do not know Brother Lawrence, who was born in Lorraine in 1614. He was a humble lay brother, cook and sandal maker to the large community of formation. He also had a great knowledge of the ways of prayer and of life in the presence of God. On his death in 1691, he left behind his writings on the practice of the presence of God, at once simple and accessible, as well as admirable and profound. Because of the influence of his friend, Msgr. Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai, his writings were very quickly translated into German and English, and thence into other languages. He became rapidly known by our Protestant and Anglican friends as well.
Countless of our friars and nuns have been profoundly helped by the teaching of Brother Lawrence. It goes without saying that this faithful disciple of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa understood in a remarkable way the charism of Carmel: to so dwell under the gaze of the living God as to experience, in a mysterious way, the ineffable Presence who lives within us.
Our Rule invites us to meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, watching in prayer. In the Way ofPerfection, our Mother Saint Teresa exhorts us to accustom ourselves to “living alongside such a Friend, to approach God interiorly, and even in the midst of occupations, withdraw within ourselves.” To a religious eager to perfect rapidly his love of God, our Father and Brother John of the Cross, counsels “strive to be incessant in prayer, and in the midst of your corporal practices do not abandon it. Whether you eat, or drink, or speak, or converse with lay people, or do anything else, you should always do so with the desire for God and with your heart fixed on Him.” Thérèse of the Infant Jesus was able to affirm to her sister Geneviève: “I truly believe that I have never been three minutes without thinking of God. It’s only natural to think of someone you love.” Elizabeth of the Trinity described her Carmelite life as “a communion with God from morning to evening, and from evening to morning” Our own Constitutions sum up this tradition by inviting us to “try to live in God’s presence by faith, hope and charity” while the Constitutions of our Carmelite sisters add to the same words: “and make their entire life a prayerful quest for union with God.”
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection is an outstanding witness to this Carmelite tradition: “the painstaking and continual practice of the presence of God.” He wrote in one of his letters to a religious sister:
I am sending you one of these books which treat of the presence of God. To my way of thinking, the whole of the spiritual life consists in this, and it seems to me that a person becomes spiritual in a short time, when this is done as often as possible.
In the whole wide world, there is not a way of life sweeter or more delightful than continual conversation with God. Only those can possible understand, who have practiced and experienced it. Really, I would not advise you to do anything except the following: don’t seek for these consolations in this practice, rather do it out of love, and because God wants it.
If I were a preacher, I wouldn’t preach anything else except the practice of the presence of God. If I were a spiritual director, everyone would be advised thus, so much do I consider it at once necessary and easy.
The slightest thing, like “flipping the omelet over in the pan,” Brother Lawrence did “for the love of God.” Everything was accompanied by “this little inward glance,” a glance of “the heart which is the first of the body’s members to have life, and which dominates them all.” This glancing at God is such that it “imperceptibly kindles a divine fire in the soul, which blazes up fiercely with the love of God.”
III. CELEBRATION OF THE CENTENARY IN FRANCE AND IN THE ORDER
In the midst of the Centenary of Saint John of the Cross, our friars and sisters in France celebrated a Centenary year in honor of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, Msgr. Jaeger, Bishop of Nancy, presiding. The Diocese of Nancy was the birth place of our humble Carmelite, as well as of the Provincials, Fathers Jean-Philippe Houdret and Dominique Poirot. Among those initiatives appropriate for spreading the message of Brother Lawrence, I would like to note the new edition of Écrits it entretiens sur la Pratique de la présencede Dieu. This has been prepared and presented by Fr. Conrad de Meester and published by Editions du Cerf at Paris.
However, the centenary was not limited to just one apostolic action. As a central focus of their Carmelite life, our friars and sisters celebrated the centenary as a year of the practice of the presence of God, renewing at the same time their earnest search for the Lord. They invited all of the Teresian family to join them, including the Secular Carmelites and those congregations affiliated with us. A text of Brother Lawrence was chosen for each month, to encourage “this practice of the presence of God (which) fosters a life of prayer and grows out of it.”
At the suggestion of the Provincials of France, the Definitory General willingly agreed to extend the centenary to all of the provinces of the Order that would desire to participate. Included in this text you will find the list of the twelve texts of Brother Lawrence, which were helpful for inspiring the practice of the presence of God for each month.
IV. THE PRESENCE OF GOD IN EACH OTHER AND IN HISTORY
For my part, I would like to develop two thoughts that suggested themselves to me on the occasion of this centenary.
The first thought is theological: Brother Lawrence found God everywhere . . . .He felt no need to run off making retreats, because he found in his ordinary work the same God to love and adore, who was to be found in the depths of solitude. It appears to me that the contemporary viewpoint of theology and spirituality carries on this custom of finding God everywhere, emphasizing particularly His presence in each other and in history.
The grace I would wish from the centenary of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection is help, not only to “go to God by recognizing him intimately present in continual conversation,” but also to put into effect the other form of the practice of the presence of God – to find him present in those around us. In a word, this means to unite in this practice of the presence of God, the “first commandment, and the second which resembles it.”
This presence of God in those around us is one that is real and takes many forms. By the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, God has, in a certain way, “united himself with each person.” There is a privileged giving and revealing of this presence, in our brothers and sisters of the Christian faith, both individually and as a group. But we are also invited to recognize as belonging to us, those who are not of the Christian faith, believers of other religions, and those who do not believe at all.
One of the truly special revelations of this presence of God is to be found in the destitute and those who suffer. This is one of the practices of the presence of God amongst the teachings of the humble Brother Lawrence that can lead us, in the world of today, to a concrete and dynamic presence with which to respond to the “challenges issued to our vows by the problems of work, of marginalization and oppression.”
Consequently, it is important to re-read and put into practice the experience of God proposed by Brother Lawrence, to learn how to discover the Lord in the events of history, and from that to discern the signs of the times. This experience of God in history stimulates us to go to him, to live in relationship with him, through our social and human events. To take part in the building up of the world can be and ought to be, the place where we encounter God; and we do that just as well in things positive as in those that are negative. We will be just as aware of his of his presence in goodness and in truth, as in disastrous situations and the apparent triumph of evil. He reveals himself to us as the God of life, who calls us to give our life for one another. He makes us understand “how rich and deep are the wisdom and the knowledge of God,” for he is always greater, always completely other. Last but not least, it is the signs of hope that teach us to recognize the presence of the Lord – for along the paths of life of individuals and of peoples, he is the God of hope.
I invite you, then, to let yourselves be evangelized by the practice of the presence of God, such as Brother Lawrence taught and handed on to us. By doing so, we ourselves become evangelizers of the presence of God: love of neighbor is to the point and effective, first choices are for the poorest of the poor, and an attempt is made to bring about universal brotherhood in the Church and in society.
V. A YEAR OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD
We invite you, our friends in the Faith, to live as a remembrance of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a year of the Presence of God, turning your hearts even more frequently towards the living God. From the spring of this presence, our spiritual life will renew its dynamism, rediscover a sense of adoration, and receive a new evangelizing impetus. God is present: “Consider this often and well,” insists Brother Lawrence. To help us in this, there follows a saying of Brother Lawrence for each month:
January: The presence of God: in this consists the whole of the spiritual life. To persevere in this is to become spiritual in a short time.
February: Our sanctification depends, not on changing what we do, but rather on doing for God what we normally do for ourselves.
March: A little lifting up of the heart suffices. A little remembrance of God adoring him within: brief as they may be, these prayers are very pleasing to God.
April: This sweet and loving glance of God imperceptibly kindles a divine fire in the soul, which blazes up fiercely with the love of God.
May: The holiest and most necessary practice of the spiritual life is the presence of God: of itself it is pleasing, it accustoms us to his presence, and by it we converse lovingly with him all the time.
June: Those who have the breeze of the Holy Spirit sail the same while asleep.
July: It is not necessary to be always in church, to be with God. We ought to make our hearts an oratory, into which we retire from time to time, speaking with him there, sweetly, humbly and lovingly.
August: During your meals and when dealing with others, lift your heart up to God often: the slightest movement will always be most agreeable to him.
September: There is not a way of life in the world sweeter or happier than continual conversation with God.
October: We could not have too much confidence in such a good and faithful friend, who never fails us in this world or the next.
November: The presence of God, a little difficult at the beginning, practiced with fidelity, brings about in the soul wonderful effects.
December: Do everything for the love of God. Everything can be used to show God our love and to maintain his presence within . . .I flip over my omelet in the pan for love of God.
The Secular Carmelites will prefer before all else to remain in the presence of God, continually fulfilling His holy Will.
There is not a whole lot to tell about the life of Nicholas Herman. He was born in Lorraine, France, at a place called Herimesnil in 1611 or, perhaps, 1614. His parents were poor but very devout and he was brought up with strong faith and good sense. This does not mean to say that he was exceptionally holy. In fact he experienced a profound conversion at the age of eighteen. During the Thirty Years War he was taken prisoner by some German soldiers who thought he was a spy and decided to kill him; at least they told him that. In return he told them that he had a clear conscience and was not afraid to die. We do not know how the Germans took this reply, and if you do not know German there is not much use in trying to reconstruct the ensuing conversation. All we are sure of is that they let him go. Exit the Germans. But here come the Swedes storming into Lorraine. On their way past the little town of Rambervilliers they wounded our Nicholas. We do not know how or how badly he was wounded or whether he managed to do in a few Swedes or not. All we know is that he was taken home to his parents to recover and that his military career ended there. His time of recovery gave him, as it had given to St. Ignatius in the previous century, to ponder on what life is all about, how uncertain it is and how important it is to spend it properly. It must have been at this time that he had what he refers to later as his conversion. He says that it was in Winter and he was looking at a tree that had lost all it leaves and he began to reflect that soon that very same tree would be covered with leaves again. Then there would be blossoms and then fruit on this very tree that now had nothing but bare branches. He said that this gave him such a deep impression of the power and providence of God that it never again faded from his mind. So strong was this impression that it turned his heart away from temporal things and enkindled in him such a great love of God that he was to say later in life that he did not notice any increase in his love as the years went by.
Before he received this special grace he seems to have gone through a great struggle between his conviction that he should follow the ways of God and his longing for earthly things. Again, all we know is that he had this deep inner struggle before his convictions finally won out. We do not know what the attractions were that he had to overcome, so that there is no scenario to offer for a Hollywood movie. One thing that helped him in this struggle is the he had an uncle, a Carmelite Priest, and he helped him to form the strong resolution to follow Christ. This was a very important point in his life, because one of the things that St. Teresa insists on for those who take up a life of prayer is that they have what she called in Spanish una determinada determinacion (a strong resolution to persevere in the practice of prayer.) St. John of the Cross, too, at the beginning of his Spiritual Canticle in a passage called the Annotation speaks of the very strong convictions at which the person had arrived before entering into contemplation. It is clear that in Nicholas’ case, as in the lives of the saints, the resolute determination was augmented by the grace of God and strengthened in a manner that is beyond what mere will power can achieve. This was evident in the years of dryness that he was to endure later. It should also be noted that he was deeply influenced by a great love of Christ in his Passion. This too is characteristic of the saints and it should be the main source of strength for all Christians. The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the mysteries that are present to us in the Mass, are the real source of sanctity, the sanctity to which the people of God are called. Add to this fact that Nicholas had a real devotion to the Mother of God and it is clear that he had the foundation on which a healthy Christian life can be built.
It would seem that after his military exploits Nicholas spent a short time as a footman for M. de Fuibert, treasurer of the Exchequer, and says that he was awkward and broke things. Initially, a footman was one who helped his master to mount his horse or carriage and then ran on to the next stopping place and helped him to dismount. But the office grew in stature to where the footman rode in the carriage, opened and closed doors and served at table and such. Nicholas must have served in this advanced capacity as it is difficult to imagine anyone proving to be awkward by breaking things in the original role. Again for want of footnotes, we have to be satisfied with the bare notion that he never mastered the art of footmanship.
The first real move that Nicholas made to follow his call to walk with the Lord took him away to live the solitary life of a hermit. Once more we have very little to relate about the circumstances of this effort except that it would seem someone was willing to provide him with the meager necessities of life so that he could follow this call. He learned from it that his longing for God was real and not an illusion and he enjoyed the freedom from previous distractions. While it was good to be alone with his Creator this was not the complete answer. When his mood changed and he needed someone to talk to there was no one there. Neither did he have regular Mass or the support of the Sacraments. He really needed community life, but somehow he was slow to ask to be accepted. He probably felt that they would not accept him since he regarded himself as awkward and indeed useless. Finally the Lord gave him the courage to go to the Carmelite monastery in Paris and ask to be admitted. He was accepted and given the name of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Many questions remain unanswered. Was his uncle still living or did he have any part of this decision? We do not know. He entered in 1640 and was professed in 1642. When Brother Lawrence chose to be a Carmelite bother for life he was embracing the original vocation of the Order. Today the vast majority of Carmelite friars are priests, but it was not that way in the beginning. Those who began the Order of Mount Carmel were known as the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. While the Carmelite vocation and the call to priesthood can blend perfectly together as they did in St. John of the Cross, the fullness of the Carmelite call does not require the vocation to the priesthood. St. Teresa and her nuns constantly remind us of this. The call that came to Brother Lawrence is a call to union with God through daily work and a life of prayer. In the beginning the Carmelites did not have set times for meditation but were to meditate day and night on the law of the Lord and were to keep themselves busy with their work so that the devil would always find them occupied. In fact the rule by which they lived reminded them of an exhortation that St. Paul gave to some of his Christian converts: that if they did not work neither should they eat. This old monastic tradition of ‘work and pray’ came easy to Brother Lawrence. Also his special devotion to the Mother of God made it easy for him to fit this tradition into the special Carmelite mould. He was deeply humble and very intent on serving God and not himself. It is said there was some question of his suitability and this was mentioned to him. The story is that he said: “If I do not serve Him here I will serve Him elsewhere.” He had a great longing for prayer and solitude and this was the source of his deepest suffering. He spent years with no spiritual consolation in prayer. This was something that he seems to have sought, because he had learned to distinguish between God and the consolations of God. He spent years in utter dryness with a continuous awareness of God’s absence and of his own sinfulness. Even the consolations that would have brought great joy to another left him further confused because he could not imagine they were real in his case and thought he was suffering from illusions. The growing awareness of God’s presence through a more vivid realization of one’s own sinfulness is a very painful experience and it seems to have gone on in Brother Lawrence’s case for about four to ten years. As always we have to guess at the length of particular experiences. During this time of dryness Brother Lawrence went frequently to a statue of Christ at the Pillar and wept bitterly before it. He also spent long hours in front of the tabernacle and his personal allegiance to God sustained him during those years of purification. Like many of those who experience dryness at the time of formal prayer Brother Lawrence was sustained by a sense of God’s presence during the rest of the day. In fact, this Practice of the Presence of God during the performance of daily chores is the aspect of the Spiritual Life for which Brother Lawrence is remembered. L’Abbe de Beaufort, Vicar General of Cardinal de Noailles, has left us accounts of four conversations that he had with Brother Lawrence. He also wrote a eulogy that gives us more insight into the holiness of his life. With that we have a series of maxims he wrote himself and sixteen of his letters. From these we can gather something of his thoughts and get glimpses of the power of the life he lives.