THE UNCEASING PRESENCE OF GOD
Before looking at the things that Brother Lawrence himself has left for us, it would be good to review some of the teachings we have on the Practice of the Presence of God. Everyone who gives thought to the matter can agree that God is always present to all that He has created. When God was sending Moses to Egypt and to the chosen people Moses asked for a name so that he could tell the people of Israel who it was that sent him, and God said: “I am Who am.” When this mysterious statement is reflected upon it is seen to say that God, and only He, is the One who always was and always will be, because He must by His very nature exist. He cannot begin to exist nor can He cease existing. It is this that makes Him so radically different from everything else because all was created and depends on Him for its existence. God must then be present to everything that is, both to bring it into existence and to keep it in existence. He also must give the power to move so that the planets can stay in orbit, so that things can grow and animals and people and angels can live. He gives to us the power to live and feel and think and make free choices, even when these are contrary to His clear command. And at all times He knows everything that goes on everywhere, even our innermost thoughts. Reflection on this gives us some passing awareness of the immensity of God. To practice the presence of God is to make a habit of reflecting on this until our awareness of the limitless God becomes a normal everyday condition that shapes our thoughts, our decisions, our whole lives. It was this habit, this practice, that made Brother Lawrence the kind of person he was, that enabled him to walk with the Lord.
Sacred Scripture has many, many texts that lead us to this practice; in fact all scripture arises from a deep awareness of a God who is present and not far away. The prophets speak regularly of walking before the Lord or standing in His Presence. There is a passage in the Book of Wisdom that gives what we might call the basic scriptural thinking, the thought on which other thinking is built: “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved had it not been called forth by you? But you spare all things because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls.” This is a real expression of faith in God’s presence and a fine example of a correct response. The God of the Bible is not far off but very close; He intervenes in the life of His people, making Himself known by signs and messages. His love is strong and does not change, and like all true love it calls for a response, for a corresponding commitment. In the beginning of the Bible, the places where God manifested Himself became sacred to His presence. We can see a development whereby His people gradually became aware of His presence, not merely in certain places but in all places and especially in the people themselves. His people would be removed from their sacred places but not from Him. There is a passage in Deuteronomy that prepares them for this, “Yet there, too, you will seek the Lord your God, and you shall indeed find him when you search after him with your whole heart and with your whole soul. In your distress, when all these things should have come upon you, you will finally return to the Lord, your God, and heed his voice. Since the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will not abandon and destroy you, nor forget the covenant which under oath he made with your fathers.” A very interesting passage is to be found in the second book of Samuel. This is the story of King David’s wish to build a special house for the Lord and not have Him dwell in a tent while David himself had a house of cedar. And the Lord got the message to David that he would not have his house of cedar if the Lord had not taken him from behind the sheep, and furthermore that the Lord himself had not dwelt in a house from the day He led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. Then He said: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me.” And the words ‘house’ or ‘kingdom’ do not refer to a place or a territory but to people. The prophet Elijah had a way of speaking of “Yahweh, in whose presence I stand,” and his mission was to bring the people back to an awareness of the true God. In his great challenge with the priest of Baal he prayed, “Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done these things by your command. Answer my Lord, answer me, that these people may know that you. Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to their senses.” That last line makes one think. If, as St. Augustine says, “We are born for God and our hearts do not rest until they rest in him,” then putting the search for God first in our lives should establish a balance in our psyche that would bring us back to our senses.
Brother Lawrence had a lot of good sense to begin with. In the monastery, he was assigned to work in the kitchen and must have overcome his tendency to break things, because he was left at that work for some thirty years. Because of his awareness of God’s presence he grew to like that difficult assignment more and more and found more happiness there. He once said that he joined the monastery to do some penance for his sins, but that the lord had disappointed him in that and had given him nothing but joy instead.
But to continue a little further with the lessons of Sacred Scripture. God’s presence and unchanging love for us have always brought out a great response in those who take these facts to heart. Nowhere do we get better examples of this than in the Psalms.
Psalm 62:1: In God alone is my soul at rest: my help comes from him alone. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress.
Psalm 63: 1-4: O God, you are my God, for your I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.
Psalm 42:1-2: Like a deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God.
When we move on into the New Testament we are really into the story of God-with-us. We find God in human form living among His people and telling them that wherever two or three are gathered in His name that He is there among them; that if we love Him and keep His commandments that His father will love us and that the Divine Persons will come to us and make their abode with us. Such statements reveal to us the mystery of God dwelling within us as individuals and as community. We are talking about a presence that penetrates our very being and sanctifies us. It is this that caused St. Paul to tell his converts that they were temples of the Holy Spirit. God, our creator, our Redeemer, our Sanctifier permeating our very existence, this is what the Scripture conveys to us.
III. SOME TEACHINGS AND QUOTATIONS
The teaching on the Presence of God is a vast mystery. Brother Lawrence, through his great faith, had come to a special appreciation of this mystery. This is what makes his teaching so interesting. It is well to realize that the ability of Brother Lawrence to penetrate this mystery was itself a gift of God. We shouldn’t take his admonitions as a technique for producing an effect, but as ways of disposing ourselves for whatever degree of understanding the Lord wants to give to us. The “First Conversation” quotes him as saying: “We should establish ourselves in God’s presence by continually talking with him.” This is not as easy as it seems. It requires a certain discipline of mind whereby we put away idle thoughts, flights of imagination that take us away from reality, and train our minds to attend to the greatest of all realities: God among us. A real key to success in this matter is to be found in the second admonition: “We should feed our souls with lofty thoughts of God, and so find great joy in being with him.” This is an approach that must not be taken lightly. Without this second admonition the first will be very difficult. Since we cannot see God, the image we form of Him in our mind can make it so much easier to believe in His love for us and it is this belief that generates our response. This high notion of God, of His power, His mercy, His love also helps with the next rule: to enliven our faith, or as an older translation says, to quicken our faith. This is a matter of reminding ourselves of the reality of the invisible things we do not see and can know only by faith. To bring to mind that God is always with us, to picture Him beside us, walking in front of us or behind, waiting for us at the end of a path, but always present, this is to enliven our faith. To reflect on the Creed until all becomes personal for us, this quickens our faith.
Brother Lawrence was also big on abandonment and to trust completely in God’s love for us; His patience and forgiveness. We try our best to do His will, to please Him and not ourselves, to be faithful to Him in all circumstances including dryness. He did not worry a lot about sins he heard of since he knew it could be a lot worse. Also, we must watch over our inner emotions in spiritual matters as well as our ordinary feelings. But the basic requirement is a desire to serve God, to belong to him.
The other three “Conversations” repeat many of the admonitions given in the first one, but some of them are worth quoting because they give new light to his meaning. He said that he has always been governed by love in spite of a persistent fear that he would be damned. One interesting thing is that he said he did not find any difference between prayer time and work time; he could maintain his awareness of God just as easily at work as at prayer. For one who had practiced the Presence of God as he did this is not surprising. Also he did not find help in spiritual direction and gave it up. He said that all he needed was a confessor to absolve him. While this is not the normal route for one receiving special graces it is quite possible that God wanted to lead him this way. It should be noted that he himself tried to bring people to the Practice of the Presence of God. In this he said: “We must act very simply with God and speak to Him frankly, asking His help in things as they occur. God does not fail to give it, as I often found out.” In the second of his sixteen letters we find this: “If I were a preacher I would preach nothing else than the Practice of the Presence of God; and if I were a director of souls I would urge it upon everyone, so necessary and even easy do I believe it to be.”
His letters provide the best reading in the little collection we have of his writings. Something is lost in just quoting from them. While the points of doctrine are about the same there is a greater warmth in the expression and a clearer revelation of the person himself. These should be read in their entirety, but a few quotations will help.
“There is no mode of life in the world more pleasing and more full of delight than continual conversation with God; only those who practice and experience it can understand it.” (Second Letter)
“I am not saying that to do this it is necessary to curb oneself unreasonably; no, we must serve God in a holy freedom; we must do our work faithfully, without distress or anxiety, recalling our mind to God calmly and tranquilly whenever we find it distracted from Him.” (Third Letter)
Really, to go to work on Brother Lawrence’s methods and make this exercise of the Presence of God a daily habit is certain to bring amazing results. Above all it develops a sense of gratitude and a delight in praising God for His goodness and mercy. We were, after all, created for this and the more we grow into it as a way of life, the more we can truly get it all together and begin to function as the kind of special creation that God intended us to be. Surely this is God’s country.