He lived over 300 years ago in the 17th century. He was a Christian layman who lived in a French monastery.
Nicolas Herman was just the guy in the kitchen who prepared the meals for the others. Not much of a person to take notice of. He walked with a limp that resulted from injuries sustained as a soldier. His disability became so difficult he was switched from the kitchen to repairing sandals.
The world has long forgotten the names of the some one hundred or so clergymen who lived at the Paris monastery, the ones whose stomachs and feet Nicolas Herman served. But history has never forgotten that humble kitchen worker and sandal fixer. He is gratefully remembered around the world by the other name that he chose for himself, Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence's life, experience and teaching set forth a way of relating to God that has become for many -- after God's forgiveness through Christ -- the greatest discovery of their lives. It is summed up in the simple description, "The Practice of the Presence of God."
Brother Lawrence never wrote a book. After his death 15 of his letters and recollections of conversations with a colleague were gathered and published. Protestants as well as Catholics recognized the treasure that his life and counsel represented for Christians. John Wesley even included his work in the Christian library he published for his converts.
On the following pages we give an adaptation and paraphrased summary drawn from the letters, with some modernization for ease of comprehension. Sometimes we have combined similar thoughts from various letters. Hopefully your appetite will be stirred to want to read the whole, unedited comments. Most libraries would have an edition. Or you can get the full text online at http://www.practicegodspresence.com.
I did not find my way of approaching God in books on the spiritual life or from the experience of others. For example, I was talking a few days ago with a very devout person, and he told me how the spiritual life was a series of stages. First one begins with servile fear. Then one grows into the hope of the eternal life. This leads to the realization of pure love. Each of these has its own different steps, but at the end one arrives at a blessed state.
That isn't the way I went about it or understood it. In fact this kind of approach discouraged me. So when I devoted my life to God, I simply made a resolution to give myself completely to him the best way I knew how by turning from my sinfulness and seeking to love him.
At first I followed the normal pattern of observing the regular times set apart for devotions and kept my mind on thoughts of death, judgment, heaven, hell and my sins. This I did for some years. And I applied my mind towards God not only in the hours of prayer and devotion but throughout the day, even in my work, always believing that God was with me and in me.
So this is the way I began. But I have to tell you that for the first ten years I found it very difficult. I thought that I was not as devoted to God as I should be. My past sins seemed to be always pressing in on my mind. I fell often but would then get up again. It seemed sometimes as though everything, even God himself, was against me.
A Sudden Breakthrough
Throughout all this I still trusted God but at the same time wondered if I had to look forward to these troubles and struggles for the rest of my life. Then something happened suddenly that changed everything, and my troubled soul found a profound inward peace. Ever since that time I have simply walked before God in faith, with humility and with love and I apply myself diligently to do nothing that might displease him. I do what I can and then let him do with me whatever he wants.
So how can I describe what goes on in me? I am perfectly at peace with my situation. I want nothing but what God wants in things both great and small. I would not even take up a piece of straw from the ground if I thought he didn’t want me to but would run to pick it up out of love for him if that is what he wanted.
I have put aside all set procedures for devotion and seek only to continue in his presence. I keep myself there by giving heed to what I pay attention to and by my fond regard of God. This brings a sense of God's actual presence that is constant and silent but at the same time a secret conversation of my soul with God. This brings me great joy and inner rapture. Sometimes I feel such an overflowing sense of God's presence that I have to deliberately find a way to restrain and subdue myself when others are nearby.
So What Have I Learned?
It has been 30 years now that I have had full confidence that my soul has been with God, and there are a lot of details I could spread out before you, but let me just tell you how I look at myself before God, my king. First of all I have to admit that I consider myself the most wretched person. I am full of sores and corruption, and I know that I have committed all kinds of offenses against my king. I truly feel bad about this and openly confess to him my wickedness and ask for his forgiveness. Then I simply place myself in his hands so that he may do whatever he wants with me. And here is the amazing thing that I find: this king is full of mercy and goodness. He does not chastise or condemn me as he might. But it is as if he comes and hugs me, full of love and has me eat at his table. He even serves me with his own hands and gives me the key to his treasures. He loves to talk with me and take pleasure in my company. He makes me feel as if I am truly his favorite.
Being at the Bosom of God
So you can see why my practice of devoting attention to God along with my passionate love for him produces such satisfaction. Even an infant at its mother’s breast can’t match it. So I hesitantly call it a state of being at the bosom of God because it is so inexpressively sweet and pleasant. Yes, there are times my thoughts wander because of something that happens or through my own weakness but when I recognize it I immediately redirect my attention to God. The thought sometimes comes to me that I am like a stone in the hands of a sculptor who is making a statue. I like to think of God as the sculptor shaping me into his image.
There are times in prayer when I find my spirit lifted up before God and kept in his presence without any effort on my part. I know some will say that this is a state of inactivity, delusion, and self-love. I will concede that it is a kind of Holy inactivity, but I cannot accept that it is delusion or self-love -- because the soul that enjoys God in this world is looking for nothing but God himself. So if this is delusion then I think it God’s job to remedy it. As for me I am content to let him do with me whatever he pleases. I only want to do what he wants and give him all I have.
Yes, there are times when one can get away from the divine presence. When that happens God recalls us -- sometimes even when we are absorbed in our regular day to day activities. When we become aware of such prompting from God, then we must respond with a lifting of our heart to him, or by an affectionate thought of him, or by simple words to him expressing our love.
It is my conviction that the practice of the presence of God is the center of the spiritual life. Whoever truly practices it will soon become spiritual. But to truly practice it, the heart must empty out everything else so God alone may possess the heart and do whatever he wants with us. There is nothing in all the world that we can find in life more pleasant and joyful then a continual conversation with God. Those who never experienced it cannot understand. But it is not for the pleasure to be gained that we should seek God's presence but pursue it out of love for him and because God wants us to.
If I were a preacher I would above everything else preach the practice of the presence of God. If I were a spiritual director I would advise the same. So necessary I think it to be -- and so easy, too.
If we really knew how much we needed the grace and assistance of God, we would never let him out of our sight. No, not for a moment.
No Fear, Holy Freedom, Avoid Excess
While I am with him there is nothing that I fear. The practice of God's presence is not physically exhausting. But at the same time we should deny ourselves some other legitimate pleasures in order to more fully devote ourselves to him. I do not mean by excessive disciplines. Remember we serve God in a holy freedom. Also keep in mind that he expects us to carry out our everyday responsibilities without trouble or disquiet.
It is not necessary to be in church to be with God. We may make an altar of our heart to which we can go from time to time to converse with him in meekness, humility, and love. When we make him the center of our life and attention, then even the sufferings we endure can be seen in a positive way and provide a certain satisfaction. The paradox is this: With God even suffering can be pleasant but without him even life's greatest pleasures can be as a cruel punishment.
We must learn to grow in God's presence by a process. It is step-by-step. Don't be locked into rigid formulas or rules or particular forms of devotion. Don't try to go faster than grace. One does not become holy all at once.
We cannot expect to escape the many dangers around us without God's help. So we need to pray to him for his help continually. How can we pray to him without being with him? How can we be with him if we do not think of him often? And how can we think of him often unless it is a holy habit in our lives? You may think I repeat this too much. But this is the best and easiest way I know. We must know before we can love. In order to know God we must often think of him. When we come to love him, we shall also think of him often for our heart will be with our treasure.
So think of God all the time -- during the day, at night, in your daily work, even in your leisure time activities. He is always nearby. Don't ignore him. If you had a friend nearby, you would not ignore him when he came to visit. Why then would you neglect God? In short, do not forget him. Think of him often. Adore him continually. Live and die with him. As a Christian this is our job and calling. This is what we are here for. It is glorious!
How to Look at Pain and Sickness
I do not pray that you will be delivered from your pains, but I do pray sincerely that God will give you strength and patience to bear them as long as he pleases. The world, of course, cannot understand this. They see no good at all in sickness and pain. But those who understand that sickness can be used by God to advance his purposes can find in it great sweetness and true consolation. In fact, we can go so far as to say that God is sometimes nearer to us in sickness than in health. He can use diseases of the body to bring healing to the soul. God knows what we need, and all that he does is for our good. If we really knew how much he loves us, we would be ready to receive anything from his hand, the good and the bad, the sweet and the bitter, as if it didn’t make any difference. So be satisfied with your condition even if it is one of sickness and distress. Take courage. Offer your pain to God. Pray for strength to endure; adore him even in your infirmities !
I do not know what God is going to do with me. I am happy all the time and bear with whatever comes my way. I know I deserve the most severe discipline, and yet I find that I am filled with joy continually, joy that is sometimes so great I can scarcely bear it.