The Practice of the Presence of God – Foreword

The transcriptions of four conversations with Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, which took place in 1666-1667, and 16 letters about him or by him written circa 1682-1691.

About Brother Lawrence

Born Nicolas Herman in the French town of Herimenil, Lorraine, Brother Lawrence lived from about 1611 – 1691.  His family had no money to provide for education, so young Nicolas had some home schooling along with some education by a parish priest.  His uncle, Jean Majeur, was a member of the Discalced Carmelites.  Forced into military service by his poverty, Nicolas was a young soldier by 1629, during the Thirty Years War, and in 1635 suffered a near-fatal injury to his sciatic nerve, which left him crippled and in chronic pain for the rest of his life.

After returning from war, he himself tells us that he had found work “as a footman to Monsieur Fieubert, the Treasurer” (and Madame and Mademoiselle Fieubert), and that he was “a great and awkward fellow who broke everything.”  In 1640 he was drawn to a Carmelite monastery in Paris, where he could suffer and endure scorn for his failures.  It was here where he took the name Lawrence of the Resurrection and remained for the rest of his life.

He died with his pain, convinced that he had lived in obscurity, still marveling that he had not been damned for his failures, but in perfect joy due to the closeness he had known with God.  He had lived as called upon in Micah 6:8, “to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.”  In what he called his Maxims, Brother Lawrence wrote: “Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love.  They learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence.  Yet it might be so simple.  Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”

Most of what is known about Brother Lawrence was provided by the Abbe de Beaufort — Father Joseph de Beaufort, later counsel to the Archbishop of Paris, who collected writings of Brother Lawrence, and after the monk’s death, compiled what he described as The Practice of the Presence of God — The Best Rule of Holy Life.  Abbe de Beaufort had been sent to interview the humble monastery cook, Brother Lawrence, who granted four interviews after discerning that the Abbe was sincere.  Those interviews became the basis for the four “conversations” in this book.

In addition to the four interviews, a series of letters written by Brother Lawrence have also been preserved.  The letters apparently were long ago retrieved from their recipients in order to be collated into this remembrance.  These recipients were “My Reverend and Greatly Honored Mother” or variations on that, a mother superior whom held in high esteem, “Reverend Father”, who doubtless was the abbot of his own cloister, and a woman of his acquaintance, addressed as “Madame”, whose husband, Monsieur (rendered simply as M. —-), was clearly an active soldier and who together had a daughter identified as Mademoiselle (Mdlle. —-).   The interviews and letters together comprise the little book now known as The Practice of the Presence of God.

From the Preface to the original French edition, A.D. 1692

“Although death has carried off last year many of the Order of the Carmelites Deschausses, brethren who have left in dying rare legacies of lives of virtue, Providence, it would seem, has desired that the eyes of men should be cast chiefly on Brother Lawrence…

“Several people, having seen a copy of one of his letters, have desired to see more, and to meet this wish, care has been taken to collect as many as possible of those which Brother Lawrence wrote with his own hand…

“All Christians will find herein much that is edifying.  Those in the thick of the great world will learn from these letters how greatly they deceive themselves, seeking for peace and joy in the false glitter of the things that are seen, yet temporal.  Those who are seeking the highest good will gain from this book strength to persevere in the practice of virtue.  All, whatever their life work, will find profit, for they will see herein a brother, busied as they are in outward affairs, who in the midst of the most exacting occupations, has learned so well to accord action with contemplation, that for the space of more than forty years he hardly ever turned from the presence of God.”

Preface to this digital edition, A.D. 2016

I no longer recall when, where, or how I came to own a copy of this little booklet.  About the dimensions of a 3” x 5” card and containing forty-eight pages, counting the thin front and back covers, it bears a handwritten price of 65¢.  I have read it through several times and have quoted from it or referred to it often.  For what it has given me in return for the price, I hope that I actually paid for it.

Normally I am put off by a foreword in a book.  I want to get to the words of the author, (why else have I picked up the book?), and a foreword or introduction strikes me as confrontational.  So feel free to skip this one; Brother Lawrence will be almost the same to you if you do.  You may also come back here later, once you have begun asking yourself some questions about this little book.

This digital edition includes a section of conversations and a section of letters.  For the text of these two sections I have relied entirely on the earliest paper copy that I have obtained, a pamphlet from Forward Movement Publications issued in 1941.  Later editions of my acquaintance have attempted, it appears, to make it more readable, with distressing capitulation to the jargon of one or another later decade.  Other digital editions are clearly copies of the same translation that I have used, but with peculiar editing in order to appease, perhaps, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage — I don’t know.  Modern style books cannot be applied to this, and I have even set aside my Strunk and White as well.  I am comfortable with the less-modern language of the edition I hold dear.  If it is difficult for someone else to read, then I encourage anyone to obtain a translation or revision that is comfortable.  (In this edition, for instance, we find “loose” used as a verb meaning to unbind, “apprehension” to mean understanding, “vouchsafe”, and other words not commonly in use in America.  I am familiar with these uses, but perhaps younger readers are not.)  It is more important that everyone read this book who can be encouraged to do so, in any edition!

In this digital edition, I have retained not only every word of the Forward Movement edition but also in its same word sequence, the temptation being to transpose or augment some phrasing for clarity.  I have added perhaps one word or two.  I have retained, (parenthetically), the smattering of footnotes found in the 1941 Forward Movement edition, itself a re-issue of a much older translation from the French, with the translator’s excess of commas, the antiquated use of the semicolon, the emphasis on certain words and expressions given in italics.  I have retained the grammatically-grating capitalized pronouns, He, Him, and His, referring to God.  They do prove useful when the writer refers to God and to Brother Lawrence in the third person repeatedly in the same sentence; at least we can tell which Him applies to which antecedent.  I doubt that the original letters by Brother Lawrence, written in French, employed all this capitalization, commas, italics, and such.  I have presumed to reduce to lower case some words that were capitalized by Forward Movement or earlier translators to English, who had inserted them, I suppose, in an attempt to avoid offending God by failing to capitalize everything that suggests God, for instance, when referring to God’s “holy Community” or “the Blessed Sacraments.”  (I want to ask: How do you capitalize those words in speech?)  I have also omitted a select few commas where they seemed to be sprinkled without purpose and added a couple back only to set off an appositional phrase, for instance.  The language of this edition, while it is not the English of the King James Bible, is comparably beautiful in its brevity, slightly archaic, and charmingly lyrical.  Even if I could rewrite it in a modern tone, the result would be to present Brother Lawrence himself shaved, wearing socks, and smelling of Right Guard.  As it has been handed down and re-issued here, the very language of this translation carries us back, if not to the late 1600s, at least to a century vaguely earlier than our own.

In my Forward Movement copy of the pamphlet, some of the conversations and letters each include a date of authorship, although the person of authorship is not identified, an omission which I trust I have remedied.  Where my copy included a date, I have retained it in this edition.  This collection of writings conveys Brother Lawrence’s advice and method.  Some of it is attributed to Brother Lawrence himself, and some of it, chiefly the conversations, can be attributed to Father Beaufort.  It is remarkable how well the contributions of the two or three separate authors intertwine to produce a cohesive message and remain neither contradictory or redundant.  (I say three because one of the letters is apparently written by someone other than Brother Lawrence, but by whom, then?)

While it is not my place to draw a contrast between the advice of Brother Lawrence and the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, I am struck by the Church’s acceptance and promotion of Brother Lawrence’s advice.  For while he urges that, whatever we do from moment to moment we do it for God, as one who has an individual relationship with God, he does not at any point advise doing it for the glory of God.

This is not to say that God does not want to be glorified or that Brother Lawrence thought as much.  He seemed to understand, though, that the majority of people who seek God have not the talent nor the money nor the pulpit with which to attract a following.  Many are intimidated by the heady knowledge of the scriptures in the religious people they meet.  Many suspect that they have to become experts in the Bible in order to be acceptable to God.  Many do not expect ever to be smitten by some welcoming sudden wave of spiritual warmth and so do not expect to come into the presence of God by the combination of baptism, confirmation, and re-birth, the hurdles that so many churches throw between the sinner and God.  In a way, Brother Lawrence too had stood before the awe-inspiring edifice that the Church had erected to represent its appreciation for (and also its authority over) God and found himself unworthy to cross the threshold of the mighty house of worship.  Instead, he shuffled around the side, so to speak, found a door ajar, and, in the cellar beneath the altar found God completely available where the pots boil on large kitchen stoves and in the other back rooms where sandals are mended and rats are chased from the grain sacks.  If he discovered God there, this book tells us, so can anyone else.

What’s more, his method was to dismiss, in a sense, the practice of organized worship and to go it alone.  He was, after all, in a monastery, which is to say that he was always in church, but one has the impression that, had the Carmelite brotherhood turned him out for any reason, he would have carried on in the same way.

Brother Lawrence did not seem to concern himself with going to heaven — with his “salvation” as we often hear it described.  He even questioned his own worthiness and said that, if he would be turned away to Purgatory, he would go there loving God nevertheless.  I have had this same sense too, (although not being a Roman Catholic myself I am not persuaded of the existence of a state of Purgatory), and if condemned to Hell I intend to go there singing God’s praises just the same — God grant me the courage to do so.  Maybe Hell would consider me a misfit and consign me to Heaven, or at least to Purgatory.

-=David A. Woodbury=-  [Continue to the conversations.]

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