The Practice Of The Presence Of God, by Brother Lawrence
One of the things that one learns as a reader of books of Christian mysticism  is that the best of these books are often in a conversation with other books on the same subject that are similarly viewed as classics. For example, Brother Lawrence was himself a humble monk in a French monastery who would be largely unknown to history if his letters and maxims and eulogies from some of his friends had not been collected in a volume that ended up inspiring many generations of later mystics who sought the peace that comes from feeling one is in a close personal relationship with God. However, the particular monastery that Brother Lawrence was a part of was a very conservative one that followed the example of previous devout Catholic mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who were themselves well-known Christian mystics whose work has even influenced such not particularly mystical people as myself. The fact that Lawrence’s religious thoughts were connected to quietism itself was likely a part of the appeal of his reflections to the English-speaking mystical tradition, as his works have been generally forgotten by French speakers because his words were used by those who the French Catholic Church considered heretical to defend themselves.
The contents of this book are not particularly impressive when one looks at them on a surface level. The book begins with introductory material and a eulogy of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, the name by which he is known, which puts the writings of the book in a historical context, explaining that the author was a largely uneducated peasant from Lorraine who had gotten caught up in the violence of the Thirty Years’ War before fleeing the world to a very conservative Carmelite monastery and devoting his life to service and a life of continual conversation with God. The next part of the book consists of a series of conversations that the Abbè de Beaufort had with Brother Lawrence in the 1660’s that gave some first-hand observations of Lawrence’s approach to spirituality. After that come a series of letters written by Brother Lawrence to various religious and devout people in which he encourages them and passes along his own observations and insights. After that comes a brief but well-organized collection of the author’s spiritual maxims that was a manuscript found after his death, and closes with a discussion of the author’s way of life by, once again, the Abbè de Beaufort who did so much to help Brother Lawrence be remembered.
The reader to this book is likely to be struck by a few aspects of the thought and practice of Brother Lawrence. For one, the author was extremely diffident and overly modest, sometimes referring to himself in the third person when revealing his own insights and experiences, and considering himself the worst of sinners. It is likely that as a young soldier in the midst of a horrible war that he saw and did things that he was never able to entirely forget, nor perhaps to forgive himself for. Later in life he was made lame by gout, something I have a good deal of empathy about, and he seemed to think that he had not suffered enough over the course of his eighty years, though one might be tempted to think that gout of the sciatic nerve would cause enough pain for several lifetimes. The humility of the author and his awareness that cultivating continual conversation with God is a great way of overcoming the unhappiness at being unable to follow the formal sort of hours that some people find comforting is certainly something that allows this book and its author to win a great deal of goodwill from readers, and make it a book well worth reading.
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