I started reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God with the hopeful expectation of finding sage counsel on how I might, well, practice living in the presence of God at all times.
When I first picked up the book, we were a family of 3, well, 5, if you count our two dogs, which I ought to. At that point, our family’s life was mostly punctuated by rhythms of dishes and laundry, naptimes and bedtime routines. That made finishing the book, even though it’s really short, take a while. By the time I finished, our daughter was born. Now add diapers, more laundry, and baby dishes and utensils to the dance that is our life, which we now mostly carry out with one arm at a time, because the other one is holding a baby or playing cars or catch with a 4-year old.
“Praying the hours” in the classical sense isn’t exactly on the table. Quiet hours came in the middle of the night after you’d rocked a baby back to sleep. Times of morning prayer are often ended now with the “Our Father,” but with our oldest waking up and calling, “Daddy!” or “Mommy!”
There’s a holiness in all of that, for sure. Sometimes that holiness isn’t self-evident. Like when you’re on your third, unsuccessful attempt at laying your child down for sleep, and you hope it sticks not so you can watch your favorite show, but so you can finish the dishes and go to sleep.
Somewhere along the line, I read this prayer from Brother Lawrence: “Lord of all pots and pans and things…make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!”
I started praying at the sink, “God of pots and pans and things, make me a saint by washing sippy cups.” Or at the changing table, “God of diapers and wipes and things, make me a saint by changing diapers.”
That little prayer started work on me. Or God started working on me through that prayer. I figured Brother Lawrence might be on to something, and I ought to listen more closely. So I picked up the book and started reading.
It wasn’t long before I started finding the sort of sage counsel I went looking for. The first part of the book is a collection of conversation recorded by M. Beaufort, who corresponded with Brother Lawrence and learned from him. He says:
[Brother Lawrence] told me that all consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we are sensible does not lead to God. That we might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him, with freedom and simplicity. That we need only to recognize God intimately present with us, to address ourselves to Him every moment, that we may beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful, and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving him thanks when we have done.”
The edition I read included collections of Conversations, Letters, Spiritual Maxims, and General Thoughts. All of them pointed to, reiterated, and fleshed out this idea of “continual conversation with [God]” and recognizing “God intimately present with us.”
I found reading the Conversations and Letters to be like overhearing two friends describing a wonderful trip they’d just taken, and I’m all the while saying, “I want to go there too!” In this case, the “there” is the intimate and continual presence of God, where one finds peace, joy, and utter contentment.
If the Conversations and Letters painted the picture of the destination, then the Maxims and General Thoughts opened up the map. In those sections I was grateful to find things like numbered paragraphs that said (in other words) things like, “Here are the steps to how you practice the presence of God.”
1. Practice a great purity of life, seeking to think and do only what is pleasing to God, and humbly asking forgiveness when we don’t
2. Keep your soul’s gave fixed on God
3. Look to God, if only for a moment, before, during, and after any task
4. When your mind and soul wander to the world, gently bring it back with a simple prayer
5. This is hard; keep practicing; you’ll find freedom, love, and joy
6. Full joy in God means leaving behind all manner of self-centeredness
Maybe it’s obvious to everyone else, but it helped me to hear Brother Lawrence say, “Make it your study, before taking up any task to look to God, be it only for a moment, as also when you are engaged thereon, and lastly when you have performed the same.” This is a habit that takes practice, he says. The habit starts with a pure heart and life that desires to please God.
These later sections even included some examples of prayers Brother Lawrence would say, like, “My God, I am wholly Thine. O God of Love, I love thee with all my heart. Lord, make my heart even as Thine.”
Those were the sorts of lessons I expected when I picked up Brother Lawrence’s little book. And I was grateful for them. But then there’s this part I wasn’t expecting, and this is the part that has made the most lasting impact on me. In the last few letters, beginning with the 11th, Brother Lawrence writes about suffering and the practice of the presence of God.
To his companion, he writes, “I wish you could convince yourself that God is often (in some sense) nearer to us, and more effectually present with us, in sickness than in health.” That wasn’t the surprising part. We hope that is true, and plenty of people describe a closeness to god in their time of need. Think of Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” And Jesus, in the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4).
God’s nearness to those who are suffering and in trouble isn’t new to me. But what surprised me was this testimony from Brother Lawrence himself, “I have been often near expiring…I did not pray for any relief, but I prayed for strength to suffer with courage, humility, and love. Ah, how sweet it is to suffer with God!” [emphasis added]
Hardly the sort of thing I say to members of my church when they are vomiting their way through the latest round of chemotherapy, or when their parent is in the hospital with Covid-19.
I wondered how you get to a place where you don’t pray for relief from illness, but for strength so that you might suffer with God?
Maybe we have to back up and remember that God, in Christ, suffered with and for us. In Jesus, we have a savior who is able to “sympathize with our weakness” and our sufferings (Heb. 4:15).
I started contemplating the cross, not an empty one like we usually have in Protestant churches, but the cross on which Jesus hung and died. That is the place where Jesus suffered and was “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8). Not only that his obedience led him to his crucifixion, but also that in his dying, he was obedient by continually trusting God.
The cross is the place of Jesus’ suffering with and for us. How can our own suffering lead us to the cross, where we are with our Lord who sympathizes with us? There is a certain loneliness that comes with sickness, a feeling that even though others may have experienced something like what I am experiencing, no one really knows. No one, except, as we sometimes sing, but Jesus.
Maybe that’s where the sweetness comes in for Brother Lawrence? Communion, even in suffering, with Jesus. To know that you’re not alone, that you’ve got a friend in Jesus who understands and who will stay with you no matter what.
Or maybe it’s that Jesus shows us what it means to suffer with courage, humility, and love. For starters, Jesus courageously stuck to his faith and faced the cross head on. Jesus humbly said “not my will but yours be done.” In love, he forgave those who did him wrong; and in love, he provided for his mother by commending her to John’s care.
Maybe when we learn from Jesus how to suffer in those ways, then we are able to have an even deeper communion with him. And not only that, but maybe we can begin got see that while our present season of suffering may seem like an eternity, it isn’t the last chapter of the story. Resurrection is.
I think Brother Lawrence would probably say that sort of trust in God is “easier said than done.” That’s why it takes practice. He would also say, though, that sort of trust in God is simple, like a child trusting her parent will come pick her up when she cries out in the night.
I’m still not sure what to do with Brother Lawrence’s “how sweet it is to suffer with God.” I doubt that’s a line I’ll use at someone’s hospital bedside. That feels both insensitive and disingenuous, especially as someone whose not done a lot of physical suffering.
Or maybe there is a way to say, I’m not sure how this works, but here’s a guy who was at the point of death and found a way to experience the power of God’s presence by praying not for relief, but for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love. What do you think of that?
Since reading Practicing the Presence, I’ve been practicing. Some days better than others, but I’m practicing. And when I do, I find that God changes my heart while carrying out daily tasks and work. That changed heart means a changed attitude, outlook, and disposition. It makes me more open to God and available to my family.
I haven’t given up on a set-aside time for prayer and Bible reading. But when a time of quiet prayer gets cut short by a little voice crying, “Daddy!,” I’m more inclined to receive that as another invitation to God’s presence rather than an interruption.
And I hope when my time to suffer comes—while I will probably still pray for relief—I hope I might ask God for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love, so that I can taste some of that sweetness Brother Lawrence is talking about.