The Presence Of God
St. Paul taught believers to "never cease praying". How could someone pray every moment of the day?
A man named Nicolas Herman seems to have discovered a way to do this, which he called "practicing the presence of God." Also known as "Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection," he was a Carmelite friar who lived in France in the 17th Century. This friar spent most of his life cooking and repairing shoes. Although he never wrote a book, his letters, spiritual maxims and discussions with the superior of his monastery were compiled into a small book after his death. I will summarize his teaching in this article.
The Best Way of Reaching God
Brother Lawrence focused on God's Immanence" (closeness to us) more than God's Transcendence" (distance from us). As a result, during his eighty years of life, he continually grew in his awareness of God'lifetimes presence in his ordinary, everyday life. He said that "the best way of reaching God" is doing ordinary tasks, which we are obliged to perform, entirely "for the love of God" and not for the "human attitude" towards them. In other words, rather than being oblivious to God while we perform our activities (the "human attitude"), we should love God through these activities. There are three "pre-requisites" to reaching God in this way.
First, we must "abandon ourselves" to God. This means opening ourselves, as much as possible, to God and entering into an intimate, personal relationship with God. It also means renouncing everything that we know does not lead to God and seeking to become the "most perfect adorers of God in this life."
Second, we must begin to trust God. He said that we "cannot put too much trust in so good and faithful a friend who will never betray us in this world or the next." He encouraged people, not to seek suffering, but to seek God in the midst of the suffering that could not be avoided. Whether it was the death of a friend or the physical pain he endured, Brother Lawrence encouraged people to become aware of God's presence in the midst of the "bad times." His words remind us that God never leaves us in the bad times - even when we cannot "feel" God.
Seek Holiness Through Daily Activities
Third, we must seek holiness through ordinary activities. Brother Lawrence said that it is a "great delusion" to think that our time set aside for prayer should be any different from the rest of the day and that we should be united to God by work while we are working and by prayer while praying. He said that becoming holy depends, not on changing our works, but in doing for God what we ordinarily do for ourselves. In a similar vein, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, living in France shortly after Brother Lawrence, said that all the things people count as "trivial and worthless" are what can make them holy.
Practicing the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence's method helps us become aware of God's presence in our lives. In one of his letters he wrote: "You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you." He wanted people to stop ignoring God, the Friend who is so close to us. To practice the presence of God, we must do three things.
Adore God During Ordinary Activities
Since God is with us in all our actions in the "deepest recesses of our souls," Brother Lawrence said that, from time to time, we should pause during our external activities and "adore God inwardly." He said that, during our work and other activities, and even during our formal devotions and prayers, we should pause for a moment to adore God from the bottom of our hearts. How ironic, yet true, that even when we are praying we can forget God is present!
Combine Prayer and Work
Prayer must permeate our daily activities. Obviously, prayer must not disrupt or take away from our work and daily activities. Brother Lawrence wrote: "I do not by this mean that you should always set aside your external activities, that is not possible." However, he said too many people do not pause momentarily to adore God inwardly throughout the day. His said it is a common error for people only to pray during "prayer time." He warned against a "dualistic" view, which sees prayer time as "spiritual" and the rest of the day as "unspiritual." His solution was to combine prayer and work.
Glances and Expressions of Love
Brother Lawrence recommended that we use "glances" toward God and expressions of love to practice the presence of God. He said we should begin, end and perform our daily activities with an "interior gaze" towards God. This is a simple glance of love with what have been called the "eyes of our heart" towards God who is so close to us as we carry out our daily activities. He also said to make short prayers and expressions of love from the heart throughout the day, such as "My God, I am all Yours." By using these interior gazes and interior expressions of love throughout the day, we will become more aware of God's presence in our lives. He said that we should "work hard so that each of our actions is a way of carrying on little conversations with God, not in any carefully prepared way but as it comes from the purity and simplicity of the heart." A good way to begin this type of prayer is to find those regular activities in our lives, which can serve as reminders throughout the day. These could be when the phone rings, when we pass an exit on the highway or when we change a diaper.
Practicing the presence of God is prayer for those who are in love with God. I will mention three important considerations about this method of prayer.
Gift from God
Because practicing the presence of God is "prayer," it is a gift from God that cannot be reduced to human effort. This means we cannot automatically produce certain results or somehow manipulate God with this prayer. This should be a peaceful prayer of one who is in love with God and who desires to become more aware of God's presence in his or her life. Brother Lawrence said that some people will be more attracted to this type of prayer than others.
Difficult at First
Like any method of prayer, practicing the presence of God can be difficult at first. "Since it is necessary to devote much time and effort to acquiring this habit you must not be discouraged when you fail since the habit is formed only with difficulty; but once you have acquired it, you will experience great joy." These encouraging words were written by Brother Lawrence in his 70's, after decades of practicing the presence of God.
A long-term benefit of practicing the presence of God is the ability to "see" God. "This presence of God, though a bit painful in the beginning, if practiced faithfully, works secretly in the soul and produces marvelous effects and draws down to it in abundance the graces of the Lord and leads it insensibly to the simple gaze, that loving sight of God everywhere present..." Brother Lawrence also stated that the person must experience ongoing conversion, a continual turning away from sin and turning towards love.
Brother Lawrence said that the practice of the presence of God strengthens our hope and helps our faith become more alive and more active in every occasion of our lives. He said that the life of the person who perseveres in this practice becomes one continual, endless act of love, adoration, contrition and trust in God. For Brother Lawrence, the "glorious business" of being a Christian is to adore God continually and our "calling" is to live and die adoring God. May each of us, in our own way, become more aware of God's presence in our lives.
Reprinted – July 1999 edition of the San Francisco Charismatics