Hello and welcome to our final look at Brother Lawrence. Today we will look at the last part of his classic work The Practice of the Presence of God. So far we have looked at the advice he has given others as well as anecdotes about his life and faith. Here we will be looking at Section Five, which provides the reader with many ways of attaining the presence of God.
This section is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter looks at two steps used to help the average Christian attain an awareness of God’s presence. The first step is repenting of our sins and asking for forgiveness for our sins, and the second step requires us to look to God before starting any task, to continue looking for Him while working, and to turn our gaze onto Him after finishing our work. The most important aspect of this that Lawrence looks at is the human heart which he says is ‘the first thing in us to have life, and it has dominion over all the body. Therefore it is right that it (the heart) should be the first and last to love and worship God, both when we begin and end our actions, whether they are spiritually or bodily. This should generally be the same in all the affairs of life. It is in the heart, therefore, that we should strive to make a habit of gazing on God, until the action that is needed to bring the heart to this obedience is done quite simply and naturally, without strain or study’ (Pg.116). As usual Lawrence says that there are specific phrases that we can use to approach God but at the same time he also warns us against any distractions that will lead us away from God and that the best thing we can do is simply mortify our senses from anything that lead us away from God.
The first thing that struck us about this passage is the use of mortification. As we mentioned in the previous blog we have issues against certain aspects of the spirituality in Lawrence’s day, especially in relation to hair shirts! However, it is important in the Christian life that we put to death anything that would keep us from God, and in that sense we agree with Lawrence how necessary it is for us to repent of our sins, especially those that would trip us up. Otherwise, the Christian life within us will never grow.
As for the issue of training the heart to focus it more on God, we agree that it is very important to always keep God in mind. On that note, we think that Lawrence is right that we need certain key phrases in order to attune ourselves into God’s presence. In fact we mention many phrases in our lives that either help us or just happen to pop into our heads, so using phrases that would remind us God would be more beneficial than just our everyday self-talk. I have mentioned the Jesus Prayer in the last blog and how the recitation of that phrase (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) can help bring us closer to God. Another way is to memorize key scripture passages, which not only reminds us of God but of His word as well. In this way, we should keep our hearts and our minds on Him at all times, as Lawrence himself advises us.
In the second chapter, Lawrence continues to look at how to always maintain God’s presence in our life. The only way to do so would be to think about God at all times and even turn all our actions into ‘little acts of communion with God’ (Pg.119). This means that we should also not be impulsive about the worship of God but to worship Him ‘thoughtfully and soberly’ (Pg.120) and, by doing that, we can be use this awareness of God’s presence to help combat the Devil and our own sinful natures. We loved the term used for all our actions being turned into acts of communion with God but we were not certain about whether or not we could even try to always worship Him ‘thoughtfully and soberly.’ However it is possible to find joy in Him and the very act of communion itself implies that our actions should ‘come naturally from the purity and simplicity of the heart’ (Pg.120). In the case of Lawrence, he just naturally communed with God right through the day, which something we would like to aspire to. Apart from worshipping God at church at either Sunday services or various other religious events, the idea of regularly communing with God during our secular activities has an appeal. It would be useful for helping us to combat both sin and the Devil and maintaining God’s presence in our lives. At the same time, we do admit that it we not always good at maintaining this habit and that it takes a good effort to always keep up this practice in our lives.
In chapter three, Lawrence moves onto the subject of how Christians should deal with any challenges and distresses that upset their spiritual lives. His recommendation is simply to examine our conscience everyday and see how sinful we in comparison with God:
‘[When we do (examine ourselves)] we will find that we are altogether deserving of contempt, unworthy of the name of Christ, prone to all manner of unwholesome conditions, and subject to countless infirmities that distress us and impair the soul’s health, rendering us wavering and unstable in our humors (health) and dispositions.’
It will then make Christians feel sorry for committing any sins and/or yielding to temptation and therefore try to rely solely on God and His grace to help us perform His work in our lives. At first it may seem hard but summoning God’s grace would help it become more easier and ‘and brings with it joy’ (Pg.124).
We discussed how we always need God’s grace continually to help us do our daily work as well as trying to ask for God’s forgiveness for any sins we might have committed. I also asked everyone a question about whether this confession could to a type of morbid introspection and even depression. From this, one of our group said that the idea of God’s grace is the very thing that stops Lawrence from getting depressed because he (Lawrence) confesses his sins and then accepts the forgiveness that God gives and then moves on. The wrong view of confession (which could the reason why it can lead to depression) is the fact that it could lead to a Christian simply trying to work his or her way into heaven and not rely upon God’s free gift of grace. One the other hand, however, regular confession and self-examination are a good idea, especially after we have committed a sin and need God’s grace to overcome it.
Moving onto Chapter 4, we looked into the subject of union with God. Here Lawrence presents a threefold method of attaining this union:
(1) ‘To worship God in spirit and in truth means to offer to Him the worship that we owe.’;
(2) ‘To worship God in truth is to acknowledge Him to be what He truly is, and ourselves as what we truly are.’;
(3) ‘Furthermore, to worship God in truth is to confess that we live our lives entirely contrary to His will.’
When asked about the subject of offering God the worship that “we owe”, which would mean developing a habitual practice; become aware of God’s perfection as well as our sinfulness; and that we live lives that are unworthy of Him and, once we acknowledge that fact, He will make us conform to His will.
We mulled over the different prospects of these ideas. One of us said that it is like a kind of spiritual breathing – don’t try to hold your breath and get through the week in one breath. We breathe all the time until it becomes a habit and it becomes ingrained in our lives. In fact, our breathing can be both deliberate and automatic and that is the very same pattern in which we want our spiritual lives to be.
As for living our lives according to God’s will, we often feel that there are times when we feel as if we do not live according to us will. Having said that, though, we will conform more and more to His will as we grow to more like Him in our spiritual lives. Without His will guiding us we all live contrary to His will and might even end up in sin.
I asked the question what an atheist might make of thinking about God in spirit and in truth, and the answer was that they might think it laughable. In fact, they would probably react badly to words like “we owe Him (God) our whole lives” because they would have little understanding of the Person we are addressing and might misconstrue in a bad way. There is also the case of the supernatural and spiritual in our faith, which is something we cannot deny outright and must be embraced in our walk with God.
In Chapter 5, Lawrence talks about three states of union with God:
‘The first degree is general, the second is virtual union, and the third is actual union.
‘1. The degree of union is general when the soul is united to God solely by grace.
‘2. Virtual union (which is in effect union, though not in fact) is when we are united to God at the beginning of an action, and remain united to Him by reason of that action for only such time as it lasts.
‘3. Actual union is the perfect union. In the other degrees the soul is passive, almost as it were slumbering.
‘In this actual union the soul is intensely active – quicker than fire are its operations, more luminous than the sun, unobstructed by any passing cloud.’
Therefore, the first two types of union are just the first steps to take before actual union is to be experienced. Yet Lawrence also warns against mistaking this state of actual union with certain feelings, which simply come and go, while actual union itself is rather a ‘state of soul … that is deeply spiritual and yet very simple, which fills us with a joy that is undisturbed, and with a love that is very humble and very reverent’ (Pg.128). It will then lead us into a union with God, whose love will compel us to embrace Him ‘with a tenderness that cannot be expressed, and which experience alone can teach us to understand’ (Pg.128). Lawrence also warns us not to allow any love for people and/or material goods to come in the way of our union with God. The reason is because God Himself is simply beyond our understanding and therefore we must deny ourselves the love of any material pleasures and completely put our love to God alone. Lawrence even describes the difference between the ‘tastes and sentiments of the will and its working.
‘The limits of the will’s tastes and sentiments are in the soul.
‘But its working, which is properly love, finds its only limit in God.’
To sum up, our soul’s only destination is to be in God alone and in nothing else. From this point we talked about the idea of loving God above all things but not instead of all things. We think that this idea of union as discussed by Lawrence can be related to our individual personalities and whether we respond emotionally to things naturally. We, therefore, need to be careful to equate our emotional state with our spiritual state. The way the union with God should go should run like this: faith informs fact which informs feeling not the other way around. To do the opposite would be misleading and even lead to heretical thoughts.
Moving on the from the theme of union with God, Lawrence focuses on the presence of God by describing the effect that it had on the life of a friend:
‘By non-wearying efforts, by constantly recalling his mind to the presence of God, a habit has formed within him of such a nature that as soon as he is freed from his ordinary labor, and often even when he is engaged in his work, his soul lifts itself above all earthly matters, without deliberation or forethought on his part, and fixes itself firmly upon God as its center and place of rest.’
Lawrence also reminds his readers that this communion with God in his friend’s life occurs within his friend’s soul and God communicates love to his friend’s soul. This acts as a fire of love to God that it actually affects his friend’s outward conduct and manner of life where people such as Lawrence can actually see this in his friend’s life and manner. It is so encompassing that it overcomes any love for other earthly attachments:
‘It is as if He was so concerned that the soul would turn again to things of earth, that He provides for it abundantly so that it finds in faith divine nourishment and immeasurable joy that is far beyond its utmost thought and desire – and all without a single effort on its part but simple consent.’
As for knowing anyone like that in our lives, we are sure that we do not know anyone like this friend of Lawrence’s (in fact some of us speculated if Lawrence was simply talking about himself!). We do of people who may have come close to it but they are very rare and, in fact, we wondered if we could ever recognize this “super-spiritual” sense because this quality could be more real and approachable all the time without anything sticking out.
We discussed how Lawrence talks about his friend’s visions of God (‘a glass, a loving gaze, an inward sense of God … a waiting on God, a silent communicating with Him, a repose in Him, the life and peace of the soul’ (Pg.129)) and we think that God grants these visions to whomever He wills. All of us can thirst more for God in our lives, but that thirst itself will show up in different ways. A member of ours says that he cannot see himself being overcome by violent passion. As we mentioned previously, you do not have to be emotional all the time to be a Christian. However, one of us, J, mentioned a person she knew who is completely unemotional, who studies the word of God constantly and in all her responses and actions, consistently demonstrates a life lived in. To J, that person may not have an emotional response to God’s presence, but she lives in the presence of God all the time.
In the final chapter, Lawrence focuses on the benefits of the presence of God. The first benefit he looks at is a growing faith that ‘becomes more alive and active in all the events of life, particularly when we feel our need, since it obtains for us the assistance of His grace when we are tempted and in every time of trial’ (Pg.133). This transforms our faith into a guide for our souls into the presence of God and leads us onward until ‘at last the eye of faith is so piercing that the soul can almost say, “faith is swallowed up in sight” – I see and I experience’ (Pg.133).
This in turns leads to the second benefit which is that it builds up our hope in God: ‘Our hope grows in proportion as our knowledge grows, and in measure as our faith – by this holy practice – penetrates into the hidden mysteries of God’ (Pg.134). The reason is because, like faith, hope will also want to lead us onwards to God as well as turning away from earthly things, because the ‘soul that is thus kindled cannot live except in the presence of God’ (Pg.134).
The final benefit is a passionate love for God: ‘a consecrated zeal, a holy ardor, a violent passion to see this God become known and loved and served and worshiped by all His creatures’ (Pg.134). It is through this state that the soul has a deep-felt knowledge of God and also commits itself to a life of prayer and good works. Finally, Lawrence says that God only grants this grace of His vision on a few chosen souls, but God can also grant it to those who yearn deeply for it: ‘If He does withhold this crowning mercy, be well assured that by the practice of the presence of God and the aid of His all-sufficient grace, your soul can arrive at a state that approaches very nearly the unclouded vision’ (Pg.135).
We looked over these interpretations of faith, hope and love, and have concluded that they are applicable to everyone. Faith is absolutely necessary – without faith it is impossible to please God. Hope is something we have that the world doesn’t have because we have hope in a God who came down to save us from our sin in order to bring us into a glorious future. As for love, well as it says in the first epistle of John, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and therefore we need to demonstrate that love toward others. How we experience and demonstrate these virtues come back to who we are. We often fall over in our demonstration of these virtues but that should not stop us as Christians in putting these virtues into practice.
In conclusion, as a group we feel that we do not need to follow what Brother Lawrence says as a whole due to the difference between our time period and ours as well as a bigger difference between his lifestyle (religious) and ours (secular). On a personal level, I think that there are times when the book does get a bit repetitive every now and again and this might bore the average reader. But we also believe that this book has some really helpful nuggets to offer every Christian. We also admire Lawrence for his effortless and joyful feeling of God’s presence. It’s so straightforward and refreshing even for a modern reader.
Thank you for reading this blog. Join us next month as we look at Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge. In the meantime, we hope you have a Merry Christmas!
Adoration of the Shepherds by Matthias Stomer
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Trans. Harold J. Chadwick. Bridge-Logos. 1999 (2001)