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Notes and Questions for Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1611-1691)
The Practice of the Presence of God (1693, French; 1724, English)

Robert Harris
January 23, 1999


Overview

This book is about much more than constant devotion to God or unceasing prayer—though it is about those things. It is also a book about integration—of mind and faith, life and worship, thought and prayer, even physical and spiritual (for Brother Lawrence was brought to the spiritual through the physical). (Page numbers refer to Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God. Tr. Donald Attwater. Springfield, Ill.: Templegate, 1974.)

Things to Think About as You Read

1. Pay attention to the connection between faith and intellect. Brother Lawrence reports being saved by thinking—reflecting on a barren tree (29). This accession of faith through reason or contemplation is one of the philosophical threads from the Renaissance through the 18th century. For faith to arrive through the abstraction of meaning of a winter scene, the mind or reason must be closely involved with the soul. The life of faith must be connected to the life of thought as well: "We must act recollectedly, not with that impetuosity and thoughtlessness that mark an undisciplined mind . . ." (111).

2. Related to the above is the connection between the physical and the spiritual. The physical world can lead to the spiritual world. More than this, the body, heart, and soul are all interconnected, so that "we must carefully watch over the impulses of our heart, which affect the actions of the soul, as well as the actions of the body . . ." (31).

3. There is a connection between knowledge and love: "We must know before we can love; and to know God we must often think about Him" (88). See also page 105.

4. Throughout moral and religious literature, one of the most commonly attacked sins has always been pride. What is Brother Lawrence’s attitude toward or commentary about pride and humility?

5. Aristotle has said that "virtue is an activity of the soul." What is Brother Lawrence’s position?

Notes and Questions

THE FIRST CONVERSATION

Principles of Integration. The First Principle. "That one winter day he noticed a tree stripped of its leaves." One of the vehicles of integration of faith and intellect is to contemplate the physical world in terms of divine meaning and purpose. By doing just that, Brother Lawrence was saved by contemplating a barren tree in the middle of winter. (Compare Romans 1:20.)

The Second Principle. "Thus offer up his life and his happiness to God" and "we ought to give ourselves entirely to God, whether in temporal or spiritual concerns" (30). The second principle of integration is to offer one's whole life to the service of God.

The Third Principle. "We should establish ourselves in the presence of God, talking always with him" (30). The third principle is to establish yourself in the presence of God, which means to enter into a state of continuous prayer. This statement is the heart of the book.

The Fourth Principle. "We must hold fast to faith when God tries our love by inflicting times of spiritual dryness." And "we must carefully watch over the impulses of our heart, which affect the actions of the soul, as well as the actions of the body" (31). The fourth principle is to make an intellectual and emotional commitment to faith, as well as a spiritual one. Here also Brother Lawrence acknowledges that most people have times of spiritual dryness.

Note that Brother Lawrence was so affected by his contemplation of the tree that "he was not able to say" if his love for God "had at all increased during the 40 odd years which had since passed" (29).

THE SECOND CONVERSATION

"He was always ruled by love, without any other consideration" (33). Love is not transactional for Brother Lawrence, but unconditional. Regardless of whether he was lost or saved, Brother Lawrence says that he tried to live for God (35).

"He was happy when he could pick up a straw from the ground for the love of God" (33). We should seek God for his own sake, not for the sake of what he can give us, or do for us, or forgive us for.

"That we ought to act very simply towards God, speaking frankly to him, and asking his help in things as they occurred" (36). Here Brother Lawrence rejects stiff, formal prayers and shyness towards God and recommends a conversation of the nature of a close friendship.

"The time of prayer was not different from any other" (37). Brother Lawrence regards every time as a time of prayer.

"That our thoughts spoil everything" (38). A wandering mind can be a problem both for the busy and the idle.

THE THIRD CONVERSATION

"That God is indeed honoured by the trust that we put in him and fulfills it with graces" (43). What do you think is the relationship between faith and trust?

"That he was more united with God during his ordinary activities than in religious exercises" and "That many souls get stuck among systems and particular devotions" (45-46). Brother Lawrence believes that virtue and spiritual richness both derive from an active service to God rather than from devotional exercises. Virtue consists in behavior based on supra-individual principles--operating by rules beyond the self--either some abstract ideals or a focus on loving and honoring God. There is a saying, "Do whatever you are willing to do while God, whom you love, is watching."

THE FOURTH CONVERSATION

"We need only to realize that God is close to us and to turn to him at every moment, to ask for his help to learn his will in doubtful things" (47). We must keep God involved in all of our activities.

"We are equally bound to be united to God by work" (49). It is sometimes said that "work is worship."

"That we ought not to get tired of doing little things for the love of God, because he looks at the love rather than the work" (49). Each of us has different abilities, opportunities, and intentions for what we do. God sees our hearts.

THE FIRST LETTER

This letter concerns our perseverance in our intention to serve God.

THE SECOND LETTER

The theme of this letter is that we should worship God for his sake alone and not for what we can derive from our worship.

THE THIRD LETTER

In this letter, Brother Lawrence notes that devotions are only a means to an end, which is to draw closer to God.

THE FOURTH LETTER

We can worship God anywhere by making "a chapel of our heart" (68).

THE FIFTH LETTER

By keeping ourselves always in God's presence, we can fuse our will with God's will.

THE SIXTH LETTER

We should search for God without wearying.

SEVENTH LETTER

We should take time to think about who we are, to "enter into ourselves" and see what is there. Suffering is a path to self analysis: "Why me?" Should be a real question in search of a reasonable answer, not a rhetorical question arising from the naivete or bluff of lack of desert.

EIGHTH LETTER

Prayer does not necessarily mean talking to God; it more often means listening to him.

NINTH LETTER

"We must know before we can love; and to know God we must often think about him" (88). Note here that knowledge is a key and a prerequisite to love.

SIXTEENTH LETTER

"And, as knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and wider our knowledge, the greater will be our love" (105). Here again Brother Lawrence connects knowledge and love.

SPIRITUAL MAXIMS

NECESSARY PRACTICES FOR ATTAINING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

"3. We must act recollectedly, not with that impetuosity and thoughtlessness that mark an undisciplined mind" (111). A disciplined mind yields a disciplined soul.


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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com