Biography of Brother Lawrence, Practitioner of God's Presence

Brother Lawrence in the Kitchen
Brother Lawrence in the Kitchen.

Public Domain 

Brother Lawrence (c. 1611–1691) was a lay monk who served as cook in the monastery of the severe order of Discalced Carmelites in Paris, France. He discovered the secret to cultivating holiness by "practicing the presence of God" in the ordinary business of life. His humble letters and conversations were assembled after his death and published in 1691. Many of those simple writings were later translated, edited, and published as The Practice of the Presence of God. The work has become a widely recognized Christian classic and the basis for Lawrence's renown.

Brother Lawrence

  • Full Name: Originally, Nicholas Herman; Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection
  • Known For: 17th-century French lay monk of the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Paris, France. His simple faith and humble way of life have shed light and truth to Christians for four centuries through his famous recorded conversations and writings.
  • Born: Around 1611 in Lorraine, France
  • Died: February 12, 1691 in Paris, France
  • Parents: Peasant farmers, names unknown
  • Published Works: The Practice of the Presence of God (1691)
  • Notable Quote: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

Early Life

Brother Lawrence was born in Lorraine, France, as Nicholas Herman. Little is known of his boyhood. His parents were poor farmers who could not afford to educate their son, so young Nicholas enlisted in the army, where he could count on regular meals and a modest income to support himself.

Over the next 18 years, Herman served in the army. He was stationed in Paris as an aide to the treasurer of France. It was during this timeframe that Herman was awakened supernaturally to a spiritual insight that would clarify the existence of God and his presence in the young man’s life. This experience set Herman on a determined spiritual journey.

The Fact of God

One cold winter day, while carefully observing a desolate tree deprived of its leaves and fruit, Herman imagined it waiting soundlessly and patiently for the hopeful return of summer’s bounty. In that seemingly lifeless tree, Herman saw himself. All at once, he glimpsed for the first time the magnitude of God’s grace, the faithfulness of his love, the perfection of his sovereignty, and the dependability of his providence.

On the face of it, like the tree, Herman felt like he was dead. But suddenly, he understood that the Lord had seasons of life awaiting him in the future. At that moment, Herman’s soul experienced "the fact of God," and a love for God that would burn bright for the rest of his days.

Eventually, Herman retired from the army after suffering an injury. He spent some time working as a footman, waiting on tables, and assisting travelers. But Herman’s spiritual journey led him to the Discalced (meaning "barefoot") Carmelite monastery in Paris, where, upon entering, he adopted the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.

Lawrence lived out the remainder of his days in the monastery. Rather than seek advancement or a higher calling, Lawrence chose to retain his humble status as a lay brother, serving for 30 years in the monastery kitchen as a cook. During his later years, he also repaired broken sandals, even though he himself chose to walk the ground unshod. When Lawrence’s eyesight faltered, he was freed from his duties just a few years before his death in 1691. He was 80 years old.

Practicing the Presence of God

Lawrence cultivated a simple way of communing with God in his everyday duties of cooking, cleaning pots and pans, and whatever else he was called upon to do, which he termed "practicing the presence of God." Everything he did, whether it was spiritual devotions, church worship, running errands, counseling and listening to people, no matter how mundane or tedious, Lawrence saw it as a way of expressing God’s love:

"We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."

Lawrence understood that the attitude and motivation of the heart were keys to experiencing the fullness of God’s presence at all times:

"Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?"

Lawrence began to view every little detail of his life as vitally important in his relationship with God:

"I began to live as if there were no one save God and me in the world."

His exuberance, genuine humility, inner joy, and peace attracted people from near and far. Both leaders of the church and common folk sought Lawrence for spiritual guidance and prayer. 

Legacy

Abbe Joseph de Beaufort, the Cardinal de Noailles, took a keen interest in Brother Lawrence. Sometime after 1666, the cardinal sat down with Lawrence to carry out four separate interviews, or "conversations," in which the lowly kitchen worker expounded on his manner of living and shared his humble spiritual perspectives.

After his death, Beaufort collected as many of Lawrence’s letters and personal writings (titled Maxims) as his fellow monks could find, along with his own recorded conversations, and published these in what is known today as The Practice of the Presence of God, a longstanding Christian classic.

Even though he maintained doctrinal orthodoxy, Lawrence’s mystical spirituality earned considerable attention and influence among Jansenists and Quietists. For this reason, he has not been as popular in the Roman Catholic church. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s writings have inspired millions of Christians over the last four centuries to enter into the discipline of practicing the presence of God in the ordinary business of life. As a result, countless believers have discovered these words of Brother Lawrence to be true:

"There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God."

Sources

  • Foster, R. J. (1983). The Celebration of Meditative Prayer. Christianity Today, 27(15), 25.
  • Brother Lawrence. Who’s Who in Christian History (p. 106).
  • 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 271).
  • Practicing the Presence. Review of God Meets Us Where We Are: An Interpretation of Brother Lawrence by Harold Wiley Freer. Christianity Today, 11(21), 1049.
  • Reflections: Quotations to Contemplate. Christianity Today, 44(13), 102.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 244).