I feel strange giving a review of a classic text. Things become timeless because they stood the test of reviews, especially negative ones, so what I say doesn’t exactly have bearing on what others will see in this book. Still, I had some thoughts on this little book; mostly good, but with a few minor objections.
Brother Lawrence’s writings compiled in The Practice of the Presence of God stand as classics because of their simplicity and adherence to basic Christian doctrine and Scripture. A lay brother in the Carmelite order in Paris, Brother Lawrence himself did not compile the book HImself, rather, a dear friend did, which, I guess, in a way, shows he wasn’t just blowing smoke to get published like some authors have done. He writes in letters to others, and in small, hardly pamphlet-sized blurbs, regard what he refers to as the practice of the presence of God.
The premise behind Brother Lawrence’s practice is to demonstrate a simple, though long term method to becoming perfect, though becoming perfect isn’t his goal. When he converted to Christianity, he felt, out of a deep love for God, a desire to spend every waking minute loving God and in His presence, something he learned to practice by thinking about God constantly, and praying to God through every last aspect of his day, even something as simple as cooking an omelet. Through this simple method, he claims to have come to know God on such an intimate level that God’s joy would literally overflow out of him because he simply could not contain himself.
Let me get to the positive side of what I want to say here. I’ve begun implementing this practice into my daily life as a result of this book. I did sort of intend to do a second read of the book and really pick it apart (my first read only took me an hour’s time), but…it just seems really unnecessary. Lawrence made all of this so simple there’s no need to pick it apart really. The whole thing couldn’t be more straightforward: in addition to “devotions” (time spent by Christians studying the word of God and praying), speak with God constantly in the secrecy of your heart. Know Him by thinking about Him all the time, and acknowledge His presence with your every step. It’s not an easy practice; Lawrence makes it clear that one cannot become spiritually mature overnight (that particular statement really resonated with me; a 24-year-old trying to attain the maturity and wisdom of men like Thomas Merton). It takes time and devotion, and everyone who begins this practice will fail (this also resonated with me; I only made it past lunchtime in this practice), but with dedication and practice, this will become so embedded in one’s daily practice that to be away from God’s presence will cause distress and sadness.
The simplicity of this book also stems from its lack of theological or philosophical treatise. Lawrence, apparently, never concerned himself with these matters, unless pressed to do so by his superiors. When this occurred, he answered their questions in a concise matter that seemed to satisfy them, and returned to his daily tasks. His teachings are derived from his own experiences contained primarily in letters to friends and short statements. For him, there was no need for long-winded statements justifying his practice; one only needs to weigh its truth by the fruit it produces.
This writing spans Catholic and Protestant thinking, with no possible way of either side claiming ownership of Brother Lawrence. Lawrence’s devotion to the Carmelite Order, an order devoted to contemplative prayer, shines through in his writings. While he does state that no knowledge or experience is required to practice the presence of God, no doubt these practices aided him in his pursuit. The monk who told me to read this book no doubt practices what he read on a daily basis; it shines through him in his very presence! The Protestant side shines through in his statements that contemplation of Jesus, acting by faith and grace alone, and reading the Bible were all that he needed to come to this lovely intimacy with God (sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia were Martin Luther’s three primary tenets for Christian doctrine). Evangelicals today will relate to Lawrence’s informality. He explicitly tells his readers to not worry with the recitation of prayers, or thoughts we’ve memorized, but to be fully open with God about our feelings and love for Him in our own language.
I do have some minor objections, however. This might stand as a personal quibble, but I honestly feel sometimes that it’s TOO simple. One of the things I’m seeing about the church at large today is its expansion to new practices, from the development of community (something Brother Lawrence acknowledges he needed) to expanding out to include practices from outside its own denomination. I can’t say Brother Lawrence would have been opposed to this, but at the same time, he seems to gently push aside anything outside of what he did, not outright dismissing it, but sort of saying, “Yeah, those things are nice, but just do what I did and you’ll be fine.” Now, no doubt Lawrence’s methods would be beneficial to any Christian who practices them, but the Christian walk is so multifaceted that to believe that ONLY doing this would be enough would be missing out on so much of what God offers. More does exist.
My other objection stands in its lack of social action. Now, Lawrence’s order, the Carmelites, are a contemplative order. Their time not spent doing chores is spent in solitude praying and studying Scripture. They’re not ones to leave the monastery other than to get things the order needs, so his exclusion of a social practice (one where the Christian goes out into the world to aid the poor and suffering) is understandable. It is also true that I am speaking from the context of the church in the 21st Century, where social action is becoming more central (as I would argue, in accordance with the Acts church and the early church fathers) to our practice. Lawrence’s practice stands strictly for the individual Christian walk, an inner focus as opposed to an outer one. In the 17th century, it may not have been a big deal to him to concern himself with these matters, but lack of social action on the church’s part, to me, has led to its decline, and the few that took it upon themselves to care for the poor and suffering are helping to keep the church from fully sliding down the slope.
All in all, this is a good book. It may not have everything, and it does stand, in my mind, more as a supplement to the individual Christian walk, but adding these teachings to ones inner practice will pour out into the outer ones, perhaps inspiring us to new devotions and practices in our world. Don’t take this book as the one authority on Christian life; take it as an element necessary to a more perfect one. It will make a huge difference; I can promise that.