Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 1 August 2010
1 August 2010 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence
One More Spiritual Classic: The Practice of the Presence of God (There are a number of editions in print. I have occasionally adapted the Epworth translation for clarity. For a free, online text see: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/)
The Practice of the Presence of God contains recollections of four conversations with Brother Lawrence and fifteen letters from him, written shortly before his death. He spoke of his prayer as ‘nothing else but a sense of the presence of God’.
There was a time when many Christians kept a small library of spiritual classics and read a passage daily. I suspect that happens a lot less now. We have many more Christian devotional books available to us than in the past, but in a world of computers and television we read them far less. For the last four weeks at Morning Prayer I have been speaking about some spiritual classics of the late Medieval period – classics like The Cloud of Unknowing and the Imitation of Christ. I want to speak this morning about a little book from a later period: the Practice of the Presence of God. Though the book is about the experience of a Carmelite (that is a Catholic) lay brother, it was a favourite of John Wesley, and my copy was published by the Methodist Epworth Press. Michael Mayne wrote about the contemplative prayer groups which he established throughout his ministry as providing a ‘contained space where people could be encouraged to sit or kneel in that simple giving of attention in which we practise the presence of God’. (Mayne, Michael, To Trust and To Love (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010), p. 166.)
The book contains recollections of four conversations with Brother Lawrence and fifteen letters from him, written shortly before his death. We don’t know much about Lawrence. He was born Nicolas Herman about 1614 in Hériménil in Lorraine, Eastern France. At the age of 18 he had an experience of the presence of God that he never forgot. It was very simple. During the winter, he was gazing at a bare tree, without leaves or fruit. While he gazed, it came to him that in the spring there would be new flowers and then there would be fruit. As he thought about this, he had a strong sense of God’s generosity and goodness. In himself, he felt barren and without fruit, but at this point he found a lasting confidence that God would restore him to fruitfulness. At that moment, he said, he received a sense of the presence of God that never afterwards left him. Shortly after this, whilst serving as a soldier, he was injured. He had to leave the army and then, having worked as a footman for a short period (he said he was ‘a great awkward fellow who broke everything’), he joined a Carmelite monastery in Paris. There he expected to give up the pleasures of life and to be punished for his sins, but, he said, ‘God had disappointed him as he had met with nothing but satisfaction in that state’ (p. 8). He wasn’t educated enough to be a priest, so he remained a lay brother, first helping in the kitchen and then repairing sandals. Though he was of very humble status, he became well-known for his evident peace and contentment. People began to come and seek guidance from him. After he died in 1691, memories of his conversation and some of his letters were collected by Father Joseph de Beaufort.
Lawrence says that if he were a preacher he would ‘above all other things preach the practice of the presence of God; and were I a [spiritual] director, I should advise all the world to do it: so necessary do I think it, and so easy too’(p. 40). Again and again, he returns to this theme – one that is worth thinking about today because he said it was the secret of the joy and contentment for which he became famous. People said about him that ‘his very countenance was edifying; such a sweet and calm devotion appearing in it, as could not but affect the beholders’. And it was noticed that in all the busyness of the kitchen ‘he was never hasty not loitering, but did each thing in its time, with an uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit’ (p. 23). He had found the secret of happiness - yet he was not considered educated or important enough to be able to teach it in any official way. All we have is this one little book and some spiritual maxims, which can be read in less than an hour.
Part of the Lawrence’s secret was the way he put God first in everything. He talked of rejecting everything that does not lead us to God. Another part of the secret was the simple way, he talked with God. He said, ‘we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s presence, by continually conversing with Him’ (p. 8). Lawrence spoke of maintaining a conversation with God in which we ask for his help when we are unsure what to do and when we can see precisely what we have to do. He spoke of his prayer as ‘nothing else but a sense of the presence of God’ and said that ‘when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might, so that he passed his life in continual joy’ (p.19).
Lawrence kept the regular times of prayer in the monastery, but he said he didn’t have set times of prayer on his own. He said he had given up ‘forms of devotion and set prayers’ except ‘those to which my position [as a lay brother] obliges me’. He made it his business ‘only to persevere in [God’s] holy presence, wherein I keep myself by a simple attention and a general fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God; or, to speak better, an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God’ (p. 31). He had found a way to obey Paul’s command that we should ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:17) - and he had done so without any sense of strain.
Lawrence writes a good deal about our attitude to sickness. He encourages us to see sickness as coming from God and to accept it as a means through which we learn spiritually. He suggests that God is often (in some sense) nearer to us in sickness than in health’, and that God ‘often sends diseases of the body, to cure those of the soul’ (p. 52). For some people severe and prolonged illness involves immense suffering and produces no obvious spiritual good. Lawrence doesn’t comment on such situations. The fact is he found a way for himself to be contented with whatever God allowed to happen to him. ‘Be satisfied with the condition in which God places you’ (p. 52), he said, and he himself clearly was. He talks of the times he was close to death, and of how he prayed ‘for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love’ (p. 58). At the end of his last letter, he says that he hopes to see God within a few days (p. 61), and we are told that two days after writing this he took to his bed and died within the week. By then, he had practised the presence of God for some sixty years. His last recorded words are, ‘Let us pray for one another’ (p. 61).
I first read this little book when I was a student. As I re-read it now, I can see that it is not for everyone. For some people, there is a terrible sense of the absence of God, and what Lawrence has to say may well not be right for them. But for others, of which I am one, it is immensely liberating to hear him say that what is important is not saying lots of prayers but learning how the soul can rest in God, not necessarily asking for anything, but simply being content to be in the presence of God. For myself, it really does help to describe both prayer and the living of a Christian life - and how the two go together - in the phrase we are given by this little spiritual classic: the practice of the presence of God.