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The loving challenge of the practice of the presence of God

Blossoms are pictured on a tree outside a home in Chesapeake Beach, Md., March 30, 2022. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

Some of the best spiritual classics are brief reflections with unexpected depth. For my goal of reading one spiritual classic a month, it felt fitting to take up such a work for February, the shortest month.

“The Practice of the Presence of God” contains the insights of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a French 17th-century Carmelite monk who worked as a cook in the monastery, and shared a simple recipe for cultivating a relationship with God that touched many in France and around the world.

His conversion story is a rather startling tale of a man who fell in love at first sight and never recovered.

He described seeing a tree stripped of its leaves in the winter and reflected that “before long leaves would appear anew, then flowers and then the fruit” and “this consideration gave him so striking an idea of the providence and might of God that it had never since been effaced from his soul.”

This idea “kindled in him so great a love for God that he was not able to say if it had at all increased during the forty odd years which had since passed.”

Through his conversations, letters and spiritual maxims, Brother Lawrence challenges the reader to strive to think of God at all times, not only at the times one is at prayer.

This proposal is simple enough, but also a challenge that can seem nearly impossible to put into practice, particularly in the 21st century with our endless supply of distractions, worries and entertainments.

Remarking upon the human tendency to fall into distraction, Brother Lawrence wrote that “the mind is given to roving,” but added that “the will is mistress of all our faculties and must redirect it to its last end in God.”

He proposes drawing one’s mind back to God through lifting up our hearts to him in everything that we do and with humility by the frequent confession of our failings. He advises “acting very simply toward God, speaking frankly to Him” and “asking His help in things as they occurred.”

He found the best way of reaching God was through ordinary occupations done “for the love of God with as little regard for human respect as possible.” Rather than having a more intense religious experience in formal prayer, he was “more united to God during his ordinary activities than in religious exercises, in which he was generally afflicted with spiritual dryness.”

In one of his letters to a woman living in the world, he wrote that “to be with God it is not necessary to be always in church. We may make a chapel of our heart whereto we may escape from time to time to talk with Him quietly, humbly, and lovingly.”

“Perseverance is required at first,” he found, “in making a habit of converse with God and of referring all we do to Him, but after a little His love moves us to it without any difficulty.”

Coming to know the Lord’s love for us and being moved toward him in love is the key to Brother Lawrence’s approach. His practice of the presence of God leads “insensibly to that simple gaze of love, to that sight of God’s continual presence, which is the most simple, and the most fruitful kind of prayer.”

This presence of God can be a “clear and distinct knowledge of God,” he wrote or a “loving gaze or a sense of God” and also “a waiting on God, a silent conversation with Him.”

Lent is a fruitful time to read Brother Lawrence’s powerful reminders of the purpose of fasting and penitence. He emphasized that “all penitential practices and other mortifications were only useful in so far as they promoted union with God through love.”

Given man’s ultimate end of loving union with God in the beatific vision, this 17th-century monk’s challenge to fix our minds on the Lord and remain in his loving gaze in our everyday lives is a timeless and timely admonition.

Lauretta Brown is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @LaurettaBrown6.

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