“Gross by Nature, Delicate by Grace” – Francois Fénelon’s words to describe Brother Lawrence

Happy Lent!

I always struggle to come up with a seasonal greeting for this time of the Christian Year.  There is really nothing quite as catchy as “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Thanksgiving.”  While wishing someone a “Somber Lent” or “Repentant Lent” may capture some of the meaning of the season, it feels almost like you’re cursing someone!  So I guess “happy” will have to do since we use it for most holidays whether it fits well or not.  I mean think about it, “Happy Halloween?”  What and odd thing to say right after you jump out of the bushes and yell “Booo!”

Our Lenten season began this past Wednesday and with it, a new journey of searching for God with all our heart.   Personally, I always find the season of Lent to be the most meaningful of the Christian year.  Our society chases after happiness, success, busyness, self-expression, and self-fulfillment.  Lent runs counter cultural to all of this.  Fasting, reflection, prayer, lament, and repentance may not sell products like beer or cars but they are crucial seasons for the soul to thrive.

Whenever I take time to reflect on what is the purpose of this season, I am always reminded of a 17th century monk named Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.  If you’re not familiar with him you may think this rather odd.  After all, Brother Lawrence didn’t nail 95 theses to a church door like Luther.  He didn’t write a Summa Theologica like Aquinas.  He didn’t preach to the masses like Wesley.  Yet in so many ways Brother Lawrence’s life offers a challenge to me greater than these other Godly men.

Brother Lawrence was born in France and given the name Nicholas Herman.  At 18, he became a soldier for Lorraine in the Thirty Years War where he was at one point captured and at another point wounded.  That war was an especially savage one and Brother Lawrence carried with him the emotions from some of the atrocities he saw.  He later served as a footman for the treasurer of the King of France.  In this position, Brother Lawrence described himself as “a clumsy lummox who broke everything.”  Deciding this wasn’t for him, Brother Lawrence tried to become a hermit!  He found this wasn’t for him either so he went to Paris and joined the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites.  It was here he was given the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.

Brother Lawrence was assigned very lowly tasks and spent many of his years serving in the kitchen.  The remarkable thing about Brother Lawrence was that he accepted all assignments, even the unglamorous ones, with… joy.  The lifestyle he lived was a simple one.  Yet over time this secluded monk profoundly influenced all that encountered him.  He never spoke to audiences, never attended grand ceremonies, yet when he died his superiors felt they needed to compile all they could about this man so that future generations could be touched by his life.  We know this compilation of letters and conversations as the book, The Practice of the Presence of God.  It has been a treasured book for over 3 centuries.  If you’ve never read it, it is a short book, and a great one to read this Lenten season.

What was so profound about Brother Lawrence?  It sounds so simple and almost naïve.  His life taught us that we could at all times, in all circumstances, and in all tasks – be in constant prayer.

Yes, you read that right.  Constant Prayer.  His one thought that he let consume him and order all of his life was to be in constant conversation with God.   This could be in dedicated times of prayer but it was also when washing the dishes, cleaning the clothes, sweeping the floor, or writing a letter.  This may sound impossible but the crazy part is, Brother Lawrence actually lived it!

There are many things I would love to pull out for you from Brother Lawrence’s way of living and how it impacts our lives.  But I will simply share 2 of them with you.

1) Living in constant communion with God helps us see our infirmities, sickness, and limitations differently.  In what is labelled Brother Lawrence’s fifteenth letter he writes to a nun encouraging her in her suffering,

Also, if we wish to enjoy the peace of paradise in this life, we must accustom ourselves to an intimate, humble and loving conversation with Him; we must prevent our minds from wandering away from Him on any occasion; we must make our hearts a sanctuary where we adore Him continually; we must ever be on the alert not to do anything, say anything or think anything that might displease Him.  When we are thus occupied with God, suffering will be full of sweetness, a balm and a consolation.

That may sound like a nice poetic thing to say but Brother Lawrence lived it.  He suffered from a very painful chronic gout which eventually developed into an ulcerated leg.  Because of this he walked with a pronounced limp.  He even had to stop his kitchen duties and work in the shoe-repair shop of the monastery because his limp had become so debilitating.  Yet despite all this, Brother Lawrence still had a sweet spirit about him that was noticeable by others.  He knew of God’s power despite circumstances.

2) Living life in constant prayer connects us to others more significantly than social media.  Henri Nouwen discusses one of his greatest learnings of Brother Lawrence when he says,

The great mystery of prayer, as the life of Brother Lawrence shows, is that this single-minded concern for God does not lead us away from people but, to the contrary, closer to them.  Brother Lawrence’s life shows clearly his great openness for his fellow human beings.  He reminds us in a forceful way that we cannot find God in people but that it is God in us who finds God in people.  When we are concerned with God and God alone then we discover that the God of our prayers is the God of our neighbor.  Therefore: The closer we come to God, the closer we come to each other.

So as we continue into this season of Lent, may our striving after God lead us not only into deeper relationship with him but a peace that passes all understanding and love for our neighbor greater than we have known before.

Grace and Peace,

Jonathan Mann