A 400 year old conversation

 

brotherlawrence

Run No. 70         Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 44’14” (PB 38’ 38”)

As I ran today I was reflecting on what I have been studying recently.

It is a small booklet of 12 pages of notes that were taken of a series of four conversations between two Frenchmen between 3rd August 1666 and 25th November 1667.

The one man was a Catholic priest, the other was a lay brother who worked in the kitchens of a monastery.

One man sought the spiritual advice of the other.

Counter-intuitively it was the priest who sought spiritual guidance from the kitchen-worker.

After the death of the kitchen-worker, the notes of this conversation were quickly put into print, at first by the Protestant Huguenot community, then later by the Catholic press.

They have become known as a classic work of spirituality by both communities and are still immensely popular today.

The kitchen-worker was born Nicholas Herman in Lorraine, Eastern France in 1611. He had a basic education but was forced to go into the army at 18 as no other career prospects opened up.

He was very quickly wounded when Swedish forces raided a neighbouring village. His injuries left him lame and in chronic pain for the rest of his life.

He was unable to continue in the army and got employment as a footman – a domestic servant – to a rich man. His duties were waiting at table and receiving visitors. But unfortunately he was naturally clumsy and his lameness only made this worse. His employer described him as;

‘A big clumsy fellow who smashed everything.’[1]

Somewhere around this time he had an experience during which he noticed a tree in winter, stripped of its leaves. He reflected that in a short while it would have new leaves, then flowers, and then fruit. This so impressed him as an example of how God provides for us, that it became a spiritual turning point in his life.

He entered a monastery, taking the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. He expected that his clumsiness and failings would be punished and that this would be something he could offer to God, but instead he found nothing but contentment. He would often say to God that he had duped him!

In the monastery his basic education meant he was only fit for menial work, so he was put in the kitchens, peeling vegetables and cooking meals. Cooking was something for which he had a natural aversion, but he decided to do it for the love of God and continued in it for the next 30 years of his life.

What makes his story so interesting was that he had the insight that his menial work could be just as pleasing to God and an act of spiritual worship as anything else; that he could do – and should do – everything that he did for the love of God.

‘He was happy if he could pick up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him alone, nothing else, not even His gifts.’[2]

His spirituality is full of self-knowledge, humanity and gentleness with himself and others;

“When I see that I am at fault I admit it and say: ‘That is just like me; I can do nothing right by myself’; when I do not fail, I acknowledge that it is God’s doing and give thanks to Him.”[3]

It is such a healthy and life-affirming spirituality. His simple method was to live his life in the presence of God, having a life-long communion and conversation with God.

‘That we ought to act very simply towards God, speaking frankly to Him, and asking His help in things as they occurred; in his experience, God never failed to give it.’ [4]

‘That with him the time of prayer was not different from any other; he had set times for it, which the Father Prior had appointed, but he neither wanted nor asked for them, for the most absorbing work did not divert him from God.’ [5]

His simplicity of life brought Brother Lawrence both peace and contentment;

 ‘That he gave thought neither to death nor to his sins, neither to Heaven nor to Hell, but only to the doing of small things for the love of God – small things because he as incapable of big ones. He need trouble no further, for whatever came after would be according to God’s will.’[6]

He came to find that his menial work actually brought him closer to God than the formal times of prayer;

‘That he was more united to God during his ordinary activities than in religious exercises, in which he was generally afflicted with spiritual dryness.’[7]

What makes his approach to the spiritual life so great is that it is attainable for everyone;

‘That neither skill nor knowledge is required to enable us to go to God, but just a heart determined to turn to Him only, to beat for Him only, and to love Him only.’[8]

‘That our sanctification did not depend upon doing certain works, but upon doing for God that which we ordinarily did for ourselves.’[9]

‘That we ought not to get tired of doing little things for the love of God, because He looks at the love rather than the work. And we need not be surprised at our frequent failures at first; the time will come when we shall make our acts naturally and with gladness.’[10]

This spiritual approach sets the goal of our lives;

‘…to become as good worshippers of God as we possibly can, as we hope to be His perfect worshippers for all eternity.’[11]

I reflected how complicated we often make the spiritual life, when it really can be so simple; not easy, but simple.

As I ran I found myself again giving thanks to God for Brother Lawrence and offering my run to God as worship and an act of love.

 

[1] Donald ATTWATER (translator), The Practice of the Presence of God, London: Burns & Oates, 1926 (1693), p1

[2] ibid. p3

[3] ibid. p7

[4] ibid p5

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid. p7

[7] ibid. p9

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid. p10

[10] ibid. p11

[11] ibid.

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