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Posted November 6, 2003

Book Review

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence


The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Nathan Vonnahme
The Christian Spirit
Regent College
25 March, 1999

I first came across the encouraging words of Brother Lawrence a few years ago when a friend told me a little about the humble monastery dishwasher who wrote about constantly practicing the presence of God, and I was immediately intrigued and encouraged. This semester I was introduced to Brother Lawrence's spiritual descendant, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and the two have complemented each other beautifully in my reading. Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century Carmelite lay-brother in France, is the picture of simplicity in his description of his approach to God, while de Caussade, a Jesuit born sixteen years before Brother Lawrence died, is much more elaborate and eloquent. Both, however, share the same fundamental concerns. Richard Foster writes, "Indeed, the two are of the same spiritual genre and could almost be considered companion volumes" (Sacrament xv).

The Practice of the Presence of God is astonishingly simple. It consists of notes from conversations with Brother Lawrence, several of his letters, some treatises he wrote, and a short biography. Every page patiently and freshly points to Brother Lawrence's one passion, the continuous practice of the presence of God.

All we have to do is to recognize God as being intimately present within us. Then we may speak directly to Him every time we need to ask for help, to know His will in moments of uncertainty, and to do whatever He wants us to do in a way that pleases Him. We should offer our work to Him before we begin, and thank Him afterwards for the privilege of having done them for His sake. This continuous conversation would also include praising and loving God incessantly for His infinite goodness and perfection (Presence 19).

Brother Lawrence advises everyone he is in contact with to pursue this constant communion with God in the simplest terms:

Remember what I advised you to do: Think about God as often as you can, day and night, in everything you do. He is always with you. Just as you would be rude if you left a friend who was visiting you alone, why abandon God and leave Him alone? (Presence 48)

De Caussade is concerned with the same constant presence of God that Brother Lawrence is, but he explores its components in more detail. The two main emphases of his thinking are reflected in the two alternate titles given to a collection of his notes: "The Sacrament of the Present Moment" and "Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence." The first title refers to de Caussade's emphasis on finding God in each moment. He writes, "A living faith is nothing else than a steadfast pursuit of God through all that disguises, disfigures, demolishes and seeks, so to speak, to abolish him" (Sacrament 65). This faith can discover God in every circumstance and in each moment:

. . . everything without exception is an instrument and means of sanctification, providing that the present moment is all that matters. It is no longer a question of supplication or silence, reticence or eloquence, reading or writing, ideas or apathy, neglect or study of spiritual books, affluence or destitution, sickness or health, life or death. All that matters is what the will of God ordains each moment. This is the casting off, the withdrawal from, the renunciation of, the world, not actually but in effect, to be nothing by or for ourselves, to belong totally to God, to please him, making our sole happiness to look on the present moment as though nothing else in the world mattered (Sacrament 77).

The second title, which is closer to the original French, is "Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence." It stresses de Caussade's constant realization that complete surrender of self is necessary in order to live a life in constant touch with God's purposes. Devotion to God in every moment entails abandonment of self in every moment too.

In order to understand [the inner revelation of the Holy Spirit] it is necessary to be in a state of total self-surrender, completely detached from every purpose and every interest, however holy, to have no other interest in the world than passively to submit to divine action in order to devote oneself to the duty of one's state, allowing the Holy Spirit to act in us regardless of what it is doing, happy, even, to remain in ignorance (Sacrament 87).

De Caussade is much more complicated and verbose than Brother Lawrence, but each complements the other in remarkable ways. For me, one of the main points of contact was in this concept of self-abandonment, which is the key to understanding Brother Lawrence too, though it is easy to miss because of his simplicity. He writes of continual self-abandonment too: "In short, we cannot show God our loyalty to Him more than by renouncing our worldly selves as much as a thousand times a day to enjoy even a single moment with Him (Presence 60). And he acknowledges that to pursue God involves not only the yielding of self but the renouncing of everything else.

Today Brother Lawrence spoke to me quite openly and with great enthusiasm about his manner of going to God. He said the most important part lay in renouncing, once and for all, whatever does not lead to God. This would allow us to become involved in a continuous conversation with Him in a simple and unhindered manner (Presence 19).

I had more trouble reading these two short books than I expected. I was tempted to dismiss Brother Lawrence as simple, redundant and unrealistic and to give up on de Caussade because it was so hard to wade through one convoluted sentence, much less an entire page. These two temptations were intensified by the fact that I was trying to read each book in short bites in between other responsibilities. But the constant return to these ideas helped me see some of the compartmentalization in my life, the lack of the unity which I saw so clearly in these two. By the time I had persisted through 95 pages of Brother Lawrence's simple words and 103 pages of de Caussade's contorted sentences I was beginning to understand their teaching and integrate it into my life.

The first thing that struck me on reading some excerpts from Brother Lawrence a year or so ago was the outrageously encouraging example of his life. The message he brings is that constant communion with God is hard, but it's possible! Used to thinking about devotional life in terms of specific techniques or exercises, I was surprised to see the time frame 末 years 末 Brother Lawrence talks about. Even his struggles are encouraging because they show he is not a marble saint:

During the first ten years, however, I worried that my walk with the Lord wasn't good enough. Because I couldn't forget my past sins, I felt very guilty when I thought of all the grace He had shown me. During this time, I used to fall often and then get up again. It seemed that everything末even God末was against me, and that only faith was on my side (Presence 36).

But even more hopeful are his simple accounts of his success:

I have given up all but my intercessory prayers to focus my attention on remaining in His holy presence. I keep my attention on God in a simple, loving way. This is my soul's secret experience of the actual, unceasing presence of God. It gives me such contentment and joy, that I sometimes feel compelled to do rather childish things to control it.

To sum up, kind sir, I am sure that my soul has been with God for more than thirty years (Presence 37).

To think in terms of years in God's presence is foreign and frightening for me, I think, because I am so used to assuming that I am not capable of concentrating on him fully for even a few minutes. But de Caussade and Brother Lawrence are encouraging in this regard, too, for they maintain that this approach is easy, natural, and that God provides the means by which it is undertaken.

Nothing is more essential than breathing, sleeping and eating, yet nothing is more available. In accordance with God's commandment, love and faith are no less essential and common to our spiritual needs, and so the difficulties cannot be so great as we imagine (Sacrament 55).

De Caussade stresses that the recognition of God in each moment is not a special calling but the duty and opportunity of every believer: "Let God's will be done; obey him in everything, each one according to his capacity. Nothing is easier in the spiritual life, nothing more available to all" (Sacrament 100). Brother Lawrence makes a similar claim: "What can I say? It is true. I don't know an easier method, nor do I practice any other, so I advise this one to everybody" (Presence 46).

Finally, both writers encourage us that the life of constant prayer is possible not just because they have experienced it but because God is able and willing to make it happen.

[The pure of heart] feel his holiness surrounding them and prefer to submit themselves to his guidance, which leads them aimlessly without order, than to reassure themselves by choosing the well-defined path of virtue.

Come then, since virtue comes from our own ingenuity and effort, let us be resigned to our frailty and dependence on God, who would never reduce us to being unable to walk on our own feet if he had not the mercy to carry us in his arms (Sacrament 94).

Besides being encouraged by these books, I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with some of their emphases. The first one is touched on in the previous quote, and deals with the difference between being led by God and knowing the established path of virtue, between God and speculation about him, between inner assent to God and outward action. De Caussade writes,

Just as it is fire and not the philosophy or science of that element and its effects that heats, so it is God's order and his will which sanctify and not curious speculations about its origin or purpose.

To quench thirst it is necessary to drink. Reading books about it only makes it worse. Thus, when we long for sanctity, speculation only drives it further from our grasp (Sacrament 42).

What a wonderfully healthy perspective to have when studying spiritual things! He continues elsewhere,

If books, the lives of the saints, spiritual intercourse, bring us no peace it means that we are not surrendering ourselves to the duty of the present moment, and that we are stuffing our minds out of mere greed (Sacrament 79).

Brother Lawrence also recognized the radical difference between inner motivation and outer action, and that God pays attention only to the inner motivation. The widow's mite, freely given, is worth more in his sight than the grudging treasures of princes. Brother Lawrence's friend writes of him,

He knew that the more the thing he did was opposed to his natural inclination, the greater was the merit of his love in offering it to God. He knew that the pettiness of the deed would not diminish the worth of his offering, because God 末 needing nothing 末 considers in our works only the love that accompanies them (Presence 90-91).

And De Caussade echoes, comparing the faithfulness of those who obey God accepting their lot in life with those who have special dreams:Intuition and inspiration are then the intimations of God's will and it is best for souls to obey them, not forgetting, however, the caution required when doing so. And to imagine that these souls are more or less perfect merely because their duties are more exalted, is to place perfection, not in surrender to God's will, but in the duties themselves (Sacrament 58).

This recognition that the motivation of the heart is what matters to God and not specific actions is what gives both Brother Lawrence and de Caussade their emphases on worshiping God in any circumstance or activity. The action necessary for each moment is only the continual will to be submissive before God. Other action arises only out of obedience to the Holy Spirit's leading.

O holy redemption, it is you that prepares the way for God! O perfection! O boundless submission, it is you that draws God deep into the heart! Let the senses feel what they may, you, Lord, are all my good! Do what you like to this tiny being, let it act, be inspired, be the object of your purpose! I have nothing more to see or do, not a single moment of my life is in my own hands. All is yours, I have nothing to add, remove, seek or consider. It is for you to direct everything. Sanctification, perfection, salvation, guidance and humility are your responsibility. Mine is to be content, dispassionate, passive, leaving everything to your pleasure (Sacrament 50-51).

This ceaseless inclination of the will toward God in the midst of every opportunity is hard for me but I have been improving some. The simple idea of working for God and offering everything good in my work to him has helped me to remember him when I am working at my job, my studies, or around the house.

The second emphasis in these books that I really resonate with is the emphasis on self-abandonment. In the last month or two God has been showing me how self-centered I am in ways I had never dreamed末I have been especially convicted by how much I hurt my wife because of my constant assumption that I am better, smarter, or more informed than she is. Self-centeredness in my relationship with God shows itself as lack of trust, worry, complaint and laziness. I certainly do not live like I believe that "since God is looking out for Number One so effectively, I am free to care about others," as John Stackhouse said in chapel a few weeks ago. Brother Lawrence and de Caussade's constant turning toward God and away from self is a sure remedy for narcissism, pride and egotism. I think I have been making small steps in the right direction here also.

Self-abandonment has also made me think more about asceticism. Asceticism of any sort seems to be out of fashion in most Christian circles, and I, too, have in the last few years given up most disciplines involving my body. The result of pampering my body, though, is that it turns into a tyrant, ruling over my heart, mind, and willpower. De Caussade has some strong words about this:

We must bravely pursue our way through the tribulations and suffering ordained by God, recklessly using our bodies as hired hacks to be mercilessly worked to death. That is worth more than a lifetime of ease which weakens our strength of mind. This strength of mind has untold power to uphold a frail body, and one year of courageous endeavour, always trying to maintain the bearing of a child of grace and good will, is worth a century of timid caution (Sacrament 23-24).

Perhaps the greatest danger in asceticism is pride, and I think that bad experiences with prideful asceticism have contributed to the church's present capitulation. In my life, too, much of my reluctance to engage in ascetic disciplines is because I fear encouraging pride. But self-abandonment is the key to good asceticism末it is the antidote to pride's poison.

The third emphasis that I really appreciated is the emphasis on trusting God, the essence of faith. De Caussade reassures us of the perfection of God's will:

God's will has only tenderness, mercy and enrichment for those who surrender themselves to it. It can never be too much trusted or too closely obeyed. Faith never doubts that, provided we do not interfere, God's purpose for us is always what will contribute most to our good (Sacrament 85).

Brother Lawrence also stresses the importance of faith: "Faith gave Brother Lawrence a firm hope in God's goodness, confidence in His providence, and the ability to completely abandon himself into God's hands" (Presence 88). It is trust that enables us to surrender ourselves to God, even when it seems scary.

When one is led by a guide who takes one through unknown country by night, across ground without any clearly defined paths, going wherever he fancies without asking advice or disclosing his intentions, what is there but to surrender to him? . . . If we were certain that he was guiding us in the right direction, this would be neither faith nor surrender (Sacrament 98).

Even though de Caussade sometimes sounds suspiciously like the tutor Pangloss from Voltaire's Candide, blindly touting "everything is for the best!" in the face of catastrophe and suffering, his steadfast conviction that indeed ". . . in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28, NIV) is really profound. If we can trust God's purposes in the world, and we must if we are to discover him every moment, there is no room for worry or complaint.

When one says, "But I am troubled; something is wrong; how unreasonable that this sickness seizes me while I yet retain my health!" I reply "No, nothing is wrong. The will of God is all that is needed, everything else is useless." If you know it, when you say everything is misfortune, disappointment, irrelevance, unreasonableness and vexation, you are blaspheming. Although you don't realize it, it is the will of God being blasphemed by his beloved children who do not know what they are doing (Sacrament 82).

De Caussade challenges us to realize that we do not live by chance nor do we make our own lives, but rather we are participants in a providential fairy-tale and therefore have nothing to fear.

[God's purpose] leads souls far more ingeniously past mortal perils, past monsters, hell-fire, demons and their snares and carries them up to heaven. All are the subject of mystical tales far more beautiful and amazing than any invented by the crude imagination of mortal men (Sacrament 24).

His book concludes with another picture of divine authorship of our lives, the "sequels" to the Bible: "We are in an age of faith, the Holy Spirit no longer writes gospels, except in our hearts; saintly souls are the pages, suffering and action the ink" (Sacrament 101).

If we can really trust that God is in control of all our situations and that he will work everything out for us, we will become free to find him in the present moment and respond in obedience to him. When we do not trust that he is in control we take control ourselves and cannot be abandoned to him. The importance of this trust has been sinking in to my heart and mind over the last few days, and I am starting to see why both Brother Lawrence and de Caussade convey such an air of unassailable serenity末their profound faith in God's presence in each moment precludes worry and discontent.

Overall, these two books have been really encouraging, but they have also raised some hard questions and a few objections. De Caussade, especially, treads dangerously close to pantheism in some of his statements about the divinity inherent in each moment, and his Panglossian optimism raises interesting questions for theodicy. But a question both of them raise is whether their approach is an over-simplification of the Christian life. Is the continual practice of the presence of God the only subject of Scripture? Where do Brother Lawrence and de Caussade talk about the second commandment to love our neighbor as our self? How do their teachings address issues of justice or evangelism? Is this approach anti-intellectual and ignoring the command to love God with our mind as well as our heart? What about our soul and strength?

Many Christians are tempted to tout one aspect of the Christian life as the center, the Main Thing 末 whether it be social justice, evangelism, prayer, exegesis or community. Brother Laurence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade necessarily gloss over many things in their concentration on one subject, but I think their fundamental concern of bending our will in obedience to God each moment may very well be the right Main Thing, the root out of which all other actions proceed. It is frightening to commit our lives to God in this way末we worry, "if I concentrate on submitting to God each minute, I may miss the other important things" and we show our lack of trust in his guidance. We are not confident that he will correct our mistakes. Instead, we try to be on the lookout for him. But if we, in faith, commit to this simple task of abandoning ourselves and spending each moment in his presence, we can be sure he will guide us into proper action, whatever it might be.