Saturday, September 28, 2013

Brother Lawrence - Naming Our Possessions

Let us get acquainted with this simple uneducated man, Brother Lawrence who was born Nicolas Herman, in 1614 near the region of Lorraine in eastern France. At the age of 18 he had a watershed experience that forever changed the path his life took: 
"In the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the providence and power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul." He said "that this view had perfectly set him loose from the world, and kindled in him such a love for God that he could not tell whether it had increased during the more than forty years he had [since] lived."
It would be 6 years after this experience, during which he fought in the Thirty Years' War and then worked as a simple valet, before entering the Discalced or Barefoot Carmelite Order. He was received in and immediately assigned to menial work that included kitchen detail. Nonetheless his sense of inner peace was so profound that others were drawn to him for spiritual direction. He never grew tried of sharing his efforts to stay riveted on God so to be filled with peace and joy.

Following Brother Lawrence's death, M. Beaufort authored a book in which he recorded the many conversations he had with Brother Lawrence, including letters by Brother Lawrence. The title of this book is Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence  and it is one of the books that you will find on everyone's list of classical works of spirituality.

The book is filled with remarkable quotes, but I just want to focus on a few here. 
“The time of business for me does not differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”
I would like to draw out a couple imagines. First notice how he describes what we normally think of as two differing states of being or 'presence' - one is a rushing about and the other is of prayer. The former is caused by what we might say is our lack of possession thus our grasping for something or someone and the other is a result of being in possession of God. 

As a student of René Girard and mimetic theory I would like to bring out a second insight from this quote by Brother Lawrence and that is our notion of this term possession*. A word of caution here, we must not be fooled by a difference in our language: traditionally we refer to 'spirits' possessing people and usually this has a negative connotation. In turn when we refer to the Holy Spirit indwelling, or inhabiting the person we view this as a positive association. Please note however, the movement of relationship is the same in both cases. The difference is in our valuation of the quality of the "spirit" that is doing the moving. So in our reflection on Brother Lawrence's quote we note his allusion to how divisions of time/activity can in one moment cause us to fall out of God's indwelling only to be possessed by a spirit of distraction, fragmenting or separating us from peace - disconnecting us from God.

Brother Lawrence directs us saying that union with God is a surrender to the 'indwelling' or possession of God in each moment and for all activities. From his watershed experience at the age of 18 he came to know his calling, or it might otherwise be said, he was awaken to a particular state of indwelling, a deep sense of God's love for him, which throughout his life manifested itself in a difficult yet disciplined prayer life. 
"As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties." 
Gerald May wrote in his book, The Awakening Heart, that... "It is said of Brother Lawrence that when something had taken his mind away from love's presence he would receive 'a reminder from God' that so moved his soul that he 'cried out, singing and dancing violently like a madman.' You will note that the reminders came from God and were not his own doing."

Though Brother Lawrence glimpsed this 'high view of the providence and power of God' at 18, only when he reconciled himself to this lifelong struggle of surrender, that had at its heart to be only God's desire - God's possession, was he to realize the importance of prayer - not as an activity that he did but rather what God was doing through him.

* concept borrowed from Jesus, The Forgiving Victim with James Alison

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