Recently, I stumbled onto a list of “Christian classics” and decided to read them all.
To read them all. Because I have a hard time doing anything in moderation.
I was doing great at first. I loved the first few books on the list.
Then I started in on The Practice Of The Presence Of God by Brother Lawrence. (Actually, I’d heard that it’s a hard read so I got an updated more reader-friendly version called Practicing His Presence.)
It’s awful. The worst great book I’ve ever read.
Brother Lawrence was a footman (a servant) in the 1600s who tried to “turn” his thoughts toward God every minute of the day. And he failed because it was impossible to focus only on God and still do his work well. So he quit work, withdrew from society and became a monk, serving in the kitchen doing rote work that allowed him to think only about God all day for forty years.
His peaceful disposition was legendary. People wrote him – even other monks and nuns – asking advice on how to “live more spiritually.” Practicing The Presence Of God is a collection of correspondence with them.
Every letter says the same thing: Try to turn your thoughts to God every minute of every day. You will fail but keep trying. Do this out of love for God.
For Brother Lawrence, this is the only “work” of the Christian life: think about God. A CHristian, he writes, only needs meditation – for healing, for pleasure, for worship. Focussing our thoughts on God is all we need?
In response to a woman asking Brother Lawrence to pray for an end to her illness, he writes…
Though I know you are suffering, I am not praying that you will be delivered from your pain. Nonetheless, I do pray. I earnestly ask God to give you strength and patience to bear your pain as long as it pleases Him. God has fastened you to a cross…
Rely upon no physician; for according to my understanding, the Lord reserves the cure to Himself. He will remedy your sickness in His time. Therefore, put all your trust in Him and you will soon discover the effect on your recovery. We often retard our recovery by putting a greater confidence in the medical world than in God…
You don’t need medicine, Brother Lawrence seems to be saying, you only need to get alone somewhere, be quiet and focus all your thoughts on God – all day. I think that’s going too far, don’t you?
Brother Lawrence went so far as to say that when a person becomes good at turning her thoughts to God continuously, she will no longer need times of devotional reading, structured prayer, a community to worship and learn with, or any other spiritual discipline. Also too far, right?
Maybe Brother Lawrence had a hard time doing anything in moderation too.
If a little quiet and meditation throughout the day is good, then why not become a monk and do nothing but meditate in silence? If focussing on God makes me happy, why do anything else for pleasure? If meditation makes me most aware of God’s presence, why sing songs, read books, serve the poor or take in a sermon? If thinking on God makes me feel stronger when I’m sick, who needs doctors?
Practicing The Presence Of God is repetitive and Brother Lawrence’s extremism sure leads to some theologically squirrelly moments…but I like Brother Lawrence – his discipline, devotion, excitement, challenge to think on God. I like him. Even when he’s wrong.
So he’s a man of extremes who can’t do anything good in moderation. At least he’s passionate.
Yea, I’ll go with “passionate.”
Read any old books lately that you’re passionate about? Recommend one!