14/09/2008

The Practice of the Presence of God (by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection)

I know very little about seventeenth century monks, but I'd heard Brother Lawrence's book recommended more than once by people I respect. Since my son had a copy on his shelves - translated, of course, into English! - I thought I'd read it.

'The Practice of the Presence of God' is a short book, consisting of three sections. There are some reported conversations with Brother Lawrence, some letters he wrote to nuns and also women 'in the world', and then, at the end, some spiritual maxims he lived by.

There was also a lengthy introduction in the version I read, which I found a bit long-winded and tedious - but it's not part of the original.

Brother Lawrence advocates a total reliance on God, and - in effect - regular short chats with him, involving him in every part of the day, including chores. Brother Lawrence worked in a kitchen for some years, and apparently talked to God while peeling vegetables or washing dishes, and found that the more he did this, the more he felt in God's presence continually.

However, this seems rather obvious to me. I'm not one to spend hours at a time in prayer; perhaps I should, but I much prefer to 'chat' to God silently through the day. I don't always remember; I certainly haven't reached Brother Lawrence's level of feeling himself in God's presence all the time. But in the theory, I didn't find anything new.

Moreover, I wasn't entirely comfortable with his comments about suffering. He told people to pray not that their suffering or pain would be removed, but that they would be able to worship God despite it, and perceive it as something to help them draw closer to him. Of course, that can certainly happen at times, but in my reading of the New Testament, Jesus physically healed people - he didn't tell them to learn to deal with their suffering and see it as a way of getting closer to God.

More worrying still, Brother Lawrence seems to wish that he were suffering, as if that would somehow make him holier. Perhaps the translation isn't clear, or perhaps I missed something... but this seems like very dangerous ground. Yes, we need to trust God in our sufferings, and draw close to him, and love him even if we're in pain. But that doesn't mean we should ever look for suffering, or see ourselves as better if we do suffer.

I expect the main focus of the book - that of talking to God about everything, all day long - may have been quite radical in the seventeenth century Roman Catholic church. Perhaps it is even today to people brought up to lengthy formal prayers, rather than short impromptu ones. But I must admit I found myself wondering, all the way through, what it was that made people rave so much about this book.

Still, I'm glad I read this book. It wasn't a difficult read, and it was interesting to get an insight into this holy man. It's still in print in both the USA and UK in several editions, and is evidently still very popular... maybe I'm a lone voice in wondering why.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 14th September 2008

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