Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.
This article is from my new friend Carmen who I met online and who has a translation of The Cloud of Unknowing beloved by so many members of our community. Carmen Acevedo Butcher, PhD, is an author, teacher, poet, and an award-winning translator of spiritual texts. Her dynamic work around the evolution of language and the necessity of just and inclusive language has garnered interest from various media, including the BBC and NPR’s Morning Edition. A Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year and Fulbright Senior Lecturer, Acevedo Butcher’s work in translation has made accessible works by such writers as The Cloud’s Anonymous, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. She currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, in the College Writing Programs. Visit her online at https://www.carmenbutcher.com/.
Over 300 years ago, Brother Lawrence, author of the spiritual classic Practice of the Presence, lived through times dangerously like ours. He survived three bubonic plague epidemics, five decades of floods and blizzards called the “Little Ice Age,” and a period of soldiering in the Thirty Years’ War, where he suffered a leg injury, and lived with a painful limp until his death in his late seventies.
Fortunately the quiet prayer practice that he developed from his own need for peace and healing has also survived. His spiritual maxims, as he named them, and his letters were preserved by Paris priest Joseph of Beaufort, who published these after his death, adding a biography and other helpful writings.
Born Nicolas Herman in 1614, he grew up socioeconomically disadvantaged in a highly stratified world. After unsuccessfully trying the eremitical life and work as a footman, at twenty-six he entered the Order of the Discalced (“Unshod”) Carmelites on the Rue Vaugirard in Paris. Gradually he grew into his monastic name, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, but first experienced a decade-long dark night of the soul. He began praying what he called the practice of the presence, or simply the presence, developing calmness like a muscle.
I need that.
So over the last year, I spent time daily with this friar translating his writings and being translated by them. I began by typing out his words from books housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, feeling their rhythms and meanings. And as I worked, all the way through I found love (amour) and kindness (bonté).
My Practice of the Presence: A Revolutionary Translation offers a wide range of readers access for the first time to the complete Brother Lawrence. It also frees the text from centuries of dogmatic, binary language, approaching it with fresh, inclusive treatment that is authentic, accurate, and transformative.
In my translation, readers also meet the friar as a person. A disabled veteran with constant leg pain, a former prisoner of war, raised in poverty, lacking a traditional education, a Parisian with the tyrant Louis XIV for a king, a failed religious hermit, an ex-footman, a self-named “clumsy oaf,” and a sufferer of anxiety, Brother Lawrence seems an unlikely candidate to have a book in print across five centuries, read by a global audience.
His book has lasted, first because he’s a genuinely kind soul. Spending time with the friar is pleasant, calming. His good friend Beaufort says: “The virtue of Brother Lawrence never made him harsh. His goodness made him gentle. He was a warm, welcoming person. He gave others confidence. When you met him, you felt you could tell him anything. You knew you’d found a friend.”
The friar’s teaching on prayer is also accessible, portable, practical, and encouraging. We feel that Brother Lawrence is speaking with us, not to us. That he needed this prayer for his own healing. That it came organically as he steeped in works by Discalced Carmelite founders Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. That it made him kinder.
The key to his prayer practice is that he found ways to use life’s everyday activities as material for prayer. Assigned to kitchen duty (which he did not like), scrubbing potatoes or making omelettes for his 100-or-so brothers, and later repairing sandals, for decades Brother Lawrence held brief conversations with Love before, during, and after these tasks, asking for divine help, expressing his feelings, and giving thanks when things went well.
He writes that he practiced “a conscious presence of God” that became “second nature,” and was his “soul’s life and peace” for forty-plus years.
How? The friar learned to let go of the human tendency to complicate things:
“We look for methods . . . to learn how to love God. We want to get there by I don’t know how many different practices. We go to such great lengths, trying to remain in the presence of God by so many methods. Isn’t it much shorter and more direct to do everything for the love of God? Can’t we use all the ordinary tasks of our life to show our love to God?”
His teaching helps us develop self-compassion as we practice his way of praying: “Do your best to keep your mind in God’s presence. If it wanders or withdraws sometimes, don’t be discouraged. . . . We must use the will gently to bring it back.”
And he understands how easily the mind is sidetracked: “You’re not the only one who has distracting thoughts,” he says in one letter: “The mind is extremely likely to wander.”
His hands-on approach reminds me of The Cloud of Unknowing by my East Midlands friend Anonymous, who says prayer is a “simple reaching out, or stretching to God.” This same simplicity of spirit permeates Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence. In one letter, the friar describes prayer as “[a] brief lifting up of the heart.”
My own slow daily work over decades of trying to handle and heal often-debilitating anxiety makes me grateful for how Brother Lawrence bravely turned to prayer to face, find relief for, transform, and give meaning to his suffering.
My translation brings his gentle, down-to-earth wisdom clearly into the twenty-first century, to help us navigate, moment-by-moment, our current multiple crises. Wanting to pray is praying, he teaches, opening us to receive love and peace.
Two years before his death, unable to walk and in great pain, seventy-five-year-old Brother Lawrence was still responding to others’ requests for help with characteristic empathy. In a letter to a laywoman who was having difficulties, he encourages her, and also us:
In the middle of your tasks you can comfort yourself with Love as often as you can, in all these ways. During your meals and conversations, lift up your heart to God sometimes. The slightest little awareness will always be very pleasant. We don’t need to shout out to do this. God is closer to us than we may think.
Carmen has generously dedicated her new translation of Brother Lawrence to the Women’s Prison Association. A generous donation from each Practice of the Presence proceeds goes directly to WPA in support of their advocacy for women.
WPA is the first U.S. organization for women impacted by incarceration. Since 1845 WPA has innovated programs that address women’s histories of trauma, mental health needs, parental stress, and other factors that can lead to systems involvement. Together they develop workplace skills and build careers, reunify families, access healthcare, and find safe, affordable housing. WPA is a nonprofit located in New York City’s East Village. Visit wpaonline.org, and follow @wpa_nyc on Instagram and Twitter. The women at a maximum-security prison befriended this book’s translator when at nineteen she volunteered there for three months. They are still remembered.