Unspeakable Joy

I would like to share with you a guest post from my friend Carmen Acevedo Butcher. This is Carmen’s third piece with New Eden. You can read another article she wrote about Brother Lawrence by clicking HERE. You can order a copy of Carmen’s translation Practice of the Presence by clicking HERE.

What can a potato-peeling, sandal-repairing Discalced Carmelite friar of seventeenth-century Paris offer spiritual seekers today? Whatever our circumstances, Brother Lawrence gives us a practical, easy way to live in and from calmness and an unspeakable joy he calls contentements indicible

My life was shaped early by my search for calmness and joy. Growing up, I wasn’t taught those. In rural fundamentalist churches, regular doses of shouted hellfire-and-damnation sermons scared my young self and poisoned my understanding. A litany of self-lacerating, soul-scarring questions haunted me: “What mistakes did I make today? Why do I mess up so much? Why am I wrongly made?” Reinforced three times weekly in worship services led by angry-sounding men, self-loathing messages hardened into a dualistic mindset that put me on the “bad” end of the judging scale. 

Obviously not healthy for self-actualizing or forming community, this indoctrination occasionally featured the words, “God loves you,” but they were drowned out by the dominant dogma of “YOU’RE NOT WORTHY” and by a demotion of women. As a brown-skinned mixed-race woman, I yearned to find a path that gave me a sense of self-worth, self-compassion, a lived experience of my own and others’ sacredness, body positivity, true rest, and ways to cultivate compassionate community. For my own healing, I began searching very young for a loving, welcoming Divinity.

Which brings us to the writings of the obscure, limelight-shunning Brother Lawrence, the very last person you’d think would become the author of a bestselling, beloved spiritual classic. In his simple teaching, I found a gem drawing people back to him for centuries. In the middle of chronic pain, disability, and hardships, Brother Lawrence experienced the Divine as a powerful, loving feminine energy who comes looking for us when we’re lost, finds us with kindness, feeds us, waits on us, heals us, dialogues, befriends, and loves us no matter what. That’s it. That’s the secret of Brother Lawrence’s 300-plus-years of longevity.

He worked undetected for decades as a monastery cook and sandal repairer, but now Brother Lawrence is well-known as the author of Practice of the Presence. Philosopher Aldous Huxley describes him as enjoying “a kind of celebrity in circles otherwise completely uninterested in mental prayer or spiritual exercises” (Perennial Philosophy). The friar chose a deliberately hidden life, not publishing one word while alive. His good friend, the priest Joseph of Beaufort tells us “he spent his life in retirement,” ait passe sa vie dans la retraite

A year after Brother Lawrence’s death, his work was published only because his friends wanted it. They were so helped by reading his letters that they asked Joseph to search for more. During his search, Joseph found other previously unknown writings, the friar’s spiritual maxims. Adding to these, Joseph wrote up and shared their conversations and his own biographical stories of the friar’s way of living.

A down-to-earth mystic with dishpan hands, Brother Lawrence’s wisdom helps us navigate perilous times. For decades his friendship with a loving Divinity sustained him through religious wars, civil war, climate crises, famine, other inequities, excruciating disability, and plagues. Disabled from twenty on by a war injury that gave him an agonizing limp, Brother Lawrence was in daily pain fifty-plus years. Every step he took was hard, uneven. He knew profound psychic hurting from twenty-six to thirty-six, a dark night of the soul suggesting complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Born into the lowest level of society, uneducated Brother Lawrence was at a severe disadvantage in a French society that had quite clear haves and have-nots. Also on the lowest rung of the religious world as a lay brother, he served 100 or so brothers, slicing carrots, making soup, washing their dishes, fixing their sandal straps, and resoling their sandals. On the surface, Brother Lawrence’s life was marked by humble duties and real difficulties.

To heal his own self, he instinctively developed a simple prayer he named “the loving presence,” la présence amoureuse; “the practice of this presence,” la pratique de cette présence; and “the presence of God,” la présence de Dieu. Often called the methodless method, it’s done by gently turning inwardly toward Love at any time you remember to do so, for a “brief conversation” on anything. You can do this presence practice when you’re eating, talking with someone else, doing work, resting, or at any other time. He said it’s “the shortest and the easiest way” to connect with Love. He recommends in a letter to a friend: just “lift up your heart to God sometimes” with a “pleasant little awareness” or a “kind intention,” and have “familiar conversations.”

By returning to the Divine in micro-moments of conversation as often as he could, even during “his busiest, most demanding work,” as Joseph tells us, Brother Lawrence became a “gentle, warm, welcoming person” who “showed great kindness” and “gave others confidence.” Practicing this simple, portable presence prayer, the friar also grew and experienced for decades an “extraordinary calm.” 

How was this calmness possible for him in a time as tumultuous as our own? Joseph tells us that his friend’s prayer practice was founded on deep Love: “The high opinion he had of God showed Love to him as . . . unlimited justice and infinite kindness . . . [that] would only do him good.”

Very like the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence experienced firsthand a loving Divinity. Julian “didn’t see any sin” and found “no rage in God,” and the friar had a similar experience. He tells us in another letter that when he asked God for forgiveness for harming others, the Divine did not chastise or punish him, but took on instead a traditionally feminine role of comforting him, inviting him to a table filled with food, and waiting on him. The only thing missing at that welcoming nourishing meal is incrimination or anger; instead, there is total acceptance, in the friar’s words: 

Moved by deep regret, I declare to God all the harm I have caused others. I ask Love’s pardon. Then I give myself to their mercy to do with me as they please. Far from punishing me, this Ruler, full of kindness and mercy, lovingly embraces me, invites me to eat, seats me at Love’s table, waits on me themself, gives me the keys to their treasures, and all in all, treats me like their favorite. My Sovereign talks with me and takes great pleasure in my company in countless ways, without ever mentioning my forgiveness or taking away my old habits.  

In the same letter, Brother Lawrence calls his accessible, anyone-can-do-it practice of the presence “very ordinary,” saying it’s a “simple attention,” and a “general loving awareness of God.” The nurturing feminine energy of the Divine is very real to him. He compares the life-giving intimacy he finds during these brief prayers to that of a breastfed baby: “I often feel attached to sweetness and pleasure greater than an infant tastes when latched onto the breast of the wet nurse. So if I dared use this expression, I’d happily call this state the breasts of God, for the unsayable sweetness I taste and experience there.”

These experiences with loving Divinity altered the friar’s perspective, deepening, broadening, and shifting it from a dualistic this-or-that, sinner-or-saint view to one that speaks of our “stumbling.” For a limping friar in constant pain, his recurring use of the verb tomber for “fall” or “stumble,” related to the English tumble, speaks volumes about how he sees human weakness, harming of others, and redemption. The friar says that we must “admit our stumbles and humble ourselves before God.” He teaches us to confess the harm we did, accept life’s consequences, pray in love to change, and strive to make amends. The loving motherly Divinity is always there to help us, as the friar reminds us in his maxims: “At the moment of our struggle, we must turn back to God with complete confidence.” 

Brother Lawrence told Joseph in one conversation that our purpose in life is “to become the wisest lovers of God” that we can here. That sounds like advice a mother would give their child: “Be kind.” It’s a divine kindness that Brother Lawrence experienced through the ongoing, mini prayers he offered up throughout his days, returning his attention to Love “as often as” he could, and “gently,” he says. Spending time with the loving Divinity, he became more like Love himself. 

I’m thankful for the feminine-energy-empowered way of transformation offered in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence. Steeping in its kindness while translating it from early modern French into accurate, inclusive English changed me. May you find peace there also.

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