Brother Lawrence was born Nicholas Herman around 1611, in Lorraine, France. There are several contradictory accounts of the exact year he was born, taken from monastery records and Lawrence’s own writings. It’s possible he was born as early as 1606, or perhaps more likely, 1608.
He was captured as a soldier in the Thirty Year War when he was 18, charged with being a spy, and threatened with hanging. Somehow, he managed to convince his captors that he was innocent and was released. Shortly thereafter, he was wounded in a fight with Swedish soldiers, which ended his military service. The atrocities he witnessed led him to become a Christian that same year.
He served as a footman to the treasurer of the King of France, but this was short-lived. Lawrence describes himself as a “clumsy lummox who broke everything.” He then decided to dedicate himself to the religious life and spent a short time living as a hermit, but gave this up in favor of the communal living of the Carmelite monastic order. He was given the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and became a full member of the order in 1642.
At the monastery, he spent most of the time in the kitchen. Initially, Brother Lawrence hated this. For a full decade, he chafed against his situation. “I must tell you, though, that during the first ten years I endured great suffering.” Though his first decade as a monk was full of spiritual anguish, one day he experienced a profound peace that never diminished. “I suddenly found myself changed and my soul, which up till then was always disturbed, experienced a profound interior peace.” From that day on, Lawrence was overcome with an unusually intense awareness of the presence of God. It was so strong that sometimes he had to consciously keep himself from laughing in the company of others. No longer dreading work in the kitchen, he now felt as close to God peeling potatoes as he did kneeling at the altar.
This spiritual transformation still left him at odds with his body. After about fourteen years in the kitchen, a chronic case of gout finally got Lawrence transferred to a shoe repair shop. He was never much to behold, physically. Fenelon actually met him and called him “gross by nature and delicate by grace. The mixture is agreeable and shows God in him.”
Lawrence’s reputation for holiness spread far beyond the monastery, leading to a collection of his letters and a few first-hand reminiscences about his life to published near the end of the seventeenth century, shortly after LawrenceÕs death in 1691 (the book was first published in 1692). Today we know this book as The Practice of the Presence of God.
Interestingly enough, Lawrence’s book didn’t receive much acclaim when it was first published, due in large part to his association with Fenelon and the way Madame Guyon used Lawrence’s writings to bolster her own brand of Quietism. Since both Fenelon and Guyon were chastised by the pope, Lawrence’s work suffered in the comparison.
You can read Lawrence’s book in about twenty minutes, though of course that’s not the way you want to read it. It consists of four remembered conversations, 16 letters, and several “spiritual maxims.” Its brevity and accessibility makes it a particularly good classic to begin with.
Much of the material in this brief history has been adapted from John Delaney’s excellent introduction of Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God, translated by Delaney and published by Doubleday in 1977. This is my favorite translation of Lawrence. Delaney does an excellent job. As an added bonus, this edition also contains an introduction by Henri Nouwen.