Can we really practice the presence of God?

I first read The Practice of the Presence of God several years ago. I read the book quickly, more out of a desire to have read a ‘classic’ than anything else. Still, I was captivated by the simplicity of the work. Brother Lawrence is singularly focused on what he feels is the main task of Christian spirituality, that being the constant recognition of, and participation in, the presence of God. Yet rather than putting forward a mere method with steps to be followed, Brother Lawrence labours to articulate the Spirit in which he lives. Lawrence’s practice is rooted in the conviction that the intimate presence of God should not be neglected or forgotten. He writes that it is “a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries.” We are called, as Christian people, to renounce the things of life which detract from our attentiveness to the divine presence. The call of Christian living is to “become, in this life, the most perfect worshippers of God we can possibly be, as we hope to be through all eternity.” This, he suggests, is the main focus of Christian lives.

Of course, it begs the question: is the constant practice of the presence of God actually doable? Can one maintain such constant awareness of God’s presence, or does Brother Lawrence set up an unrealistic and ultimately self-condemning way of life? Having once again finished the book, it is my conclusion that Lawrence’s depiction of constant attentiveness to God’s abiding presence is, in fact, a realistic depiction of the Christian life.

We sometimes do a disservice to Brother Lawrence when we mistakenly believe such constant awareness of God’s presence can be achieved in a moment. We simply read the book and think, “Oh, I can do that!” But is it that simple? Brother Lawrence is honest about his struggles to maintain this constant awareness. Although he puts forward the high call of living in a manner where “set times of prayer were not different than other times,” Lawrence is clear about his own failings. The fourth conversation mentions how Lawrence “examined himself how he had discharged his duty; if he found well, he returned to thanks to God; if otherwise, he asked pardon.”

The reality of this struggle is important because, rather than being a mental task by which one may either win or lose, practising the presence of God is more an inward relationship with God. This understanding breathes a holy freedom into the practice: we need not worry about perfect execution, nor the self-condemnation that comes with failure. Rather, having the desire to maintain a holy conversation, we simply rest upon the grace of God. We claim grace in our execution and forgiveness in our failure.

In addition to this, Lawrence clearly states that his practice is the fruit of many years of faithful devotion. Lawrence describes his own journey in these words: “I must tell you, that for the first ten years I suffered much: . . . during that time I fell often, and rose again presently.” Similarly, in a later letter Lawrence describes his practice spanning “about thirty years.” Practising the presence of God can be rightly experienced only through the lens of time.

In my experience, whenever Lawrence’s practice been mentioned in discussion, it is suggested that one may easily cultivate this habit in a moment. That is to say, practising the presence of God is seen as a discipline that one can master without any work or labour. Again, this simply leaves one feeling self-condemned. We must remember that spiritual transformation simply does not occur instantaneously. One must engage in a life-long and faithful dedication to living our lives in the presence of God, and being continually conformed to the image of Christ. Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God  is important because it describes the labour needed to cultivate a life of constant intimacy with God. It is not a simple description of an end-product. We live out this practice, as in all practices, claiming the unyielding grace of God.

So, if we arrive at the conclusion that Brother Lawrence not only describes a realistic practice of Christian living, but also a practice designed for all Christian people, then we might also ponder how we will labour to live this out. How will we begin to implement this? What steps can we take in our lives to begin such a life-long journey?

(If you have never read The Practice of the Presence of God, you may read it at here.)

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