“Walk in my presence, and you will be perfect” God said to Abraham. (Gen. Ch. 17, 1 – 2).
God is within us; all that is necessary is to be aware of this and to live our lives entrusting ourselves to Him.
In countless situations in daily life, Madame Acarie and Brother Laurence of the Resurrection acted with this spirit of adoration, humility and conformity to their mission as created human beings.
Each day, everything that came their way was an expression of the presence of God and life transformed by that presence, no matter how many the human demands made upon them.
LIVING IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD
BLESSED MARY OF THE INCARNATION, Carmelite nun (1566-1618)
BROTHER LAWRENCE OF THE RESURRECTION, Carmelite friar (1614-1691)
by Father Raymond Cote, OCD
Dear brothers and sisters,
Before getting to the heart of my subject, it seemed to me that it would be good to give you a brief explanation of the phrase “the Presence of God” and to demonstrate the important place that the practice of the presence of God occupies in Carmelite spirituality.
When I speak of Carmel, it goes without saying that I am thinking of my brothers the friars and my sisters the nuns; but I am also thinking of the thousands of consecrated men and women and lay people who have lived, and who live today, according to this form of Carmelite spirituality, in the very heart of society.
The presence of God For the introduction, I am greatly indebted to the book by Father Francois de Sainte Marie, OCD : Presence à Dieu et à soi-même (Paris, Le Seuil, 1943), p. 9 et seq.has always been regarded as the subject of meditation par excellence in preparation for the experience of Divine intimacy. The ancient lawgivers of the monastic life such as John Cassian considered that being mindful of God and striving for perfection were one and the same thing.
“Live as in my sight and you will be perfect,” God said to Abraham. (Genesis, Ch. 7, vv. 1-2; Knox translation). Should the importance attached to the practice of the presence of God be attributed to the antiquity of the Carmelite Order and its Scriptural roots ? Elijah stood “before the living God” (1 Kings, Ch. 17, v. 1); other followed him, encouraged by his example.
Does not St. John of the Cross, in one of his Maxims and Counsels, advise us to “Strive always to keep God present” (Maxim 33)? And St. Teresa of Avila says, “Remember that it is very important for you to understand this truth: the Lord dwells within us, in the deepest part of our being; let us remain with Him.” (Way of perfection, Ch. 46; Escorial ms.) and, further on, she says, “In my opinion, if I had understood as I do now, that in this little palace of my soul dwelt so great a King, I would not have left Him alone so often. I would have remained with Him at times.”(Way of perfection, Ch. 28).
Father Francis of St. Mary sums this up as follows: “We live in the presence of the greatest reality in existence, and there is no distance between this reality and ourselves; for it is within our most intimate depths that we must look for God. He is there as our Creator, as someone within us who is more real than we are ourselves, a nourishing, enfolding presence from whom we draw our life, our movement and our being.”
It was St. Teresa of Avila’s deep conviction that the living God is everywhere, gazing at everything with all-seeing eyes: “Well now, daughters, your Spouse never takes His eyes off you. He has suffered your committing a thousand offences and abominations against Him, and this suffering wasn’t enough to make Him cease looking at you. Is it too much to ask you to turn your eyes from these exterior things in order to look at Him sometimes? Behold, He is not waiting for anything else… than that we look at Him. In the measure you desire Him, you will find Him… He so esteems our turning to look at Him that no diligence will be lacking on His part…Believe me, you should remain with so good a friend as long as you can. If you grow accustomed to having Him present at your side, and He sees that you do so with love and that you go about striving to please Him, you will not be able – as they say – to get away from Him.” (Way of perfection,Ch. 26).
Well now, how did Blessed Mary of the Incarnation and Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection themselves practise this “Presence of God” which is so dear to the Carmelite tradition ?
Before examining their lives and hearing what they taught about this subject, I want to give you a brief introduction to each of them. Although it would appear to be unnecessary to introduce Blessed Mary to the present audience, it is perhaps necessary to do so in the case of Brother Lawrence. I shall do this by presenting their two lives “in parallel.”
Barbe Avrillot was born in Paris in 1566. The Wars of Religion formed the political background to her early years. After she had become Madame Acarie, God would form her into a privileged instrument for the restoration of devotional life in France. St. Teresa would give her the task of bringing the Reformed Carmelite Order to France; this she did, with the help of some eminent associates. At the age of forty-eight, having brought up six children and been widowed, she entered Amiens Carmel in the year that Brother Lawrence was born. Blessed Mary belonged to the upper middle class; she had received a good education, she was wealthy and she had a large number of domestic servants.
Thanks to Andre Duval’s book and the voluminous proceedings of her beatification process, the story of her life is fairly well known. We know very little about Brother Lawrence, on the other hand.
Nicolas Hermann – for this was Brother Lawrence’s name – was born in 1615 at Herimesnil, a little village four kilometres from Luneville, in Lorraine. Joseph de Beaufort, who used to visit him and made secret notes of his conversations, assures us that his parents were very good-living people. Nicolas, who was highly intelligent, does not seem to have had the opportunity of a formal education. We know little about his earliest years. Did he have any brothers and sisters? What was his first employment? These are questions that we are unable to answer… And how did God fit into his life ?
When, in 1640, at the age of twenty-six, he entered the Carmelite community in the Rue de Vaugirard (on the site of the present-day Institut Catholique in Paris), Nicolas left behind him his years as a soldier in the Thirty Years’ War (a war that had begun the year he was born and that had still not come to an end!) and his time as a footman. From now on, he would be known as Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. All his life, he would retain a certain roughness of manner that was noted by his contemporaries, but this tended to throw into relief the sensitivity and depth of his spiritual life.
Although they differed because of the circumstances of their birth and their life experiences, Mary of the Incarnation and Lawrence of the Resurrection had the same vocation to Carmel and the same state in life, being a lay-brother and a lay-sister respectively. Mary of the Incarnation became a lay-sister because that was St. Teresa’s wish for her; Lawrence of the Resurrection became a lay-brother because this was an “altogether natural” continuation of his state of life in the world.
Neither of them would have a “vote in chapter”. Both of them would be allocated tasks that, in the seventeenth century, were considered menial: preparing meals, repairing footwear, caring for the sick (in Blessed Mary’s case), going out to beg alms (in Brother Lawrence’s case). Both of them followed this lifestyle while being severely physically disabled; Lawrence had a wooden leg and Madame Acarie used rudimentary crutches to compensate for her damaged limbs.
Their reputation as two spiritually great figures of Carmel’s first hundred years in France lived on, however.
Both of them were powerfully sustained by the Presence of God within them; they radiated that Presence, and when the occasion demanded, they knew how to speak of it.
“It is true to say that she was always in the presence of God”The quotations from St. Teresa, with the exception of the first (Escorial ms.) are taken from Teresa of Avila, Collected works, Vol. 2, tr. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, ICS, 1980), which is translated from the Valladolid ms.. (Jeanne Lesperrier, 2235 – 584v).
She was just as much in the presence of God when she was travelling or dealing with important business as when she was in her oratory at the feet of Jesus crucified. Once, when we were on the way to Amiens and were talking together about raising our hearts to God and about distractions, she told us that during the course of a day she would be distracted nine or ten times from her focus upon God; this is a mere nothing, given the roving nature of our human imagination which, we know from experience, leads us to the consideration of a thousand different subjects at every moment”. (Andre Duval, 2236 – 338r).
This constant awareness of God made her gentle, even-tempered and self-possessed.
“Her practice of the presence of God made her outwardly so disciplined that one never saw her deviate, either through surprise […] or enthusiasm or fervour, from her habitually measured behaviour and even temper”. (Mother Marie of St. Joseph, 2236 – 144r).
“When she was reprimanding anyone, I do not recall ever having heard her utter a sharp word or speak uncharitably; she was able to control her temper by means of the presence of God within her.” There is a reference here to the problems that inevitably arise when one is dealing with a large number of servants. (Mother Marie of Jesus, Acarie, 2236 – 503).
Ever conscious of God, Blessed Mary radiated His presence and brought peace to those around her.
“It was not only when she spoke; just to be near her and in her presence gave rise to feelings of devotion in those who saw her…I have felt the effects of this on myself many, many times.” (Mother Marie of Jesus, de Breaute, 2235 – 616v).
“I never saw her anxious or disturbed, no matter what occasion should arise; the presence of God within her was so apparent that it enabled her to bring peace to those whose personal problems troubled them most; I have heard this from several noble ladies who went to see her, including Madame de Montmorency, the wife of the Army Commander; she was one of those who told me.” (Mother Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament, Acarie, 2236 – 426).
Madame Acarie’s many works of charity did not hinder her recollection.
After she had entered religious life, “I asked her how she could remain constantly in the presence of God in the midst of all the projects she undertook while she was still in the world. Sister Mary of the Incarnation answered that she had known times when she had up to twenty-five different projects in hand, without her being distracted from the presence of God.” (Mother Marie of St. Joseph, Fournier, 2233 – 53r).
“she was so inseparably united to God by the sacred bonds of love that her heart and her thoughts were never far from Him, and the occupations which ordinarily separate us from God through the excessive concentration of our senses on created things usually served to raise her mind to God and to unite her with Him in a more intimate and perfect way; and for this reason she was often more occupied with the thought of God in the midst of her activities and surrounded by people than when she sought to be alone and in silent prayer.” (The Marquise de Maignelay, 2236 – 235).
“The fidelity with which she carried out her actions in the presence of God was the reason for the great ease with which she moved from activity to mental prayer.” (Mother Marie of Jesus, de Breaute, 2235 – 618).
Neither sickness nor the approach of death undermined her fidelity to [the practice of] the presence of God.
“No attack of sickness or pain, no matter how serious, separated her from God in any way. This is the complete truth.” (Sister Marguerite of St. Joseph, Langlois, 2235 – 791r).
“During her illness, one could see that she was almost always thinking of God and united with Him. She would repeat a verse from one of the Psalms, or some other loving aspiration such as “My God and my All” (Deus meus et omnia) or “Heaven and earth are full of your glory” (Pleni sunt coeli et terra majestatis tuae). She would occupy her mind with these words and ponder over them all night long. You could see her face change, as if she had become a different person; you could tell that she was united with God and you could see the presence of God within her.” (Mother Agnes, des Lyons, 2233 – 52r).
When she was close to death, her confessor came to see her.
“He asked her if she had ceased to be in the presence of God since her last confession. “No, Father,” she replied. And indeed, all the time that he was with her, he could hear her admit to nothing but the mercy of God [in her regard].” (Anne of St. Lawrence, de St. Lieu, 2236 – 78).
“ Thus inflamed with divine fervour he sought God…in simplicity and sincerity of heart.”Most of the quotations relating to Madame Acarie are taken from the depositions of witnesses during the various processes leading to her beatification. These testimonies, in ten volumes, are kept in the Secret Archives of the Vatican, in the Riti Collection. To simplify matters, we have referred to the quotations by volume number followed by the number of the folio in which they appear. (EU 13).
“In particular, he devoted himself to the practice of mental prayer. No matter how great his occupations were, they were never an excuse for missing this holy exercise. The presence of God, and the love it produced, were his favourite virtues…” (EU 18).
“In this sea of different thoughts where he was reduced to extremes, his courage remained steadfast. In fact, even in the midst of his greatest sufferings, he always had recourse to prayer [and] to the practice of the presence of God…” “It doesn’t matter,” [he said], “what I do or what I suffer so long as I remain lovingly united to His will in all things.” (EU 26).
“It was evident from his conduct that when he carried out his duties as a cook – even in the midst of his work, including the most distracting tasks – his mind was recollected in God.” (EU 32).
“If he so loved God during his life, he did not love him any less at his death. He made continuous acts of love, and when a friar asked him if he loved God with all his heart, he answered: “Ah! If I thought that my heart did not love God, I would tear it out right now.” (EU 58).
We have so far been hearing the words of those who were witnesses of Blessed Mary’s life in the world and in the cloister. But what was the secret of her remaining in the presence of God ?
Mother Marie of the Blessed Sacrament, who was in Pontoise Carmel, asked her the following question:
“I once asked Blessed Mary for the method she used in practising the presence of God. She answered that the only way she knew was to keep her eyes constantly fixed on God, offering herself to Him and making herself humble. She considered that the grace of being continuously attentive to God was the state of the blessed in Heaven, since they are ceaselessly united to God and adhere to Him without any distraction; and that, in the beginning, mankind possessed this unimpeded faculty, but since the Fall and the loss of this harmonious state through sin…human beings easily turn away from God…The remedy for this is a continual turning back to Him and forgetfulness of self, along with humility.” ( 2236 – 217v/218r; the text has been simplified to make it more intelligible).
Jesus is our companion in this turning to God and conversation with Him.
“She strongly encouraged us to carry out all our actions in the presence of God, and to unite all our actions to those of Our Lord Jesus Christ, saying that a soul which is not in the presence of God is like a fish out of water.” (Sister Anne of St. Lawrence, de St. Lieu, 2236 – 74r).
We should also speak to Jesus Christ, making it a habit to converse with Him lovingly and in all simplicity.
“O my God, when will this union of love reach such a point that I can no longer bear Your absence? O my God, enter my being, come into my soul". (Vrais Exercices, 13r)Les vrays exercices de la Bienheureuse Soeur Marie de l’Incarnation compozez par elle mesme.(Paris, 1623). They have been reprinted as an appendix to Father Bruno de Jesus-Marie, La belle Acarie (Paris, 1942)..
We must thirst for the Eucharist :
“I desire to receive You (in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar) so that, having eaten my fill of this spiritual food, I may embrace You joyfully within my soul, love You with all my heart and never be parted from You.” (Vrais Exercices, 13r).
If there is a short pause in a conversation, we must quickly become attentive to God.
“Occasionally, when she was talking about some temporal matter to do with her household or that of others, or some devotional topic, and someone happened to interrupt her, she would fall silent at once and, in this short interval, she would turn her attention to God, to such good effect that she forgot what she had just been saying… I can assure you that I witnessed this several times; it shows with what great fidelity she endeavoured to keep her thoughts always fixed upon God.”
And we must always have in our hearts a desire to give joy to God.
“O sweet Jesus, make me one with You in spirit, so that You can take Your delight in me and I can remain in You for all eternity.” (Quoted by J. A. Boucher on p. 507 of his Vie de la Bienheureuse Marie de l’Incarnation, Paris, 1873).
“ The holiest, most ordinary and most necessary practice of the spiritual life,” Lawrence tells us, “is that of the presence of God. It is to take delight in and become accustomed to His divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with Him all the time, at every moment, without rule or measure”. (SM 6).
We can learn to catch glimpses of God in the midst of life and because of it, just as Brother Lawrence did in his kitchen. We can take up the practice of what he calls “an inward glance” (cf. SM 29) at the God who he knew was dwelling in the most intimate recesses of his being.
“This [practice of the] presence of God,” he continues, “somewhat difficult in the beginning, secretly accomplishes marvellous effects in the soul…when practised faithfully”. (SM 31).
“We must never tire,” Lawrence says, “of doing little things for the love of God, Who considers not the magnitude of the work, but the love.” (CO 49): “I flip my little omelette in the frying-pan for the love of God.” (Ways, 10).
Before beginning any task, good Brother Lawrence would make the effort to “become aware of God, even if only for an instant”, and while he carried out this task “He would renew this awareness from time to time” and he always renewed it as the task was completed. (cf. MS 29).
Following in the wake of St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite friar had the gift of describing how the perfect man who prays “in the depth and centre of the soul speaks to God heart to heart and always in a deep and profound peace that the soul enjoys in God.” (SM 23). “I say that this gentle, loving awareness of God imperceptibly ignites a divine fire in the soul, inflaming it…intensely with the love of God.” (SM 24).
MADAME ACARIE’S LETTERS (a dozen are still in existence)Boucher, J.B. Vie de la Bienheureuse Marie de l’Incarnation,(Paris, 1873) pp. 520-535..
Letter 5 (1615). As Andre Duval, who recorded this letter, observes, it shows how daring was the love for God which inflamed Blessed Mary; it shows her desire for suffering, her mistrust of herself and, above all, her humility. “What must I look for in Heaven or on earth”, she asks, “except to please my God and to surrender myself to Him at every moment ?…”
Letter 9 (January 21, 1618). This letter, written in Pontoise, was addressed to Mother Marie of Jesus, Sub-Prioress of Amiens Carmel and eldest daughter of Blessed Mary: “Jesus, Mary, Joseph. My dear Mother, may Jesus Christ Our Lord be forever the sole possessor of our hearts, as He will be, if we love and seek only Him in all things. We thank you for your remembrance of each of us in the sight of God. God wants us to lead a life that is completely spiritual and to reach that union which is the union of our wills with His.”
Letter 12, written between1614 and 1618, appears to be addressed to Monsieur de Berulle. In it, Blessed Mary speaks very humbly of herself and of her imperfections. This letter reveals how vitally important the sense of the presence of God was to Blessed Mary : “My dear cousin, What can I say to you, except that my innumerable acts of ingratitude have so often separated me from [the sense of] God’s presence, and that many times, without my realizing it, I find…that I am lacking in interior devotion …I have the feeling within me of being continually reproached for living without this vivid sense of God’s presence; this is the source of all my misfortune. This is why I implore you, in God’s name, and through the depths of His infinite mercy, to obtain this favour from Him: that I may nevermore be separated from [the sense of] His presence.”
BROTHER LAWRENCE’S LETTERS.
In his letters, a dozen of them, Brother Lawrence reveals himself with the spontaneity and freshness of someone who is a free man and also very happy. The spiritual and the human are in perfect harmony.
To win his correspondents over to the practice of the presence of God, he sometimes gives them a glimpse of his own past life and how he is living at the time of writing.
Letter 6 (October 12, 1688).
Brother Lawrence writes to a woman as follows : “I also admire the strength and courage of Mr. N., [the young soldier of whom you spoke]…I hope the affliction God sent him will serve as an effective medicine, and that it will bring him to his senses. This is an opportunity for him to place all his trust in God, Who is always with him. May he think of Him as much as possible…A brief lifting up of the heart is enough…even though on the run with sword in hand…These prayers, short as they may be, are pleasing to God.”
Letter 9 (written about 1684).
To another woman, who complained that she was far too busy to pray, Brother Lawrence writes : “God does not ask a great deal of us: a brief remembrance from time to time, a brief act of adoration, occasionally to ask Him for His grace or offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces He has given you…[and to do that] in the midst of your work…During your meals and conversations, occasionally lift up your heart to Him; the least little remembrance of Him will be most agreeable[ to Him]…We do not always have to be in church to be with God. We can make of our hearts an oratory where we can withdraw from time to time to converse with Him there, gently, humbly and lovingly.”
And now, dear friends, allow me to conclude.
Madame Acarie, the society woman who was widowed in 1613, entered Amiens Carmel and then Pontoise, choosing to remain a lay, or “white-veiled” sister. It was thus that she shared in a hidden way in a profound renewal of which she had been one of the principal instigators.
What is the secret of such striking continuity amidst all the upheavals in French society and all the dramatic events that occurred in her own life? This society woman who became a Carmelite had made a straightforward and radical surrender to God. She never doubted His presence within her, nor His assistance. She believed that a life of union with God was accompanied by the practice of the virtues and that the highest states of prayer were compatible with a very ordinary human existence. From the moment she received a sign from God, this woman of faith and fidelity began to follow a spiritual path based on simplicity and confidence.
And, although we may feel comfortable with Brother Lawrence, he does not humour us. Meditation on his teaching gives us a sense of the Divine. We ourselves have a veneer of humanism that inclines us to regard God as an idea rather than as a Person.
The over-riding characteristic of the good Brother, one that was evident in his expression and coloured his conversation and his writings, is his wonderful simplicity. It is the simplicity of a man who was one of the least bookish individuals imaginable, a man who lived in the radiance of Divine light and who, by the very fact of his life as a lay-brother, had his feet firmly on the ground. There you have the whole of Brother Lawrence and his acute supernatural good sense that goes straight to the heart of things.
Brother Lawrence knew only one way of bringing his lively faith to maturity and of discovering God by means of that faith; it was a way that proved so profitable in his own case. That was the practice of the presence of God, the presence which had already been a source of life for the Prophet Elijah, that great Man of Carmel, when he cried out : “The Lord lives, before whom I stand !” (1, Kings, Ch. 17, v. 1). The humble seventeenth-century lay-brother would rediscover the “practice of the presence” as soon as he entered religious life.
Brother Lawrence would appreciate it very much if we, too, could make an effort to give the Lord a greater share of our attention. He urges us on with these encouraging words:
“Let me say, for the consolation of those who desire to embrace this holy practice, that [God] ordinarily gives it to souls who are disposed to receive it. If He does not give it, we can at least acquire, with the help of ordinary grace, a manner and state of prayer that greatly resembles this simple awareness, by means of this practice of the presence of God.” (SM 37).
Although human effort is necessary, of course, we need to remember that “every perfect gift comes from on high” and we leave it to Blessed Mary to end with this advice :
“Look at Him from time to time, or listen to Him as he invites you to look at Him, then say: Ah! My dearly beloved, if You wish me to look at You, then You must first look at me.” (DUVAL, Andre. La vie admirable de la Bse. Soeur Marie de l’Incarnation, Paris, 1893, p. 353).
Yes, ask and you shall receive !