“The most holy practice, the nearest to daily life, and the most essential for the spiritual life, is the practice of the presence of God, that is to find joy in his divine company and to make it a habit of life, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him at all times, every moment, without rule or restriction, above all at times of temptation, distress, dryness, and revulsion, and even of faithlessness and sin.”
When trying to classify The Practice of the Presence of God, the reader finds that it is more slippery than anticipated. A lot of this is perhaps due to its seeming (?) inconsistency. At first glance (and maybe also at second glance) the content is mystical, and yet Brother Lawrence denounces mysticism’s emphasis on feelings and techniques in its promise of closeness to God. He appears to drive a wedge between the sacred and the secular by viewing prayer and contemplation as more important than “earthly” pursuits, and yet more lucidly than most points out that one can glorify God through all mundane activities. Perhaps this seeming (?) inconsistency is due to the book being an amalgamation of letters, “principles” and reported conversations with the monk.
Personally, I have settled on describing the monk as an unbiblical Christian hedonist. This sounds ruder than I intend. But strikingly, shockingly even, there are no quotations from Scripture. I am not a historian, so I do not know why this is or whether this is his fault, but either way, because it is the case, he is quite seriously misled in some areas. Charges include the spiritual elitism of sounding as if monks occupy a more important role than lay people, anti-intellectualism, a rather alarming and borderline masochistic view of suffering (he identifies the character-building of suffering with the suffering itself), a works-based view of salvation, and, heartbreakingly, a lack of assurance leading to a tormented first few years of Christian living.
Even so, Brother Lawrence is a Christian hedonist. He is driven by, I believe, a pure desire to enjoy God, and the way that he writes provides evidence that this enjoyment is not the frothy and self-induced “spiritual high” that one might find in other (?) mystical writings. There is a refreshing simplicity and practicality to this desire. And it is this motivation that propels his monotonous, but never boring, teaching about the practice of the presence of God, that is, to live all of one’s life aware of God’s presence and to rejoice in it. It would be naïve, I think, to declare all of this a chasing after the wind.
This is where it gets interesting. Because surely this is uncontroversial? In Respectable Sins, Bridges defines a lack of the practice of the presence of God (although of course not phrased in this way) as ungodliness. Tozer actively delights in this in The Pursuit of God. So, Brother Lawrence is right, that we should practice the presence of God, but his means of getting there are mistaken. This raises another fascinating question; do “spiritual classics” such as The Practice of the Presence of God deserve to be called such? Chapple mentions this in True Devotion. I would argue that there are a number of books written more recently that reach similar conclusions, but do so with Biblical, and therefore legitimate, legwork. The above mentioned The Pursuit of God would be an example of this.
The value in reading The Practice of the Presence of God, then, emerges from the rich (bordering on an excess of poetic licence) description of what a life like this could look like. Brother Andrew is clearly deeply contented and deeply loves those around him.
Although this book could be misleading to some, to those with an already solid foundation of Bible-handling it could infuse joy into their devotional life and spur on a reflection on God’s being everywhere.