A Medium Aevum Advent

I’m heartened to see more and more Christians keeping Advent—not rushing to the feast, but spending time in holy expectation. The historian in me approves. When we observe Advent, we deepen our preparation for Christ’s coming by embracing the liturgical rhythms of the ancient Church. Some historical Advent practices, such as fasting, many of us do not keep today. Others, like the annual Christmas pageant, are still going strong (in the medieval Church the pageant was performed by choirboys).

This year, as I watch my daughters perform one of their own practices, I’ve been drawn to some wonderful medieval teachings on Advent. Perhaps I should say Advents. In one of his sermons for the season, written in the mid twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of not one but three comings of Christ. A century later, Thomas Aquinas adds yet another. That’s three more comings than most of us prepare for. It has taken my two children to help me absorb what these four advents might mean for me.

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Christ’s first coming–no surprise here–is his historical advent. My daughters have developed an elaborate practice to prepare for this event: the manger scene. My girls set up their manger with the precision of an HGTV reality show. Everything must be just so. The picture on the box is consulted: Mary must stand here, Joseph there. The manger must be centered. Then and only then is the baby tenderly placed therein. But not for long; Jesus requires much more attention than that. He is taken out and taken care of, cradled and coddled until it is deemed the right time to lay him down again. I sometimes think God sent his son as a baby for the benefit of maternally inclined five-year-olds.

My girls’ mothering reminds me of a beautiful fourteenth-century devotional text, Meditations on the Life of Christ. In this text, readers are asked to imagine their way into the manger scene: “Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him a while.” Later, we are advised to step in and help Mary: “Be ready to give your services as if you could, meditate on them, delight and rejoice in them . . . and often gaze upon that face which angels desire to look upon.” Caring, with all our imaginative and spiritual faculties, for the baby Jesus: what a wonderful meditational exercise for the Advent season. I wonder if the infant Jesus slept through the night?

This exercise leads to another, perhaps deeper, form of preparation. In his sermon, Saint Bernard notes that Jesus not only came in the flesh. He also comes to our heart. He is hidden there: “Only his chosen see him in themselves, and they shall heal their souls.” I like to think of Jesus’ indwelling in us as a continuation of Mary’s work. Mary gave birth to Jesus and cared for him physically. Now it is our job to spiritually receive Christ and raise him up. He must grow to maturity in our heart.

My daughters pick baby Jesus up and put him down. They take him to town. They sing to him. Watching them play reminds me how much care Jesus needs to grow in me. It makes my heart tender but also afraid. I feel keenly my own lack. Sometimes I fail to care for my children the way I should. How can I possibly provide for Jesus? I need not only the baby but also the full-grown savior. My yearning for Christ’s grace is as great as my desire to cradle him in my heart.

Of course we know that Jesus’ cradle leads to the cross and the grace we so desperately need. These two yearnings are depicted in one of my favorite paintings, the Adoration of the Magi by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.

St. Columba Altarpiece

As one of the kings leans forward to kiss the infant Jesus, almost exactly as recommended by the Meditations on the Life of Christ, we see a small crucifix nailed to a post above his head.

Columba detailThis is a good painting for Advent because it keeps us from sentimentalizing the birth of Christ. If you want to grow up the baby Jesus, remind yourself that he’s headed to the cross. That will do it every time.

But Advent looks even farther ahead in the life of Christ. In his sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux reminds the Church that within Christ’s coming in the flesh is embedded the promise of his coming again. Jesus will return to earth, and the world will be made new. We are assured that whatever darkness surrounds us, God will bring his story to the glorious conclusion he foretold.

As we reflect on the teaching of the Mellifluous Doctor, we realize that Advent is truly ancient-future. It harks back to the birth of Jesus (and before that to the prophecies about him). It takes place in the present as he is born in our heart. And it looks forward to the end of earthly time. Advent is a season to meditate on the entire history of salvation through Jesus Christ, a season to both celebrate and yearn for the world’s redemption.

Admittedly, my girls seem far more earthly than eschatological when they play with their manger scene:

“He doesn’t want his blanket.”

“Yes, he does! All babies need their blanket!”

But, as Saint Bernard shows, the birth of Jesus is wrapped up in his other advents, even the ones that are invisible or that take place in a distant future. Christ’s comings cannot be separated one from another; one form of yearning leads to the next. It is strange to watch my daughters play and feel so much ache mixed in with my delight. When my girls are older I will tell them about the complex theology behind their childlike faith.

I could end my Advent meditation here. Bernard of Clairvaux does. His sermon, as I mentioned, teaches three comings of Christ—in the flesh, in our hearts, and at the end of time. But in an Advent sermon preached in 1271, Thomas Aquinas adds a fourth coming of Jesus. Christ comes, writes the Angelic Doctor, at the hour of our death. This coming is necessary to bring his “just ones” not only grace, but also glory.

I confess that with this teaching, my yearning grinds to a halt. It seems easier to long for the end of time than for my personal end. Yet Saint Thomas is not the only one to advise me on this subject. Centuries earlier, the desert father Pachomius said, “Have, therefore, the hour of your death ever before your eyes.” Even in Advent? Even when my children are so full of life and the whole world is telling me to be joyful? Upon reflection, I conclude that there is no better time. During this season, we prepare for a savior who came to defeat death—yes, even our own. When he comes for us, it will be to take us to glory.

And so, as I watch over my children, I learn to watch my heart. I coax and guide it to think on its final hour. If I can’t yet yearn for this coming of Christ, I can at least be alert. I ask my heart, are you ready? Christ will return for you one day, and this advent is every bit as real as his birth in the flesh and his coming again.

Thanks to two daughters and two doctors of the church, my Advent preparations are a strangely medieval mix of delight, yearning, and rather intense soul-searching. As a mother, I look for the coming of a baby, one as fleshy and sweet as my girls. I also remember that the baby Jesus grew up to save the world and that he will come again, both at the end of time and, likely before that, for me. May my heart be prepared to mother him now and to meet him when my time comes.

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This essay was originally published on my website, lisadeam.com.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome, friends, to Friday Favorites! Each week, Prasanta Verma and I round up our favorite links related to prayer, spirituality, and writing. We hope it will enrich your life and help you to find the best the web has to offer.

Do you have someone else’s article or post that you’d like to see on Friday Favorites? Find me on Twitter (@LisaKDeam) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, etc. by Thursday noon each week.

Read, be encouraged, and be blessed.

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Engaging Scripture With Our Whole Selves via Nicole T. Walters (experiencing God through the Ignatian practice of imaginative prayer)

Encouragement When the World Feels Like a Mess via Julia Walsh (inspiration when the outer and inner world is just a mess)

Laughter Came From Every Brick via Ryan Cagle (listen to Ryan read a beautiful poem by the contemplative mystic Teresa of Avila on the Signposts podcast)

12 Essential Books on Writing for National Novel Writing Month via Modern Mrs. Darcy (are you participating in NaNoWriMo? check out these writing reads for help and motivation)

The Best Poems for November via Interesting Literature (new month…new poems)

Your Morning Walk with Sophfronia via Sophfronia Scott (in this episode, lessons learned from Madeleine l’Engle about writing and dry spells)

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Hello and welcome to Friday Favorites. Today is All Saints Day–let’s remember all those who have gone before us in the faith and pray for each other, too.

Prasanta Verma and I hope that this week’s links will enrich your prayer and writing life.

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Poems for All Saints Day via Englewood Review of Books (a beautiful collection of poetry about saints old and new)

Happy Halloween: Remember You Will Die via Jessica Mesman (“remembering death is a dusty practice that needs to be dusted off and used”)

All Hallow’s Eve; a sonnet of reclamation via Malcolm Guite (reclaiming this season as one of remembrance…we remember the light that shines in darkness)

 

Ecclesiastes 1, Recast in Classical Poetry via T. M. Moore ( new take on a familiar chapter of the Bible)

Watch Out: Poetry Can Hijack the Heart via L. L. Barkat (an ode to the poetic form)

Working with (Those Dreaded) Editors via Florence Osmund (an excellent resource on how to choose an editor, the different types of editing, and working with an editor)

 

 

Kitchen Sink Spirituality

Sink. Soap. Suds. Plates. Pots. Pans. And . . . prayer?

Washing the dishes isn’t included in the big books on spiritual disciplines—not in Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline nor Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which describes a whopping 62 disciplines.

But maybe it should be.

DishesIn recent months I’ve come across no fewer than four references to people who have made doing the dishes into a discipline of sorts. Four! That can’t be a fluke. Is there something about dishwashing—other than its obvious need to be done—that recommends it to Christians today?

Let’s take a look at what people are saying about the dishes. Today we’ll explore three of the references I found. I’m saving the fourth (my favorite one) for next week.

Christine Berghoef gets poetic about dishwashing in a post at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation:

In the predictable rhythm of liquid warmth swirling through my washcloth as I swab away remnants of the day’s nourishment, the liltingly light splash of the faucet rinsing the suds, and the movement from rinse to dry rack, I am soothed. Unwound. Almost tranquilized. It forces me to pause, to ruminate over the events of the day, to be still.

In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP Books, 2013), Andy Crouch, describes the small discipline of doing the dishes as an exercise in humility. Tackling the crockery before he leaves for a speaking engagement, he says, helps him to limit “my own exercise of godlike freedom and significance” (pp. 241-242).

Finally, Tish Warren mentions dishwashing in her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary. The disciplines needed to sustain our spiritual life, Warren says, are often quiet, repetitive, and ordinary. This may be counter-intuitive, but it’s how growth occurs:

I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith—the making the bed, the doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small—that God’s transformation takes root and grows (35-36).

I love all three of these! Each brings to the fore a different spiritual benefit of doing the dishes:

  • being still
  • being humble
  • finding Jesus in the mundane

Given my natural approach to life, I need all of these benefits. I tend to get frustrated by daily chores. As I wrote in a previous post, I believe that I should be doing something more “exalted” with my time. And that means I need a good dose of humility. It also means that I need a reminder of Jesus’ presence. He is there, even (or maybe especially) in the mundane tasks of the day. These tasks show care for my family and slow me down enough to be present in the little moments of my life.

Which means that I may need fewer mountain-top experiences and more mountains of dishes. A kitchen sink spirituality.

What about you? Where do you need to see Jesus reaching into the mess of your daily life?

 

Come on Retreat with The Contemplative Writer

A few days ago, a friend of mind wrote: “Without care of the soul, we suffer under the weight of our calling or become smothered in the banal. Spiritual rejuvenation takes many forms but it is not a luxury OR optional.”

Those words ring true to me. Soul care is not optional. It keeps us going, renews us, returns us to ourselves, and above all helps us experience the care of our Creator.

Spiritual practices help us care for our soul — fixed-hour prayer, contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and lectio divina, for example. When we engage in one of these practices, the goal is to clear the way for God to work in us. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing said, “In the work of contemplation, God stirs our souls. His grace is the principal worker in us.” It’s God, not us.

I find valuable resources in the contemplatives and mystics of contemplative history who tell us about these practices. And I have another resource I’d like to tell you about today.

I’ve teamed up with a soul friend to host a spiritual retreat! We’re excited to offer this to you. The retreat will take place June 5 – 7, 2020 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here’s a brief description:

Sacred Spaces is the first annual destination retreat created and hosted by Lisa Deam, Ph.D. and Lisa Colón Delay, a top-ranked spirituality podcaster and writer. In the high desert of New Mexico, we’ll gather to recharge our soul. We’ll enjoy a time of rest, contemplation, and spiritual practices.

We’ll specifically be focusing on the practice of pilgrimage, which is experiencing a worldwide resurgence today. A highlight of the retreat will be a visit to the local pilgrimage site of Chimayo, New Mexico.

Our schedule for the retreat is spacious. We want to welcome you and provide time for you to rest, recharge, grow, and journey with friends old and new. The New Mexico landscape is an ideal place for retreat and contemplation since it has a spiritual potency of its own.

Soul care is important, so I hope you’ll prayerfully consider joining us on this retreat. If you can’t make it yourself, you can donate so that someone else can.

There are two ways to get more information on the Sacred Spaces retreat. You can sign up to get updates on the retreat’s landing page.

And you can go to EventBrite for a wealth of information and to purchase your tickets. (Note: EventBrite is down or experiencing some technical difficulties. If the link doesn’t take you there right now, please try again later!)

From now until the end of October, we have a reduced rate on tickets. It’s a really good deal — it includes the event program, pilgrimage visit, two nights lodging, and four meals. Take a look.

Please join us on a pilgrimage of the heart.

Announcement and details of Sacred Spaces Destination Retreat June 2020 from Lisa Colón DeLay on Vimeo.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites, my weekly round-up of great finds on the web. This will be our last Friday Favorites for the summer — but look for them again when the leaves begin to turn.

Friday Favorites features posts and podcasts on prayer, writing, and spirituality. Today’s finds offer a little bit of everything, from contemplative activism and contemplative history to a short story and a summer reading list. Read, and be blessed.

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Fast for Familias (do something today — fast for an end to the separation of children from families at the border; this event is happening today, June 29)

An “Outsider” Can Show Us How to Love Our Neighbors via Ed Cyzewski (what if the help we need — now or one day — comes from people we wouldn’t have chosen to help us?)

After the Death of a Dream via Tasha Burgoyne (God is at work even when your most cherished dreams come undone)

2018’s Ten Christian Women to Watch via Jenna Barnett (did you catch Sojourners’ list of women who are making and shaping history this year?)

Why Finding God in All Things Leads to Fullness of Joy via Carl McColman (finding joy with the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich)

Friday Feature — National Selfie Day via Prasanta Verma (a light-hearted but serious look at one of our more interesting “holidays”)

The Sparrow via Jane Tyson Clement (a mystical short story about the God who sees every sparrow fall)

20 short novels you can read in one day via Modern Mrs. Darcy (add these short but impactful books to your summer reading list)

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD

Week 3: Press On
Presence of God cover

This is our last week reading The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century lay Carmelite. Brother Lawrence advocates practicing what he calls a continual conversation with God. The last two weeks, we’ve looked at what this practice entails and Brother Lawrence’s thoughts on leading an integrated life.

Brother Lawrence admits that sometimes, “practicing the presence” is not easy. He says that for ten years he found it extraordinarily difficult.

I must tell you that for the first ten years I suffered much. The apprehension that I was not devoted to God as I wished to be, my past sin always present to mind, and the great unmerited favors which God did me, were the matter and source of my sufferings. During this time I fell often, and rose again presently.

I appreciate his candor, because I find consistently practicing any spiritual discipline to be fairly difficult.

In his letters, Brother Lawrence gives advice similar to medieval mystics like the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. When our mind wanders or we experience other difficulties practicing the presence of God, we simply and gently return. God is always there, waiting.

About a member of his society, Brother Lawrence writes (I believe he might be talking about himself here):

If sometimes he is a little too much absent from that divine presence, God presently makes Himself to be felt in his soul to recall him, which often happens when he is most engaged in his outward business. He answers with exact fidelity to these inward drawings…

***

To someone struggling with wandering thoughts during prayer, Brother Lawrence writes:

You tell me nothing new; you are not the only one that is troubled with wandering thoughts.

I believe one remedy for this is to confess our faults and to humble ourselves before God. I do not advise you to use multiplicity of words in prayer, many words and long discourses being often the occasions of wandering.

***

If [your mind] sometimes wander and withdraw itself from Him, do not much disquiet yourself for that: trouble and disquiet serve rather to distract the mind than to recollect it; the will must bring it back in tranquility. If you persevere in this manner, God will have pity on you.

***

Brother Lawrence urges us to take heart, press on, and keep on this spiritual road.

Let us make way for grace; let us redeem the lost time, for perhaps we have but little left . . . I say again, let us enter into ourselves. The time presses, there is no room for delay; our souls are at stake.

Let us encourage one another this week, for the spiritual road is not always easy. Let us take heart and press on, friends!

***

The Practice of the Presence of God consists of the letters of Brother Lawrence, some of his Maxims, and four conversations with him as recorded by a contemporary, Abbe de Beaufort. You can read them here (other editions are widely available).

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For Reflection:

Brother Lawrence week 3

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD

Week Two: An Integrated Life
Presence of God cover
This month, we’re reading The Practice of the Presence of God, the spiritual classic by the seventeenth-century lay Carmelite Brother Lawrence. Check last week’s post for an introduction to this practice, which teaches us how to continually remain in God’s presence.

I’ve long admired what Brother Lawrence has to say about work — work in relation to prayer and to being with God. I’m always tempted to segregate my life into compartments, and it’s easy for me to box up my work and see it apart from God, prayer, and the spiritual life. This is true of everyday work, like housework; and guess what? I can do the same thing with my writing on spirituality. I can easily box that up and stow it far from God, too.

Brother Lawrence, by contrast, speaks of living an integrated life, one in which we are always in the presence of God, no matter what we do. He wrote:

It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church. We may make an oratory of our heart wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God…Let us begin then.

***

We might begin such conversation in the realm of our day-to-day work. Brother Lawrence provides a good example. Upon entering the monastery as a lay brother, he was assigned kitchen duty. He didn’t much like it but came to see even this dreaded assignment as a way to be in the presence of God. He said (this is the famous omelet quotation; you knew it was coming):

[I]t is not necessary to have great things to do. I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have lifted a straw from the earth for the love of God.

***

Brother Lawrence also affirmed:

 

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.

***

What about you? Have you encountered God in your kitchen today? How spiritually integrated is your life?

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The Practice of the Presence of God consists of the letters of Brother Lawrence, some of his Maxims, and four conversations with him as recorded by a contemporary, Abbe de Beaufort. You can read them here (other editions are widely available).

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For Reflection: 

Brother Lawrence week 2

 

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! (To tell you the truth, every day feels a little like Friday right now since summer is here, my girls are out of school, and I don’t have to go to work at my day job at the school–every day a Friday is not a bad thing.)

This week, I have a great round-up of posts and podcasts about prayer, place, silence, life, and writing. It’s summer–read/listen to them by the pool or beneath your favorite tree.

And be blessed.

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For the Love of God and Place via Marlena Graves (ask the Lord how you can seek welfare in this place)

Examen Recordings via The Gravity Center (guided evening examen from Gravity retreats–a great resource!)

Rich Lewis | What to do in the Silence — The Centering Prayer Episode via Matthew Brough (on the Spirituality for Ordinary People Podcast, Matthew Brough interviews Rich Lewis on the practice of centering prayer)

Praying with the Power of Paradox via Julia Walsh (perhaps mystery is not a threat, but an awesome place to pray)

How Will You Live Your One Life? via Michelle De Rusha (on living the ordinary, unseen moments of life)

10 Ways the World is Getting Better via Leslie Leyland Fields (the news is often grim…but are there ways the world is actually getting better?)

Jane Friedman on the Business of Being a Writer (Jane Friedman talks publishing and debunks myths on The Creative Nonfiction Podcast)

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Next week, Friday Favorites will take a break while I am at a Writers’ Retreat led by Andi Cumbo-Floyd, Shawn Smucker, and Kelly Chripczuk. I’ll be leading a workshop/craft talk entitled “Write For the Market or Write For Yourself?” Will any of you be at the retreat?

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BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD


Week One: Practicing the Presence
Presence of God cover

This month I wanted to return to a book I’ve always liked – The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence (c. 1611 – 1691) was a lay brother in a monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Paris.

Brother Lawrence is well known for what he calls “practicing the presence of God.” He speaks of this practice as “a quiet, continual conversation with God” and also as “the habitual sense of God’s presence” — a habit of allowing yourself to be always with God.

Brother Lawrence says that, to draw close to God, we don’t need anything but this habit of continually conversing with him. We don’t need lots of complex practices or prayers. In fact, Brother Lawrence admitted in a letter that he had given up all spiritual practices except the ones specifically required by his office. He writes:

People seek for methods of learning to love God. They hope to arrive at it by I know not how many different practices; they take much trouble to remain in the presence of God in a quantity of ways. Is it not much shorter and more direct to do everything for the love of God, to make use of all the labors of one’s state of life to show Him that love, and to maintain His presence within us by this communion of our hearts with His? There is no finesse about it; one has only to do it generously and simply.

I’ll be honest. Brother Lawrence’s method of being with God is so simple that it sometimes seems difficult. Perhaps we are trained to expect drawing near to God to be complicated, to be a method with many steps and a steep learning curve? Or to intellectualize our relationship with God? (Guilty.) But maybe it doesn’t always have to be this way.

In a letter giving advice about the spiritual growth of a mutual friend, Brother Lawrence describes the practice:

Let him think of [God] as often as he can, especially in the greatest dangers. A little lifting up of the heart suffices. A little remembrance of God, one act of inward worship . . . are prayers, which however short, are nevertheless very acceptable to God . . .

Let him then think of God the most he can. Let him accustom himself, by degrees, to this small but holy exercise.

***

The following quotation from a letter provides a good overview of how this practice might be worked out in everyday life:

[God] requires no great matters of us: a little remembrance of Him from time to time; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favors He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company; the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of.

***

More quotes for us to ponder:

I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of God. For my part, I keep myself retired with Him in the fund or center of my soul as much as I can; and while I am so with Him I fear nothing, but the least turning from Him is insupportable.

***

In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.

***

There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because god would have us.

***

The Practice of the Presence of God consists of the letters of Brother Lawrence, some of his Maxims, and four conversations with him as recorded by a contemporary, Abbe de Beaufort. You can read them here (other editions are widely available).

***

For Reflection

Brother Lawrence week 1