The fifty-four-year-old monk was most surprised by the cold. Rarely was he out of his kitchen at this time of morning. He smelled the smoke from the fires, and if he listened hard, he could hear the chanted prayers of his fellow brothers. He had been excused from both the kitchen and the prayers this morning. He did not miss the noise and heat of the kitchen, but he missed the sense of safety that goes along with routine. He sang along with the chants as best he could and prayed silently. Beyond the village he could see the sky begin the slow process of changing color as the sun came up.
He stopped a moment, feeling an almost childlike anticipation for what he was about to do. There were times as a child when his father had told of long journeys they were going to take, and he had scarcely slept the night before. Last night he lay awake long into the darkness thinking of this journey and what he might see, praying that God would watch over him.
Upon feeling this childlike giddiness, he laughed out loud. The sound of his own laughter made him feel even less like an old monk and more like a child, and he laughed harder still. The thought that one of his fellow brothers might come out and see him laughing all by himself tickled him further still. The only eyes that saw him belonged to the horse that turned and simply looked at him. Brother Lawrence patted the animal’s neck and continued to sing in a loud voice even though the prayers from the sanctuary had ceased. In the dim light of the morning, he could see not just the hot breath of the horse but the steam that rose from the animal’s body. The monk thanked God for His creation and that he would not have to walk the five hundred miles to Auvergne.
He hitched the horse up to the wagon and laid the reins across the seat. It would take him awhile to climb on board. He never asked for assistance though others had offered. His leg pained him greatly, especially on cold mornings. It often felt like dead weight that he was dragging around until he turned too quickly, stepped too far to the side. Then the pain was intense, but he did not complain. He imagined the bullet was still somewhere in his thigh, and he thanked his Creator that it had not taken his entire leg or his life.
The boatmen who brought the wine in barrels marveled at the monk’s upperbody strength. Brother Lawrence was a large man, his frame made bigger by the robe. Were it not for his leg, he probably could have loaded the wine onto the wagon himself. Instead he had to assist the boatmen as best he could before traveling back.
The journey would take three weeks and would mark his first trip out of the monastery in almost a quarter of a century. Grasping the side of the seat board on the wagon and carefully placing his good leg on the step, he hoisted himself up into the seat in one motion. He winced at the pain that shot through his leg. Getting himself seated, he physically pulled his other leg into the wagon with his hands. He put it in place next to the other one and bent it. He waited for the pain to subside. When it did somewhat, he picked up the reins. He turned back to look at the monastery and said a prayer asking God’s blessing on his fellow brothers and on the journey that lay ahead of him. With a flick of the reins and a quiet command, the horse began to move, pulling the empty wagon behind.
Brother Lawrence was born with the name Nicholas Herman in 1611. (There is some discussion as to the actual date, but most scholars believe it was close to this year.)
He was born in Hérménil near Luneville in Lorraine, France. Very little biographical information is known about his childhood. His parents saw to his education with the help of a parish priest and probably covered the elementary levels. Nothing is known of his secondary education or his job. He does write about a profound spiritual experience he had in his eighteenth year, which changed the course of his life, though he did not take his vows as a monk until more than a decade later.
He became a soldier during the Thirty Years War, a highly vicious time in history. Though Nicholas never wrote about or described that time of his life, reports of lootings and atrocities have been documented. Brother Lawrence later referred to “the disorders of his youth,” the “sins of his past life,” and his determination to “rectify past conduct.”
During his time in the service, he was captured by German soldiers and accused of being a spy. He was held captive and told that he was going to be put to death. The young man talked his way into a release. Think about that last sentence. Soldiers have captured what they believe is a spy for the other side, and he simply talks his way out of the charges. It is hard to imagine what that conversation must have been like. The German soldiers must have seen something inside him that compelled them to let him go. Perhaps it was that inner light that Brother Lawrence said remained with him and inside him until his death. Who knows? They released him, and he rejoined his troops.
During the battle of Rambervillers in 1635, Nicholas was wounded in the leg and had to return to his parents’ home. It was a wound that would cause him great pain and plague him for the rest of his life.
After leaving the service, Nicholas attempted to lose himself in the wilderness and became a hermit. That didn’t last long. He became the personal valet to the treasurer of the king of France. In his own writings Nicholas referred to himself as being “clumsy” with a tendency to “break everything.” His employment did not last.
In 1640 Nicholas joined the Order of Discalced Carmelites on the Rue Vaugirard in Paris. In August of that year he received the brown robes of the Carmelite and took the name Lawrence (perhaps recognizing the priest who had taught him when he was younger). He completed the name with “of the Resurrection.”
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection went into what he called a “dark time.” He believed that, when he became a monk, God would heal him of his clumsiness and of the pain in his leg. When this did not happen, Brother Lawrence believed he was lost, that he would be damned forever as a result of his past life, that he would be “skinned alive” for his sins. Believing that he was not good enough, not devoted enough, not pure enough, Brother Lawrence sank into a depression that would last a decade. He dwelt only on his past, thinking that “all creatures, reason, and God Himself were against me.”
Brother Lawrence wrote:
When I thought of nothing but to end my days in these troubles, I found myself changed all at once; and my soul, which till that time was in trouble, felt a profound inward peace.
As for what passes in me at present, I cannot express it. I have no pain or difficulty about my state, because I have no will but that of God, which I endeavor to accomplish in all things, and to which I am so resigned that I would not take up a straw from the ground against His order, or from any other motive than purely that of love to Him.
He was assigned the job of cook, where he worked for the next fifteen years, until he could no longer stand for long periods and was assigned a job where he could sit and became a sandal maker. By this time his order had grown to more than one hundred Carmelites and a larger number of young men in training.
He was also given the job of purchasing wine even though he often said he had no head for business. He made two trips out of the monastery to buy the wine. The first, a five hundred-mile journey to Auvergne. And a second to Bourgogen, which had to be done by river. So handicapped was he by this time that the only way he could move about the boat was by rolling over the barrels.
It was the rule of the Carmelites that there was to be a distinction between work time and prayer time.
“Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty.”
—The Rule of Saint Albert, Chapter 8
Brother Lawrence found a way to make his prayer and his work become one and the same.
He sat on the bench that a fellow monk had built for him. It was wider on the side of his aching leg, so that when he sat, his thigh had more support under it, easing the pain somewhat. The bench had no back, but this position allowed Brother Lawrence to work on the sandals in front of him. His eyesight was beginning to fail, and he often moved the bench closer to the window in the daytime. In the early hours after the morning prayer, he would often look up from his work to see the city come alive.
Sometimes the children would wave, and he would wave back. During the years after his last purchasing trip, Brother Lawrence became known as a man of great peace and of great wisdom. He found that he had company in his sandal shop nearly as much as he was alone, though he personally never considered himself to be alone and would often talk to God for hours as he repaired the sandals of his fellow monks.
“Brother?” a voice said.
Brother Lawrence looked up. “Jean Jacques,” he said, smiling to see his friend and frequent visitor. “It is good to see you.”
“I was delivering the bread,” the young man said. He was wearing an apron that looked as though, from the copious amounts of flour, that Jean Jacques had been baking bread all night.
“How is the baby?” Brother Lawrence asked.
“She cries a lot,” the young father replied. “So much that I cannot sleep, and I go down to the shop and have much of the baking done before the sun comes up.”
“Gone,” said the baker. “I have been praying all the time, so has my wife, and the baby is breathing much easier.”
Brother Lawrence smiled. “May God grant you some sleep before too many days pass.”
The baker crossed himself and bowed in gratitude. “May God grant me sleep now because I do not think I will be sleeping if she grows to be as beautiful as her mother.”
Brother Lawrence laughed one of his loud, contagious laughs, and his whole body shook. The pain shot through his leg and into his back, but he continued to laugh.
The young baker bowed again, placed his hat on his head, and went out the door. Brother Lawrence watched him from the window and chuckled at how the wind seemed to create a cloud of flour in the father’s wake.
Brother Lawrence returned to his work. Brother Philippe was on his third pair of sandals in a year. He had massive feet, and his arches caused the sandals to wear unevenly; consequently, he found himself falling down a lot when he stood up from kneeling.
He chuckled at the thought of Brother Philippe, who, when he lost his balance, waved his arms in the air frantically.
Brother Lawrence was expecting his regular visit from Monsieur Beaufort, the grand vicar to Monsieur de Chalons (formerly the Cardinal de Noailles). Monsieur Beaufort always brought sheaths of paper and ink pens and kept notes of their conversations as if he were going to be tested on them later.
Rich and poor, old and young, educated and simple—all found that a conversation with Brother Lawrence was most rewarding. Even a bishop of France would occasionally come to visit with the humble sandal maker. For more than fifty years Brother Lawrence prayed and conversed and shared his ideas on the practice of the presence of God.
He was frequently sick during the last years of his life, but he was never unhappy, never complaining. His only complaint was to his doctor, to whom he said, “Doctor, your remedies have worked too well for me. You have delayed my happiness.”
In a letter written just a few days before he died, Brother Lawrence said,
Let us begin to be devoted to Him in good earnest. Let us cast everything besides out of our hearts. He would possess them alone. Beg this favor of Him. If we do what we can on our parts, we shall soon see that change wrought in us which we aspire after. I cannot thank Him sufficiently for the relaxation He has vouchsafed you. I hope from His mercy the favor to see Him with a few days. Let us pray for one another.
Brother Lawrence died on February 12, 1691.
But his work and words have never died.