Presence prayer is choosing to believe in and concentrate on God’s continual attention towards us in order to increase our awareness of and dependence upon his very personal presence.
The purpose of presence prayer is both to position ourselves toward God and to become aware of his voice calling to us throughout the day, so that we increasingly note a “sense of cooperation with God in little things.”1 Like all prayer, this exercise is often characterized by seasons of deep discovery and diligent discipline. For Nicholas Herman the practice took ten years to translate from intentional choice to spontaneous habit, but the work satisfied him more than any other spiritual endeavor.
Nicholas Herman was born to a poor family of Lorraine, France, in 1611. He received no formal education and served first as a soldier and then as a household servant. In 1666, he joined a Carmelite order in Paris as a lay brother and remained there until he died in 1691. We know him as Brother Lawrence.
The one thing Brother Lawrence wanted more than anything else was to “belong entirely to God”2 (1 Thess 5:23). He writes that throughout his service, he learned many different spiritual practices for “going to God,” but found these confusing. Instead, he attempted to experience the presence of God in the midst of the mundane chores of daily life. Each day he would fix the thought of Christ in his mind before he rose, and he would pray as his last act before he fell asleep. Throughout the day, he sought to return continuously to Christ, so that everything he did was guided by and given to the Spirit.
For ten years he battled straying thoughts, trying to shift the habit from a repetitive discipline of inviting Christ’s presence to an involuntary act of the heart. In his letters, he describes wrestling against a wandering mind, trying not to dwell on his lapses or become discouraged. In one letter, he explained, “When I no longer thought that I would do anything other than finish my days in these troubles and anxieties, . . . I found myself suddenly changed, and my soul, which until then had always been troubled, felt a sense of deep inner peace.”3
Brother Lawrence remained a kitchen servant all his life, referring to himself as the “lord of all pots and pans,”4 but in his mind, no task was too trivial for God’s company. This custom of minute-by-minute prayer is encapsulated in his famous quote: “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”5 (Ps 139:7).
Some of us are drawn instinctively to the tranquility that a life of thought implies, soaking in every possible “way to God” like sponges. We crave the contemplative lifestyle of Brother Lawrence’s monastery, but like him we may not have the luxury of permanent retreat. We, too, must engage daily in some sort of business. We, too, must cope with noise and clatter. Practicing God’s presence grants us sanctuary in whatever situation we find ourselves. Instead of storing up methods for getting to God, we are able to get God himself and to pass his peace along to others.
This sense of sanctuary also benefits those of us who are immediate, action-oriented responders (Ps 27:4). In Brother Lawrence’s exercise, our perspectives are stretched. We learn to retreat from “living large” under our own power, so we can reinvest in living within the fullness of God (John 10:10). Rather than being driven by instinct, our deeds are born in the vulnerability of abiding with the Spirit. We act with steady intention, instead of simply reacting to the challenges around us. And when we receive God’s mercy through submission to him, we are able to grant his mercy to others (Matt 10:8).
In his letters, Brother Lawrence expressed reticence about instructing others in his practice. Thankfully one of the followers of this path, Frank Laubach (1884–1970), left diary entries that break down some steps to begin this lifelong discipline of awareness. Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines, notes that on the face of it, this experiment in prayer may strike one as too intense, too internally focused, or too impossible to coordinate with the myriad tasks and conversations that must be accomplished in a day.6 “Do not try it,” he warns, “unless you feel dissatisfied with your own relationship with God.”7
1Frank C. Laubach, Letters by a Modern Mystic (Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1937; repr. 1958), 14.
2Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (rev. ed.; ed. Hal M. Helms; trans. Robert J. Edmonson; Orleans, Mass.: Paraclete, 1985), 109.
3Ibid., 110, 93.
4Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 124.
5Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1958), 9.
6Laubach, Letters, 11, 19.