the barefoot monk and his God of pots & pans
dispatch from 02139 (in which we meet a 17th-century monk with wisdom for the ages….)
the snows have been tumbling since the cloak of twilight fell last eve. a short pause here and there, but mostly tumbling, tumbling. with little sound but the shooshing of slush as it spits out from under thirsty tires on the street below, i’m tucked inside, home alone, curled up with a tiny blue slip of a book.
i’d not heard of the book, nor its author, until just a week or so ago, when a wise woman of letters likened something i’d written to the musings of brother lawrence, he with his God of pots and pans.
she mentioned this in passing, as if of course i knew the fellow. i did not.
no more need be whispered. i stood intrigued. and i set out to unearth this humble fellow who stumbled on the Holy amid the clangings of his monastery kitchen, not long after the pilgrims pulled ashore at plymouth.
i marched straight to the nearest epicenter of literary procurement — aka, the cambridge public library — and there i found the shelves were hollowed of brother lawrence and his sole literary offering, “practice of the presence of God,” a line i’d heard over the years — been struck by, really — though i never knew its origins. nor ever thought to wonder.
my friendly librarian managed to scrounge up a solitary copy from the bowels of some far-flung college archives. she dispatched it swiftly, and it came into my possession just days ago.
this white-freckled morn of mounding drifts offered the perfect occasion for making its acquaintance.
so down i plopped. and here i share the tale.
no bigger than a folded-in-half index card, a mere 80 yellowed pages, the title etched in gold gothic letters across a navy canvas, it’s a wisp of a volume. weightless as the wing of a dove. a book that might get swallowed whole at the bottom of a satchel, where it nearly did get lost this week.
yet it packs a mighty wallop.
it’s a humble collection of conversations and letters of one barefoot monk who, back in 1666, spilled the wisdoms soaked up in its now fragile pages.
the gentle fellow took the name “brother lawrence” upon entering the monastery of the barefooted carmelites in paris, not long after an uncanny conversion that came one winter’s day, staring at a tree, dry and leafless. seems the good brother absorbed the stark emptiness, but in that way that saints and wise souls do, he saw beyond it.
he imagined the possible.
as is written in the six-itty-bitty-page preface: the soon-to-be brother lawrence stood before the naked tree “reflecting on what a change God would make in it with the returning spring.”
and thus he was hit, head-on. the surging sense of the immensity of the Holy One all but knocked him down, realizing the life force, the Beautiful that would burst from the Barren.
again, from the preface: “it may seem strange so affecting a sense of Divine attributes should have been occasioned by so common an incident as seeing a tree, dry and leafless in the winter, and by reflecting what a change God would make in it with the returning spring. this may seem strange; but, in fact, it is rather to be wondered at, that others are not affected as he was, and that the little miracles of nature make so little impression upon us.”
and so, a little miracle of nature led the man, born nicholas herman of lorraine, to the great stone monastery in paris around the year 1626, when he was but 18.
there, brother lawrence, who described himself as “a great awkward fellow who broke everything,” (indeed, so kindred a spirit is my newfound bumbling ally, ol’ larry) found himself dispatched to the kitchen, “to which he had naturally a great aversion.” for some 15 years, he was cook to the society of monks.
amid the pots and pans, he established a profound yet simple spiritual practice: “i began to live as if there was none but He and i in the world,” he writes in the first of 14 letters pressed into the pages of his book.
in his second letter, he writes: “i make it my business only to persevere in His holy Presence…an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God.”
in other words, imagine that God is always near, dangling over your shoulder, tucked in the pocket of your dungarees. no need for piety, or gilded cathedral walls. no need for practiced vespers, or slipping away from the cacophony of the everyday. brother lawrence’s is the God of the here and now, especially when it’s messy.
“it is not necessary for being with God to be always at church,” he says. “we make an oratory of our heart, wherein to retire from time to time, to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love…”
from the tenth letter: “He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone, who came to visit you; why then must God be neglected? do not then forget Him.”
and in perhaps brother lawrence’s most oft-quoted line, and one which i’ll now carry to the cookstove, especially in the harried half-hour when tummies are growling, and what’s in the skillet spews coils of smoke:
“it was observed, that in the greatest hurry of the business of the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. he was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘the time of business,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter 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.’”
surely, i was meant to know the barefooted brother. a fellow as likely to be thunderstruck by the lifeless silhouette of woods in winter, a good soul brought to bended knee by delphinium on the brink of brilliant blue. a reluctant cook who carries on heavenly discourse while the spaghetti scorches in the pot.
who, pray tell, inspired you this week?
and before i go, a few more lines from brother lawrence:
“…we ought not be weary of doing little things for the love of God, Who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”
“our only business was to love and delight ourselves in God.”
“…his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God…”