The Humble Christian Mystic You Really Should Know About
CHRISTIAN MYSTICS HAVE a definite dramatic streak. Their transformative encounters with God are full of divine revelations (Julian of Norwich), ecstatic visions (Teresa of Ávila), stigmata (Francis of Assisi), erotic imagery (John of the Cross), and all manner of artistic compositions (here’s to you, Hildegard of Bingen).
But then there’s Brother Lawrence who — if he is known at all — is known for experiencing God’s presence as he washed dishes, cooked eggs, or did other monotonous chores that came with life in a 17th-century French monastery.
Born Nicolas Herman, he emerged from one of Europe’s deadliest religious wars a disabled veteran. Haunted by his past actions and convinced he was eternally condemned, he failed as a hermit (too much time alone with his thoughts), then as a footman (“a clumsy oaf who broke everything,” he recalled), before eventually joining the lay brothers of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites in Paris in 1640. Yet Brother Lawrence’s anxiety persisted. When he tried to pray, he spent the whole time “rejecting thoughts and then tumbling back into these same thoughts.” Eventually, he gave up all his spiritual exercises and focused on becoming aware of God’s presence as he did his assigned work in the monastery’s kitchen. What he experienced wasn’t a celestial vision, but what he had sought all along: God’s peace.
“We go to such great lengths, trying to remain in the presence of God by so many methods,” he told a friend who posthumously published Lawrence’s modest writings and letters. “Isn’t it much shorter and more direct to do everything for the love of God?”
Carmen Acevedo Butcher, an award-winning translator of mystical and classic Christian texts, was drawn to Brother Lawrence’s gentle practice. Acevedo Butcher herself grew up saddled with severe “self-loathing” and anxiety from a childhood shaped by trauma, hellfire preaching, and the strain of being “a brown girl in a white society.” But in Lawrence’s writing she finds someone who experienced real Love amid real pain.
In Practice of the Presence, Acevedo Butcher’s new English translation of Brother Lawrence, she emphasizes his embodied joy and his “original welcoming spirit,” which she sees in his frequent use of tout le monde — “for everybody.” Drawing on Lawrence’s deeply trinitarian theology, Acevedo Butcher uses they/them pronouns for God, a move she hopes will communicate Lawrence’s kind, inclusive understanding of Love to a wide audience. Acevedo Butcher spoke with Sojourners’ Betsy Shirley about translation, mysticism, and how Brother Lawrence’s practice connects to the work of social justice today.
Betsy Shirley: There were already quite a few English translations of Brother Lawrence’s work. Why publish a new one?
Carmen Acevedo Butcher: It really came out of friendship. COVID had just started, and my editor, Lil, had 30 ideas of books for me to translate. And the very last one she said: “Or there’s Brother Lawrence.” I turned directly from that with this tug or pull ... it’s gentle, like a candle burning. And I turned to Brother Lawrence and started translating.
I found out that the National Library of France has Brother Lawrence’s original text — which, if you’re a geek like me, is like somebody has just handed you a yearlong supply of dark chocolate bars. And it’s free.
I started typing up his words in French and then translating them. I wanted to feel ’em in my fingers. It’s very embodied. I knew pretty much immediately that I loved the way this man used words. I started noticing there’s not really a binary, there’s not sinner vs. saint. There’s not good vs. evil; there is kindness.
Brother Lawrence had this feeling of having harmed others and looking back at his youth with horror, but he says, “God didn’t even accuse me. God sat me down and fed me” — which is a feminine image. That was women’s work, we forget this.
What Brother Lawrence is describing is this God who is kindness. His words suggest a nonbinary, nonpatriarchal, very mystical God, that actually is the birthright of Christianity.
What in Brother Lawrence’s life allowed him to see God this way?
I relate to him a lot because he was on the margins of society: He had no education and no chance of an education. He joined the army in the Thirty Years’ War. We don’t know what he may have seen or done; I can’t guess. All I know is that when you get into his language, he’s horrified.
He was injured in the leg, and so from the time of his early 20s he limped and was in constant pain. No aspirin, no Advil, no nothing; just constant pain. Then he joined the monastery and was on the margins even there. He was the one who was in the kitchen — women’s work.
The first 10 years of his time in the monastery, he feels he’s damned to hell. That sounds a lot like a “dark night of the soul,” it sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, we don’t know, but he definitely had difficulties and pain.
When you’ve been desperate for healing, prayer becomes more than just a mental exercise. To heal himself, he evolved the kind of mental prayer that Teresa of Ávila did. He developed this way of praying along with his daily activities that embodied his prayer to an extent that it healed him. And he had over 40 years of almost unbroken peace.
I think what happened was Brother Lawrence hunkered down in that “I’m made in the image of God,” and when he washed dishes, he returned to God. People romanticize him, “Aw, isn’t that nice, look at him in the kitchen praying.” But actually, I picture him in the kitchen having to make the soup for a hundred brothers and him turning to God like, “Hey, look, I’m in the kitchen and I don’t want to be here and I’ve got to make a soup and I don’t know how to do it, so could you help me?” And later we hear him say, before you do something, always ask God for help to get it done. If it went well, thank God. If it didn’t go well, tell God thanks for the help anyway.
In his humble way, he returned to God in every moment. And I think what we’ve forgotten is that’s not a mystical path, that is the path.
When you say “mystical,” what do you mean?
If we’re talking a big definition of mystic, from a global perspective, then you would say a mystic is someone who has a direct relationship with mystery. And if we’re going to talk in Christian terms, then we would have to say, like Brother Lawrence, that a mystic is someone who has an embodied direct relationship with the Trinity. And it wouldn’t be a lip-service Trinity; it would be a Trinity that is inclusive, with everybody getting to have their differences and uniqueness. And it would also be loving, trying to make the world literally a better place.
But “mystic” is a very Western term. It precludes a lot of people. When we start talking about it, you have to use binary terms — mystic, nonmystic — and Mystery has nothing to do with the binary. It’s beyond.
Look at somebody like Dorothy Day: She had this contemplative life where she had a direct relationship with God and she did social justice. But why do we divide those up? That’s a very artificial divide. Isn’t it all the same?