More than a few people have the experience of a traumatic event in their lives that becomes a blessing in disguise, as they struggle to cope with tragedy and suffering. Such a case applied to a young soldier from the Duchy of Lorraine.
Young Nicholas Herman grew up during the calamitous Thirty Years War, which devastated central Europe between 1618 and 1648. He was born and raised near Lunéville in what is now the easternmost part of France. We know that he was quite religiously inclined as a young man, and that he could read and write, but otherwise we have very few details of his background or education. He may have enlisted in the Duke of Lorraine’s army out of religious zeal, or simply because of poverty or lack of other opportunities. We certainly know that the chaotic nature of 17th century warfare was something that affected him deeply.
Apart from a few disciplined, professional units, most military contingents of the age consisted of heavily armed thugs who were not paid, but were expected to support themselves at the expense of the civilian population. Bitter hatred between Protestant and Catholic factions during this period was complicated by the shifting alliances of small units who made and unmade coalitions among themselves for the most dissolute motives. At the time when Nicholas served, there were 6 distinct armies fighting in Lorraine, battling civilians and one another. It was all but expected that marauding armies would plunder villages, murder civilians, and shoot or dismember their prisoners. Even two centuries later, vast areas of Germany had not recovered from the desolation.
In 1635, Nicholas fought against Swedish infantry and French cavalry at Rambervillers, not far from his home village. (Rambervillers had 2660 inhabitants at the time – 8 years later there were only 400 survivors.) He received a serious wound which caused him to limp for the rest of his life, and was discharged from his regiment. The ghastly experience of battle seared his mind to such a degree that he fell back on his religious upbringing, and never looked back. He never spoke of the horrors he had experienced, but the effects remained with him for the rest of his life.
He remembered that at age 18, he had experienced a powerful insight when he saw a stark, ghostly tree stripped of its leaves and all signs of life during the winter. And yet he knew that in the early spring, God would restore life to the tree, with a profusion of leaves and fruit. Buoyed by this shred of hope, he drifted for several years, failing as a hermit and as a valet. Finally he went to Paris, where he asked in 1640 for admission to the Discalced Carmelites as a working brother. Despite his awkwardness and lack of practical skills, he fit well into the community, and was made welcome. He remained there for the next 50 years with the religious name of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. For much of that period, he worked as a cook for the community, but also served as a sandal maker and a wine buyer.
He still had to struggle through a period of 10 years, when he felt he had no hope of salvation. But his desperation led him to a point of resignation to the mercy of God, which helped him find peace. He decided to reject the love of anything which was not God, and thus grew in the active recognition of God’s presence in every detail of his life. He discovered that he was able to pray at all times. Even when he was seasoning soup or peeling potatoes, he made his tasks an integral part of his prayer, using his “methodless method.”
In due time, Brother Lawrence was able to help others to be comfortable with their prayer in the most ordinary circumstances. His personal contact with beggars and working people included his encouraging them in simple conversations with God. His personal prayer life developed along the lines of simply practicing the presence of God in his kitchen. He took the prayer of recollection and made it attractive to anyone. Blessed with a clear and no-nonsense way of speaking, he wrote lucid advice to help others follow his process. He actually wrote very little, but his conversations and personal letters served as a lasting record of his simple technique. Countless people of every social class learned to begin, continue, and end every action by lifting themselves to God.
After his death in 1691, his notes were published in book form by his friend and biographer Joseph de Beaufort, The Practice of the Presence of God. Protestant publishers were also quick to circulate his simple insights, and Brother Lawrence has become well known in most parts of the Christian world. Like the later writings of Therese of Lisieux, his thoughts gained in popularity with ordinary people, and remain a popular source of spiritual wisdom today.