By Karen O’Connor
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
For most of my childhood I was a shy, quiet person, obeying my teachers and parents and giving in to friends and playmates. I didn’t want to be punished or shut out, so I went along with whatever I was told to do.
That didn’t mean I liked it. I did not. I often mumbled under my breath or threw pillows at the wall in my room when no one was around. By the time I reached college I was pretty good at living a quiet life—but not the kind Paul wrote about. I was leading a life of silent resentment rather than peaceful contentment.
I married after graduation and gave birth to three children over the next 10 years. Still I remained in the background. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say. I just didn’t share my viewpoint if it appeared to be risky. But inside I was a kettle about to boil over.
After 20 years of marriage my husband left—just like that. I couldn’t hold myself together any longer. All the desires, fears, anger, jealousy, hurt, and pain erupted. I couldn’t stop talking or crying.
Letting God In
With the help of a therapist I was able to empty myself of the grief and neglect I had felt for so many years. But then I went in the other direction. I had a lot to say to a lot of people about a lot of things! And not all of it was pleasant or even nice. I wanted to be heard and I made sure I was. I was no longer quiet about anything.
During that time a new friend invited me to a Bible study that led to my accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This was a new experience for me, one I devoured. I had never opened a Bible before, so everything I read was food for my hungry, hurting soul.
As I studied God’s Word I was drawn to living a quiet life—not the kind I had lived as a scared child or an unhappy adult, but one that rested in the presence of God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). My new quiet life required a lot of practice and was filled with plenty of setbacks.
Learning About God
Then some years later I was introduced to a book that brought new meaning to the words quiet and stillness. The Practice of the Presence of God (CreateSpace, 2012), by Brother Lawrence, who lived in the seventeenth century, made a huge impact on my life.
At age 50, Nicolas Herman (his given name) wanted to find refuge and peace from a noisy world; so he joined a Carmelite monastery in Paris and took the name Brother Lawrence.
Much to his disappointment he was put in charge of the kitchen—the last place he wanted to be. But he accepted it, assuming God assigned this duty to “chasten” him. To his surprise, however, just the opposite occurred. He later said that God “disappointed” him by giving him a life filled with joy!
As a result, he decided to do every task, regardless of how menial it was (even picking up a straw from the floor), as an act of love for God. It took time to develop this attitude of heart, but he was committed to doing so. Soon others noticed the changes in him and they started asking for his “secret.” His reputation spread to religious leaders from all walks of life, an example of 1 Thessalonians 4:12: “so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
Even the Abbot of Beaufort, a monk of prestige at the time, wrote many letters asking Brother Lawrence for spiritual counsel and direction for his own life. The two men exchanged 15 letters and met four times to discuss what Brother Lawrence had learned by focusing his mind on the constant presence of God in everyday life, basically living a quiet life amid the distractions.
The Abbot recorded the conversations and later edited them, along with the letters, to create the book known today as The Practice of the Presence of God. He had it published in the mid-1690s just after Brother Lawrence died at the age of 84, following only two weeks of illness (this during a time in history when the average life span was about 40).
Leaning on God
His experience was not a one-time feeling, or a method of prayer or meditation, but simply a way of life—a practice. In fact, he claimed that when he accepted advice from others or tried to live with a plan for spiritual growth, he only became frustrated and confused. So he went back to “practicing the presence” and everything fell into place. He was able to lead a quiet life of devotion to God.
In his own words, “The time of business does not differ with me 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 on my knees.”
Brother Lawrence’s secret to living a quiet life can be summarized in three parts.
He was governed by love. Even picking up a straw for the love of God excited him.
He was guided by the truth. Believing he was saved by grace alone, he did not fret about sin. He found that people waste time by judging and second-guessing themselves, whining, complaining, and being disappointed when they could instead focus on God. Sinners sin. But God forgives. He acknowledged over and over that he could not go it alone, so he did not try. The moment he sinned he stopped, confessed, embraced forgiveness, and took up his quiet life again, loving God.
He was guarded by the Spirit. During his 15 years in the kitchen at the monastery he was never bored. He found everything he did to be easy because he did all of it for the love of God.
Useless thoughts, self-focus, penance, and self-mortification are all unnecessary, according to Brother Lawrence. Practicing the presence of God in all one’s affairs was the only thing that made for a quiet life of love, joy, and peace—the kind of life Paul talks about in 1 Thessalonians, and one that I want to live in the New Year. Perhaps you do too.
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer living in Watsonville, California.
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