Jan 7 2015

Divine Lessons From a Tree

e_DSC0863Many years ago while in seminary I took a class called The Classics of Christian Devotion.  It turned out to be one of my favorite classes of my entire graduate school experience.  Over the course of the semester the professor, Glenn Hinson, introduced us to many of the true “classics” of Christian literature.  We read and studied works by people like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Thomas a’ Kempis, William Law, John Bunyan, Thomas Merton and Thomas Kelly.  One of the books that inspired me the most was Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the presence of God.  Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth century monk who earnestly desired an intimate relationship with God and developed a method whereby he disciplined himself to “practice” being aware of God’s presence every possible moment.  He said this eventually enabled him to feel God’s presence just as keenly while he was washing dishes in the monastery as when he shared Holy Communion.

e_DSC5134Earlier today I learned something I did not know about Brother Lawrence.  My friend Michael Boone shared on his Facebook page “R120” a passage from the book 131 Christians Everyone Should Know that tells how a tree played an instrumental role in Brother Lawrence’s spiritual development:  “In the deep of winter, Herman (his name before he was a monk) looked at a barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, waiting silently and patiently for the sure hope of summer abundance. Gazing at the tree, Herman grasped for the first time the extravagance of God’s grace and the unfailing sovereignty of divine providence. Like the tree, he himself was seemingly dead, but God had life waiting for him, and the turn of seasons would bring fullness. At that moment, he said, that leafless tree ‘first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God,’ and a love for God that never after ceased to burn.”

I find this to be a fascinating story and also yet one more reminder of how Creation serves as God’s “other Book.”  From the very beginning God has used the world of nature to speak to us.  Creation has many divine lessons to teach us but in order for us to learn these lessons we have to be open to instruction and also careful observers of God’s handiwork.

e_CES0370It is interesting that Brother Lawrence’s experience occurred in “the deep of winter.”  We are in that season now.  As you look around you this time of year what do you see in the natural world that might be offering you divine lessons?  The lesson Brother Lawrence received was a great one indeed but there are many others just as wonderful waiting to be discovered by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  We would all be wise to start paying more attention.


(I took the top image in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle image at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and the bottom image at John James Audubon State Park.)

Jan 11 2012

Finding God in a Barren Winter Tree

On this date in 1611 Nicholas Herman was born in Lorraine, France.  Nicholas would eventually become known simply as “Brother Lawrence,” the monk who wrote the timeless classic The Practice of the Presence of God.  In this little book Brother Lawrence shares what he sees as the secret of the spiritual life, it is turning every moment into an opportunity for prayer or “the practice of the presence of God.”  Brother Lawrence said by doing so he was able to feel God’s presence just as near while he was washing dishes in the monastery kitchen as he did when he observed the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.

I have been familiar with Brother Lawrence’s writings for many years.  What I did not know until today was the story of his conversion.  I learned in the book, Common Prayer, that gazing at a barren tree one winter Nicholas Herman “saw for the first time the majesty of God’s grace and the constancy of God’s providence.  He imagined himself like the tree, waiting for the life that God would inevitably bring in season.”  Not long after this experience Nicholas became a lay brother in the Carmelite monastery in Paris and received the name, Brother Lawrence.

I find this story of Brother Lawrence’s conversion fascinating.  Who would have thought that God might speak to someone through a barren winter tree?  Moses’ burning bush makes sense to me, a barren winter tree doesn’t.  But that’s my problem, not God’s.  It should be apparent to all of us by this time that God has no limitations on how He can speak or what He might use to get our attention.  Yes, it should be apparent, but that is not always so.  It is so easy to forget this vital truth and for that reason only look for God in the spectacular or highly unusual.  Doing so, we may very well miss Him altogether. 

I appreciate Brother Lawrence’s initial awareness at the barren winter tree that it symbolized himself “waiting for the life that God would inevitably bring.”  If we are going through “barren” times right now, the barren trees we see around us this time of year serve as reminders that the seasons will change.  We will not always be where we are right now.  As Brother Lawrence understood, they also remind us that God is the one who “makes all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) This is a reminder we need not just in winter but throughout the year.

If you are not familiar with Brother Lawrence and his classic of Christian devotion, The Practice of the Presence of God, I highly encourage you to find a copy of this book and read it.  You’ll be glad you did.


(I took the two images above in the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.)