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.

–Chuck

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