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Holy Fools and the Presence of God
Seeking the Sacred in the Midst of the Mundane
Around the year 1630, Nicholas Herman was a teenage peasant of Lorraine without talent, prospects, or resources. So he did what most young impoverished men of the era did—he joined the army. The continent was at that time embroiled in the Thirty Years War, the most devastating conflict ever fought over religion in European history. One bitter wintry day, two years into his enlistment and in the midst of a corpse-littered battlefield, Herman’s eyes settled upon a single, desolate, leafless tree. Unexpectedly, he saw in its barrenness the promise of a coming spring—of new life and new hope—invisible but inexorable. It struck him as a vision from God, conveying a sense of divine purpose and providence that never left him.
Discharged along with myriads of the wounded, he found employment as a servant—but was too clumsy and inept to keep his job. So he sought refuge in a monastery. There he experienced the second miracle of his life. He had anticipated a future of wretched labor and deprivation—befitting his lack of any worth or talent. He was committed to offer up his happiness as due penance to God. But in this, he later told a visitor, “God had disappointed him because he had found there nothing but contentment.”
There the story might end, if one were to imagine an unlettered wastrel who found refuge and solace in a life of effortless contemplation and prayer. However, being unlettered, Herman was only admitted to the monastery as a servant, and his hermitage was the kitchen. The miracle was in his discovery of happiness that, like the vision of the tree, emerged with stark unexpectedness from a bleak landscape.
Brother Lawrence, as he was now known, had made a discovery about worship. “Our sanctification does not depend upon some alteration in what we do, but in doing for God what we commonly do for ourselves.” In practice, this meant that while others sang hymns in worship of God, he mopped floors in worship of God. While monastery priests read psalms and celebrated Mass in worship of God, Brother Lawrence washed dishes in worship of God. While others prayed in unison at set hours, Lawrence prayed without ceasing.
“I do nothing else,” he explained to his superior (he eventually learned to write in the monastery), “but abide in his holy presence, and I do this by a simple attentiveness and a habitual, loving turning my eyes on him. This I should call the actual presence of God, or to put it better, a wordless and secret conversation between the soul and God which no longer ends.”
It may have been a secret conversation for Brother Lawrence, but one gets the impression that this was not always the case. The holy fool is an old trope of ancient culture (and known to most high school students of Shakespeare). And it may be, in increasingly secular times, that any outward display of one’s religious devotion will cast suspicion upon one’s judgment and intellect. Brother Lawrence, one gets the impression, would have been considered “simple” by the generous and something else by the cynical, even against the backdrop of a monastic community. “For some thirty years past,” he wrote speaking in the third person, “his soul revels in joys so unbroken, and so strong that sometimes, to control them and prevent their being outwardly visible, he is constrained to manifest behavior that spake rather of folly than devotion.” He often felt a divine call to attentiveness “in the midst of mundane occupation. His reply is a prompt obedience to these inner appeals, by a lifting of the heart, or by a sweet and loving gaze, or by some words which love discovers in these encounters—as for example: ‘My God, here I am.’”
The lessons I find in Brother Lawrence are two-fold. The first is that I need more guilelessness. Guile suggests cunning and deceit, but it also has more innocuous—morally neutral—connotations. To say someone is guileless is to suggest they are incapable of strategic behavior; they are childlike, in the sense that they are innocent of ulterior motives. There is an immediacy and authenticity to their words and actions, unmediated by thoughts of their intended effect. You will notice there is a downside and an upside to that quality. When people say things without awareness or attentiveness to how those words may register in an interpersonal setting, we say they are lacking “social intelligence.” People lacking social intelligence are often oblivious to how they are being seen, to the unspoken judgment that listeners will collectively make about them.
We are responsible for hurtful reverberations we did not intend and which charitable filters might have precluded. At the same time, hypervigilance about what we say and do can be a mark of preoccupation with our image (something that social media invites us to curate obsessively). We don’t want “to come across” in certain ways, “to be perceived” as X or Y, to be labeled or categorized in reductive ways. To be self-conscious in these ways, to be situationally aware and socially intelligent, is at the same time a perpetual invitation to be calculating—to be with guile in the sense of always framing our words to effect the desired impression rather than convey an authentic truth. In Brother Lawrence’s case, his conspicuous indifference to how his raptures and worshipful ways might have transgressed social norms, were what made him a “holy” fool and not an ordinary one. Some idiosyncrasies are to be coveted.
Brother Lawrence also reminds me that I cannot make the preoccupations of family or work, the immersion in “real life” with its busy traffic and broken water heaters and meetings and deadlines and uncertain futures, into an excuse or a handicap. “It is not needful to have great things to do. I turn my omelette in the pan for the love of God. When I can do nothing else, it is enough to have picked up a straw for the love of God.”