The man now known as "Brother Lawrence of the Resurrectin" was born as Nicholas Herman in French Loraine around 1611. He never had much formal education. When he was eighteen years old, in winter, Nicholas saw a leafless tree and began thinking about the coming spring and the tree’s spring renewal, bringing flowers and fruit. The thought gave him a view of God’s providence and power, and a great love for God, which never left him thereafter. It prompted his conversion.
As a young man, Nicholas served for a while as a soldier and as footman to M. Fieubert, the treasurer. He said he was “awkward” in the job, and said he broke everything.
In 1666, he became a lay brother among the Discalced Carmelites in Paris. From then on, he was known as “Brother Lawrence.” At the monastary, he worked for at least 15 years as the cook. He did not like the work. However, he believed that it was necessary to adhere to God as strictly in action as one does in prayer. He said the time of business did not differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clatter, and with various people calling for different things at the same time, he possessed God “in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.” (Conversations, fourth conversation).
As cook, Brother Lawrence traveled to other parts of France at least twice to buy wine for the Monastery. He did not like the task, since he had no interest in business negotiations and because he was lame. He could only move around the boat by rolling himself over the casks. However, he told God that he was about His business, and afterward he was pleased with the results.
Theological debates bored him. He complained that some people exercise their mind in reason and science, forgetting that there they can see only a copy, while they “neglect to gaze on the Incomparable Original.” Indeed, the practical simplicity of Brother Lawrence’s remarks endear people to him. He had only one message, repeated different ways, which was the importance of experiencing the presence of God, and of God’s love, in the depth of one’s soul.
Formalistic spiritual exercises also held no interest for Brother Lawrence. He said that many do not make progress because they get stuck in penances and exercises, while they neglect the love of God, which is the point of all such things. (Conversations, third conversation). He saw no need for a spiritual director to help him with his life of prayer. He felt that all the guidance he needed for the inner life of loving God with all his heart was in the Gospels.
Brother Lawrence’s first biographer (probably M. Beaufort, grand vicar to M. de Chalons, Cardinal of Noailles) described him as a man with a “rather rough exterior” but a “frank open manner, which, when you met him, won your confidence at once, and made you feel that you had found a friend, to whom you could unbosom yourself wholly.”
In his last days, Brother Lawrence felt great pain in his side, but joy continued to be seen in his face and in his speech. He asked the monks to turn him onto his painful side to satisfy a desire to suffer, to “bear just a little for the love of God.” He died on February 12, 1691, at the age of 80.
After Brother Lawrence’s death, his letters and maxims were collected and published by a contemporary whose identity is not fully certain, but who is thought to have been M. Beaufort. The same person also wrote a summary of Brother Lawrence’s teachings, compiled under the name “Conversations,” and a short biography entitled “The Character of Brother Lawrence.” The “Character” states that it was written about two years after Brother Lawrence’s death. The conversations and letters are known together as On the Practice of the Presence of God, the best known collection of his sayings. The Maxims were originally published with the letters, but were less widely republished in later years. This short biography was written primarily from those short works.