Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master (Book Review)

Let me say at the outset that I am not qualified to review this book except insofar as I approached it as many western readers might: with a little knowledge of Brother Lawrence and even less of Zen.  Brother Lawrence's name I recognized as that of a 17rh century French monk known for the simplicity of his approach to prayer, and for a capacity for becoming present to God in the most ordinary of tasks.  He was not a theologian nor even a particularly well-educated man, but his brief writings were compiled into a book that continues to influence many to this day.

Insofar as Zen is concerned,  I am aware of it as a Buddhist practice of mindfulness, and of the appeal of mindfulness practice to many of us caught up in the rushed demands of contemporary culture.  The well-known writings of Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hahn on Buddhism and Zen ~ particularly their work on suffering ~ have meant a great deal to me as I have dealt with some of the major challenges of my life. But I have never studied either Buddhism or Zen in any more depth than that required to provide high school students with an elementary survey of world religions.

All that said, this book is not intended as an academic approach to the interface between Christianity and Zen.  Rather, it offers a series of paired meditations from Brother Lawrence and from various Zen masters.  They demonstrate some of the many substantive similarities between the two expressions of contemplation.

I had at first thought in terms of noting that the coupled meditations might offer a fresh approach for Christians for whom some of the frequently repeated aphorisms sometimes cause the eyes and mind both to glaze over.  However, it occurs to me that the reverse might be true as well.

And ~ frequently westerners, completely unaware of existence, let alone the depth of the Christian contemplative tradition, turn to eastern religions as part of a search for a quiet, attentive posture of presence to something beyond ourselves.  (One of my college students wrote just last week, "It's too bad that we have no tradition of meditation in Christianity!") This little volume might be an excellent starting point, regardless of your own tradition or lack thereof, from which to glean some insight into two distinct and often very different traditions that share contemplative commonalities.

An example?  Among the big words with which I have been wrestling for the past two-plus years since my son's death are trust and surrender.  Here, from a page in the book:

The way of faith -- total surrender --
will lead us to completion;
it will show us how to achieve our full development.
[Brother Lawence]

If he comes we welcome.
If he goes we do not pursue.
-- Zen sayng

A person might spend a good many days with that page.

For anyone interested in more information, an appendix in the back of the book provides very brief notes in the Zen teachers quoted.  I would suggest this book to those who teach courses in prayer or religious studies, as well as to those who like to keep a page of meditations open for reference during the day.

I received a pdf version of this book ~ and nothing else ~  from the publisher, and offered no guarantees in return.


  1. As always, you write an informative and erudite review. Thanks, Robin.

  2. I have spent some a little time learning about Buddhism and, specifically Zen Buddhism. I have read and appreciated Thich Nhat Hahn. So, I also appreciate this review and will have to get the book...