Denise Levertov, “Conversion of Brother Lawrence”

I particularly love the lines “your way was not to exalt nor avoid
the Adamic legacy, you simply made it irrelevant” – which neatly summarises Brother Lawrence’s way of deceptive simplicity.

Let us enter into ourselves, Time presses.’

Brother Lawrence 1611-1691

1.

What leafless tree plunging
into what pent sky was it
convinced you Spring, bound to return i
n all its unlikelihood, was a word
of God, a Divine message?
Custom, natural reason, are everyone’s assurance;
we take the daylight for granted, the moon,
the measured tides. A particular tree, though,
one day in your eighteenth winter,
said more, an oracle. Clumsy footman,
apt to drop the ornate objects handed to you,
cursed and cuffed by butlers and grooms,
your inner life unsuspected,
you heard, that day, a more-than-green
voice from the stripped branches.
Wooden lace, a celestial geometry,
uttered more than familiar rhythms of growth.
It said By the Grace of God.
Midsummer rustled around you that wintry moment.
Was it elm, ash, poplar, a fruit-tree, your rooted
twig-angel of annunciation?

2

Out from the chateau park it sent you
(by some back lane, no doubt,
not through the wide gates of curled iron),
by ways untold, by soldier’s marches,
to the obscure clatter and heat of a monastery kitchen,
a broom’s rhythmic whisper for music,
your torment the drudgery of household ledgers. Destiny
without visible glory. ‘Time pressed.’ Among pots and pans,
heart-still through the bustle of chores,
your labors, hard as the pain in your lame leg,
grew slowly easier over the years, the years
when, though your soul felt darkened, heavy, worthless,
yet God, you discovered, never abandoned you but walked
at your side keeping pace as comrades had
on the long hard roads of war. You entered then
the unending ‘silent secret conversation,’
the life of steadfast attention.
Not work transformed you; work, even drudgery
was transformed: that discourse
pierced through its monotones, infused them w
ith streams of sparkling color.
What needed doing, you did; journeying if need be
on rocking boats, lame though you were,
to the vineyard country to purchase the year’s wine
for a hundred Brothers, laughably rolling yourself
over the deck-stacked barrels when you couldn’t
keep your footing; and managed deals with the vintners
to your own surprise, though business was nothing to you.
Your secret was not the craftsman’s delight in process,
which doesn’t distinguish work from pleasure—
your way was not to exalt nor avoid
the Adamic legacy, you simply made it irrelevant:
everything faded, thinned to nothing, beside
the light which bathed and warmed, the Presence
your being had opened to. Where it shone,
there life was, and abundantly; it touched
your dullest task, and the task was easy.
Joyful, absorbed,
you ‘practiced the presence of God’ as a musician
practices hour after hour his art:
‘A stone before the carver,’
you‘entered into yourself.

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