I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series. Read on for acclaimed translator Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s reflection “Translatio Divina: Transformative Soul-Body-Self-Mind Practice.” Her book Practice of the Presence: A Revolutionary Translation is our featured book for June in the Lift Every Voice Book Club.
Contemplative practices like lectio, scriptio, and visio divina help us slow down and, as Mary Oliver says, “Pay attention.” To these I’d like to add translatio divina or embodied mindfulness in translating. Recently translatio divina steeped me in the joyful spirituality of the soup-stirring, dish-washing, and sandal-mending contemplative I call the friar of amour: Brother Lawrence.
Born Nicolas Herman in 1614, he started in last place, the Third Estate, a traumatized 98% of peasants and wage laborers. With no chance for formal education, at 19 Nicolas joined the army. In the Thirty Years’ War he suffered a disabling leg injury, limping painfully all his days. Entering a Parisian Discalced (Shoeless) Carmelite monastery in 1640, he spent decades assigned to a job he hated—kitchen duties.
Brother Lawrence needed profound healing. He told his friend Joseph of Beaufort that he suffered psychological pain, reliving “in his mind the dangers of his days in military service”—“meditating on the disorders of his youth” caused him “horror.”
During his dark night of the soul from 26 to 36, he began “a brief lifting up of the heart [or] awareness of God,” even when busiest in the kitchen flipping omelettes. These repeated “inner acts of affection” developed his habit of Love-homecoming. Returning to Love as often as possible, he grew the spiritual muscles of his calmness. He learned to pray constantly, living in and from this inner peace for forty years, until his death on February 12, 1691.
Like all contemplative practices, translatio divina begins in community. Meeting with my editor-and-friend Lil on Zoom, we discussed a slew of translation ideas. Right before we signed off, she threw out, “Oh, and maybe Brother Lawrence, Practice of the Presence.” I felt a pull within. The word PRESENCE stayed lit inside me. My soul sensed the friar’s calmness would be good for me. And others.
Growing up, I suffered undiagnosed dyslexia, difficulties reading, and childhood trauma. As an adult I found healing in therapy. While learning how to listen to my true self, I had to open up, making a self-compassionate space for my vulnerable truths. Mindfulness in translation is also a willingness to open up, making room for listening from deep within to the true self of another and the truth of that person’s work.
To bring Brother Lawrence’s simple, portable presence practice into modern English, the translation process involves revisiting his words endlessly, creating dialogue between us. Translatio divina is communion. Translating and being translated by his wisdom, I began resting more deeply in my already-existing union with Love.
Translatio divina is dynamically embodied work. To find the best rhythms for my translation, I took manuscript pages on my marsh walks, reading them aloud and revising. I put my hands into the friar’s words, immersing myself in first-edition French books. Typing them to feel his voice in my fingertips, I found an original “en foy” (“in faith”) that in modern editions mistakenly reads “en soi” (“in itself”). I wanted my translation to faithfully embody the friar’s work, so mine reads “in faith.” It is also the first complete offering of Brother Lawrence, called by Martin Laird “the new standard.”
Translatio divina also hears and respects the binary-surpassing threeness at the center of the friar’s embodied theology. It’s one reason the representation of God in my translation has a home in pronouns “they/themself/theirs.” These signify the friar’s leitmotif—the trinitarian mystery of Love. They limn the image of the Trinity’s community, or perichoresis, which theologian Anne Hunt calls “the active, mutual, equal relations, without subordination” among God’s three Persons. To mirror the friar’s inclusive spirit, my translation embraces God the Parent, Jesus, and Spirit, a community the friar knew intimately as “inclusive of everyone and everything,” as Hunt reminds.
The pronouns “they/themself/theirs” also respect the good kind news inherent in the gospel: All are welcome. Reading them, I can breathe. I hope they do the same for others, opening space for every person and for Mystery. Mindful of the friar’s kind Trinity, and those marginalized by the binary’s divisive power, my translation questions the philosophy underpinning the notion of translation purity in such a spiritual text, and gently moves beyond it, accurately.
Previous translations routinely superimposed on the friar’s teaching a binary of saint-versus-sinner and good-versus-evil. But he teaches we “stumble” and “harm others,” kind God forgives, and our friendship with Divinity helps us do better, becoming over time, he says, “the wisest lovers of God in this life.”
Past translations sometimes extended the convention of dualism by inserting masculine nouns for “tous” for “all [people].” When Beaufort eulogizes the friar’s kindness, I translate: “He became everything to everyone [tous] to bring all to God,” while traditional versions render it: “He became everything to all men [tous] to bring them all to God.”
Beloved by people of all faiths, wisdom traditions, and diverse backgrounds, the friar’s Practice of the Presence models everyday mysticism. His teaching is down-to-earth—to know peace, on any day, at any time, anyone can return in micro-moments to God, Kindness, Love, True Self, or however you regard Mystery.
An encouraging teacher, kind Brother Lawrence reminds all of us that his practice is for everyone: “In the middle of your tasks you can comfort yourself with Love as often as you can. . . . Everyone is capable of these familiar conversations with God.”
Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Ph.D., author, poet, Carnegie Professor of the Year, and acclaimed translator, has made accessible Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence, the award-winning Cloud of Unknowing, and Hildegard of Bingen, among others. Her dynamic work has garnered interest from the BBC and NPR’s Morning Edition. Acevedo Butcher teaches full-time at the University of California, Berkeley, in the College Writing Programs. Visit her online at CarmenButcher.com and Linktr.ee/carmenacevedobutcher.