In many of the world’s great spiritual traditions there are strong themes of finding the presence of God in the mundane. There is a call to “awareness” so that by becoming aware of the passions one might move beyond them to a higher reality. What many Christians might not be aware of is just how much this mystical tradition exists also in Christianity. Recently there has been some renewed influence of mysticism in Christianity, but often it is imported, so to speak, from other religious traditions. Yet there are thinkers who draw their origin and life directly from the Christian tradition who also can offer a profound link and connection to the mystical life, an awareness of the presence of God in all things.
One of the most striking examples of this is the Jesuit priest Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. I recently bought one of the myriad cheap copies of the 1921 English translation by Strickland. There are better and more authoritative versions out there, but it is still a tremendous place to start. What is striking from the very first line is just how convinced Caussade is of God’s action constantly around and among us.
God continues to speak to-day as He spoke in former times to our fathers when there were no directors as at present, nor any regular method of direction.
Or in another place:
I speak as much of people in the world as of others. If they could realize the merit concealed in the actions of each moment of the day; I mean in each of the daily duties of their state of life, and if they could be persuaded that sanctity is founded on that to which they give no heed as being altogether irrelevant, they would indeed be happy.
The core of Caussade’s advice is to remind us that God is just as present in all the obvious public duties of the Christian life, such as going to mass, as in the hidden, invisible duties that people do every day. God is active and present in all of it.
What a divine nourishment Mary and Joseph received from this daily bread for the strengthening of their faith! It is like a sacrament to sanctify all their moments. What treasures of grace lie concealed in these moments, filled, apparently, by the most ordinary events… O Sacrament of the present moment! thou givest God under as lowly a form as the manger, the hay, or the straw.
It is a profound message, all too easily lost. The mystics in many traditions call for a dying to the senses. For Caussade this means not ignoring the senses, but rather of seeing God’s action directly in and through all our actions, all our desires, all our movements. Thus his meditation on the angel’s words to Mary:
“The power of the most High shall over-shadow thee” (Luke 1:35), said the angel to Mary. This shadow, beneath which is hidden the power of God for the purpose of bringing forth Jesus Christ in the soul, is the duty, the attraction, or the cross that is presented to us at each moment.
“The duty, the attraction, or the cross” – basic tasks, exciting prospects, crushing difficulties — these are all the “shadow” cast by God’s action in the world and in the heart. If we open ourselves to faith in God’s action in all of this, we become “pregnant” with Jesus, bearing him and giving birth to him in this world.
One of my favorite passages so far in the book concerns again the continued activity of God, but Caussade spells out what he sees as the goal of what God is doing in the hearts of all who believe, who see in the world the action of God.
While helping the Church to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, He writes His own Gospel in the hearts of the just. All their actions, every moment of their lives, are the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. The souls of the saints are the paper, the sufferings and actions the ink. The Holy Spirit with the pen of His power writes a living Gospel, but a Gospel that cannot be read until it has left the press of this life, and has been published on the day of eternity.
What a great image! God continues to write a Gospel, and insofar as we believe, we are the characters, the active participants in the story. We become new Christs who live out, in His image, a new Gospel of love.
There are challenges to reading Caussade. One is his rather flowery prose. I have not compared translations, so other versions may be better, but I would guess that at some level it is endemic to his writing. It’s just a warning – be prepared to deal with it. There are amazing nuggets of wisdom if you’re willing to search.
Another issue is that he can seem to be talking to a world of people who pray a lot, who have spiritual directors, who read spiritual books. It’s not surprising that it seems this way: much of the book came from his experience writing for convents of nuns in France. I would presume that many of you, dear WD readers, ain’t got a lot of time for such things. And anyway, how many priests have time to give regular spiritual direction? How many lay people are trained? How many spiritual books sit on our shelves unread? The great thing about Caussade is that he’s not saying that we don’t need directors, or that they are not helpful. He says that they are. But he reminds us that all the books, all the directors, all the Chicken Soup for the Frickin’ Soul are only to help us do one thing – become one with the loving designs of God. And the path to that unity doesn’t run around our daily life, but it runs right on through it.
Jean-Pierre de Caussade is a great place to start if you are interested in the Christian mystical tradition. That’s not because he is the source, or the beginning, but because the thread of his love for God is easy for our busy modern lives to pick up. It’s a mystical vision that sees our daily lives as full of God’s life and love. We can only hope that more of us can come to share his vision!