“THE divine will is a deep abyss, of which the present moment is the entrance. If you plunge into this abyss, you will find it infinitely more vast than your desires.” That weighty theological statement is the work of Jean-Pierre de Caussade.
He was born on 7 March 1675, in southern France. He spent his life as a spiritual director and member of the Society of Jesus, and the fruits of his wisdom lie in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence. It consists of letters of spiritual direction that he wrote to a small circle of nuns. The work gathered dust in the convent archives until its publication nearly 200 years ago.
The key to his thinking is the phrase “the sacrament of the present moment”. By this, he means using every moment of our time to search for God, who is to be found in every tick of the clock. Life has the potential to become an eternal eucharist, a continuous receiving of Christ through each experience that comes our way.
He prays for an unbroken revelation of the one who is the “bread of angels, heavenly manna, the pearl of the gospel, the sacrament of the present moment”.
This does not come about easily. We cannot give ourselves to God wholly if we are held back by the false attractions of the world. Rigid secularism dulls our minds to an awareness of the divine activity that floods the whole universe, always prevailing and never extinguished.
We must allow ourselves to be carried forward on the crest of its waves rather than let ourselves be straitened by the empty promises of materialism. Look hard, and he is always there. “He walks over tiny blades of grass as easily as over cedars. He passes over grains of sand as well as mountains. Wherever you can step, he has passed, and in order to find him, wherever you may be, you have but to pursue him incessantly.”
There are two forks in the pathway to God: one active, the other passive. The active pathway urges us to centre on each moment — be it in joy, fear, love, sickness, or exaltation — searching for the truth that God is revealing through that momentary life experience. Coupled with this is the need to live out the Christian ethic and follow Jesus’s teaching on compassion, forgiveness, repentance, and love.
The passive element involves kneeling in silence, and allowing our whole being to be suffused by the fire and light of God. Prayer then becomes an imitation of the pregnant silence between two lovers, a quiet resting in the glory and compassion of the Holy One.
What de Caussade next says is taxing and, at first sight, appears impossible. The endurance of hardships is a profound way of deepening our spiritual growth, and awakening us to the pure love of God. “What happens to us at each moment by God’s design is for us the holiest, the best, the most divine thing.”
It is worth the effort a thousand times over, if we can absorb this teaching; for it leads to peace and a state of mind in which we are no longer troubled by the chains of the past; nor do we fret any longer over the unpredictable future. Our anchor has become the all-loving God.
This requires a deep breath. God in cancer; Christ in genocide; the Lord in motorway crashes? If we cannot believe that God is somewhere in that appalling waste and negativity, we will fall into despair.
But how do we go about it? De Caussade’s reply is unbending: “As for me, Lord, I glorify your actions in everything. Everything to me is heaven to me, all my moments are divine action, and in life and death I wish to remain content with that.”
In all honesty, most of us cannot achieve de Caussade’s tranquillity when the going gets tough. The world’s troubles dismay us. Our own tragedies and calvaries sometimes seem unutterably overwhelming. All we can do then is to close our eyes in silence, and allow the love of God to sweep over us comfortingly; asking nothing, expecting nothing, letting the light of God renew us.
I FIND it helpful to keep repeating a mantra or short prayer, such as “Glory to God,” or “Holy is the Lord,” or “Jesus mercy, Mary pray,” using a string of prayer beads, moving from one to the next after each utterance. It rarely fails to bring comfort and a greater awareness of the God who hides with us in the darkness.
This homes in on the concept of mindfulness that is having a resurrection at present (Features, 23 October 2015). It is the process whereby we evaluate each moment, drawing from it a deeper, more acute awareness of its consistency and meaning (Comment, 23 May 2014).
Some will see a divine content in that, and find in it all a glimmer of holy peace, an end to the overwhelming worries and exigencies of our daily living. Jesus summed this up when he told his disciples to look at the lilies, and throw off anxiety and fear (Luke 12.27).
Benefits emerge. We do not have to wait until Sunday morning for an encounter with Christ. Every moment contains the potential for a communion with the Lord.
De Caussade views life as a journey: “Come, then, beloved ones, let us run, let us fly to this ocean of love that calls us. What are we waiting for? Let us start at once! Let us go and lose ourselves in God, his very heart, so as to be intoxicated with his love. Let us then take the road for heaven.”
Undoubtedly we need courage “to endure the pealing of the thunder, the flashing of the lightning, and the roaring of the tempest”, and to face each day positively. But if we plunge boldly into the stream of life, “the clouds will be dissipated, the sun will shine, and the spring will cover us with its flowers.”
If we hold fast to de Caussade’s belief that God is there in the darkness and light, the pain and the joy of our every moment, something remarkable will happen. Against all odds, we find ourselves suffused with the peace and love of God.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire (Features, 11 September 2015).