September 24, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Follow Jesus’ example by living in the moment

In August, we bishops of Region VII—Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin—had our annual spiritual retreat at Cardinal Stritch Retreat House north of Chicago.

During the days of reflection and prayer, I was preoccupied with a constant theme about holiness, namely that becoming holy is not really complicated, but not necessarily easy.

I read a classic spiritual work of the 18th century for my reflection. I had always heard about Jesuit Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence (L’Abandon in the original French) published by Baronius Press in 2008.

His thought is strongly influenced by St. Francis de Sales and St. John of the Cross. He is said to synthesize the Salesian and Carmelite traditions of spirituality. His work is not as arcane as it might seem.

The thesis of Father de Caussade’s book is the simplicity of discovering God’s will in the present moment. He stakes the claim that doing so is simple. God’s will is found behind the shadows of everyday events and experiences, not necessarily in large or dramatic occurrences on life’s way.

As he maintains, “God hides behind the simplest of daily activities; finding him is a matter of total self-surrender to his will.”

Living in the moment is the challenge of accepting everyday obstacles with humility and love. Father de Caussade repeats this theme over and over again. He asserts that it is the message of the Gospel in that it describes how Jesus lived—in the moment.

Father de Caussade also insists over and over that someone who truly seeks God does not need to look for dramatic opportunities to find him. If you are like me, this simplicity is appealing.

Nonetheless, it requires keeping one’s focus on the appearance of God’s will in the present moment. Father de Caussade says this is not a matter of the intellect so much as it is a matter of the will. For him, the will is expressed by the desire and determination of the heart.

The fact is that it is so easy to become distracted by what he considers to be the shadows which, like clouds, hide the divine will.

To use an example, albeit a dramatic one, if I have cancer and am fixated on the negative specter this is on life’s way, I miss the reality and the opportunity to somehow accept that God permits this sickness and that in the overall scheme of things it fits his plan. This is not to suggest passivity, but it is to avoid getting completely stuck at the level of “the shadow.” If it seems I am oversimplifying the importance of God’s action in the present moment, nonetheless, Father de Caussade holds to his thesis.

I think he has a point that is helpful, especially in our day as we are tempted to get caught up in a different kind of immediacy of the moment. We easily get so preoccupied by the sickness or obstacle of whatever kind and lose God in the process. I would not suggest that we take a Pollyanna-ish view of hard things, but trying to get beyond them can be helpful, certainly as we strive to be close to God.

I think there is another difficulty that we encounter in this way of seeking God. For most of us, praying and reflecting on God’s presence to us is an intellectual thing, not so much a matter of the heart, that is, of our will.

Father de Caussade is not anti-intellectual, but he does assert that we can get so stuck trying to figure things out that we set aside the power of our will. We neglect to trust the movement of our hearts in faith.

Anyway, Father Jean-Pierre Caussade’s spiritual and mystical theory is well worth our consideration if it gets us to move beyond the shadow of human experiences that hide God’s moment-to-moment activity on our behalf as individuals. I think that often we are not inclined to believe that God is so close to us individually that he would be acting in the shadows of our everyday experiences. We may be inclined to underestimate his moment-to-moment love for us.

An example of obstacles that keep us from realizing God’s desire to be close to us is our feeling of unworthiness, maybe not a feeling but a fact of our sin. This is why Father de Caussade also asserts that we need the sacraments to fortify us along the way of life.

To carry our example further, we need the sacrament of reconciliation to help us rise above the guilt that overshadows God’s love for us.

Sometimes it helps to reclaim our acquaintance with classical spiritual writers of the past like Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade. †

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