George Spencer offers a look at these Covid-19 times in relation to de Caussade’s ‘Sacrament of the Present Moment’
‘Strange’ is the adjective used by many to describe the times we are living through. Strange times, not least, for priest and people – and fraught with difficulty. It is hard to see if people are following the preaching when most of their face is covered by a mask. It is hard to offer and receive pastoral care when again you cannot read the face and are standing a metre or two apart. It is difficult to know what visiting may be undertaken and how meetings may be sympathetically arranged when faced with the choppiness of ‘Zoom’. There is the concern that two classes of the faithful may be developing – the online and the off-line.
All of this can make a for a dissatisfaction with the present, and a yearning to either get back to what was or move on to a stable ‘new normal’, with richer possibilities. Surely, we cannot relish where we are?
I value my frequent visits as a young priest to the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin, outside Edinburgh, as one of the richest experiences of my life (1). This group of four people lived in garden sheds – well, Patty, being a woman, had to live in a flat in nearby Loanhead – where she let young people hang out and write graffiti on her walls – in the grounds of the former Miners’ Institute, using the tin hut of the Institute as their common area. They lived a life of prayer, simplicity and poverty, giving away anything they had accrued at the end of each year and starting afresh with nothing. But what a rich life this was! They were rooted in the conviction that everything came from God and was returning to God. It was place where humanity was celebrated, undergirded by contemplative prayer, the round of daily worship and hospitality.
Everyone was welcome to share the simple life of Roslin, and come they did, whether hungry, foot-sore, distressed, weary or downright curious. If this sounds a bit earnest in a rather Presbyterian way, that could not be further from the truth. The deep silence and seriousness of the prayer was complemented by the warmth of genuine care and concern, the blossoming of goodwill as people relaxed, and hilarity as Fr Roland regaled us with funny stories. It was also a place of absurdity; the radio (used only for listening to the news) kept in the oven because it got stolen so many times, the negotiations at the gate necessary to be let into the Enclosure (even when you were expected), and learning that a meal for 9 had cost 49 pence to produce!
The inspiration for this Community could be seen from the ‘icons’ across which spiders crawled in the wooden chapel of two garden sheds knocked together – pictures of Charles de Foucauld, Jeanne Jugan, Rene Voillaume: all people concerned with ‘littleness’ and who inspired communities to live with the poor and destitute and serve Christ in them (2). A writer frequently quoted at Roslin was Jean-Pierre de Caussade and his teaching on the sacrament of the present moment; the here and now mattered and was sacred.
For many years that was my nodding acquaintance with de Caussade’s work, experienced in the life of Roslin: that it was important to seek and serve God in the everyday. Yet a closer study of ‘the Sacrament of the Present Moment’ (3) reveals quite a few more useful insights for our strange times.
De Caussade stresses that the present is where we serve God, and his fundamental point is that the present is a place of deep and full encounter with God; we submit to the here and now as a way of participating in ‘divine action’. He makes a distinction between lives being ‘lived in God’, a conscious orientation, and lives ‘in which God lives.’ Whilst the first attitude is laudable, the second is the great reality to seek, since, ‘when God lives in souls there is nothing of themselves left’ (p 20). Scholarship, techniques of prayer, spiritual exercises, even Holy Scriptures in themselves may or may not be helpful in attaining this reality; our fundamental purpose is to forge our bond with God and let that lead us:- ‘when we walk with God, his will directs us and must replace every other guidance’ (p 31).
Co-operation with divine action involves an act of will to seek God, and a loving heart to want his kingdom for ourselves and others. Trying to know the will of God is never easy. We may make mistakes in how we respond, others may be think us pathetic, eccentric and lacking in much achievement, but the soul trying to act in simplicity and with purity of heart in seeking God will not go far wrong, argues de Caussade.
Written for a community of religious sisters in pre-Revolutionary France we might feel de Caussade addresses an inherently more religious milieu unscathed by secularism and the retreat of religion into the private sphere. And yet, what have we witnessed recently? An online search for meaning and solace in the time-honoured ways of religion which offers something beyond the realm of individual experience? A re-evaluation of our createdness in the surge of spring under bluer skies? A reaffirmation of the value of human bonds of affection and kinship as we endured physical isolation? Perhaps more people than we think were feeling their way to affirming:-’let us make use of our frailty, hardships, these cares…these doubts and anxieties, and find our joy in God who, through them, gives himself wholly to us to be our only blessing’ (p65).
For those of us who are signed-up Christians – certainly priests struggling with the uncomfortable present – but for all of us, really – de Caussaude stresses the value of simply doing what is charitable and right, and not wishing the present away. Negative experiences leads to dependence on God alone, and he encourages us with the example of the silkworm :-’Exist little worm, in the dark confines of your narrow cocoon, until the warmth of grace hatches you out….Who could ever have guessed what nature makes of a silk worm unless they had seen it! Only give it leaves, nature does the rest. …All that remains for you to do is passively to surrender yourselves, offering no resistance, without thought, aim, guidance or direction… never knowing what is to happen next. And after many transformations, perfected, your soul will receive wings to fly up to heaven’, (p58).
Another analogy used is the tapestry – we proceed a stitch at a time working on the reverse which is seen only in its sense and glory when complete and when viewed from the front in its totality. All that we are called to is to proceed stitch by stich in fulfilling our duty to the present moment. There is sort of simplicity in this which is universal: ‘Everything connected with surrender of self, devotion to duty or purity is attainable by every Christian’ (p72/3). All that matters is what the will of God ordains for each moment, and to seek to be attuned to that in purity of heart and divine abandonment.
Another of de Caussade’s insights addresses the criticism which has been levelled against faith leaders and their annoying silence during the pandemic. With his insistence on the indwelling of God in every soul and the diverse ways in which that must happen, de Caussade cautions against judging others:– ‘if God’s purposes prescribes vocal prayers, loving sentiments, insights into the mysteries for me, I must love and respect the silence and bareness which a life of faith inspires in others,’ (p63). Once again God’s purpose in each life and moment is paramount.
In other words there is no one way in which God works and calls people to live out his truth. And as a rider to this de Caussade cautions against those who look saintly – all conscious effort (perhaps especially noticeable in those in the religious life) is ‘directly contrary to inspired action’ (p 69). Better to be a person with humility, who lives in the hope of God each moment: ‘when we look for sanctity, speculation drives it further from our grasp. What he ordains for us each moment is what is most holy, best and most divine for us’ (p59).
If all this seems a tad too certain and upbeat for our times, the last point I take from de Caussade concerns his affirmation of the ‘via negativa’. He refers to the dark night of faith where everything is uncertain: ‘God is the fount of faith, a dark abyss from whose depth faith flows’ (p85). He agrees that the lived experience of God may be bareness and dissatisfaction, even a sense of futility. After advancing the fairly conventional argument that hanging on in the dark night builds virtue, he goes on to say with challenging modernity that God is experienced as absence as well as presence: ‘the pure of heart feel holiness surrounds them, but when they reach out he vanishes (p117)’. This reminds me of poets such as RS Thomas (4) and his reassurance that ‘the meaning in the waiting’, or the truth of living within ‘listening distance of the silence we call God’.
Faith is, in the end, faith and not feeling or experience: ‘I cannot see I am being guided but I cannot prevent myself from believing that I am’ (p116). When we contemplate our ageing congregations and wonder about our futures, perhaps an honesty and confidence about faith as mystery, silence and not-knowingness will engage the attention and commitment of the modern world, and give us some sort of future. There is a plea for faith here, faith in a God we have ‘made small’; and a call to affirmat that there is truth in the sidelong glance, intuitive thinking, and spiritual journeying into silence and unknowing which can so easily be jostled out of lives by all those ‘isms’ – rationalism, consumerism and humanism, and yes – religionism.
I found myself constantly asking in those scary early days when the virus raged and contrasted with the serenity of spring and the deep rhythms of Holy week and Easter, ‘what is God telling us in the pandemic?’ Well, something of the importance of relationships, of the created order and our place in it, undergirded by the self-gift of God. De Caussade helps us to see that in the totality of our situation the divine presence and purpose is made actual, and calls for a response in generous surrender from us.
- For insights into the Community of the Transfiguration, see Miller J (2014) A Simple Life: Roland Walls and the Community of the Transfiguration, Edinburgh, St Andrew Press
- Charles de Foucauld – writer of the rule for the Little Brothers of Jesus, lived a life of prayer among the tuareg people of Saharan North Africa.
Jeanne Jugan – (unacknowledged for many years) founded the Little Sisters of the Poor, by initially taking destitute women into her house in nineteenth century France.
Rene Vouillaume – a disciple of de Foucauld, lived with others in the Sahara and founded the Little Brothers of Jesus and an order for women. Influential through his writings and contributions to the Second Vatican Council, Fr Vouillaume, who died at the age of 97 years in 2003, met Fr Roland on several occasions and was an inspiration for Roslin.
- Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675 -1751) left notes of his guidance to the Sisters of the Visitation in Nancy which were eventually published in 1860 as ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’, alternatively named ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’.
There is considerable speculation about how faithful the published texts are to de Caussade’s original notes, and indeed the publishers of the French text I have been consulting for further elucidation, makes the claim that none of the work is de Caussade’s (Limovia, 2013)! They claim the work is that of the Sisters, who saw a publishing opportunity, and editors went to some lengths to correct its many unorthodoxies.
All quotations are from Kitty Muggeridge’s 1981 translation of a 1966 French text, drawn together by Fr Olphe-Galliard, SJ.:
de Caussade, Jean-Pierre, (1987) The Sacrament of the Present Moment, translated by Muggeridge K Glasgow William Collins & Co. Ltd.
- RS Thomas quotes are from poems entitled respectively: “Kneeling”, “But the silence in the mind”, “Finality” and “Raptor”. Of the many anthologies of his works, RS Thomas (2013) Etched by Silence, a pilgrimage through the poetry of RS Thomas compiled by Jim Cotter, London, Canterbury Press, is recommended.
Fr George Spencer is Priest in Charge of
St Saviour’s, Ravensthorpe