One of my favorite books is “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a 17th century French Jesuit priest. The basic premise of Fr. Caussade’s spirituality is that God allows, if not wills, everything that happens to us, and so all of the events of our lives, even the most trivial and painful, are the unfolding of God’s plan, the manifestation of divine providence.
If that is so, then I can believe that my life is essentially as it should be because God is in charge and I can surrender all to his mysterious grace.
Fr. Caussade’s message is simple. We do not need to perform extraordinary penances, execute mighty deeds or perform spiritual calisthenics to become a saint. All we must do is the will of God in every moment as it is made known to us.
Going to work, washing the dishes, writing a term paper, hosting a party, fixing the lawnmower may seem to have nothing to do with God, but if these are the duties asked of us in the present moment, they become extraordinary expressions of God’s will in our lives and our sacrifice of love and service to him. When we view our lives through Fr. Caussade’s spiritual prism, our simplest actions are imbued with a saving power beyond our imagining.
I find this way of thinking eminently practical and helpful in dealing with the frustrations, challenges and sufferings of life. If, when I’m in a hurry, I am delayed by a passing train, maybe God is saving me from an accident down the road.
If some great pastoral plan I poured my heart into miserably fails, maybe God has a better idea that will take off and flourish. If my brother died at the age of 10, maybe his prayers before the throne of God will help lead many people to salvation.
When I can surrender and accept the painful crosses that come my way, I fall into a joyful freedom that liberates me from anger, resentment, self-pity and disappointment. The world will break our hearts, but we can keep coming back to God to let him heal the broken pieces.
One of my favorite saints is Therese of Lisieux, who entered a cloistered Carmelite convent at the unconventional age of 15, and died of tuberculosis at 24. After the initial euphoria of her new life wore off, Therese found herself resentful and unsatisfied.
She dreamed of serving as a missionary in some exotic land, of gloriously dying as a martyr, even of being a priest, but all of these doors were closed to her. Instead, her days were filled with long hours of prayer, hard work, silence and the challenges of living in a community of women who were much older than her.
Insight came her way while reading Chapter 13 of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, the famous hymn to charity. Therese rapturously discovered that God was not calling her to great deeds, but to great love. To joyfully arise at 4:30 a.m. and pray in a dark, cold chapel, to patiently tend to the needs of the old, cranky sister in the cell next to hers, to heroically embrace the thousand and one emotional pinpricks, unreasonable demands and trivial duties of her cloistered life was her path to sanctity.
When we are sad, grieving or stressed, we may be tempted to dream of a different life, a new spouse, a body free of pain, but such desire is ultimately an escape that takes us away from the reality of God in the present moment where we find ourselves.
In his humanity, Jesus did not seek the horror of the cross, but in the anxious solitude of Gethsemane, he surrendered to the ultimate unfolding of divine providence and won for us the priceless gift of eternal salvation. By surrendering to the crucifixion, Jesus found freedom in the middle of a hellish death. Jesus was never freer, more himself than when he found himself nailed fast to the wood of the cross.
When we surrender to that paradox of the paschal mystery, we can grasp and live the message of Fr. Caussade and St. Therese. Here is a quote from the introduction of “Abandonment to Divine Providence”: “True mystics are always more practical than the ordinary run of people. They seek reality; we the ephemeral. They want God as he is; we want God as we imagine him to be.”