I spent this afternoon cleaning up my office. Again. If I just get rid of furniture and books and papers I don’t need, I’ll feel better. The room will be clean and neat and open…. Perhaps I’ll add some plants. And yet as much as I love the clean atmosphere, it never seems to give me the inner freedom of spirit I need to carry out my online ministry with the artistic and spiritual creativity I so long for.
Something more is needed in the mix.
- What do you try to rearrange in your own life and schedule and ambient in order to find the inner peace that might set your spirit free?
- What works for you?
- What leaves you looking for something else?
One of my favorite spiritual authors, the friend I’ve known the longest in my life, is Jean Pierre de Caussade. When I consulted him (after I cleaned my office and threw out everything I didn’t need), this is what he told me. I found his advice in Inner Peace: Classic Wisdom from Jean Pierre de Caussade. It was a letter he wrote to someone commiserating with him after he’d been reassigned from a very quiet and contemplative ministry as spiritual director of the Nuns of the Visitation reassigned to a number of administrative responsibilities in various institutions in the south of France. Caussade was experiencing more and more difficulty with his eyes. He bore this blindness with courageous fortitude and in the spirit of his own great principle of self-abandonment to the will of God.
The letter that spoke to me was written during this active period of his life, after his transfer from being the spiritual director at the Visitation Monastery:
My dear Sister,
I am touched by your desire to share in my trials, but I am happy in being able to reassure you. It is true that, at first, I felt a keen pain at finding myself loaded with a multitude of business affairs and other cares quite contrary to my attraction for silence and solitude; but notice how Divine Providence has arranged things.
God has given me the grace not to attach myself to any of these affairs; therefore, my spirit is always at liberty. I recommend the success of them to his Fatherly care, and this is why nothing distresses me. Things often go perfectly and then I return thanks to God for it, but sometimes everything goes wrong and I bless him for that equally and offer it to him as a sacrifice. Once this sacrifice is made God puts everything right. Already this good Master has, more than once, given me these pleasant surprises. As regards having time to myself, I have more here than elsewhere. Visits are rare now, because I only go where duty obliges me or necessity calls me. God has given me the grace not to care how discontented people are with me for following my own bent. It is he alone who we ought to have any great interest in pleasing. As long as he is satisfied, that is enough for us all; other things are a mere nothing.
—Excerpt from an undated letter to an unknown recipient.
Ever since I first read Caussade as a new professed sister in the 80s, I’ve appreciated his teaching on holiness. We grow in holiness first through fidelity to our responsibilities in life and to the duties of our state in life, and secondly when we abandon ourselves entirely to the mysterious way Divine Providence ripens our spirit over time.
His secret is simple. Be faithful to the sacrament of the present moment. In each new moment that presents itself to us, God reveals his love, his protective care. Just as in a sacrament our eyes are not able to see what is truly happening, so in each moment we have to admit humbly that we cannot comprehend the workings of God’s divine Providence in our life. We can only believe and abandon ourselves with trust.
Here are three habits to stop doing in order to be able to live the sacrament of the present moment:
#1: Stop striving to create the most pleasant outcome and avoid unpleasant ones.
As fallen creatures, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we are overwhelmed by the intensity of our disordered passions. Attraction to what gives us pleasure and aversion to what is unpleasant become the scale upon which we weigh our decisions. It is the rare person who says day in and day out: “Even though I don’t like it, I will do it because it is right.” It’s hard, but in a letter to Sister Marie Thérèse de Vioménil, Caussade acknowledges he has no remedy to offer that might lighten the burden on her heart, but this: a simple acquiescence, a humble fiat, a yes which she may say in the depths of her heart, so deep she may not know she has said it. This, he says to her, will be enough to sanctify you. You cannot imagine how many excellent acts are contained in that yes. “It is a greater grace for you than you think.”
In this regard, I like to picture a child. There are moments when the child is completely happy to sleep in the arms of its mother. There are others when the same sweet child is throwing a temper tantrum to get what she needs or wants. Still, the mother’s love is able to encompass both realities: the beautiful and the challenging. It’s all a part of mothering. I believe it is the same for God.
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote a letter about relating to God as a child: “Abandon yourself, then, into the hands of God like a little child resting on the heart of its mother. If you knew how he loves you and wants you very close to him! Live in his intimacy… He is the Friend who wants to be loved above everything” (Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letter 186).
It’s not about Divine Providence depriving us of pleasurable things that make us happy or comfortable, as much as it is about God’s Providence gradually attaching us to what our heart most wants: God! As Caussade writes, “It is he alone who we ought to have any great interest in pleasing. As long as he is satisfied, that is enough for us all; other things are a mere nothing.”
#2: Stop trying to change others to fix your problems.
Since Eve, we humans have been experts at blaming someone else for our problems. That blame reflex deflects responsibility or guilt away from ourselves and is a powerful protective instinct ingrained since the fall in the Garden of Eden.
In the same letter, Caussade said that he went about dealing with difficulties in a different way. When things went wrong, he blessed God as much as when things went right, and then he offered his experience up as a sacrifice. Instead of seeking to change someone or everyone else, he looked within himself at the mystery of God’s presence at work within him.
I have to admit, I haven’t made much headway on this one. Imagine if we didn’t label experiences good or bad, better or worse than any other experience! Imagine if we could embrace each moment’s newness and allow it to unfold. Imagine if we let God reveal to us each situation’s deepest meaning. When we see each event within the horizons of God’s engagement with us in the world, then we don’t need to have to understand the reason for it happening. It becomes a bridge for us to worship and abandon ourselves with trust.
There’s a wise saying I once read: “If it is peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole earth.”
#3: Stop dreaming of getting away from responsibilities in order to experience inner peace.
There are so many ways to escape the fray: vacations, coffee breaks, retreats, entering a monastery, leaving commitments…. While it is healthy to give yourself breaks and to completely get away from work responsibilities for vacation periods, and while retreats can bring us new spiritual impetus and renewal in our commitments, they aren’t a panacea. They don’t leapfrog over our personal issues and create lasting change all at once. They are only the next step in a long process of sacred ripening that takes a lifetime.
In the end, it is the way of the cross, lived out in fidelity to our daily duties and responsibilities, that helps us to find our way to the liberty our heart is really seeking. We are not helped by situations of certainty, control, and predictability, even though they are more pleasant. It is the storms, failures, and struggles that make us wake up, commit ourselves, feel the urgency of continuing the journey.
I remember the homily of a very young priest from the Society of St Paul during a Mass after our annual retreat over twenty-five years ago. He reminded us that although our annual retreat was an experience of light and glory—at the top of the mountain of Transfiguration so to speak—Jesus tells us we must go with him down the mountain, back to life, back to our problems, issues, and struggles, back to the service of our brothers and sisters, and ultimately, at times, back beside him to Calvary. If we carry all we’ve been given in moments of relaxation and prayer back to our everyday lives, we will discover that inner peace and joy can be found in the midst of the tensions and struggles themselves.
Jean Pierre de Caussade is credited with addressing the needs of those Christian laymen and laywomen who lead full, active lives, yet are drawn to holiness and contemplative prayer. Those who want something more, but are also deeply and lovingly committed to families and ministry and service through their job, whatever it may be. As we gradually stop these three ingrained very human habits we will find a freedom we never imagined possible. Like Caussade, we will be able to say, “God has given me the grace not to care how discontented people are with me for following my own bent. It is he alone who we ought to have any great interest in pleasing. As long as he is satisfied, that is enough for us all; other things are a mere nothing.”
By Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP
Follow Jean Pierre de Caussade’s wisdom to find your own inner peace and liberty of spirit in Inner Peace: Classic Wisdom from Jean Pierre de Caussade.