Jean Pierre de Caussade (died 1751)
By Richard Lang
Sanctity consists in willing what happens to us by God's order. If we understood how to see in each moment some manifestation of the will of God we should find therein also all that our hearts could desire.
The Rev. Jean Pierre de Caussade was a deeply spiritual man who practised what he preached - abandonment to God. A Jesuit and a Frenchman, he left behind him a treatise on this subject - 'Abandonment to Divine Providence'. But what has also come down to us are letters he wrote to the Nuns of the Visitation at Nancy. He was their spiritual director. However, on being called away to another region in France, he continued counselling the Nuns - by letter. These letters have a personal note absent from his treatise. Typically a nun would write to de Caussade in despair, describing how all her previous faith had left her. And typically de Caussade would write back saying that he was so happy for her! Yes, she had entered the religious life full of 'spiritual consolations', full of enthusiasm fuelled by ecstasy and visions, but though these experiences had been appropriate for her then, they were not the essence of the spiritual life. In fact she was now in danger of confusing the fruits of the spirit with the essence, with God Himself. And she was mistaking the loss of these good feelings with losing God. According to de Caussade, God was now taking away these 'consolations' so that she would come to love Him solely for Himself - and not for the gifts He had given her. Acceptance of this would mean a great step forward in her spiritual development.
De Caussade's perennial advice was to welcome whatever was given in the present moment as flowing directly from God. Such abandonment to God is the heart of the spiritual life. And though we might not always get the things we want, we will have peace. Why? For God is peace, and we will have God, who is our innermost being. And, trusting in God, we will know that what we are experiencing, though mysterious and perhaps incomprehensible to us, is what God wants for us, and so is right. Such abandonment does not however mean that we sit back and do nothing. Great saints like St Catherine of Genoa, though abandoned to the will of God, found that God's will meant a great deal of hard work in the world. For several years she ran a busy hospital in fifteenth century Genoa - not an easy job, especially when the disastrous plague of 1493 hit the city.
All great mystics teach surrender to the will of God - though they may use different terms depending on their cultural background. De Caussade was brought up in Christian Europe, so he used Christian terms. Thus he spoke of God - God who is the source of all things, transcendent and utterly beyond the world. Surrendering to the will of God means aligning yourself with that will as manifest in the present moment. Yet God is also immanent, your innermost being. This too is a vital theme amongst the world's mystics. As St. Catherine herself said, "My Me is God, nor do I recognise any other Me except my God Himself." Your true nature is God - the Self, the Beloved, the Buddha-nature, the Tao. At heart you are the origin of things, the power behind the world, the love that includes every being, the love that makes the world go round. And so the present moment turns out to be your will because you are its Origin.
So often when we awaken to this truth, to who we really are, we have a 'wow' experience of some sort. Yet inevitably this fades. We might then think we have lost the vision, lost God. But the great and saving truth is that our true nature does not come and go. Always present, always accessible, we cannot lose it. The Godhead is not a state of mind, not a feeling, not a 'thing' of any description. It is steady and unchanging, it is no-thing - the awake spaciousness that underlies and contains all things, including our changing states of mind. Recognising this, and finding one's way back, over and over again, to trusting God - this is the heart of the matter. Nor is such awakening to and trust in God only for the great mystics - it is for you and me too. They simply point the way.
Awakening to and trusting in God is a letting go, a recognition that the self is not central, not in charge. Normally we live as though it is we who sit on the throne at the centre of our lives, but this is an illusion. Really only God abides here. But seeing this truth is a kind of death - the deepest of deaths into absolute emptiness. No wonder we resist it. And yet the self is not destroyed. It is simply placed, left where it belongs (and flourishes), acknowledged and loved for what it is from the emptiness at centre. There is nothing wrong in having and being the small self - the problem arises when we imagine it at centre.
As we step into God, leaving ourselves behind on the threshold, though we die to ourselves we are at once reborn into all the world. Awakening to our inner no-thingness we find we are all things. And this our deepest being is revealed as central to the mystery and wonder of creation. All things flow from here.
Experience then teaches us, step by step, that God can be trusted - always to be here, always to be available, and always to provide us with what we really need.
I will round off this essay with an extract from a letter de Caussade wrote about ten years before his death. In this letter de Caussade responds not to a nun's concern with her own spiritual trials and tribulations but to her concern for him. Having been moved by his superiors to a new position in Perpignan he was now isolated from his former life and his accustomed contact with people.
My dear Sister,
You are giving yourself unnecessary trouble about me. You have persuaded yourself that I look upon the isolation in which I live as a misfortune, whereas this is far from being the case. Every day I bless God for this happy stroke of His providence. I learn by it to die to all things in order to live to God alone. I was not so shut away at ---. There, many events both within and without kept me up, and made me feel alive; now, there is nothing of that kind. I am in a veritable desert alone with God. Oh! how delightful it is! Great interior desolation is joined to this exterior solitude. However painful to nature such a state may be, I bless God for it because I have no doubt that it is good for me. It is a universal death to all feeling even about spiritual matters, a sort of annihilation through which I must pass in order to rise again with Jesus Christ to a new life, a life all in God, a life stripped of everything, even of consolation, because in that the senses take part. God wishes to leave me destitute of all outward things, and dead to all to live only to Him.
You see, my good Sister, how little I require your compassion, since the subject on which you pity me most is precisely the subject of my joy. I must own, however, that the extreme solitude in which I found myself here so suddenly did not at first appear at all pleasant to me except in the superior part of my soul, but very soon my whole soul participated in it. Once more have I learnt by experience that we cannot do better than to follow step by step the course appointed by divine Providence.
Let us then have no other employment, no other ambition but that of uniting our will to the most merciful will of God, and let us be well assured that this will be our salvation even when we imagine that all is lost.
(This letter is quoted from 'Abandonment to Divine Providence', edited by Rev. J. Ramiere, S.J. Published by Sydney Lee, Ltd. 1921.)