Born in 1675, Jean-Pierre de Caussade was a Jesuit priest who served as spiritual director for the Nuns of the Visitation in Nancy, France, in the 1730s. This little book is a compilation of notes from talks he gave and letters he wrote to the sisters during that time. It’s a book that both comforts and challenges anyone looking to serve God better.
In this book, de Caussade teaches that anyone can serve God by surrendering totally to God’s will. That’s the challenge. But the comfort is that God is everywhere—we only need to trust that God is there guiding our steps. Often, people try to find God by reading others’ wisdom or reasoning out God’s actions, but that isn’t necessary. We only need to have faith:
Souls no longer try to reach him through reading, endless speculation or inner supplications. Books and disputation are irrelevant, for God seeks them out and reveals himself to them. No need now to look for the way that leads to him, for he himself has prepared it. It lies before them well beaten and clearly marked. All that remains is to be ready to grasp God who is close beside them at each step and each moment in all the various situations that arise in never ending succession along their way.
One of the things I loved about this book is de Caussade’s clear message that there’s no one way to get close to God. God deals with each of us as an individual. That’s a message that often gets lost in a culture that likes clear steps and methods to achieve goals. I remember being told that my prayer life would be better if I prayed in the morning because it would start my day off right. Or that reading the Bible every single day is essential. But de Caussade recognizes that not every path will be the same, and that what works for me may not work for you—and what works well for me this year may not work so well next year. The key is the seeking of God, he writes, “and how they find him is a matter of indifference.” God wants to be found, and as such he doesn’t make the path impossible:
Let us not preach perfect faith or perfect love, suffering or blessings to all. These are not given to all, nor yet in the same way. But to every pure heart fearing God, let us talk of surrendering to divine action and make it clear to all that they will receive by this means that special state which has been chosen and ordained for them for all eternity. Let us not discourage, impede or separate anyone from that height of perfection to which Jesus calls us; for he demands that all should submit to the will of his father and become part of his mystical body whose members can only truly call him master when their will is totally in accord with his. Let us unceasingly impress upon every soul that the invitation of this gentle, loving saviour expects nothing difficult or extraordinary of them. He is not making impossible demands on them, he only asks that their good intention be united to his so that he may lead, guide and reward them accordingly.
de Caussade makes it sounds so easy, but self-surrender is hard. Even if it’s as easy as de Caussade says, it’s hard to accept that it’s that easy. We (by which I mean I) want a system. We (I) want clear steps to follow. But de Caussade teaches that we must focus on what God wants us to do in the present moment and remain indifferent to the long-term results. It’s completely counter-intuitive, but remarkably freeing, if you can manage it. But I’m not always sure I can trust myself to even know what God is asking of me right in the moment, so even something so easy is a challenge.
Yet this idea of following God in the moment does make faith seem alive and exciting, “new every morning.” God is active in the world and in our lives, not bound in the pages of a book or relegated to the past:
O mystery of love! We imagine that miracles are over, and that all we can do now is to copy your works of old and repeat your ancient words! We do not see that your continuing operation is an everlasting source of fresh ideas, fresh suffering and action, of new prophets, patriarchs, apostle and saints who have no need to follow in each other’s footsteps, but live in a continuing abandonment to your secret intentions. We are always hearing “The first centuries—the age of saints!’ What a way to talk! Is not all time a succession of the consequences of that divine action which pervades and fills and transfigures everything?
This isn’t a work of systematic theology so de Caussade does not unpack the tensions in some of his ideas, such as the notion of God as a source of fresh ideas but always changeless. There are ways to deal with those tensions, but that’s not what de Caussade is interested in here. This is a work of devotion and inspiration, and so it’s helpful to just let the tensions be—or perhaps to make them a subject for meditation. The important overall message that I got from the book is that God is present in every moment and that God will show me what I need to see if I just keep my eyes open. A simple message, but a hard one.