For at least a year now I have been slowly, slowly reading my way through Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. It is the most simple-yet-profound spiritual book I have ever read. It is about (surprise!) abandoning self-will and embracing God’s will alone.
As I read, I picture myself clinging sweetly to Jesus, saying things like, “Your will be done, Lord!” and “Be it done to me according to your word!”
Then I am awakened from my dreamlike state to the sound of someone screaming. It’s the five-year-old. The twelve-year-old has taken his toy sword. From the sound of it, the plastic weapon must have then been used to cut off the five-year-old’s left arm. About this time the phone rings. Would I care to take a survey about my TV viewing habits? It will only take five minutes of my time. Just then, the 18-month-old toddles in without a diaper…and what is that she is holding out to me in her dirty palm? The sixteen-year-old, meanwhile, desperately needs help with an advanced math problem, but the nine-year-old has already staked her claim on me and is waiting impatiently with her spelling words. The doorbell rings. It’s my father-in-law. I hope he doesn’t mind seeing me in my pajamas with unbrushed teeth and hair. Then again, it won’t be the first time and it will provide him with fodder for entertaining all the extended family who live nearby.
As I try to sort out the press of people and things vying for my attention, my blood pressure rises. I find an ugly snarl has replaced the radiant smile so recently beamed upon Jesus. If only I could get away, even just into my closet, and finish my prayer time in peace! If only my family were better behaved, I wouldn’t have to resort to anger and unpleasantness! If only my father-in-law would quit showing up at my door when I’m least prepared to welcome visitors! I should have been a nun.
So it was a miracle when, one day, in the midst of some storm of emotion, I had the thought, “Abandonment!” And I paused. “Wait a minute. So you mean that when I burn the toast for the 417th time, the proper response is not rage or despair…but abandonment?”
Thoughtful-toe-tapping and chin-scratching ensued.
“You mean, when my husband calls to say we’re going to the 8 a.m Sunday Mass after I’ve already gotten everyone dressed for the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass, the proper response is not muttering and slamming…but abandonment?”
Arms crossed. One hip cocked out to the side.
“Are you telling me that when the airline closes the jetway and won’t let me get on the plane because I arrived two minutes late due to security delaying me for a hour, and I’m carrying a baby and the next flight isn’t for two hours and I’ll be late to my grandmother’s wake, the proper response is…abandonment?!?”
Abandonment is not part of my nature. I want what I want when I want it. But the more I read this book, the more I know with deadly certainty that it is right. I have to lay myself down.
While I’m underlining and making notes in my book, it all sounds so simple—even romantic! I can be the next Mother Teresa, the next Father Damien…a hero of the faith! All I have to do is submit my own will to God’s! I have found the express train to holiness! Until the gas man shows up with a past-due notice and is prepared to terminate my service.
So how do I practice abandonment in the middle of 21st century America? What should abandonment look like in my life?
As far as I can tell, Fr. de Caussade’s ideas on abandonment can be summed up thus:
- The first priority is to be faithful to the duties of Christianity and of my state in life— or said another way, I must do the things that God and my vocation require. Fr. de Caussade says, “The will of God gives to all things a supernatural and divine value for the soul submitting to it.” Translation: folding a mountain of laundry with the right attitude has as much value as climbing Mt.Calvary.
- The second thing I must do is accept everything (good and bad) as God’s gift in that moment—and suffer all these things with gratitude, sweetness and humility. Fr. de Caussade says, “Each present moment contains what is best for you, and as such must be loved and esteemed.” Translation: when I’m at Mass and my child vomits all over the man in front of me, I must gently apologize to the ungracious man whose new leather jacket is busily absorbing permanent odors, hurry the offender out of church and miss Holy Communion while washing out her hair—all the while thanking God for loving me this much.
There is also a corollary to the above:
- I must let go of my attachment to things and embrace God alone. Fr. de Caussade says my prayer should be, “Lord, I sacrifice all this; I give up all my miserable interests to you. ” Translation: If my daughter accidentally drops my brand-new camera while its zoom lens is extended, thus cracking small internal parts whose cost of repair is more than a new camera, I must breathe deeply and force a smile, realizing that any created thing, idea, or plan of mine is subject to recall by God at any moment, and that sudden and total recall of any and all things should be expected, and greeted with the cheery phrase, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
Fr. de Caussade emphasizes that God expressly wills or permits everything that happens to me. Therefore, anything that happens in my life—good or bad—is exactly what I need at that moment to grow in holiness. When things happen that do not coincide with my own plans, then I must set my preferences aside with the knowledge that God will guide me along a path more perfect than any I could make for myself.
Personally, I like the notion of living a life like Gladys Aylward in “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”. She travels by train to China, becomes an esteemed and revered member of the community, and radiates Christ love to those who have never heard the gospel. She also gets played by Ingrid Bergman.
Mediating with machete-wielding criminals in a Chinese prison riot and taking fifty children on a hundred-mile hike over the mountain never looked so inviting! Fr. de Caussade uncannily anticipates my noble desires and remarks:
“You say you would be delighted to find an opportunity of dying for God, and would be completely satisfied with some such action, or with a life leading to the same result. To lose all, to die forsaken, to sacrifice your life for others, these are indeed charming ideas!”
The good news is that these romantically noble desires are dismissed by something more realistic and attainable. He laments:
“If they could realize the merit concealed in the actions of each moment of the day; I mean in each of the daily duties of their state of life, and if they could be persuaded that sanctity is founded on that to which they give no heed as being altogether irrelevant, they would indeed by happy.”
This, then, is path to sainthood for me. It is most likely to be one of obscurity, and will be found in letting go of thousands of little things rather than moving to darkest Africa. It might be called, “dying by degrees”. My holiness will be found in humbly throwing the burned toast in the trash and preparing a new batch with more care; or by helping everyone change out of their church clothes while thanking God that my husband has a good job and that he wants to go to Mass; or by saying a prayer for the airline workers who callously turn me away while I quietly vow never to fly with them again. It will be a life-long task to internalize the fact that “[e]verything is a help to [the soul], and is, without exception an instrument of sanctity”—even airline employees.
I will not always be able to let go of my will immediately or entirely. Even if I try to accept God’s will for me, it may be with regret and bitterness, apprehension or fear. My goal is to “be content with being discontented, for as long as God wills or permits.” Fortunately, God is prepared to grant me the graces I need to do everything he asks of me, at the moment he asks it.
If I practice really hard, maybe someday I will be able to say, “I agree to all, Lord, I wish what you wish, I resign myself entirely to your will.” Pray for me!
Abandonment to Divine Providence is available through Ignatius Press.