The Sacrament of the Present Moment

 Abandonment to Divine Providence is considered a spiritual classic. Thomas Merton was asked about the  book’s author, Jesuit priest, Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751). His reply was short, but telling. “He’s a  spiritual genius”.  Chalk my ignorance up to a Protestant vacuum when it comes to teaching about spiritual  geniuses. His writing grew out of the Roman Catholic counter-reformation, concerned to correct the extremes  of Quietism (spiritual passivity) and a more severe Asceticism (strict, prescribed practices as though the  Kingdom of G_d will come only through our diligence.)

Funny how these polarities reappear in different forms throughout the centuries isn’t it? I’m more tempted  toward the ascetic resolution myself, and I confess that sometimes my brand of evolutionary spirituality makes a person feel like she is responsible for the future in an absolute fashion. That’s why I think I found this book such a breath of fresh air. My soul let down into Caussade’s middle way. If you want a brief and brilliant introduction, check out my friend’s post, Anglican priest, Chris Dierkes. While you’re on the site, read anything by him—speaking of emerging spiritual geniuses. (Chris rightly suggests that Caussade may have actually paved the way for evolutionary spirituality).

The book has another title, which hints at a spiritual resolution: The Sacrament of the Present Moment.  (Maybe he paved the way as well for Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now?) Briefly, here are the main tenets of the practice, all of them intricately connected:

1. God is fully present, hidden in the ordinary details of a life, any life. When the angel overshadowed Mary, even the angel was merely a shadow hiding the ever-present One. Occupy any given moment of the ordinary circumstances of our life with a heart abandoned to divine will, and God will weave a tapestry of beauty out of this holy commitment to the present moment. As Chris wrote in a response to an email I sent him: “each and every moment is pristine and potential exists for all relationship, from the smallest to the biggest, to have their influence over everything else”. Mary’s yes (“Let it be to me according to your will”) is the prototypical example of self-abandonment

2. All the events and circumstances of our life is a word of God, no less than scripture. They are spoken especially for us and but once from all eternity. Therefore, learn to read each moment of your life as a word of God.  There is no secret method or technique. Stop looking for it. Yes, learn meditation and contemplation. Read spiritual classics. Do sacred chant. Go on spiritual retreats. Find a spiritual director. But your life in each mundane detail, in the present moment, contains the hidden life of Christ. Caussade is suspicious of too much reading and of too much dependence on spiritual directors. He wants us to have firsthand knowledge, direct experience of the divine working through the sacrament of the present moment. When the moment is passed it is well and truly passed. No looking back. The moment that just passed, no matter how spiritually intoxicating, is “yesterday’s will of God”. (Walter Wink)

 3. Learn to discern the divine impulse as it arises in your life, and have  enough fluidity and openness of heart and routine, to be able to follow this  impulse wherever it leads. If the impulse tells you to meditate, then meditate. If  it tells you to stop meditating and go throw a Frisbee with your dog, follow it.  If it tells you make love, make love. (Of course, this is a constant impulse with  our divine Lover).

4. Abandonment doesn’t mean irresponsibility. It means learning the  difference between your ego (early, evolutionary self, hell-bent on survival,  sex, status, and sustenance, and your soul (that is here for love and the bliss  of the divine life on Earth). Learn the difference between your chattering mind  that keeps self-love and self-obsession in place, and divine wisdom—which  comes to a quiet and contented mind.  Abandon yourself (surrender) to the  soul’s impulse to enact the divine will. Engage the station of your life with as  much integrity, and yes, duty, as possible. God works through responsible engagement with what is given you to do. (In a postmodern world this cannot mean submitting to an oppressive system. For example, women in abusive relationships do not have a “duty” to the marriage). Following an impulse for justice is a 21st century duty of every Christian.

5. Caussade identifies a helpful distinction between “the soul living in G_d” and “G_d living in the soul. Living in G_d describes the practices of purification: meditation, contemplation, lectio divina, Sabbath keeping, orderly life, etc. These are necessary in order to prepare the heart for divine self-abandonment, whereby one’s whole life, lived fully, in the present moment, and aligned with the divine impulse, is one’s practice. Caussade is clear that spiritual evolution involves the shift from momentary states of self-abandonment to stabilizing at a permanent stage of self-abandonment—a continuous abiding of our will in the divine will, and of our hearts in the divine heart. This stage of spiritual development is the space from which Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. (Galatians 2:19-20).

6. Providence never sleeps. Faith is a matter of radical trust that G_d is working through all the circumstances of your life, whether“good” or “bad” by our judgment. Acceptance of that which you cannot change is one’s cross to bear. Bear it with equanimity and faith. Remember, our response to suffering is rolled into the providential arrangement. Through self-abandoned souls, committed to loving G_d and loving the world, divine providence weaves a tapestry of beauty that is beyond any of us to conceive. It can only emerge. It’s like needlepoint art, says Caussade. The back of the needlepoint frame looks like a chaotic mess. The artist’s role is to simply and faithfully tend to the next thread. The pattern that emerges on the other side is the divine pattern. We should not be attached to the outcome, the final image.

7. The way of abandonment is for everyone, not just the elite few.  Caussade was way out in front when it came to the ministry of the laity. Every person is able to cooperate with G_d, according to his or her capacities, on a day-to-day basis. And every person’s contribution is important, no matter, how humble. For many people, being dutiful to their station in life is their contribution to divine Providence.

“We must not follow any inspiration, which we believe we have received from G0d, before making certain that this inspiration is not diverting us from the duties of our state. These duties are the surest manifestation of God’s plan, and nothing must be preferred to them. The moments employed in fulfilling these duties are the most precious and salutary for us by the very fact that they give us the undoubting assurance that we are accomplishing God’s good pleasure.” (See point 5 above for the same caveat that this cannot mean passive acquiescence to an oppressive status quo).

Caussade’s language and outlook is traditional, reflecting his respect for authority, and his certainty about providential guidance. Yet there is indeed a genius in his orientation that my soul longs for. This providential outlook can seem anachronistic to modern ears. Modernism obliterated deep purpose, even as it elevated the dignity of human freedom. The problem is that we were asked to exercise that freedom by taking action in a world void of ontological purpose. Yet this intuition of a higher or deeper guiding intelligence was never completely lost. Think of Gregory Bateson’s “pattern that connects”, or physicist David Bohm’s “implicate order” or chemist Ilya Prigogine’s research around “self-organization”. They are describing, perhaps, the same deep mystery for modern ears.

The way to awaken this Mystery is to occupy the sacrament of the present moment, surrendering the regressive habits of the body/mind and rituals that keep us re-enacting yesterday’s will of God, in order to discern the sacred impulse that is coming through now and now and now… “Do not consider the former things. I am doing a new thing. It is springing forth now. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18). As we learn to read the events of our lives as unrepeated words of G_d a divine future spontaneously emerges that brings us one step closer to the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).

 

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Comments

  1. David McCallum SJ says:

    Bruce,

    Thanks so much for helping to introduce this spiritual classic to another generation… in truth, de Caussade’s spirituality is a blend of Ignatian (based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola), some of the mainstream French devotions of his time, and of course, his own unique experience. I really enjoyed your article-

    Gratefully,
    David

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Thanks David,

      Yes, the edition that I read included commentary that made it clear how Caussade wrote in the Baroque period, characterized by a synthesizing of existing traditions that previously thought to be in opposition.

  2. Rachel says:

    G-oh-d. ; )

    Perhaps Caussade ought to have sat and shared a cup of tea with the Hungarian Grandmothers of his generation. Their needlework was impeccable on both sides of the canvas and the tradition continues to this day. Or the Amish women who spend hundreds of thousands of moments in devotion to God creating impeccable quilts to warm their loved ones
    yet intentionally sew in one final, obviously mismatched square, because
    only God can create perfection. If God is in the creation, we must absolutely attach ourselves to the outcome, because we are co-creating the outcome through our presence, passion, skill, and ultimately our surrender.
    I really notice this in my art. If I can show up, connect, give all I have and then add my total and complete surrender to this Holy cocktail, Spirit becomes the outcome. G_d requires our surrender and willingness to share every little nook and nuance of our humanity – however absurd we may judge it to be – to create through us. What a gift to our Creator Source to use our own free will to allow a new and completely unique expression to be born through us in each moment. We are the palette
    and form through which Spirit is made visible, audible, tactile, sensory, human.

    Pretty damn sexy, G_d.

    What amazing lovers we are.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Beautifully expressed Rachel. I think what he may be getting at by not being attached to outcome is similar to what an athlete experiences when s/he is in the zone. The moment you start thinking about winning the game, or just two more points and I’m the champion, it all comes crashing down. There is this intense focus on what I need to do in this moment. And probably we could have a conversation about we respectively mean by “attach”.

    • Phillip Smith says:

      You won’t know me, but I just listened to one of your songs “The Calling”, and it was just beautiful. You really have such a beautiful Spirit-given voice. Really powerful song, too. I find the lyrics really rings true for me in my working life, spiritual life, as well as, in my case, swimming, which I do(training-wise) three times a week, as well as frequent competitions, speaking of which, reminds me to, like the song says, to be calm, and surrender to the Mystery within, and allign with the Present Moment. Thankyou, and all the best with your career.

      • Rachel says:

        Thank you, Phillip, how very kind of you to say.
        “The Calling” is definitely one of the songs where I occasionally feel mocked by my own art. I write lyrics based on the questions I am grappling with and that others must be too.
        I am also setting several of the prayers, from Bruce’s book “If Darwin Prayed”, I’ll post one on my website as soon as I am able to record them.
        I just find that I am able to accomplish so much more with Spirit, than without. In singing as well as swimming, you must practice and train, know your body and what it can handle on any given day, when to push through, when to surrender. So many parralels between the arts and sports.
        Wish I had a swimmers body to match my voice! Ha ha
        Blessings.
        R

        Thanks again Phillip for your kind words.

  3. Rachel says:

    Yes, well said, and I did understand what he was getting at. I am just exploring the next step in the evolutionary field of attachment: Operation “Use Spirit first, ask questions later!” (insert ‘MIssion Impossible’ theme song here)
    I have experienced being in and out of the zone as both an athlete (gymnastics, track and field) and later as an artist (singing, songwriting).
    “Attachment” for me is about preparing the field for Spirit to sing in me and through me, and making sure I show up fully for what is about to happen. What I mean about the necessity of being attached to the outcome -for me this is during live performance- is that when I am consciously engaged in the fusion of ‘Free Will + Spirit = ?’
    Spirit and I are consciously creating the outcome, moment by moment, together.
    Actually, I tend to be a bit lazy so often I hand over the lion’s share to Spirit, but shhh, don’t tell.
    Anyway, me trying to express myself in words is like watching a penguin on land, cute but awkward. But get me in the ocean (or in my case the ocean of sound) and there is an agility and grace that comes at no other time in my life.
    I envy you, your ability to articulate. I just like to add my wee thoughts here and there so you know I am keeping up to date as best I can, and because it’s fun to play with the big boys.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      That’s great Rachel. I’ve been lucky enough to experience you in the zone on many occasions, with most splendid outcomes!

  4. Baz Edmeades says:

    I had moved, over the last few years, into the kind of Jeffersonian deism in which there could be no moment-to-moment divine guidance. The most I could hope for in this rather chilly 18th Century enlightenment atmosphere, was EVENTUAL vindication by, EVENTUAL connection with, the divine. God no longer spoke in the here and now. To imagine that He did, could only be wishful thinking.

    Step #11, “Sought through prayer and meditation to increase our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for His will for us, and the power to carry that out,” lost much of its power in my life. I knew this was taking me to a barren place, but I felt that it was the best I could rationally hope for. Yearning for something more would only invite needless disappointment and unhappiness.

    Then I chanced upon Dr. Paul DeBell’s “Decoding the Spiritual Messages of Everyday Life: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know,” and I began the slow, tentative journey back into the light of a working, potent, Step #11 which I am presently undertaking. Now, at this particular juncture of that journey, comes this post from you Bruce… Thanks so very much!

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Baz, I kept thinking, as I read this book, about the 12 Step spirituality and how solid and practical it is. I’m going to Google Dr. Debell’s book. Nice to hear from you Baz.

  5. Thank you, Bruce, for that reminder that we need to be aware of G-d’s providential presence at all times. I,too, have struggled with retaining this sense as I have moved progressively.
    I am reminded of a wonderful little classic, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ by Brother Andrew. He who worked in the kitchen was as aware of G-d’s presence there as in the chapel at prayer. He achieved this by constantly bringing his mind back to G-d from wherever it had wandered. While I now feel that I need to focus on what is in front of me,the sense of a providential ordering of circumstances is still a comfort.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Thanks Jean, for reminding me about Brother Andrew. (For some reason I want to say Br. Lawrence?)

  6. darryl says:

    Go Bruce ! Bahau’llah helped stimulate such independent investigation of truth, academically and experentially through His abolution of the Priesthood. Now we ‘laity’ are required to regularly study Scripture alone and together ; and experience the sacred benefits of meditation and the Divine in-tuition of the eternal now, for our selves to “improve our conscious contact with God” and stretch our understanding of Him. (or “Be skeptical of everything, but learn to listen”)

    Surely everything is in God’s Order, perfectly synchronised, nothing truly random, no bad-luck ‘accidents’ – whatever path we choose moment to moment God is already there, usually with infallible directions of how to get back to Her straight path, or further along it, or perhaps how to find peace while you’re standing about wondering /tarrying. Notwithstanding the great difficulties of…IE my great ego-resistence to…. achieving complete abandonment… – ” The Great Being saith: In this glorious Day whatever will purge you from corruption and will lead you towards peace and composure, is indeed the Straight Path.” ……step by step….cheers

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      That’s great Darryl. You capture Caussade beautifully, or Caussade captures Bahau’llah beautifully.

  7. helen goodall says:

    I’m scuppered. After distilling the meanings of this fulfilling post, I’m wondering why you substitute “-” for the “o” in “God.” I am a simple woman but really appreciate and enjoy working my way through these messages.
    May I also comment on the pictures that accompany this writing, Bruce. I especially love the one of Mary and her angel.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Thanks Helen,

      The “G_d” is an experiment, based in the Jewish tradition of never writing God’s name in full. It’s out of devotion and reverence, and deep humility that we are limited in our ability to comprehend—the Holy One is beyond our grasp, but we are not beyond divine apprehension. It’s a way of signalling that we know that the Divine One/Oneness is beyond our capacity to articulate (but not to experience). It’s a recent thing for me, a bit of experiment. But that’s where it comes from and not from ambivalence, doubt, etc..

  8. Jill says:

    I think to not be attached to the outcomes means that you remain open to what happens. It doesn’t mean you can’t still have hope that what you wish for will happen. That’s what has brought us to the experience in the first place. But to detach, you make yourself equally vulnerable that something else might happen and you abandon yourself to that risk, by getting more curious that something novel could happen. It is frightening because our attachment to who we think we are or should be or should happen is what drives our motivation to those moments so then if you de-identify with that by saying ‘but I am not that’, then there is a decrease in energy. When you detach to outcomes you wonder how on earth you are going to find the courage and motivation to perform. For me that might be, ‘how will I run in the freezing cold if I don’t attach myself to a goal?’ But the energy of the zone seems to come more from ‘I wonder what will happen’ more than, ‘I want this to happen’. You still have goals out there but in the very moment in the zone it’s more a ‘wow’ moment than a ‘thank goodness, that’s just what I had in mind’ moment.

  9. Carol A. says:

    “All the events and circumstances of our life is a word of God, no less than scripture. They are spoken especially for us and but once from all eternity. Wow! How can I keep from singing?

    For me, this whole article is such a wonderful synopsis of the spiritual life. – Love you, love you for it. My two-cents worth on attachment would be that attachment leaves no room to be surprised by the Spirit. (or amazed, or taught, or to hear sweet nothings whispered in one’s ear ….)

    Btw, I actually got what you were doing with “G-d,” so your experiment must be working. I think I am going to use that idea. I’m sure you don’t mind.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Nice to be loved, Carol. Monsieur Caussade is the one who deserves it, but I’m happy to receive a little myself. :-)

      Use any idea that comes through me, from the noosphere, with my blessing.

      • Carol A. says:

        You are the one who summed it up, so I’m loving you for that. :)

        On another note, I awoke this morning still thinking of “All the events and circumstances of our life is a word of God, no less than scripture. They are spoken especially for us and but once from all eternity.” I found myself wanting to hold on to that, and that kind of thing, I have found, however important it might seem, is an attachment. Once again, I have to let go of clinging to what is in fact a gift; it is not G-d. I have to let go and trust that G-d has given this gift and is not going to take it away, but in fact, will help me to appreciate it in all of its many facets. The gift is much richer than I can know at this moment. Yet, I have to admit, it is scary to let it go.

        • Bruce Sanguin says:

          Well said, Carol. It is a rigorous practice inhabiting the present moment as sacrament. I suspect that we all carry around with us mantras, just to remind us when we are straying from the present moment. Perhaps that line will remain a mantra – but as you say not G_d. A finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.

          • Carol A. says:

            Yes, it’s not that I want to disregard the gift, but neither do I want to cling to it as if that alone was my salvation. Finger pointing to the moon is a good analogy.

  10. Lee says:

    Bruce, Bruce, Bruce. This post touched my muscle memory and the sweet season of my life (’90′s) when I picked up Abandonment while on retreat at a Trappist monastery here in VA. De Caussade became my mystic of choice. Just now I rushed to my book shelves, frantically fumbling through the stacks as if searching for a valuable heirloom I’d hidden away for safe keeping. And there it was, my copy, yellowed, but full of highlighted passages. De Caussade gave me my initial vision of the Present Moment, the love and trust in Reality, learning to be aware that “[You, G_d] speak to every individual through what happens to them moment by moment . .. not with words of ink on paper but by what we suffer and do from moment to moment . . . ” An evolutionary/integral approach does not discard the nuggets on these pages. Reframes, yes. Abandon, never.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      That’s lovely, Lee.

      Don’t you love it when you rediscover an old friend? The beauty of an evolutionary approach is that nothing that has served the advance of Love is ever discarded, but rather is carried forward by Spirit in service of the Kin(g)dom of G_d. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  11. Gabrielle Cheung says:

    at times
    the Moment is lost to me
    when only my tiny mind
    is full of the Earth and everything in it
    thundering and splitting
    too noisy to hear
    too tired to see
    too burdened by effort
    to enjoy the wholeness now

    at these times
    Comes Your gentle voice
    into my forgetfulness:
    Close your eyes awhile
    and Rest
    I am the Space
    the Source
    the Reconciler
    the Listener
    I draw all points
    into the centre;
    I gather all within and without
    and ask you again:
    what do you want and need?
    Come, separate and whole,
    lack and longing,
    together come
    into My Embrace
    where I will encircle you
    and soothe
    and heal you…
    See, you are made
    well and whole
    once more

    deo gratias

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Gabrielle,

      The divine heart beats so clearly in you. I’ve been reading a book on left brain/right brain, and I couldn’t help but associate your prayer with right brain function. (There’s a correlation,that is , between the Heart of Wholeness and the right brain—the brain doesn’t cause the feelings of unity, but rather mediates it, imo.)

  12. Toni says:

    Hey Bruce,
    It’s so interesting that you mentioned the right/left brain, because I was thinking about the right brain as I read a passage from Caussade this morning (downloaded it from Chris’s post). I’ve been reading “The Master and the Emissary” about the right/left brain, and working on the practice of being more in right brain to right brain, moment to moment tracking in my sessions with clients. It is magical, when I can do it and stay out of my left brain as much as possible (left brain processing comes later as a meta-analysis). Anyway, when that happens, the sessions have a sacred quality and what emerges sometimes blows me away. Now, to be able to live in that sacred, moment-to-moment space in the rest of my life! Reading your post and Caussade, though I struggle with his language (the old Catholic in me rebels), really is striking a chord. Thanks!

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      That’s a coincidence. We’re reading The Master and the Emissary as well on vacation! I intend to post something on brain research and the religious/spiritual life, but often times it seems like most of the cognitive science research a) doesn’t take seriously developmental levels of its “subjects” and b) measures behaviors/thought processes more associated with left brain activity. I struggle with the traditional language as well, to the point of wondering whether it’s even appropriate for women to use the language of surrender—especially given that he spiritual director (I gather) mostly for nuns. The other observation is that so much of this research supports the need for some kind of “ascent” beyond (but inclusive of) our biological inheritance, which surely is what the spiritual life is about.

  13. Thank you for this article, it hits right at what I have been thinking about lately, especially with reading about past mystics and their high stress on asceticism. Somehow a different look at it seems to be needed and this appears to me to be pointing at the heart of the issue. I am going to look for Caussade’s book to read. Thank you, thank you.

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