Retrieve Holiness in Ordinary Duties
Applying the spiritual lessons of Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade
The liturgical homily is tasked with a prophetic mission. It must interpret the Scriptures in light of sacred Tradition and show how such truth can be lived in the midst of everyday struggles and responsibilities. In this duty, every homilist must draw from the old and the new. He must be completely imbued with the dogmatic and spiritual riches of the deposit of faith, while also being aware of contemporary theological trends and the current state of affairs in our world.
In this task, any homilist would benefit from a deeper knowledge and engagement with the spiritual masters of our tradition. These are the men and women who have radically encountered God and have provided for us a record of their experiences, visions, insights, reflections and wisdom. They are in themselves, and in their accounts, a living witness of the depth and beauty of the Christian way of life.
Every homilist should feel a strong call to study and know this portion of our tradition and readily use this font of spiritual life in their preaching and teaching. Rather than relying on passing trends, pop culture, or pseudo-spiritual or psychological machinations, the spiritual tradition is grounded in divine wisdom and spiritual realities.
As such, the spiritual masters have to be brought out of the Church’s treasury and applied to life today. Their wisdom was not given to us so that it could be kept hidden. We have been graced with their perspective of spiritual truth, and so their wisdom needs to be retrieved and given new soil to grow and flourish. The insight of these holy men and women can help believers in any age to realize how they can see God, discern his providential care and seek him with a sincere heart.
With the above in mind, the writings of Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade are begging for renewal and fresh application in our world. Over 200 years ago, the saintly Jesuit gave a series of talks to some Visitation sisters in Nancy, France. The sisters were so moved by the spiritual conferences that they kept their notes of the talks for about 100 years. After that century of preservation, the sisters labored to have the notes collected into a book.
After some work, that book was published under the title “Abandonment to Divine Providence.” It contained the principal lessons of Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who coined the term “the sacrament of the present moment.” In many respects, the author was before his time as he innovatively retrieved notions within the Christian patrimony, such as the universal call to holiness of all God’s people, the centrality of one’s vocation (whatever it might be), the permissive will of God, the means of holiness found within ordinary duties and the high importance of redemptive suffering. While all of these were well within the Christian tradition, some had been forgotten or incompletely applied within the life of the Church.
The Holy Family
Of all the places that Father de Caussade could use as a classroom, it should not surprise us that he takes us to the family, the domestic church. In particular, he shows us the example of the Holy Family — Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Within the Holy Family, he highlights the person of Mary. She is the embodiment of all the mystical theology of our Old Testament ancestors. She is a figure of Israel who is endowed with divine promises and prophecies, and is best summation of the entire human family’s hunger for God and his righteousness.
And so we ask: What made Mary so singular in her devotion?
Mary was the one who made the most complete surrender of herself to God. This frame of mind was the foundation of Mary’s entire spiritual life. Mary’s power did not come from herself; it came from her complete abandonment to God’s providence. This abandonment filled her with every grace and virtue she needed in her life.
Father de Caussade expands our understanding of Mary’s surrender by powerfully combining and comparing her declaration, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38) with the words of her divine Son, “Your will be done.” These words were first given by the Lord in his instruction on prayer (cf. Mt 6:10) but were later repeated by him in the midst of his passion in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:42). In merging the words of Mary with these heartfelt and blood-stained words of Our Lord, Father de Caussade is showing us how essential Mary’s abandonment is in her life and in God’s plan of salvation. He explains that magnificent events certainly occurred in Mary’s life, but her frame of mind was always one of surrender, and it included each and every area of her life.
All of the tasks in Mary’s life were needed for God to give his blessings. Father de Caussade teaches us that no matter what her jobs were — ordinary, commonplace or seemingly more important ones — they all revealed to her — sometimes quite clearly, sometimes obscurely — the activity of the Almighty. They were all a constant opportunity for her to see and adore God.
This truth cannot be underestimated. Every part of Mary’s life, from washing laundry to cleaning her house, was a part of her surrender to Divine Providence. Yes, each of these tasks was a part of God’s plan and a means for her to serve and praise him. Mary was filled with joy and regarded everything she had to do or suffer at any moment of her life as a gift from God.
Earlier in his teachings, Father de Caussade expresses this joy himself and takes a somewhat comical view of the archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. While certainly sharing in the glory of the Annunciation, our spiritual master is quick to point out, “The angel had his moment.” It was one awesome moment, but for this time-shattering event to have happened, and for it to have lasting power, Mary had to surrender every day and in every way to the providence of God. The same providence that sent her Gabriel is the same providence that asked her to cook supper, sweep the floor or go to the well for water.
All the events of Mary’s life, and our own, must be seen as beautiful, holistic narratives, and each moment offers its own grace and peace.
Our task then is to accept God’s grace and discern his presence and purpose in all that we do. We have to imitate Mary and not be deceived by the commonality, repetition or mundane nature of the tasks of life. God is with us. We have to enlighten the shadows and find his presence in all that we do so that we can live the virtues needed in the present moment.
Of course, Mary was not alone. She was the mother of the God-Man and the wife of Joseph. She lived in a family and managed a home. In particular, Mary and Joseph worked hard and undertook many duties and tasks so as to earn their daily bread. Father de Caussade uses actual material bread as a symbol for God’s providence and asks us to ponder what the real bread was that nourished the faith of Mary and Joseph.
Divine Providence shows us the sacrament of the moment. Using the symbol of bread, we can see how the Holy Family lived in the presence of God through their daily labor. Just as a sacrament is defined as a visible sign of invisible grace, so every moment can be a kind of sacrament. The visible task that we are undertaking can become a means for us to encounter God, receive his grace and live according to his will. Everything we do can be an avenue to meet God and grow in virtue.
Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s life, the summary of his teachings and the passing application of his wisdom to the life of the contemporary believer is only one example of the immense spiritual treasury within the Christian tradition. Every homilist should avail himself of this treasury. He should be profoundly familiar with its gold and jewels and graciously adorn his preaching of God’s Word with brilliance and beauty. The spiritual witness of the holy ones should not be ignored or seen as a needless auxiliary within the deposit of faith.
The wisdom of the spiritual treasury and the witness of the spiritual masters are precisely what the body of believers needs now more than ever. It is their insights, lived experiences, and teachings that can enliven our call to holiness and lead us to more deeply hunger and thirst for holiness.
FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY, STD, is the Pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina, and the author of the new book “Be Not Troubled: A Six-Day Personal Retreat with Father Jean-Pierre De Caussade” (Ave Maria Press, $12.95).
Father Kirby’s Six-Day Personal Retreat
Father Jeffrey Kirby’s book “Be Not Troubled: A Six-Day Personal Retreat with Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade” (Ave Maria, $12.95) offers six meditations based on Father de Caussade’s work, presented as a personal retreat for today’s reader.
The book is recommended for anyone looking to renew their trust in God and live freely in the present moment. It offers practical steps, invitations to practice presence and reflective prayers. Additional information is available at https://www.avemariapress.com.
The French Jesuit priest Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, 1675-1751, was a noted college rector, director of theological students at the Jesuit house and spiritual director to the Visitation sisters.
His many spiritual letters to the sisters have survived through the ages.