To see Jesus in, behind, through, beside, and with all people. That is contemplation, but it is contemplation of a particular kind. It’s a defining characteristic of contemplation on the muddy roads of the world, because it’s definitely a contemplative thing – for it involves especially contemplative Gifts of the Holy Spirit such as Knowledge – but it is also more a “worldly” thing than a “cloistered” thing.
Francis de Sales expressed a wish that someone – or many someones – come along and develop writings on this aspect of the faith. There have been many: Charles de Foucauld, René Voillaume, Jacques Maritain, Marcel Văn. One whom, until recently, I didn’t know had worked at this was Francis’ own close friend, Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. A few short years after her friend and co-founder’s death, she was writing to her Visitation sisters about this same topic. The Visitation sisters were to be a contemplative order whose cloister walls were the limits of love itself. As a result, of course there had to be an amount of contemplation on the roads and an amount of seeing Jesus in all people and events of providence.
Saint Jane is talking about finding postulants and novices:
May these souls have such a pure, upright intention that they do not waste time worrying about created things – their friends, their appearances their speech. Without stopping at such considerations or at any other obstacle they may meet along the way, may they go forward… seeing in all things only the sacred face of God, that is, His good pleasure.
In a kind of practical detachment lived on the roads, we “don’t stop” at the consideration of created things but “see in all things only God’s sacred face”; the meaning, I think, is clear. We know in a first step that these things have created value in themselves; but that doesn’t delay our consideration of the deeper value, what we “only” see. The infinite distance between stopping at the creature and continuing on to God’s sacred face (Live Jesus!) is emphasized. Jane also emphasizes that this is a very fast way to holiness:
This way is very narrow… but it is solid, short, simple, and sure, and soon leads the soul to its goal: total union with God. Let us follow this way faithfully. It certainly precludes multiplicity and leads us to that unity which alone is necessary.
No doubt she is emphasizing that this way of seeing Jesus in all people and things is a fast way of progress in the spiritual life. But what is the reason for such progress? She does give one, and, in my opinion, it’s very deep and explains the matter very well.
Seeing Jesus in all things “precludes multiplicity,” says Saint Jane, “and leads us to that unity which alone is necessary.” When she says “that unity which alone is necessary”, Jane is obviously referencing the Gospel “one thing necessary” (Lk 10:42). And it’s unity of life. Indeed it is. It’s unity of action and contemplation, action progressively taken up into contemplation, for God is in all things and especially in all people (Mt 25:40). To see this is to act differently – at least in intention and progressively more and more united to God, more and more transformed in him, and tending more and more towards the goal.
Seeing Jesus in others and in events is contemplation for those whose cloister walls are the limits of love itself; it leads to virtue (for she who sees Jesus more and more in people must act virtuously more and more); it leads to unity of prayer and action; it leads to simplicity of life, without duplicity and without rash stupidity either; it is a narrow way, but it is “solid, short, simple, and sure,” taking the soul rather quickly to God, for the soul wants to spend every moment with him.
We must love our neighbour as our self and do for these poor souls that which we would wish them to do for us… We must love justice and hate iniquity. When the government commits grave injustices against those who are to some extent in our charge… we must tell them… We do not have the right to be “sleeping sentinels,” “silent watchdogs” (Is. 56:10), or indifferent shepherds.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916)
There are a lot of mistakes that we make while trying to do the right thing. A lot of the time this is because we see part of the picture and cling frantically to it, while the other part of the picture passes us by. I’m like this. I also have a sneaking suspicion that my friend in heaven Blessed Charles of Jesus (whose feast day it is today) was like this.
Blessed Charles’ life divides roughly in two: the first half, where he wants humility by denying himself lots of stuff, to the point of withdrawal from society, and (roughly speaking) seeing Jesus as the most poor person who ever lived, wants to imitate that; the second half, where he goes out towards people, taking Jesus to them and wanting only to be their brother, not their teacher or catechist.
The thing about denying himself things, to the point of being scandalized that a papal permission allowed the Trappists slightly more butter with their austere diet, is that it’s prideful.
The thing about when he took Jesus to them, is that, he discovered that he was often receiving.
The thing about being “only” someone’s brother is that it’s impossible. If we love with God’s love, we love with God’s own infinite love. It has it all in one love: brother, father, mother, teacher, spouse… all in one. What happens is that the emphases vary. But there’s no such thing as “only” a brother in supernatural love. A little bit of instruction will have to creep in. A little bit of childlikeness. A little bit of even divine spousal love, insofar as both persons are rooted in God alone. It’s all mixed and condensed into the one finite Love who is God.
I have to admit. I fell for all the tropes that Blessed Charles did, and certainly more. Choosing my own humility in terms of strong mortification? Check. Wanting only to give Jesus and not thinking about receiving? Check. Wanting only to give brotherly love, not any other love also? Check. I’ve done it all in spades.
But really, we should have known – and Brother Charles should have known – that we can’t choose our own mortification and our own paths of humility. If we choose, our will is choosing. There may be some humility in it. But it can’t be absolute. As an illustration of Saint Francis de Sales’ maxim “ask for nothing and refuse nothing”, Saint Jane de Chantal says,
I admit that God wants you to be most humble, but in the ways He chooses for you, not in those you would choose.
That’s much better. When Charles (and I) realized that austerity is not such an important virtue, that was letting God choose a way of humility. When Charles (and I) realized that he didn’t always have to give to others, but also receive, that was letting God choose a way of humility. And when Charles (and I) realized that other loves have a part, though perhaps one dominates for a given relationship, that was letting God choose a way of humility. And God’s choices are certainly better.
We must pass by the desert and travel through it to receive the grace of God; it’s there that we empty ourselves, that we chase from ourselves all that is not God.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916)