Eyes on the Divine Model in the Gospel

Brother CharlesRead and re-read ceaselessly the Holy Gospel… so as to always have before one’s mind the actions, words and thoughts of Jesus, in order to think, speak and act like Jesus, to follow the examples and teachings of Jesus, not the examples and ways of behaving of the world. So easily do we fall into this latter, as soon as we take our eyes off the Divine Model.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld  (1858–1916)

Ordinary Time and the “Sacrament” of Nazareth

At St John Church in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The majority of the year is Ordinary Time. The majority of the lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were lived in Nazareth. Both can be barely seen: few major festivals in the year, and few major remembrances of the divine life in Nazareth in the Scriptures. Yet they comprise the majority. They comprise the vast majority.

Indeed, of the life in Nazareth, the most significant external happening seems to be Mary’s visit of Elizabeth and the sanctification of John the Baptist. But all this happened without words and without to-do. Mary went. She spent time. Jesus, from all eternity, chose this silent way to overflow peacefully his life, by mere presence almost imperceptible, into the life of his holy cousin: the sanctification of the greatest figure of the Old Covenant happened by mere communication and diffusion of the good, without preaching, without miracles, without the grandest and most obvious of things to see. The Visitation by which John the Baptist was made very holy was simply one event of many in the average run of life.

Under the radar it all passes, except for the keenest of spiritual senses… and even then, through no fault of our own, we may miss it. It is by an almost imperceptible diffusion, radiation, and overgrowth of good from within pushing towards the outside that Nazareth has any meaning. Jesus lived, worked, sweated, prayed, interacted with his neighbours: and what did it amount to? Not even the Gospel writers tell us in any detail. But undoubtedly, since even one of Jesus’ actions could have been enough to redeem the whole human race, all that, if we were to write down all the things that Jesus did in Nazareth alone, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).

For isn’t that the Gospel? God became man and man became God in the person of Jesus. This is that great mystery of Nazareth – and of Ordinary Time, if we may say so – that Charles de Foucauld clung to all his life: Jesus lived on earth, in a concrete place, with concrete neighbours! And into such a small space, the infinite flowed, diffused and radiated outwards. Perhaps we didn’t see. But it happened. This mystery has never been plumbed to the full in Christian history. Blessed Charles de Foucauld and those who love him, the philosopher Jacques Maritain, Saint Francis de Sales and the Visitandine spirituality, are just some examples of those who have stared into this mystery for years and years, never to exhaust it (for Saint John the Evangelist tells us that we never shall). Jean-Pierre de Caussade SJ, spiritual director to a Visitandine community, comments along similar lines and condenses much into few words:

There are remarkably few extraordinary characteristics in the outward events of the life of the most holy Virgin… Her exterior life is represented as very ordinary and simple. She did and suffered the same things that anyone in a similar state of life might do or suffer. She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth as her other relatives did. She took shelter in a stable in consequence of her poverty. She returned to Nazareth from whence she had been driven by the persecution of Herod, and lived there with Jesus and Joseph, supporting themselves by the work of their hands. It was in this way that the holy family gained their daily bread. But what a divine nourishment Mary and Joseph received from this daily bread for the strengthening of their faith! It is like a sacrament to sanctify all their moments. What treasures of grace lie concealed in these moments filled, apparently, by the most ordinary events… Sacrament of the present moment! Thou givest God under as lowly a form as the manger, the hay, and the straw.

This “sacrament” of the present moment of Nazareth is simply that the infinite is bursting into the finite at every place and time in history. And God knows that our finite eyes will never see it all. Did we even catch all that happened in the Visitation? Yet that was but one of the most visible events in thirty years of the Holy Family’s life in Nazareth, that obscure town from which nothing good was thought to come (Jn 1:46). But even there, even then – indeed especially there, especially then – this “sacrament” of the present moment came to be, burst forth, and diffused and radiated outwards in ways unpredictable and not totally perceptible to human minds.

A “Plan” for Being a Contemplative Layperson?

I’ve been asked a few times whether I have any plan for being a contemplative layperson, that is, a layperson with a primarily contemplative vocation.

The short answer is no.

The long answer is, in fact, long. It would begin by me saying that I don’t have a plan, because, ultimately, God throws all our plans away. Passing through the dark night of the spirit means letting go of all our plans, all asserting of our own “personality,” and the like. God will purify all the deepest roots in us, including our attachment to particular forms of prayer or apostolate — so how could anyone have a definite plan? The lack of any plan gets even worse when we think of the multitude of duties, various and numerous, that press on each individual layperson. So the long answer is that, no, I don’t have a plan.

But what I have always wanted to do with this blog is to highlight the main themes of a contemplative life lived in the world, as far as I can understand them. Some of those themes are contemplation, silence and time for prayer, life with our neighbours, seeing Jesus in our neighbours, being a standing delegate to pray for those who need prayer, the Eucharist as sacrifice and as bond of unity, the necessity and central place of love, living with the Church of Heaven and the Church of Purgatory even though we yet are on this earth, learning detachment and living through a seemingly endless “dark night,” learning to rely on the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit which blow where we cannot calculate, embracing our weakness through which God manifests his strength, accepting with confidence the divine Providence which manifests his divine Will for us – and so on.

Those are some themes. And if one looks at the tag cloud on the right-hand side of the blog’s main page – those themes are there, with varying emphasis. Also there are the contemplative souls who, it seems to me, have a lot to say to laypeople in particular: Charles de Foucauld, Charles Journet, Jacques Maritain, Francis de Sales, John of the Cross, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Brother Marcel, Catherine of SienaJohn of Avila, Edith Stein, René Voillaume, and many others.

So – I dare not have a plan. Many people have asked, but no matter how many times I am asked for a plan, or an idea for a kind of “lay contemplative” novitiate, or the like – I do not think I could ever come up with an adequate answer. What I do hope, instead, is that the original plan for this blog can be useful. I hope God’s providence can use the array of posts, tagged and not very well ordered, for anyone wishing to explore contemplative Christian themes. Read and be informed. Be determined. Don’t give up. Trust where the Spirit leads in life, in reading, in reflection, and in prayer. I propose no other plan than this. =)

Fast and Steady Spiritual Progress: Seeing Jesus in Others

Francis and Jane

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.