What is meant by the direct acts of contemplation? They are acts which are in no way discursive, but which are made by a simple gaze, above reasoning. And indeed they are at times so peaceful that the soul does not, so to speak, perceive them; in that case they are the contrary of reflective or perceived acts. With this meaning… Saint Antony said, “There is no perfect prayer if the solitary perceives that he is praying.”
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP (1877–1964)
Believe me, my Daughters, a simple soul is a confident soul; she trusts in God and has nothing to fear.
Saint Jane Frances de Chantal
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.
Those following the beatification cause of Marcel Văn CSsR know that his cause is (and this is almost unique for Southeast and East Asia) as a confessor of the faith, not as a martyr. The reason relies partly on the fact that it is what he says which makes him more accessible as a saint than how he died. In other words, those close to Little Văn believe he is a teaching saint. He is someone with a message. Well, it is obvious that I subscribe to such a view, given that, on this blog, I quote him more than anyone else.
However, one of the things that the teaching saints – especially the great teaching saints whom we call Doctors of the Church – teach about is spiritual progress. They usually have some idea about what it means to get closer to Jesus. Maybe the thoughts come haphazardly. Maybe the thoughts come in a great synthesis like those of Saint John of the Cross. Maybe the thoughts occur within the context of other, more general books, as with Saint Alphonsus and Saint Francis de Sales. Maybe the thoughts are buried in correspondence, as with Saint John of Ávila. But some sort of more or less explained and more or less technical idea of spiritual progress exists for all the saints.
Does such an idea exist for Marcel? Yes, it does. Where does he express it? In letters, mostly.
Marcel’s idea of spiritual progress comes very close to that of Thérèse (it might have surprised Marcel to hear someone like Edith Stein claim that this childlike spirit of Thérèse is really what all of Carmel pushes towards in all its saints). Perhaps his idea is even closer to that of Saint Bernard than to that of Thérèse herself (this too would have surprised Marcel). Well, what is Marcel’s idea? Increasing childlikeness and total abandon-in-confidence is spiritual growth. It’s measured in terms of faith, for faith grows alongside love. To have faith is one step; to have great faith, presumably detached from enough disordered links to this world, is another step; to abandon everything into the providential, all-consuming, all-accompanying, everywhere-present love of the Father is a third step:
If our faith is weak, we obtain little; if it is great, we obtain a lot; and if we place all our confidence in him, God gives us all his power to be active in us, since, being infinitely just, if we offer him everything, necessarily, his justice obliges him to give it all to us. (1 March 1953)
These particular formulas are reminiscent of Bernard of Clairvaux. This threefold division, though, is common. It’s remarked by (to provide a far-from-exhaustive list) Bernard, Thomas, Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, and Francis de Sales. They all use different words and different emphasis, but they say the same thing. To have faith is one thing. To begin to lose attachments to the world is another. To lose attachments to our own spiritual preferences and need for consolations is a third. Marcel says exactly this – for total abandon, total trust and confidence, is the same as losing spiritual needs for consolations, spiritual preferences, and so on. We want only God’s will:
Once we have placed our entire trust in God, once we have placed our whole life in his hands, necessarily he will protect us, he will take care of us, he will guide us, which is to say, he will make us walk according to his will. (6 September 1953)
Our life, so to speak, becomes simpler. Everything condenses into one: the will of God. Another letter testifies to the trajectory:
I see God making me become, day by day, more and more like a child. I leave to him all the freedom to make of me what he wants, until the day that he will transform me into a little child, entirely helpless left to himself, resting in peace in his heart, without any possibility of leaving from there… (24 January 1954)
This is a genuine description of spiritual progress as progress. It’s Marcel’s own. But the ecclesial sources are deep and real. It’s the same pattern over and over again: have faith; lose disordered dependence on the things of the world that are not God; lose disordered dependence on the good spiritual things that are not God himself. Little Văn, little as he is, chooses to describe the whole thing in terms of childlikeness, abandon, confidence, faith.
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