Friday, August 30, 2013

The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean-Pierre De Caussade

During Holy Week, I found a thin book called ,The Sacrament of the Present Moment, in the back of a church.  Haphazardly, I  picked a section to read and it resonated with me. The text had been compiled in the 18th century from spiritual conferences and letters that a French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade had conducted for a convent of nuns.  The book is considered a spiritual classic, and I am surprised that I had never heard of it before.

I finally ordered a copy through my local library, and now find the book tedious and suffocating. The book is about living in the present moment and completely surrendering to the will of God in each moment.  As the translator, Katherine Muggeridge says, the aim is to annihilate the ego, the self.

The author talks extensively of the importance of listening to one's heart, of affection for one's heart, and how God talks to each of us in our hearts. Only recently have I learned that the word heart in the romance languages means something different than how it is most commonly used in English.  In English, the word heart is used as a synonym for feeling.  In the romance languages, the word heart means the innermost part of our being.  From the European definition, it seems  that the heart is a hidden and true self.  For me personally, to do something from the heart means to do it with all of our faculties acting in full concert--intellect, emotions, intuition, experience, and whatever other human components.

As an American of my generation (age 58) raised in an Irish-Catholic religious culture, feelings were scorned, were not to be trusted.  The intellect was all. When I was a child, displays of emotion were ridiculed.   Ironically, I grew up in a parish called Sacred Heart. While I knew that our pastor and many others had a devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus, I had no understanding of what the sacred heart meant.  It was something abstract . This is an example of a religious practice that has been reduced to formalism.

The emphasis on doing God's will is biblically and theologically correct of course. The problem is the approach--that teachers, writers, and clergymen like De Caussade present it in such as way that it comes across as repressive.  They seek to impose it upon us externally.  Rarely has it been taught as an interior movement, as something desired by the heart, as something sought by the self. Where is my "I" in all of this?  On the other, perhaps I should consider De Caussade's original audience, of women who have already chose to give their life to God and are presumably well along the spiritual journey.

On one level, De Caussade is contradictory. He puts the highest value on the desires of the heart; yet, he seeks to destroy the self. De Caussade's discussion of the heart  is wonderful and beautiful and should be a part of everyone's education.  He in fact writes very preciously and affectionately of the desires and movements of the heart. There is nothing harsh, authoritarian, or repressive about that part.

In my childhood Catholic education, the desires of the "I" counted for nothing. The "I" could be abused, neglected, sacrificed.  Sanctity meant denial of the "I."  Coming from my background, anything about the heart is always about something different and far away, that I can relate to only in the abstract.

So, despite De Cassade's beautiful counsel on discernment of the heart, talk of God's will being imposed from without is enough to frighten me off. Although I think I have a better than superficial understandings of concepts like heart and God's will, and can work through the historical and cultural differences, the book's apparent contradictions are too complex for me to be able to be able translate, reconcile, and integrate. Doubtless. the book contains many spiritual riches, but perhaps  readers from a less authoritarian upbringing than I will appreciate it more.

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