Self-Abandonment in the Winter of Our Discontent
Shakespeare’s Richard III begins with Richard lamenting the triumphal accession of his brother, King Edward IV, to the throne of England. His words are intended bitterly: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Richard, an ugly hunchback, will have no part in this joy and gaiety; he is plotting his own rise to power. Thus do all of our discontents, when deliberately nourished, lead us on to evil.
On any given day, I may find myself discontented about many things, and I suspect I am not alone. For me, the tendency is exacerbated in winter, very likely the result of what many are now referring to as a deficit of nature, but which in any case is always also a deficit in the response to grace. Anything from the morning alarm to the untimely closing of the day might be cause enough for me to feel horribly put upon! But above all, in my own case, discontent stems from the frustration of my goals and plans.
I want to have a greater opportunity for travel, to get out sailing more often, to eat more without gaining weight, and—above all—to see CatholicCulture.org succeed on every level without having to constantly harass our users—a mutually painful exercise I find it impossible to avoid. Financial success in particular would seem to make many problems disappear. I’m sure it would also make me warm and witty, deeply spiritual, and even more obviously holy than I already am.
Which is presupposing a lot. But I think most of us feel this way at times, convinced that if we could only eliminate some damned nuisance, our own discontents really would be turned to glory.
These damned nuisances, of course, are really our own repeated resistance to the will of God. But let us remain at home with the natural man for a moment. He is always waiting for something good to happen, and straining against its delay. I firmly believe—again, sticking with the natural man—that the great proof that God is outside time is that He manages it so poorly. Find me a man, woman or child who thinks this is not so, and I’ll show you an absolutely one hundred percent finished saint.
Into this perennial winter of our discontent comes not the sun of York but the Son of God, and with Him the sacraments, the teachings of the Church, prayer, sacrifice, and spiritual direction—sometimes through a confessor, very often through spiritual reading, and always (in this complete context) from the Holy Spirit. Even if we do not make rapid progress, these are so many ways of keeping the demons of our discontents at bay. So now let us leave the natural man behind and consider the direction offered by one particular spiritual guide who knew a great deal about discontent, Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade.
Fr. de Caussade, an eighteenth century French Jesuit, was himself a great disciple of the Catholic spiritual tradition, referring with some frequency to figures such as St. Teresa of Avila and especially St. Francis de Sales. He had a particular gift for directing nuns, and he guided religious and laity alike into the virtue and the state of abandonment to Divine Providence. In reading his spiritual counsels, I sometimes find him speaking directly and personally to me. Or perhaps he is speaking also to you. For example:
If you could but understand, once for all, that everything that God wills must succeed, because he knows how to make even difficulties and the opposition of men conduce to the fulfillment of his designs. Believe me, if it be for your greater advantage, in vain will men try to prevent its success; but if, on the contrary, it will not be advantageous to you, what better can God do than to prevent it?
After all, only God can see the future and all consequences; we ourselves see essentially nothing. Therefore:
What better could we do than to place the whole matter in God’s care? Could our future be more secure than in the all-powerful hand of that adorable Master, of that good and loving Father? who loves us more than we love ourselves? Where could we find a safer refuge than in the arms of Divine Providence?
When we withdraw from Divine Providence, Fr. de Caussade warns, we can find “no solid peace, nor comfort, nothing but discomfort, anxiety and bitterness of heart, miseries in the present life, and danger to eternal salvation.” In a particularly fine phrase, then, it is just here that we find the winter of our discontent.
In this winter we also become jealous of the success of others, who always seem to have something we lack, and whose faults we therefore exaggerate so that we might extract a sort of delightful annoyance which confirms all of our negative judgments. Or perhaps we’re just grumpier than we should be. But never fear, Fr. de Caussade has something to say about this as well: “A soul to whom God makes known its defects is much more burdensome to itself than its neighbor ever could be to it.”
What can this mean? Though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it means that if we do not find ourselves more burdensome to ourselves than others are to us, it is because we do not yet know our own faults. For our own faults do not trouble us only occasionally, as do the faults of others. No, we carry them within us at all times!
There, in a nutshell, goes the winter of our discontent. Somehow, real happiness depends exclusively not just on our acceptance of God’s will, but on our absolute confidence in it. Frustrating as it may be to us neophytes, God’s will must be continually embraced in what Fr. de Caussade calls the sacrament of the present moment. In other words, it is manifested most clearly not in what we wish or hope or plan, but in the dread, dreary and definitely deceptive circumstances of our daily lives.
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Posted by: John J Plick -
Jan. 15, 2012 2:25 PM ET USA
No doubt you don't believe that you are the ONLY one that experinces this? From "Alice in Wonderland" Alice:"Cheshire Cat, what is the right way to go?" Cheshire Cat: "Well that depends on where you want to get to" Alice "It really doesn't matter" Cheshire Cat: "Then it doesn't really matter which way you go" We are often like the Wise Men following the Star, Dr., Sometimes we can't see it, and that can cause distress, but if we beg God for direction, "that Star" will never disappear. Ave!