Sister Marie-Thérèse’s Trials
Poor Sister Marie-Thérèse de Vioménil! Again and again she wrote to Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade to explain her spiritual troubles, yet again and again she received what must have seemed like disheartening replies.
There was, for example, the long series of letters in the 1730s, in which this Sister complained repeatedly of the unpleasant position she was in, the people that she had to work with, the difficulties of her task, the slights and the snubs. But Fr. de Caussade replies:
I acknowledge that your habitual position is extremely hard, but then what a fund of merits for Heaven! What a magnificent opportunity of doing penance, and of practicing heroic virtue!... These acts of virtue will soon make your heart ready to receive the sweet infusion of divine love; and therefore I should feel very much disappointed on your account if you were given an easier and more agreeable post.
Then there was the occasion when Sister Marie-Thérèse reminded Fr. de Caussade to pray for her in her troubles, to which he replied: “You need not remind me to pray for you. I never forget to do so…. However, I assure you I have never thought of asking God to grant you anything but patience, submission, resignation to his holy will, and total abandonment to his kind providence.”
Fr. de Caussade begins another letter this way: “Far from pitying you I consider that you are more to be congratulated on having, at last, an opportunity of practicing true charity.” Ouch! And here is another opening line in which we may detect a hint of exasperation: “How can you still feel surprised at that of which your experience ought to have convinced you for a long time past? As long as we live upon earth and do not live among saints, we shall always require patience to put up with each other.”
But to her credit, Sr. Marie-Thérèse soldiers on. She keeps baring her soul to this great spiritual director and, when he is not gently chiding her, he gives her in return the most sublime teachings on abandonment to Divine providence, on our need—serenely and without excessive or anxious effort—to accept God’s will, giving him the opportunity, as St. Paul says, to complete the work he has begun in us (Phil. 1:6).
I have already outlined something of Fr. de Caussade’s method in two other commentaries, Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ: Abandon Yourself to this Book and Self-Abandonment in the Winter of Our Discontent. While a brilliant director in his own right, this great Jesuit always avoided singularity. He revered the masters of the Catholic spiritual tradition, including the Fathers of the Church and the doctors of the spiritual life. Among those he cited often are saints Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Francis de Sales. He was also well aware of the contributions made by the finest spiritual writers of the previous generation to which he owed his own formation, such as Archbishop Francois Fénelon. Through all these he formed a deep understanding of the mind of the Church when it comes to guiding souls.
His method might have been taught by Our Lady; it certainly anticipates the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux. For it all comes down to this: We must recognize the hand of God in everything that happens, trusting completely that God neither sends nor permits anything that is not for our good, realizing (therefore) that there is no need for the least disturbance in our serenity, and responding always with “Fiat! Fiat! Thy will be done.” In this way, and in every circumstance, whether we face exterior or interior trials, we can live in what Fr. de Caussade called the “sacrament of the present moment”, gradually dying to our own self-love as we habituate ourselves to relying ever more completely on God alone.
For those in the lay state, and perhaps for busy parish priests, trials are often exterior, arising from work, family, lack of time, frustrated plans or illness—though such persons are also likely to experience something of the classic interior trials as they grow in grace. For religious, the trials (in addition to the petty disturbances of community life!) may more frequently be interior—aridity, lassitude, distraction, fear of one’s own faults, the inability to receive proper spiritual direction, and so on. Such persons have (in theory) committed themselves to a life of union with God unmediated by the things of this world. The false conviction that some personal fault must lie at the root of such trials can make them very severe. But everything reduces to the one thing necessary: Fiat.
Thus we return to Sister Marie-Thérèse as she laments the loss of the very dear spiritual director whom she had formerly been able to consult in the convent (for Fr. de Caussade had long since moved to other assignments, and was available only by letter). And here is Fr. de Caussade’s reply:
This is truly your heaviest cross, because by it you have been attacked in that most sensitive spot, your heart, which formerly discovered so many ingenious pretexts to render its sorrow justifiable. I can hear you say to yourself that you do not regret this deprivation on account of the consolation of which it has robbed you, but because of the assistance it has given you for your spiritual progress and which is now taken from you. A mistake! An illusion of self-love! One “fiat” uttered in this sort of privation gains more merit in the sight of God than could be acquired by the most beautiful, the most worthy, the most consoling direction in the world.
Here, perhaps, we should leave our dear Sister alone, for even in her weakness she doubtless makes a less frustrating spectacle than do you and I, as we struggle so ineffectually to dispatch the many-headed Hydra of our own self-love. Instead, it is time to permit Fr. de Caussade to speak directly to ourselves:
Crosses and afflictions are such great graces that the wicked are rarely converted without them, and good people are only made perfect by the same means.... Fortunate disappointments! happy privations! which come from the goodness of God rather than his justice. It is thus that we ought to regard them.
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