BY JEAN-PIERRE DE CAUSSADE Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade is so obvious a choice for this column that it hardly needs an introduction; indeed, in his preface Dom David Knowles describes it as a “spiritual classic of the first order”.
Its author, a Jesuit whose priestly life was largely spent as spiritual director to the nuns in a Visitation convent in Nancy, France, died in 1751 aged 76 and at first glance his style might seem similar to any amount of devotional literature of the 18th century.
But as countless readers have since discovered, these notes of his conferences, taken down and circulated in book form by the nuns, have a poetic limpidity and wisdom that is rare in any age.
His theme is entirely contained in the title, sometimes translated as “the sacrament of the present moment”, but to the simplicity of this idea de Caussade discovers endless variations, like music by Bach. Indeed, I started to write down so many apt and profound quotations that it became an impossible task.
“There is no moment at which God does not present himself under the guise of some suffering, some consolation or some duty”; “‘the one thing necessary’ is always to be found by the soul in the present moment”; “The art of self-abandonment is nothing but the art of loving...” These simply offer a glimpse of what de Caussade wished to impress upon his convent audience.
You could call it holiness for duffers – because it requires nothing beyond humility and trust.
I would not describe the author as anti-intellectual, but he is well aware how distracting, seductive and absorbing books can be, warning that “apart from God, books are merely useless externals [succeeding] only in emptying the heart by the very satisfaction which they give to the mind.” This salutary reminder is not music to the ears of a book reviewer, so it is a relief to discover later on that “if the duty of the present moment is to read, then reading will produce a mysterious fulfilment in the depths of the soul.” My battered edition was given to me by a lady in her 90s who was going blind so could no longer find solace in its pages.
Just as I tried writing down key quotations, she underlined passages vigorously in ink on every page; a tribute to her engagement with this Jesuit master.