Bossuet on the Sufficiency of God

There are many candidates for the title of “Greatest Preacher in Christian History,” but my money’s on Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), “The Eagle of Meaux,” Bishop and Tutor to the Grand Dauphin of France. Famed in his own day for the clarity of his doctrine, the incisive vigor of his spirituality, and the dazzling versatility of his oratorical skill, Bossuet stands as one of the late flowers of the Grand Siècle. Trumpet of the Gallicans and Hammer of Quietism, Bossuet nevertheless is not merely to be regarded as a relic of dusty seventeenth-century controversies. He still has much to teach us. In this excellent passage, excerpted from a recent translation and edited collection of his Meditations for Lent by Christopher O. Blum (Sophia Institute Press, 2013), we can see the essentially ascetic cast of Bossuet’s mind. This was the same man who, in a felicitious turn of phrase, elsewhere referred to the Rule of St. Benedict as “a little abridgment of the Gospel.” The relevant passage can be found on pages 10-12 of the source text.

Portrait of Bossuet by Charles Sevin de la Penaye, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, c. early 18th century (Source)

“Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8). God alone suffices, and all we need to possess him is to see him, because in seeing him, we see all his goodness, as he himself explained to Moses: “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Ex. 33:19). We see all that attracts our love, and we love him beyond all limits. Let us join St. Philip in saying with all our heart, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” He alone can fill all our emptiness, satisfy all our needs, content us, and make us happy.

Let us then empty our heart of all other things, for if the Father alone suffices, then we have no need for sensible goods, less for exterior wealth, and still less for the honor of men’s good opinion. We do not even need this mortal life; how then can we need those things necessary to preserve it? We need only God. He alone suffices. In possessing him we are content.

How courageous are these words of St. Philip! To say them truthfully, we must also be able to say with the apostles: “Lord, we have left everything and followed you” (cf. Matt. 19:27). At the least we must leave everything by way of affection, desire, and resolution, that is, by an invincible resolution to attach ourselves to nothing, to seek no support except in God alone. Happy are they who carry this desire to its limit, who make the final, lasting, and perfect renunciation! But let them not leave anything for themselves. Let them not say: “This little thing to which I am still attached, it is a mere nothing.” We know the nature of the human heart. Whenever a little thing is left to it, there the heart will place all its desires. Strip it all away; break from it; let it go. To own things as though one had nothing, to be married as though one were not, to make use of this world as though one were not using it, but as though it did not exist, and as though we were not a part of it: this is the true good for which we should strive. We are not Christians if we cannot say sincerely with St. Philip, “Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”

It is from the very depths of faith that these words are spoken, and it is in a certain sense from the very foundation of nature itself. For in the depths of our nature we sense our need to posses God, that he alone is capable of fulfilling our nature, and that we are anxious and tormented when separated from him…Man, abandoned to himself, does not know what to do, nor what to become. His pleasures carry him off, and these very same pleasures destroy him. With each sin of the senses he gives himself a killing blow, and he not only kills his soul by his intemperance, in his blindness and ignorance he kills the very body that he would flatter. Since the Fall, man is born to be unhappy…We do not know how to desire or ask for what we need.

St. Philip’s words teach us everything. He limits himself to what Jesus taught us is the one thing needful. Lord, you are the way.

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