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.

M. Olier on Patience for Christ

In week two of the Lenten Spirituality Series, we have another treasure from seventeenth-century France. One of the great exponents of the French School of Spirituality, M. Jean-Jacques Olier, writes movingly about our suffering in this life as a means of bringing us closer to Christ. His words on the virtue of Patience, though directly primarily to clerics, have a wider application to all Christians in their Royal Priesthood. The text is excerpted from M. Olier’s “Introduction to the Christian Life and Virtues,” translated by Lowell M. Glendon, S.S. in Bérulle and the French School: Selected Writings (Paulist Press, 1989), 244-47. M. Olier’s description of patience crescendos into a typically French, Eucharistic note.

Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians and a spiritual master of the Grand Siècle. (Source)

We are obliged to be patient. First, in our condition as creatures; for God, sovereign master of life and death, on whom our existence depends absolutely, has the right to dispose of us as he chooses…

Second, as sinners. For in this condition, we must bear with the effects of his justice and wrath toward us. All the punishments that he carries out in this world are nothing compared to what we deserve and what he would make use suffer if he did not choose to be merciful toward us and to treat us with gentleness and clemency in this life. The punishments that God meted out to sinners, as we see in the holy scripture, even the torments of the damned and the penalties the demons suffer and will suffer eternally for one sin, should cause us not only to be at peace, but to rejoice in our sufferings…

Third, as Christians. For as such we should bear with many difficulties and sufferings. This is why we are intitiated into the church. For our Lord only admitted us into it to continue his life, which is a life of opposition, contradiction, and condemnation toward the flesh.

He must then humiliate it and subdue it in us, using the ways he knows and judges to be most useful, so as to win a complete victory, He first achieved victory in his own flesh, and he wishes to continue it in ours in order to show forth in us a sample of the universal triumph that he had achieved over it in his own person.

The church and Christians are only a handful of flesh compared to the whole world. Nevertheless, he still desires to be victorious in them to proclaim his triumph and to give definite signs of his victory. Thus, from this perspective, the Christian should be very faithful to the Spirit and completely abandoned to him in order to overcome the flesh and to destroy it completely.

There will be no lack of opportunities in this life, for he must suffer; first, the attacks of the world through scorn, calumny and persecution; second, the violent onslaughts of the flesh in its uprisings and its revolts; third, the battles with the devil in the temptations he sends us; finally, the ordeals from God through dryness, desolation, abandonment and other interior difficulties, which he afflicts on him in order to initiate him into the perfect crucifixion of the flesh.

Fourth, as clerics. For clerics should participate in the fulfillment of Christianity. This cannot exist without patience.

Patience is a sign that the soul is intimately united to God and that it is rooted in perfection. For it must be very much in God and fully possessed by him in order to bear difficulties and torments with peace, tranquility and even joy and beatitude in one’s heart.

It must be quite profoundly immersed in him and remain quite powerfully and strongly united to him, so that the flesh has no power at all to attract it to itself and share with him the feelings and aversions that it has towards suffering and endurance.

In this state the soul experiences the perfection attainable in this life, since it conforms to our Lord’s perfect submission to God during his sufferings. For although his flesh experienced aversion and revulsion for the cross, he paid no attention to it with his will. Rather, he always adhered perfectly to the wishes of his Father.

Therefore clerics, being perfect Christians chosen from the midst of the church to assist before the tabernacle of God, should pay particular attention to this virtue. This is their very nature. It is the sign by which they can be identified. This is what predisposes them for the honorable rank that they possess. This is how they are recognized as domestics and servants of God.

Finally, priests and pastors should have a very high degree of patience because, in Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ, they are both priests and victims for the sins of the world. Jesus Christ the priest wished to be the victim of his sacrifice. He became the host-victim for all people. Since priests are like sacraments and representations of him who lives in them to continue his priesthood and whom he clothes with his external conduct and his interior dispositions, as well as with his power and his person, he wishes furthermore that they be interiorly rooted in the spirit and dispositions of a host-victim in order to suffer, endure, do penance, in short, to immolate themselves for the glory of God and the salvation of the people.

In imitation of our Lord, priests should not only be victims for sin through persecution, penance, internal and external sufferings, but also they should be like the victims of a holocaust. This is their true vocation. For they should not merely suffer, as he did, all sorts of difficulties both for their own sins and the sins of the people entrusted to them, but even more the should be entirely consumed with him through love.

The spirit of love strengthens and empowers us to endure affliction and suffering, no matter how great they are. Since he is infinite, he gives us as much as we need to endure those that can occur in our vocation.

All the torments of the world are nothing to a generous soul filled with the power of a God, who is able to shoulder countless sufferings more violent than all those that the world and the devil might afflict us with. It is with this Spirit that Saint Paul said: I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:14). Everything he saw seemed little to do or suffer because of the God who dwelled in him.

It is through this same eternal, immense, and all-powerful Spirit that he called his sufferings light and momentary, because Jesus Christ who suffered and bore them in himself and allowed him to see and experience something of his eternity through his presence, caused him to look upon the entire duration of this life as but a moment. This is how our Lord, who allows us to experience interiorly that his power and his strength could support a thousand worlds, leads us to call his burden light.

Fénelon on the Return to God

Fenelon

François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai in the age of Louis XIV (Source)

Continuing my Lenten series of Wednesday spiritual masters, I present to you here a letter by Archbishop Fénelon to an officer, often identified as the Chevalier Colbert. The translation I am using comes from 1877, but I would also recommend to you the version by fellow Wahoo Chad Helms in the 2006 Paulist Press edition of Fénelon‘s Selected Writings. It struck me by its beauty and force of feeling, as well as its Lenten spirit. 

You have forgotten me, sir, but it is impossible for me to forget you. Something in my heart continually recalls you, and makes me want to hear of you, as I have more especially felt during the campaign and its perils. Your forgetfulness only makes me feel the more. The friendship you showed me once is of a kind never to be forgotten; and when I recall some of our conversations, my eyes are filled with tears. I trust that you remember how pleasant and hearty they were. Have you found anything since then more acceptable than God? Have the truths which then satisfied you failed? Is the pure light of the kingdom of God quenched? Has the world’s nothingness acquired some fresh value? Is that which was but a wretched dream not still the same? Is the God to Whom you poured out your soul, and Who filled you then with a peace beyond all earthly ken, no longer to be loved? Has the eternal beauty, ever so fresh to pure eyes, no longer charms for you? Is that source of heavenly joy, of unmarred happiness, which springs from the Father of Mercies and God of Consolation, dried up? No, for He has filled me with an urgent desire to recall you to Him. I cannot resist it: for long I have hesitated, and said to myself that I should only worry you. Even as I began this letter, I laid down a limit of discretion to myself; but after the first few words, my heart burst its bounds. Even should you not answer, or should think me absurd, I should not cease to speak sorrowfully to God of you, when unable to speak to you yourself any more. Once more, sir, forgive me if I exceed all due limits. I know it as well as you, but I feel irresistibly urged: God has not forgotten you, since He stirs up so eager a desire for your salvation in me.

What does He ask of you, save to be happy? Have you not realised that one is happy in loving Him? Have you not felt that there is no other real happiness, whatever excitement may be found in sensual pleasures, apart from Him? Since, then, you know where to find the Fountain of Life, and have of old drunk thereof, why would you seek foul, earthly cisterns? Bright, happy days, lighted up by the soft rays of loving mercy, when will ye return? When will it be given me to see this child of God reclaimed by His powerful Hand, filled with His favour, and the blessings of His holy Feast; causing joy in Heaven, despising earth, and acquiring an inexhaustible fund of humility and fervour from his experience of human frailty?

1280px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project2

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69. (Source)

I am not dictating what you should do. God will Himself make that plain to you according to your needs, so long as you hearken inwardly to Him, and despise boldly that which is despicable. Do whatever you will, only love God, and let His Love, revived in your heart, be your guide. I have often thanked Him for having shielded you amid the perils of this campaign, in which your soul was even more exposed to risk than your body. Many a time I have trembled for you: put an end to my fears, and fill my heart with gladness. None can possibly be greater than to find myself once more with you in the house of God, united in heart and soul, looking together to one glorious hope, and the Coming of our Great God, Who will fill us with the flood of His pure delights. Your ears are not yet closed to the sublime language of truth, your heart is made to feel its charms. “Taste and see” the pleasant bread daily spread for us at our Father’s table. Why have you forsaken it? With such support, who can fear that anything else will be lacking? Even if you do not feel strong enough to regain the happy position where you were, at least answer me, at least do not shun me. I know what it is to be weak; I am a thousand times weaker than you. It is very profitable to have realised what one is; but do not add to that weakness, which is inseparable from human nature, an estrangement from the means of strength. You shall regulate our intercourse; I will only speak to you of such things as you are willing to hear. I will keep God’s secret in my heart, and shall be always, with unchanging affection and regard, etc.