PROVIDENCE AND THE DUTY OF THE PRESENT MOMENT
Taken from PROVIDENCE, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
Nihil Obstat, Imprimatur and Imprimi Potest, 1937
"All whatsoever you do in word or in work, all things do ye in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him" (Col. 3: 17). To understand more clearly how we should live from day to day trusting in God, and in a spirit of self-abandonment, it is well to pay close attention to the duty of the present moment and the graces offered us to fulfill it.
We will speak first of the duty which presents itself at every moment, as the Saints have understood it, and then we will clarify their attitude from the teaching of Scripture and theology, which is applicable to us all.
The duty of the present moment as the Saints understood it
The duty at any given moment conveys, frequently under a modest exterior, the expression of God's will regarding ourselves and our individual lives. Thus it was our Lady lived her life of union with God, by accomplishing His will in the daily routine of duties of her simple life, a life outwardly commonplace like that of any other person in her lowly rank. Thus, too, did the Saints live, doing the will of God as it was revealed to them from one moment to the other, without allowing themselves to be upset by unforeseen reverses. Their secret consisted in submitting constantly to the Divine action in the shaping of their lives. In that action they recognized all they had to do and suffer, duties to be accomplished, crosses to be borne.. They were persuaded that what is happening at the moment is a sign that either God wills or permits it for the good of those seeking Him. Even the evil they experienced taught them something: by taxing their patience it showed them by contrast what must be done to avoid sin and its disastrous consequences. Thus the saints see in the sequence of events a sort of providential schooling. Moreover, they are convinced that behind the succession of external happenings runs a parallel series of actual graces which are continually being offered to enable us to draw great spiritual profit from these events, whether painful or pleasing. The sequence of events, if looked at in the right perspective, is an instructive course on the things of God, a sort of extension of revelation or application of the Gospel truths continuing down to the end of time.
A distinction is made in almost every sphere between theoretical, abstract teaching and practical or applied teaching. The same holds good in the spiritual order, where, in His Own way, almighty God imparts these two kinds of instruction, the one in the Gospel and the other in the course of our lives.
This important truth about life is often completely disregarded. As a rule, no sooner do we meet with contradictions and reverses than we utter nothing but complaints and murmurings. We find that this illness has come upon us just when there is so much to be done; that something indispensable is denied us; that someone is depriving us of the necessary means, or placing insurmountable obstacles in our way as regards the good we must accomplish or the apostolate to which we have devoted ourselves.
In these or even more painful circumstances the Saints would confess that fundamentally the one thing necessary is to do the will of God from day to day. God never commands the impossible. Each moment has a duty which God makes really possible for everyone of us and in the fulfillment of which He appeals to our love and generosity.
If, then, as a result of our failings, something happens to distress us, it is a providential lesson which we must accept in all humility and thus derive some profit from it. If, through no fault of our own, God permits us to be deprived of certain help, this is because that help is not really necessary for our sanctification and salvation. The Saints find that in a sense nothing is wanting to them unless it be a greater love for God. If only we knew the inner meaning of those incidents we call hindrances, contradictions, reverses, disappointments, misfortunes, and failures, we should of course deplore any disorder they might involve (and the Saints deplored it, were pained by it far more than we), but we should also reproach ourselves for complaining and give more consideration to the higher purpose God is pursuing in all that He wills and even in His Divine permission of evil. 1
Should we wonder that the ways of providence are sometimes mysterious and that reason is disconcerted at the mystery? "The just man liveth by faith" (Rom. 1: 17), says the Scripture, and in particular he lives by the mystery of providence and its ways. Eventually he realizes that, far from being contradictory, the mystery cannot be rejected without every phase of our life becoming a contradiction.
More than once the Scripture declares: "The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to Hell and bringeth back again." 2
The more the Divine action makes us die to sin and its consequences, the more it detaches us from all that is not God Himself, and the more it vivifies us. It has been said that sometimes grace is a destroyer; yet, in its workings within us, it does not destroy, but perfects any good there is in nature, restoring and sublimating it. We may say of grace as was said of God: "It killeth and maketh alive" (1 Kings 2: 6).
As Père de Caussade remarks, when explaining these ways of Providence, 3 "The more obscure the mystery is to us, the more light it contains in itself"; for its obscurity is due to a radiance too intense for our feeble vision.
Moreover, what happens to each of us personally from one moment to the other by the will and permission of Providence, is of greater instruction for us. Therein we may see the expression of the Divine will in our regard at the present moment. In this way, too, within us is formed that experimental knowledge of God's dealings with us, a knowledge without which we can hardly direct our course aright in spiritual things or do any lasting good to others. 4 In the spiritual order more than anywhere else real knowledge can be acquired only by suffering and action. Though our Lord's holy Soul from the moment of His coming into the world enjoyed the Beatific Vision and an infused knowledge, yet He willed also to have an experimental knowledge, that knowledge which is acquired from day to day and enables us to view things under that special aspect which contact with reality gives when they have been infallibly foreseen. We foresee that a very dear friend who is sick has not long to live, yet when death does come and if our eyes are open to see, it will provide a new lesson in which God will speak to us as time goes on. This is the school of the Holy Ghost, in which His lessons have nothing academic about them, but are drawn from concrete things. And He varies them for each soul, since what is useful for one is not always so for another. Although we must not be superstitious and think we see a deep meaning in what is merely accidental and of no significance, let us in all simplicity listen to what Providence has to say to each one of us personally in these concrete lessons it gives. We must not treat this doctrine in a purely material and mechanical way; it is a question of being super~ naturally-minded in everything, in all simplicity and without disputings or foolish questionings.
The author just quoted says: 5
The will of God in the present moment is an ever bubbling source of sanctity. ... All you who thirst, learn that you have not far to go to find the fountain of living waters; it gushes forth quite close to you right now; therefore hasten to find it. Why, with the fountain so near, do you tire yourselves with running about after every little rill? ... O unknown Love! It seems as though Your wonders were finished and nothing remained but to copy Your ancient works, and to quote Your past discourses. And no one sees that Your inexhaustible activity is a source of new thoughts, of fresh sufferings, and further actions ... of new Saints.
The heart of Jesus is a "source of graces ever new." As age succeeds age the Saints have no need to copy the lives or writings of those who have gone before; they need only to live their lives in continuous self-abandonment to God's secret inspirations. In this they and their predecessors are alike, in spite of differences peculiar to the age and the individual. Could we but see the Divine light it contains, the present moment would remind us that everything may contribute to our spiritual advancement in the love of God, as means or instrument, or at least as occasion, by way of trial or by way of contrast. In the order intended by Providence this present moment is in some way related to our last end, to the one thing necessary; and thus each instant of fleeting time has some sort of relation with the unique instant of unchanging eternity.
Could we but grasp this truth, then not only the time of mass or our hours of prayer and visits to the Blessed Sacrament would be a source of sanctification to us, but every hour of the day would take on a supernatural significance and remind us that we are on our way to eternity. Hence the pious practice of blessing each hour as it begins, calling down the Divine benediction upon it. At every moment we should be at God's service; there is no moment of the day that has not some duty for us to fulfill, some duty toward God or our neighbor, the duty at least of patiently waiting when external action is no longer possible. Every minute must find us hallowing the name of God as though there were nothing more to keep us here in time, as though the next moment must see our entry into eternity.
In the World War this was the attitude of the more spiritually-minded when under gunfire. In those three-minute intervals before firing recommenced, they would say to themselves: "One moment, perhaps, and then death," and they would live the present moment as though it were the prelude to eternity.
This, too, was the attitude of the Saints, not only in exceptional circumstances, but in the ordinary routine of their lives: they never lost the sense of God's presence. Now light is thrown on this attitude of theirs by the Gospel principles we mentioned and which are as applicable to us as to them.
The teaching of Scripture and theology on the duty of the present moment
In his First Episde to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote (10: 31): "Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all for the glory of God"; and to the Colossians he said (3: 17): "All whatsoever you do in word or in work, all things do ye in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him."
Our Lord Himself said (Matt. 12: 34-36): "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of a good treasure bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of an evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say to you, that every idle word that men speak, they shall render an account of it in the day of judgment."
The full significance of this doctrine is elucidated by St. Thomas (Ia IIae, q.18, a.9), who teaches that in the concrete, hic et nunc, no deliberate act is morally indifferent; everyone of our deliberate acts is either good or bad. The reason is that every deliberate act in a rational being should itself be rational or directed to a morally good end, and in the Christian every deliberate act should be directed at least virtually to God. If this is done, then the act is good, otherwise it is bad; no other alternative is possible. Our very recreations and amusements, the walks we take, all must have some morally good purpose. To take a walk is of course indifferent when considered in the abstract; to walk in one direction rather than in another may also be indifferent. But our walk must have in view a rational purpose: for example, to repair or renew our strength so as to apply ourselves once again to our appointed task. And thus our very amusements assume a moral significance and value in our lives as rational beings.
To adopt the metaphor of a well-known preacher, our deliberate acts are like drops of rain falling on a mountain peak at the watershed. Some water flows to the right into one river and so eventually to the ocean; the rest flows to the left to join another river flowing down to another sea far off in the opposite direction. So also it is with our deliberate acts: they are either directed to what is good and so eventually to God, or they are directed to evil. Not one of these acts, when presented in the concrete reality of life, is indifferent.
This teaching may at first sight appear severe. That is not so: a virtual or implicit intention is all that is needed, renewed each morning at prayer-time and as often as the Holy Ghost inspires us to lift up our hearts to God.
Nay more, it is a consoling doctrine, for it follows that in the lives of the just every deliberate act that is not sinful is at once morally good and meritorious, whether it be easy or difficult, trivial or heroic.
Again, when rightly understood and really lived, this doctrine is a source of sanctification. It leads to the reflection that what God does at any particular moment is well done and is a sign of His will. Thus Job, deprived of all things, saw in this the will of God trying Him for his sanctification; thus instead of cursing this most painful episode of his, he blessed the name of the Lord. Let us, then, learn to recognize in what is happening every moment something positively intended by God, or at any rate divinely permitted, and always directed to some higher good purpose. In this way, no matter what happens, we shall always be at peace.
The whole doctrine is summed up by St. Francis de Sales in these few words: "Every moment comes to us pregnant with a command from God, only to pass on and plunge into eternity, there to remain forever what we have made it."
To see thus constantly in the duty of the present moment the expression of the Divine will comes principally from the gift of wisdom, which enables us in a manner to see in God, the first cause and last end, every event whether painful or pleasing. That is why, as St. Augustine says, this gift corresponds to the beatitude of the peacemakers: that is, the beatitude of those who preserve their peace where many another will be troubled and who will often restore to those who are in deep trouble the peace they have lost. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." (Matt. 5:9)
1 In the Second Book of Kings it is related how Semei, a kinsman of Saul, reviled the prophet David, casting stones at him and cursing him. When one of David's officers would have gone out to slay the reviler, David said: "Let him alone and let him curse: for the Lord hath bid him curse David. And who is he that shall dare say, Why hath he done so? ... Let him alone that he may curse as the Lord hath bidden him. Perhaps the Lord may look upon my affliction, and the Lord may render me good for the cursing of this day" (II Kings 16: 6 ff.). This reminds us of our Lord's words during His Passion when, counseling Peter to be calm, He allowed Himself to be led away by the armed soldiery with Judas at their head and healed Malchus, whom Peter had wounded with his sword. We meet with many such incidents in the lives of the Saints, where the unforeseen opportunity is seized upon so soon as it presents itself.
2 See 1 Kings 2: 6; Deut. 32: 39; Tobias 13: 2; Wis. 16: 13.
3 Abandonment to Divine Providence, Bk. I, chap. 2, p. 25.
4 Herein is the explanation of all that supernatural good which Saints like the Curé of Ars have done for souls. With no great theological learning, he nevertheless had the deepest insight into God's dealings with souls of every condition, and thus, with very little time for reflection, he would in one day give to hundreds of persons the sound counsel which their immediate needs required.
5 Ibid., p. 27.
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