THE GRACE OF THE PRESENT MOMENT AND FIDELITY IN LITTLE THINGS
Taken from PROVIDENCE, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
Nihil Obstat, Imprimatur and Imprimi Potest, 1937
We were saying that the duty we must accomplish with every succeeding hour is the expression of God's will for each one of us individually hic et nunc and thus conveys a certain practical instruction very valuable for sanctification. It is the Gospel teaching as applied to the various circumstances of our lives, a real object-lesson imparted by almighty God Himself.
If we could only look on each moment from this point of view, as the Saints did, we should see that to each moment there is attached not only a duty to be performed, but also a grace to be faithful in accomplishing that duty.
The spiritual riches contained in the present moment
As fresh circumstances arise, with their attendant obligations, fresh actual graces are offered us in order that we may derive the greatest spiritual profit from them. Above the succession of external events that go to make up our life, there runs a parallel series of actual graces offered for our acceptance, just as the air comes in successive waves to enter our lungs and so make breathing possible.
This succession of actual graces which we either agree to make use of for our spiritual benefit, or, on the other hand, neglect to do so, constitutes the history of each individual soul as it is written down in the book of life, in God, to be laid open some day for our inspection. It is thus that our Lord continues to live in His Mystical Body, and especially in His Saints, in whom He continues a life that will know no end, a life that at every moment requires new graces and new activities.
Our Lord has said:
I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, nor knoweth Him: but you shall know Him; because He shall abide with you, and shall be in you. ... He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you (John 4: 16,26).
To those who will listen, the Holy Ghost is in all things their guide from day to day, and by His grace He engraves the law of God upon the soul, doing this either directly Himself or through the preaching of the Gospel. St. Paul tells the Corinthians: "Do we need (as some do) epistles of commendation to you or from you? You are our epistle ... being manifested, that you are the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, and written not with ink, but with the spirit of the living God: not in tables of stone, but in the fleshy tablets of the heart" (2 Cor. 3: 1-3). And thus in the souls of men is being written the interior history of the Church, to be continued down to the end of time. It is this history which is set out symbolically in the Apocalypse, and only at the last day will it be read with clarity of perception.
This is how Père de Caussade puts it in the following remarkable passages:
Oh, glorious history! grand book written by the Holy Spirit in this present time! It is still in the press to turn out holy souls. There is never a day when the type is not arranged, when the ink is not applied, when the pages are not printed. We are still in the dark night of faith. The paper is blacker than the ink. ... It is written in characters of another world, and there is no understanding it except in Heaven. ... If the transposition of twenty-five letters is incomprehensible as sufficing for the composition of an almost infinite number of different volumes, each admirable of its kind, who can explain the works of God in the universe? ... Teach me, Divine Spirit, to read in this book of life. I desire to become Thy disciple and, like a little child, to believe what I cannot understand and cannot see. 1
What great truths are hidden even from Christians who imagine themselves most enlightened! ... To effect this union with Him, God makes use of the worst of His creatures as well as of the best, and of the most distressing events as well as of those which are pleasant and agreeable. Our union with Him is even the more meritorious as the means enabling us to maintain it are the more repugnant to nature. 2
The present moment is ever filled with in finite treasures; it contains more than you have capacity to hold. Faith is the measure. Believe, and it will be done to you accordingly. Love also is the measure. The more the heart loves, the more it desires; and the more it desires, so much the more will it receive. The will of God presents itself to us at each moment as an immense ocean that no human heart can fathom; but what the heart can receive from this ocean is equal to the measure of our faith, confidence and love. The whole creation cannot fill the human heart, for the heart's capacity surpasses all that is not God. The mountains that are terrifying to look at, are but atoms for the heart. The divine will is an abyss of which the present moment is the entrance. Plunge into this abyss and you will always find it infinitely more vast than your desires. Do not flatter anyone, nor worship your own illusions; they can neither give you anything nor take anything from you. You will receive your fullness from the will of God alone, which will not leave you empty. Adore it, put it first, before all other things. ... Destroy the idols of the senses. ...When the senses are terrified, or famished, despoiled, crushed, then it is that faith is nourished, enriched, and enlivened. Faith laughs at these calamities as the governor of an impregnable fortress laughs at the futile attacks of an impotent foe. 3
When the will of God is made known to a soul, and has made the soul realize His willingness to give Himself to it, provided that the soul, too, gives itself to God - then under all circumstances the soul experiences a great happiness in this coming of God, and enjoys it the more, the more it has learned to abandon itself at every moment to His most adorable will. 4
God is like the ocean, sustaining those who in all confidence surrender themselves to Him and do everything in their power to follow His inspirations as a ship will respond to a favorable breeze. This is what our Lord meant when He said: "The spirit breatheth where He will and thou hearest His voice: but thou knowest not whence He cometh and whither He goeth. So is everyone that is born of the Spirit" (John 3: 8).
How sublime is this doctrine! As the present minute is passing, let us likewise bear in mind that what exists is not merely our body with its sensibility, its varying emotions of pain and pleasure; but also our spiritual and immortal soul, and the actual grace we receive, and Christ Who exerts His influence upon us, and the Blessed Trinity dwelling within us. We shall then have some idea of the infinite riches contained in the present moment and the connection it has with the unchanging instant of eternity into which we are some day to enter. We should not be satisfied with viewing the present moment along the horizontal line of time, as the connecting link between a vanished past and an uncertain temporal future; we ought rather to view it along that vertical line of time which links it up with the unique instant of unchanging eternity. Whatever happens, let us say to ourselves: At this moment God is present and desires to draw me to Himself. In one of the most painful moments of St. Alphonsus' life, when the beloved congregation he had just founded seemed all but lost, he heard these words from the lips of a lay friend of his: "God is always present, Father Alphonsus." Not only did he renew his courage, but that hour of pain became one of the most fruitful of his life.
Let us in all reverses give heed to the actual graces offered us with each passing minute for the fulfilment of present duty. We shall thus realize more and more how great must be our fidelity in little things as well as in great.
Fidelity in little things
Our Lord tells us (Luke 16: 10): "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is greater." Again, in the parable of the talents He says to each of the faithful servants: "Well done, good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" (Matt. 25: 21). We have here a most important lesson on the value of trivial things, one very often ignored by those who are naturally high-minded, who take the first step on the wrong path when their sense of dignity degenerates into pride. We cannot lay too much stress on this point in considering the fidelity we ought to show to the grace of the present moment.
As often noted, in many cases where souls have given themselves to God in all sincerity and have made generous, even heroic efforts to prove their love for Him, a critical moment comes when they must abandon a too personal way of judging and acting - though it may be of a high order - so as to enter upon the path of true humility, that "little humility" which loses sight of self and looks henceforward on God alone.
At that moment two widely different courses are possible: either the soul seeks for itself the course to take and pursues it, or it fails to do so, sometimes going so far astray in its upward path as to go back again without being altogether aware of it.
To see this path of true humility is to discover in our everyday life, from morning to night, opportunities of performing seemingly trivial acts for the love of God. But the frequent repetition of these acts is of immense value and leads to a delicacy of attitude to God and our neighbor which, if constant and truly sincere, is the mark of perfect charity.
The acts then demanded of the soul are very simple and pass by unnoticed. There is nothing in them for self-love to take hold of. God alone sees them, and the soul thinks it is offering Him, so to speak, nothing at all. And yet these acts, St. Thomas says, 5 are like drops of water continually falling on the same spot: eventually they bore a hole in the rock. The same real effect is gradually produced by the assimilation of the graces we receive. They penetrate the soul and its faculties, at the same time sublimating them and gradually bringing everything to the required supernatural focus. Without this fidelity in little things actuated by the spirit of faith and love, humility, patience and gentleness, the contemplative life will never penetrate the active, the ordinary everyday life. Contemplation will be confined, as it were, to the summit of the intellect, where it is more speculative than contemplative; it will fail to permeate our whole existence and manner of life and will remain almost completely barren whereas it should become every day more fruitful.
This is a matter of supreme importance. St. Francis de Sales more than once speaks of it. 6 St. Thomas says the same thing in another way when he teaches, as we have already seen, that in the concrete reality of life no deliberate act is hic et nunc morally indifferent. 7 In a rational being every deliberate act should be rational, should have an "honorable" end in view, and in the Christian every act should be directed at least virtually to God as to the supreme object of love. This truth brings out the importance of the multifarious actions we have to perform day by day. Perhaps they are trivial in themselves, nevertheless they are of great importance relative to God and the spirit of faith and love, of humility and patience that should actuate us in performing them and offering them to Him.
This critical moment of which we are speaking marks a difficult crisis in the spiritual life of many fairly advanced souls, who then run the risk of falling back again.
If a soul that has shown itself generous or even heroic, after reaching this point is still far too personal in its manner of judging and acting and does not see the need of a change, it continues on its way with a merely acquired impetus, and its prayer and activities are no longer what they should be. There is a real danger here. The soul may become stunted and its development arrested like one dwarfed through some deformity. Or it may take a false direction. Instead of true humility, it may almost unawares develop a sort of refined pride, which scarcely appears at first except in the small details of daily life. For that reason this will remain unknown to a spiritual director living apart from those he directs. This pride will steadily take the form of an amused condescension, and subsequently develop into an acerbity of manner in our relations with our neighbor, permeating the whole life of the day and thus stultifying everything. This acerbity may lead to rancor and contempt for our neighbor, whom nevertheless we should love for God's sake.
A soul that has come to this pass will not easily be led to make those holy considerations which are necessary for it to return to the point whence it went astray. Such a soul should be recommended to our Lady's care; in many cases she alone can lead it back into, the right path. 8
The remedy for this evil is to make the soul very attentive to the grace of the moment and faithful in trivial things.
To quote Père de Caussade once more:
Actions are not determined by ideas or by a confusion of words which by themselves would only serve to excite pride. ... We must make use only of what God sends us to do or to suffer, and not forsake this Divine reality to occupy our minds with the historical wonders of the Divine work instead of gaining an increase of grace by our fidelity. The marvels of this work, which we read about for the purpose of satisfying our curiosity, often only tend to disgust us with things that seem trifling but by which, if we do not despise them, the Divine love effects very great things in us. Fools that we are! We admire and bless this Divine action in the writings that relate its history; and when it is ready to continue this writing on our hearts, we keep moving the paper and prevent it writing by our curiosity, that we may see what it is doing in and around us. ... For love of Thee, O my God, and for the discharge of my debts, I will confine myself to the one essential business, that of the present moment, and thus enable Thee to act. 9
This is what is meant by the common saying, Age quod agis. And so, if we are really doing our utmost day by day to be faithful to God in little things, He will certainly give us strength to be faithful to Him in difficult and very painful circumstances, if through His permission that should be our lot. Thus will be realized the words of the Gospel: "Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof"; 10 "He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater." 11
1 Abandonment to Divine Providence, Bk. I, chap. 2, sec. 5, p. 23.
2 Ibid. sec. 3, p. 26. At least this is often the case, though an act that is in no way disagreeable may often be very meritorious, such as the prayer of a Saint in times of consolation.
3 Ibid., sec. 3, p. 19.
5 Cf. St. Thomas, IIaIIae, Q. 24, a.6 ad 2um.
6 Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, chap. I: "Opportunity is seldom given for the exercise of fortitude, magnanimity, or munificence; but meekness, temperance, modesty, and humility are virtues wherewith all the actions of our life should be tempered. There are other virtues more excellent, it is true, but the practice of these is more necessary. Sugar is more excellent than salt, but salt is more necessary and more general in its use. Therefore we sh9Uld always have a goodly supply of these general virtues ready to hand, since we need them almost continually.
"In the exercise of the virtues we should always prefer that which is most conformable with our duty, not that which is most agreeable to our taste ... Each one should practice those virtues in particular which are most required for the state of life to which he is called.
"Of the virtues that have no immediate connection with our particular duty, we must prefer the more excellent to the more ostentatious. Comets usually appear greater than stars and to our eyes occupy far greater space, whereas in reality they are not to be compared with the stars either in magnitude or quality. ... Hence it is that the ordinary run of men usually prefer corporal alms to spiritual ... bodily mortifications to meekness ... modesty and other mortifications of the heart, though these are far more excellent."
Ibid. chap. 2: "Yea, Philothea, the King of glory does not reward His servants according to the dignity of the offices they hold, but according to the love and humility with which they exercise them."
7 Cf. St. Thomas, IIaIIae, q. 18, a.9.
8 If by God's grace such a soul recovers itself and begins to follow the way of true humility, it may resume its upward course from the point it had already reached, without being obliged to start again from the beginning. The reason is that even after mortal sin, the soul whose repentance is proportionate to the offense will recover the grace it has lost in the same degree as it had reached before the fall. Cf. St. Thomas, IIIa, q. 89, a. 2, c. et ad 2um; a. 5 ad 3um.
9 Abandonment to Divine Providence, Bk. I chap. 2, sec. 12, p. 35.
10 Matt. 6: 34.
11 Luke 16: 10.
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