The Disciplined Simplicity of Abandonment

Abandonment to Divine Providence was first published in France in 1861, but it was based on letters written as far back as the 1730s. The letters were believe to have been written by a priest named Jean Pierre de Caussade.

Abandoment to Divine Providence is also known as The Sacrament of the Present Moment. Put those two titles together and they make a good summary of the book:

The providence of God is manifesting itself at each and every moment of your life. This makes every moment holy. But receiving the spiritual benefit of each passing moment takes a certain approach to life. This is called abandonment.

Abandonment is a mindset. It can be cultivated by any Christian, but it takes some learning. It’s a different way of looking at the world.

As the book begins, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is given as an example. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and told her she would bear a Son, he added this detail:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 ESV)

Jean Pierre de Caussade picked up on that image and created and metaphor for the abandoned life:

We are told, concerning Mary, that the power of the Most High covered her with its shadow (Luke 1:35). Yet her daily life was already filled with such shadows. Each passing moment presented her with some duty, and each duty was but a shadow. It did not matter whether that duty was something desirable or a cross to bear.

The duties of the moment are shadows, like the shadows we are familiar with in the physical world. What does a shadow do? It spreads itself over some object, making it harder to see. It acts as a kind of veil over the things of this world.

And so it is with the shadows of the moral and supernatural order. Under their darkness, they conceal the truth of the divine will, which alone deserves our attention.

Mary had this kind of permanent outlook. These ever-changing shadows flooded her senses, like they do to everyone else. Yet for her, they created no illusion. On the contrary, they filled her with faith in him who is always the same.

You can go now, archangel. You are a shadow. Your moment has passed and you disappear. Mary has already moved on—she never stops moving on—and you are already far behind her. But the Holy Spirit, whose work is deeper than that which can be seen, will never leave her.

The apostle Paul makes a similar shadow metaphor in his letter to the Colossians. However, his metaphor is making a different point. If you are already familiar with it, it may keep you from hearing what Jean Pierre de Caussade is saying.

Paul said this in Colossians 1:16-17 (ESV):

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Here is how the shadow functions in Paul’s metaphor: Imagine you are taking a walk. On the sidewalk in front of you, you see the shadow of a man coming towards you. What do you do? You look up to see the man, of course.

This is what Paul was saying. In former generations, Christ was on his way, but he was still far off. We only saw his shadow. But now that he has come, forget the shadow. Look at the man.

Jean Pierre de Caussade is making a different analogy. He is not contradicting Paul’s point, but he is talking about something else.

In his analogy, when you see the shadow of a man coming towards you. You should not look up to see the man. You should not even care about shadow of the man. Instead, you should focus on the sidewalk.

In this metaphor, shadows create illusions. They do not point to what is coming, they seek to distract and conceal.

Let me change the metaphor a bit. Imagine a man is using his hands to make a shadow that looks like a rabbit. You are looking at the shadow of a rabbit on the wall, but you know it is really the hands of a man. Here is what you should do: Forget the hands. Forget the shadow. Focus on the wall.

Perhaps a better metaphor would be a movie theatre: You enter a theatre and you notice the big white screen. You can’t miss it. But once the movie starts, you forget the screen. You are there for the movie.

Now imagine a girl who comes to the theatre because she loves the screen. The movie begins, but to her it is just a bunch of lights being projected onto her beloved screen. There are sounds, too, and they correspond to the lights. But she doesn’t care about any of that. She is not interested in the story they are trying to tell her. She only wants to look at the screen itself.

Now, two things stick out about his girl.

One, she has incredible powers of concentration.

Two, she must be a little crazy. The screen, after all, is boring.

But maybe she’s not crazy. Maybe she sees something in the screen that we don’t see. Maybe she sees something more beautiful than any movie.

Jean Pierre de Caussade said the blank screen that Mary focused on, and that we should focus on, is “the truth of the divine will, which alone deserves our attention.”

That’s a bit abstract, so let us think of it as a statement:

“The almighty God is perfect goodness and love; you can trust him.”

Let that statement be the blank screen onto which is projected all the shadows, lights, and sounds that make up your life. Can you focus on that blank screen? Can you delight yourself in the truth of that statement, even when the story being told on the screen seems to contradict it?

That’s the kind of faith Jean Pierre de Caussade was talking about. He was convinced that this faith was easily available to every Christian.

We know, of course, that life is more than a movie we are watching. There is an enemy who is trying to impose his evil will onto the story. Not only is God sovereign, but he also has specific preferences, and we have a responsibility to fight for them.

So we are not simply watching a movie. We are part of the story. We have responsibilities. Jean Pierre de Caussade calls them “duties of the moment.” But even these, he insisted, are shadows. You must learn to look past them. Do not let them distract you from the simplicity of abandonment. Learn to do your duty while seeing through your duty at the same time.

How do you do that exactly? The book goes on to give tips that I find helpful. But here, at the beginning of the first chapter, it sets forth this image of Mary, shadows, and the radical simplicity of abandonment.

Yes, this kind of abandonment requires focus. And yes, it does seem at least a little bit insane—until you have learned to see the world this way. Then, you will have a new mindset. You will also be able to understand other mindsets, and see how they are tainted by the insanity of unbelief.

***

NOTE: The quote from Abandonment to Divine Providence is my own translation. I am currently working on a translation of the entire book. Meanwhile, I will share lessons like this as I go along. If you do not already receive email updates, sign up now and you won’t miss anything.

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4 thoughts on “The Disciplined Simplicity of Abandonment

  1. This brings to mind Brother Lawrence writing on practice of the presence of God. Dont know if they were contemporaries but i seeing the world as shadows from the light of the living God is something ive been thinking about lately. Thanks Josh

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    1. Interesting. Abandonment was written about 40 years after Brother Lawrence died. Both works originated in France. Could be an influence.

      Like

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