Bishop Caussé’s Invitation to Attention and the Question of Grace #LDSConf

Bishop Caussé opens his talk with a stunning acknowledgement about failing to pay attention: his family lived in Paris for 22 years without ever making time to visit the Eiffel Tower! Similarly, he suggests, we can all too easily miss occasions for spiritual wonder all around us. In a monitory tone, he says:

Our ability to marvel is fragile. Over the long term, such things as casual commandment-keeping, apathy, or even weariness may set in and make us insensitive to the most remarkable signs and miracles of the gospel.

Later, he quotes Marcel Proust by way of inviting us to undertake a wondrous spiritual journey made possible by the simple mechanism of paying attention: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” This quote marvelously captures both the “renewing of [the] mind” that Paul makes a consequence of grace and the spiritual riches that await those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

I loved this talk for the same reason that I loved Michael Austin’s recent post on “The Sacrament of Attention”: I find that the attentive practices of “study, meditation, and prayer” to which Caussé invites us have greatly blessed my spiritual life. I’m interested, though, in how his talk intersects with two other forceful offerings from Sunday Morning: President Wixom’s and President Uchtdorf’s. Put into conversation, these three talks form a potent reflection on what the life of faith entails.

First, President Wixom. Among its many virtues, her talk acknowledges that good people can experience periods of spiritual darkness, even long ones. She quotes a letter from Mother Teresa: “[T]here is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.'” Read alongside Bishop Caussé’s talk, one might be tempted to ask: was Mother Teresa simply not paying attention to the spiritual bounties all around her?

I think the answer to this question is “No.” I love the writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (see my post about him here). He was a deeply spiritual man, and poems like “God’s Grandeur” could hardly be surpassed as exemplars of profound spiritual power revealed through the careful paying of attention. Yet, later in his life Hopkins entered the depths of spiritual darkness. Consider this poem:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
   With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
   I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
   Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
This poem finds Hopkins attending to the bleary darkness with the same close care he had lavished on spiritually-charged natural phenomena  in his earlier poems. As a Jesuit, he’d been given the tools to know that this kind of experience might come his way. In the Spiritual Exercises, the text that serves as the basis for Jesuit retreats, St. Ignatius of Loyola writes about what he calls “desolation.” He finds three possible causes for this situation:

The first is, because of our being tepid, lazy or negligent in our spiritual exercises; and so through our faults, spiritual consolation withdraws from us.

The second, to try us and see how much we are and how much we let ourselves out in His service and praise without such great pay of consolation and great graces.

The third, to give us true acquaintance and knowledge, that we may interiorly feel that it is not ours to get or keep great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all is the gift and grace of God our Lord, and that we may not build a nest in a thing not ours, raising our intellect into some pride or vainglory, attributing to us devotion or the other things of the spiritual consolation. (source)

The third of these possibilities brings me to President Uchtdorf’s talk. More powerfully than I can recall in any other General Conference sermon, he drives home the idea that obedience cannot save us:

Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for our home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth.

Read with Bishop Caussé’s talk, President Uchtdorf is saying that merely paying attention can’t save us. That is, we can do the best possible job of paying attention without it ever being enough to earn a life drenched in spiritual light. Darkness can and does come, quite independent of our personal righteousness.

What, then, shall we do to be saved?

I think that paying attention is not obedience, exactly, but something rather more like faith. Everything around is us grace—even the darkness, as Ignatius helps us see. God sent us into this complicated, messy world to have an experience. If he wanted us to come out of it all sparkly and clean, he wouldn’t have made it so complicated and messy. Rather, he wants us to gain experience, and to learn in the process. The full measure of mortal life is what he gave us, in grace, to make that possible. He also gave us the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to enable us to live abundantly. (I argue here that paying full attention to the condition of mortality was a key part of Jesus’ atonement.) Paying attention is a way of being faithful to life, showing our fidelity to this great gift of God by sticking close to it. Nobody can do this perfectly, but that isn’t the point. Grace isn’t what’s there to make up the difference after we goof. As Adam Miller says, “Grace Isn’t God’s Backup Plan.” Rather, grace is always already there, even in the darkness, permeating the creation of a loving God.

Comments

  1. The darkness is also grace. This is a thing that I feel I am being taught this conference. It’s okay to be in darkness. It’s okay to act without complete clarity. We can still cultivate wonder.

    They sink deeply into my soul, and I feel refreshed and renewed – and grateful for darkness in a way I never expected to.

  2. I love how you put these talks in conversation with each other. The synthesis is greater than the (very good) parts.

  3. Yes, what wonderful, uplifting, encouraging words for us to remember always. Thanks for combining them and enhancing them.

  4. I lived 5 minutes’ walk from the Eiffel Tower, and never went up the thing. When we lived in New York, we never went up the World Trade Center towers or the Empire State Building. We never appreciate what we have, and that is the nature of things.

  5. Trisha Y says:

    As I read your comments, I found myself thinking of St. Therese (the Little Flower) as well. She was a cloistered nun in France, known for finding the Divine in the everyday — activities, people — and also dealt with that trial of darkness. How beautifully these talks and individuals’ lives remind us that He is present everywhere and that we are totally reliant on Him. Thank you for this!