Friday, September 9, 2011

Wisdom from Letters of Direction by Abbé de Tourville

Dear friends,

Yesterday I stopped by my favorite used bookstore, Brightlight, to check on some books I had brought in to sell to them. I took a brief browse in the vast theology department and picked up a small vintage volume, Letters of Direction by Abbé de Tourville, who lived from 1842 to 1903.  Henri de Tourville was a French priest (Abbé) whose health broke from intense parish ministry, so he retired to the countryside and continued to write and minister in his own way.

I love old books, especially those of a contemplative Christian nature. As an evangelical Presbyterian, I wouldn’t pretend to agree with the doctrines of Henri de Tourville’s Catholicism. (Nor do I agree with every doctrine in the PCA.)  But I also realize that we all have much to learn from one another, and I certainly have found wise, refreshing, and liberating words on the yellowed pages of his little book. I am thankful that Miss Lucy Menzies, a Scottish scholar with Presbyterian roots and later membership in the Church of England, invested the time to translate it with such clarity for English readers in 1939. Her colleague Evelyn Underhill (already a familiar name to me) wrote the forward to this edition.

I read 9 of the 20 chapters of the book last night and this morning. I planned to type in several favorite passages to include here. Fortunately, a quick web search yielded blogs such as My Soul Thirsts for God which had already done so, though I did add some of my own, such as the paragraphs at the end from his chapter on education, as noted. I think I will still scan in as many pages as I can so I can print them out and make notes on them. I would hate to deface such an old book beyond the small marginal marks already made by a previous reader.

What I most appreciated about this book is the concept of us being unique individuals before God. Though we are connected in the Christian community, we are each responsible for our own spiritual growth. We each grow in our own ways. We are not cookie cutter Christians. This is such a freeing idea for those who have been members of high control religious organizations where groupthink is the modus operandi. 

Abbé de Tourville also affirms the love of God for each of his children, and encourages a relationship of childlike simplicity and trust in his goodness. He cautions against too much introspection and dissatisfaction with our own souls, pointing us instead to the grace and mercy of God, who understands our human weaknesses.

Another thing I appreciate is that he was so forward looking, and though a contemplative, so eager to urge his readers to action in fulfilling the purposes for which God had specially created each of them in making the world – the here and now – and better place to live for everyone. 

Please note the quotes here are not necessarily in a continuous stream. They are from throughout the book.

You can find the book used all over the Internet.  Here is a direct link for Amazon:

I encourage you to read the quotes slowly and carefully, reflecting on what they mean and how you can absorb them into your own life.

Without further adieu, I give you excerpts from…

Letters of Direction by Abbé de Tourville

Life is a glorious road which leads to incomparable splendour, to the very life of God, to the goal of all things, to the full fruition of all that our hearts hold within them -- as if in a broken but carefully riveted vessel of which the pieces, though broken, yet hold firmly together.

Let us be able to depend quietly on ourselves. Let us judge for ourselves which things most help, guide, and teach us, by observing the degree in which they fit our own particular temperament; learning by experience those things which help us and which we most need.

Live according to your own nature; inwardly without restriction; outwardly in so far as external conditions permit.

One of the hardest things is to follow our own particular line of development, side by side with souls who have quite a different one; often one opposed to our own. It is natural for youth to hesitate between an attitude which it fears may be presumptuous and a candid admission of inferiority to everything around it. But this hesitation must cease or we will never grow up.

Still less must we look for approval and appreciation as a sign that we are on the right path.

We must therefore free ourselves absolutely of this anxious desire to be at one with other souls, however virtuous or wise they may be; just as we must never expect them to see things through our eyes. We must follow our own light as though we were alone in the world, save as regards to charity to others.
  In purely private matters, we must never be deflected from our own path.’

Therefore leave your soul to pray as suits it best, in its own way, without strain. Allow it most of the time to remain quiet, still. In a word, follow your bent.

For nothing is more individual to each soul than the form of its intimacy with our Lord. His earthly life revealed also that no two were intimate with Him in the same sort of way.

Observe the path you take instinctively at those times when you are most keenly aware of the real and intimate presence of our Lord. Realize that there lies your own particular grace.

We must follow our own path and not worry about the puddles into which we fall. The journey itself repairs the accidents into which it has led us. Tidy and timid travellers are never good travellers.

Between the extremes of foolhardiness and timidity, boldness is true wisdom.

A perfect childlike simplicity puts us at once into intimate relationship with God, without any hindrance. Let us try more and more to maintain in the depths of our souls the childlike simplicity and artlessness which our Lord asks and commands.

From every point of view we gain infinitely more by looking at our Lord, than by looking at ourselves. We shake off our faults more quickly and effectively when we adore our Lord than when we examine and criticize ourselves.

The soul gains very little from looking at itself. Such an occupation gives rise only to discouragement, preoccupation, distress, uncertainty, and illusion.

God asks only one thing—that you should be on close and friendly terms with Him, without fear; without ceremony.

Our Lord is our true and chief Director, who, without our knowledge, has arranged matters in such a way that our lives turn out quite differently from what we should have expected; infinitely better for our salvation and glory than we should ever have dared to hope.

Be bold enough always to believe that God is on your side and wholly yours, whatever you may think of yourself.

Think of this and say to yourself ‘I am loved by God more than I can either conceive or understand.’

Rejoice that you are what you are; for our Lord loves you very dearly. He loves the whole of you, just as you are.

Remember that it is our souls which are God’s joy; not on account of what they do for Him, but on account of what He does for them. All that He asks of them is to gladly accept his kindness, his generosity, his tolerance, his fatherly love.

Do not worry any more about what you are or are not. You are the object of His mercy. Be satisfied with that and think only of that.

The Mystery of grace which works in us is in a sense a copy of the Mystery of the Incarnation. By grace Jesus takes possession of our personality and fills it with His Divinity. He desires to make use of us by grace as he made use of His own nature in the Incarnation.

The intimacy of the soul with our Lord provides our true nourishment, our true home, however much circumstances change.

The root of many of our troubles is the desire to have only good inclinations. That is neither necessary nor possible. In countless ways we shall always feel ourselves to be wicked, unstable and unreasonable. We must realize that this is our nature and not our real personality; not our true, deliberate and voluntary desire; not the goal of our efforts. [Rom 7]

Far from your defects being charged against your soul and conscience, they are, before God, your defense, your justification and your glory.

What you need to realize is that a good state of soul can, in this world, go hand in hand with a feeling of deep inward disharmony, of confusion and cloudiness.

Do not fear things too much, for we often suffer more from the things we fear than from those which really come to pass. And what good does it do, seeing that when evils come, they bring with them strength to enable us to accept them; a strength which we do not have in advance.

It is not right to groan over the state of the world as if it were lost.  What is actually happening is a clash between the old spirit and the new, a clash which is specially noticeable because the old spirit is realizing how old it is and how nothing is looked at any longer from its point of view. It is a great struggle of which the issue is never in doubt, a struggle in which that which is coming triumphs over that which has been.

Most people are like sheep and follow, without much satisfaction to themselves, the lines of the past tradition.  A very small minority emerges, with great hesitation and amidst endless discussion to be faced by troublesome and pressing contradictions.  It is however of that minority that you must be, when God has put you there by interior vocation and natural aptitude.

We live in a time of transition in which many things separate the present and above all the future, from the past. Such times are always difficult, but we rejoice when we see the light dawning beyond the clouds, clouds which have been piled up by ways of speaking, ways of judging, ways of acting, which are no longer those which the need of souls imperiously demands.

If shadows cross your mind on matters of faith, it is because all this has been so little taught in relation to our actual needs that we cannot always see our way.  In this century everything has to be remade, even that which does not change in itself. Take nature, for instance. Has it changed? And yet you see in your chemistry and physics how the manner of knowing it has changed. Methods have improved and the same things are seen more clearly. That is precisely what is needed in matters of faith.

The absorbing interest of the present day is that the world is growing itself a new skin. We realize that the heavy mantle of the past, of all those things which no longer have any meaning for our minds, is slipping irrevocably away and leaving our souls free. The horizon broadens and lights up instead of closing down upon itself and becoming more and more obscure. I want this to be your attitude. I find that it brings peace and serenity to all those whom I am able to persuade of its truth.  

How beautiful is the ordering of the social world and how valuable its knowledge - as infinite as the stellar universe, as ordinary as the lighting of a fire.

Come! Come! We must wake up and try to be that which we are reasonably meant to be and not that which other people have been. One does not become holy by copying others but by making good use of what is truly part of oneself. In a word, follow your bent, your need of quiet or of doing nothing according to what seems most natural to you at the time.

[I am typing the following passages from the chapter “Our Relationships with Others: Education” and taking them to heart as both a veteran home school mom and a classroom teacher. They are really good for all of us who desire to help others spiritually in any kind of ministry. We are not here to control others or make them conform to our own agenda, but to help prepare them for the future.]

Set aside everything which might make you at all touchy or timid and let all your qualities of goodwill, frankness and simplicity shine forth in your dealings with every one you meet. Never mind how different their characters and way of life may be, for our Lord desires us to behave thus even to the unrighteous which would otherwise be difficult.

Encourage with discretion all that is good in your pupils; let them feel your support without being embarrassed or hampered by it. Education, as the very word shows, means helping someone to develop himself, to draw out all that is good in him. It is the greatest of all benefits. That too is the meaning of the expression to direct¸ direction. Unless interpreted in this sense, I like the word formation less; it seems to me to carry the suggestion of a preconceived form into which one is to force people whether they like it or not. But people do not lend themselves to this kind of treatment and so the form remains empty.

We must not bury ourselves in the gloomy thought that everything is going wrong; nor let it be a matter of indifference to observe which way God appears to be moving in order that we too may move in the same direction. This is especially important for those who are responsible for education; for the formation of those who will see the future and who will more or less make it.

In what direction is history moving at the present time?  That is what I want you to consider. Which are the nations whose ordinary customs and daily habits are most likely to prevail? I mean, of course, good habits, for they are the only ones which ever prevail in the real sense of the word; the only ones which end in getting something done. When you have caught a glimpse of the direction in which these better habits, in the purely human and temporal order, are tending, you will then perceive to what good use the Church can put them for the benefit of souls. That will open a new phase in her history.

Not, what practical conclusion can be drawn from the fine problem I set you here? Surely a most important one; that you must know what obstacles and what world-tendencies the soul you are now preparing will have to face during the next fifty years. If you teach them without any knowledge of what will soon await them, it is as if you sent them off on a journey to a country you did not know anything about. There are no doubt precautions which hold good for all journeys to all countries, but it is a great advantage to be able to take special precautions to meet special difficulties.

The souls we try to help, and especially those we try to bring to the true faith, are inclined to suspect us only of loving them because of the goal to which we want to lead them. They would rather – and quite rightly – believe that we only desire this for them because we love them. Love them, therefore, and without any hidden intention.

How supremely right you are in loving souls, whatever they are, for our Lord, and I would add, in His stead. For He has left us precisely this charge: the charge of giving others those outward signs, that sensible and visible help, that human expression of kindness to which He gave to all around Him when He was on earth – where we stand now in His place. And real goodness surely lies in expecting nothing in return, while yet never refusing it if it is offered. To give in order to receive, with the intention of receiving, is really not to give at all. But what joy there is in those gifts, whether they be great or small, in which we have been able to help or be kind to some poor creature like ourselves, in the name of the Lord Jesus, who has so earnestly asked this of us. It does not matter whether our gift is noticed or taken any account of by the recipient; he has at any rate received a good which came through us, through us from the Lord Jesus who is Love Supreme. 

[And some passages from the Forerunners chapter]

In every age God has scattered forerunners in the world. They are those who are ahead of their time and whose personal action is based on an inward knowledge of that which is yet to come. If you and I should happen to be forerunners, let us bless God for it, even though, living a century or two too soon, we may feel ourselves to be strangers in a foreign land...

Rejoice then in the light which you have been given and do not be surprised that it is so difficult to pass it on to others. It really is making its way, not so much through you or me as through force of circumstance. You are simply ahead of your time; it is a good thing to have long sight and to let your soul be illumined as soon as you are aware of the light. Intelligent people can no longer deceive themselves about old systems and old ideas, circumstances having radically changed and changed beyond possibility of recall. Such people are in just the same situation as yourself. It is a situation which often seems hard but is in reality infinitely less hard than the contrary situation would be. For that would mean living in falsehood and driving into falsehood new generations who would be bound to suffer even more than we ourselves.

Be open to all new ideas and be glad to put them into practice wherever, as far as your understanding of people goes, it is practicable or possible. But where you find that there is no response or that opposition is aroused, then be content with your private happiness in being ahead of your times in heart and spirit... We belong to the Church universal; universal in time.  And is it not interesting to see how in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, God sends in to the world souls like our own, which in some aspects belong already to the twenty-first century and in others to the twenty-fifth?  We are as it were the first proofs of an edition printed only for connoisseurs but destined later on to be given to the world at large.  It is good to be among God's experiments for the future; only we must realize that we do belong to the future.

Those words of his were certainly prophetic, written a century ago and still so applicable to us who are in his far future. And now a few questions from me for you: What words of grace and truth are you writing and speaking into the present and future?  Will you take confidence that God can speak through you, too, and not just others who have more prominent positions and gifts?  You are here for such as time as this.

Virginia Knowles

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