The Spiritual Maxims of Père Grou
Père Grou is one of the great spiritual directors of the Roman Catholic tradition. His life was not strikingly eventful, for he lived what he taught: the dedicated interior life pursued in obscurity and self-effacement. It is in his writings that his mind and heart reveal their depth and vitality, particularly the Spiritual Maxims. These reveal what might be termed a deadly accurate knowledge of the human heart and its tortuous workings, coupled with an equally powerful gift for persuading that heart to surrender itself to God.
Père Grou was born in Calais in 1731, and was trained and worked as a Jesuit priest for twenty years. When the Jesuits were suppressed in Paris, he went into exile with them, but returned in 1766 at the invitation of the Archbishop of Paris, when he lived a secluded life, studying, writing, and directing the nuns of a nearby convent.
He always referred to 1767 as the most eventful year of his life, what he called the year of his ‘conversion’. During this time he was introduced to a nun called Soeur Pélagie, a woman of unusual devotion, who altered and deepened his interior life quite radically. From this time he lived in complete obedience and simplicity—a course that he thereafter recommended unreservedly to all those who sought his help.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution, Soeur Pélagie urged him to go to England, and as her requests coincided with an invitation from a friend of his there, he decided that it must be the divine will that had arranged matters thus, and accordingly went. He spent his remaining eleven years at Lulworth, as the guest of a Mr Weld and as the spiritual director of his entire family. Mr Weld, an hospitable and devout man, sheltered no less than eleven priests within his family, but one at least of them, Père Grou, never joined in the general life of the household, but had his own little cell where he continued to live his bare and solitary life, and to which those who needed instruction in prayer soon found their way.
Père Grou was an ardent classical scholar as well as a Christian one. He never wrote on spiritual matters unless he had received what he termed the ‘wherewithal’ to write, from God. At such times the words came as though of their own volition from his pen; but if he did not receive this ‘wherewithal’, then he never tried to force it, but turned to his classical studies instead. He claims to have written the Spiritual Maxims for beginners, but they must have been beginners with a considerable understanding. The original French is in verse, in order, their author suggests, that they may be more readily grasped and retained. Even in the English prose translation the sentences are beautifully balanced, concise, penetrating in somewhat the same way as the Imitation of Christ, and eminently practical. ‘Knowledge of God elevates the soul; knowledge of self [i.e. the apparent self, or individuality] keeps it humble… The simplicity and obedience which he lived himself are recurring themes throughout the Maxims; the gift of simplicity being the direct fruit of obedience, the giving of the little self entirely into the hands of God and the spiritual direction. Nor does this obedience appear as a negative virtue; on the contrary, it must be generous, prompt, courageous; all appealing virtues, to the practicant as well as the recipient.
Why this insistence on obedience? Because, he says, we are quite incapable of judging what is of importance or not in the spiritual demands made on us. The mere fact that a demand comes often, though we may consider it a trifle, means that in God’s eyes it is of great importance, however seemingly small in the eyes of the world. It is not, after all, for His sake that He presses the demand, but for ours. We ignore these intimations at our peril; for how can we expect to be faithful to God in big things if we ignore Him in trifling ones? Even from those who do us some quite minor worldly service we expect promptness and thoroughness; how much more, then, is the inner faithfulness necessary, upon which may depend many graces as yet unsuspected. ‘Can we more strongly induce God to take care of us than by surrendering ourselves to Him?’ asks Père Grou. How self-love shudders at the mere idea of such living! But self-love is blind and devious and very tenacious. Hence the need for a spiritual director who can recognise its wiles and ferret it out—a thing we can never do unaided.
Our primary intention, we assure ourselves, is knowledge of God and knowledge of self. But is it? Just how pure is our intention, and by what means can we find this out? How to rectify matters when we find, as Père Grou writes, ‘the truth is very painful, and particularly grievous to self-love, which is always seeking for assurance.’
‘We must continually watch our motives’, he writes, and little by little God shows us what these are; not all at once or we should be reduced to despair, but one by one they become clearer, and these insights, unpalatable though they appear at the time, are the means of inner growth, if acted upon. ‘Let us receive the spiritual light He does give us very humbly and apply ourselves at once to put it in practice.’
If good use is made of this light given us by God, if we respond to it generously and courageously, then the intention will be purified without over-scrupulousness, which is itself a variation of self-love. The keynote here, as so often, is simplicity. ‘Now only what is infinite is perfectly simple, and only what is perfectly simple is infinite.’ The play of the world is multiplicity; God is oneness, the essence of simplicity. Herein lies the root cause of this virtue, and the paramount reason for acquiring it. ‘Simplicity is the root of all perfection.’ But how are we to acquire it?’, asks Père Grou.
Prayer is the answer. To pray that God Himself will undertake the task, for we only complicate matters by imagining that we can or should be able to, on our own. And when we read what this entails, no wonder!
Simplicity in the mind; a mind freed from prejudice, from doubt, from worry, from false prudence.
Simplicity of the will; a will centred on God, with only one desire, one love, one fear.
Simplicity in virtue; a virtue that is centred in charity, with consequent conduct even, straight and true, ‘emanating from one principle and culminating in one end’: the simplicity of the infinite.
If we ask God, in good will, for this purity and simplicity, how will He refuse what He Himself inspires us to ask for? ‘If few possess it, it is because few desire it; and those who do ask, ask often in fear of being heard.’
The movement of the lips, the repetition of words alone, are not prayer. God knows the heart, and the true intention in it; and that is where prayer has its seat. If the intention is not right, the prayer will get no response; but if all our requests were answered at once, how vain we should become! Further, God may have promised to grant our requests, but he did not promise not to keep us waiting. When the will is thwarted and we feel humiliated, we consider this an evil state of affairs, and only what flatters pride and self-love as good. But the reverse is the case. Accustom the will to be indifferent, let it cheerfully accept all vicissitudes as they arise. ‘It must rest in the hands of God as wax receives the figure impressed upon it, or as water, which, having no form of its own, assumes that of the vessel in which it is placed.’ Then it will be strong enough, when difficulties in prayer arise, not to throw all previous efforts away, in the false conviction that dryness and distraction during prayer are a sign that we are not fitted for the spiritual life.
Thus we come to rely on pure faith. Faith, without the consolations or the sweet rewards of prayer, is the essence of the spiritual life. If we depend on the grace of God for support, we need not fear our own weakness; for we are weak only in so far as we rely on ourselves. God will strengthen those who trust in Him even when he does not grant them favours. This is the lesson of dryness in prayer, the development of faith.
Those who suffer from this dryness are very prone to distractions during prayer, too. For their comfort, Père Grou reminds us that if the distractions are involuntary, and we do not foster them, but remain quietly as we are, recalling the mind to its proper task: even if the whole time of prayer is spent thus, it is still not time wasted, but pleasing in God’s sight. Here again, it is the intention that matters.
But the distractions that arise because during the day we have dissipated our energies, encouraged attachments and idle thoughts: those we are responsible for, and they will continue until we learn to curb the senses and practise the habit of recollection. Distractions of an involuntary nature keep us humble, aware of our own infirmities. For that alone they are valuable, even if not exactly welcome. ‘Self-love creeps in everywhere,’ as Père Grou has it. Self-love gets no encouragement during periods of dryness. But inner growth takes place precisely because of this. One reason for this is that to look inward at ourselves then is so unpleasant that we are literally forced to ignore ourselves.
He has much of value to say about temptations. Firstly, that they are necessary; they show us what we really are; they show us the foolishness of relying on our own strength, and they bring us into closer union with God, if we call on Him with sufficient trust. If we fail, it is because we needed the lesson of humility and dependence on God’s grace.
During the temptation, he says, ‘Keep close to God and let the storm pass. Your anxiety and arguing will only increase the tempest and make it last longer.’ Vigilance and prayer are at all times needed. God will relieve us of the temptation as soon as we have learnt the lesson from it. It may be humiliation, it may be failure, it may be victory. To look at Him and not at ourselves, is our defence: and to accept the temptation, the failure, the reason for it, and still to remain vigilant and trusting.
Père Grou’s most vigorous writing is on the subject of self- love. It is a poison, he says, that even the most virtuous may be harbouring, by pursuing the way of perfection as an ornament of the personality. It has many secret hiding places and is very difficult to eradicate, even in the very advanced. Sins may be dreaded because they tarnish the beauty of the perfection of holiness that the self builds for its own gratification. It ever seeks approbation, cunningly invites it in a self-deprecating manner, pretending it needs support and encouragement. ‘St Francois de Sales said that we are fortunate if this vice dies a quarter of an hour before we do.’ This is why the arid way of faith without consolations, is the safe way. God will not allow self-love to pry into His workings, much as it would love to do, but draws a baffling opacity over His dealings with the soul. His words to St Catherine of Siena, if followed, says Père Grou, comprise all perfection. ‘My daughter, think of Me, and I will think of thee.’