On Being Satisfied with God

The advantages of having young friends scattered about is that they send you things that you are unlikely to come across in out-of-the-way places like Los Gatos, CA. As it turns out, they are usually right. Jordan Teti is now a young lawyer up in Sacramento. Once, as undergraduate at Harvard, he invited me to give a lecture to young Christians there. Our interview, published in their journal, Ichthus, was entitled: “On Learning to Leave College.” Judging from the title, at the time, Schall must have been worried about student princes who might think that college life and the end of human existence were interchangeable

Teti came across a new collection of the great French bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet’s Lenten Sermons. In a roundabout way, de Tocqueville’s friend, Mme. Swetchine, had first provided the following passage from a Bossuet sermon:

Lord, I know not if Thou art satisfied with me. I acknowledge that there are many reasons why Thou shouldest not be so; but, to Thy glory, I must confess that I am satisfied with Thee, and perfectly satisfied. To Thou it does not matter whether I be so or not. But, after all, it is it is the highest tribute that I can pay to Thee. For to say that I am satisfied with Thee is to say that Thou art my God, since nothing less than God could satisfy me.

No doubt, it would take the rest of Lent really to penetrate and appreciate this lovely passage. Bossuet died in 1704. His sermons especially, given mostly in Metz or Paris, are rightly considered classics of French literature.

No doubt something of Augustine’s Confessions is found in these words addressed to God. The Lord is the “Thou” directly spoken to. But as it is a sermon, they are spoken before a congregation. We have the sense that the Lord is listening, that elevated language and incisive truths are not unworthy of or incompatible with our godly address. There is also something Socratic in these words. We “know what we do not know.” We do not know whether the Lord is or is not “satisfied” with us, with our deeds or with our words.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1697
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1697

Our sins – the many reasons why God might not be “satisfied” with us – are implicitly acknowledged. The fact of their existence is not covered over before the Lord. Yet Bossuet confesses “to Thy glory,” or better, “for” His glory. Confession is first to the Lord. The “glory” is a consequence of that possibility of forgiveness opened to all of us in the Redemption. Even our sins, as Augustine said, work unto the good. This fact is why we can exist with their record on our souls.

Christ came immediately “that sins may be forgiven” – nothing less. They could not be forgiven unless acknowledged. Bossuet uses the words “satisfied” and “perfectly satisfied” with himself. This is not vanity. He has done but what he was asked to do. There is something dubious, prideful with unsettled souls who refuse to accept the grace of forgiveness, as if Christ really did not have the power or intention to forgive at least “my” sins, they are so unique.

At first sight, nonetheless, Bossuet’s God seems endowed with a rather cold and indifferent heart – “To Thee, it does not matter whether I be so (satisfied) or not.” God is complete in His inner life whether we repent or not, whether we are satisfied or not. Indeed, God would be satisfied whether the world itself existed or not. Creation and the events in it do not change God. If they did, He could not be God.

Bossuet thus adds paradoxically that this being “satisfied” with God holds true for the great French orator even if God is not “satisfied” with him. This appears as exactly the opposite of what we might expect. If God were “unsatisfied” with us, as seems quite likely, we should not be satisfied but, if anything, in inner turmoil.

Yet Bossuet is right. This “satisfaction” with God is the highest compliment that he or any human person can pay to God. That is, he acknowledges that God is “satisfied” with him. God accepts his very existence. In so recognizing God’s satisfaction with him, he praises God. To affirm that an “I” is satisfied with God is a reaffirmation that God is his God. This understanding reflects the Old Testament refrain that we are God’s people and He is our God, no matter what.

Finally, Bossuet gives the reason for his own satisfaction. Nothing less than God could satisfy him. Again, this is Augustine’s “Thou madest us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Nothing but God can satisfy any of us. In the end, this is why we each exist. A great French bishop has still much to teach us.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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