The book is a collection of writings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and one of the selections is titled, “Creed of a Savoyard Priest,” an excerpt from a longer work. In this piece, an old priest conveys the sum of his beliefs to a young man who needs his guidance. The priest’s reasoning and the way he conveys his feelings naturally reflects some of Rousseau’s own thinking, including his wide-ranging skepticism, and his belief in “natural religion” that comes from the exercise of our reason combined with the opening of our hearts. And so, he writes his priest character as a man who has been in and out of trouble with the church of France, for his unconventionally direct understanding of man’s relationship to God, and his insufficient deference to human authority.
Rousseau’s priest, naturally, says it better than I could. “I contemplate the order of the universe, not to explain it with vain systems, but to admire it unceasingly and worship the wise Maker whose presence I feel in it.” The priest explains that although he communes with God, he does not pray in the conventional sense, to ask for things or for his problems to be worked out for him. Then comes a key insight: “Neither do I ask him for the power to act rightly--why should I ask him for what he has already given me? [emphasis added] Has he not given me conscience to love the good, reason to know it, and freedom to choose it? If I do evil, I have no excuse.
This passage struck me because we have collectively been swimming in the current of uncertainty for some months, and while we hope for escape from this course—which will happen, eventually--we seem to give less attention to what we had all along and still have: our own inner resources, provided by our Creator.
He concludes the section with what, in spite of himself, sounds a lot like a prayer. “Good and merciful God, source of all justice and truth, I trust in you, and the supreme wish of my heart is that your will be done. When I join my own will to yours…I acquiesce in your goodness; I feel that I share in advance the supreme happiness that is its reward.” I had to put the book down at this point and think about what I had just read. I already have the God-given power to act rightly? Maybe I need to re-evaluate some things. This all seems current and relevant, and it is hard to believe the passage was written years before the American revolution. God has given us gifts, more and different than we may have known: not only moral sense but the ability to prioritize what is important, the desire to connect with others, resilience under duress, the capacity to learn from experience. Many of us are using those gifts in this strangest of years, and I hope we remember how to use them after we pass the current crisis.
Photo by Russell Folks
Fort Walton Beach, FL