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To Seek and Find the Will of God

Giandomenico Mucci, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Mar 18th 2021

1St. Ignatius of Loyola describes the task assigned to those who preach and receive the Spiritual Exercises thus: “To seek and to find the divine will in the orientation of your life for the sake of the salvation of your soul.”[1] After disposing yourself to desire the purification of your heart, in doing the exercises you must fight to realize this supreme aim. This is the goal of the Christian life itself.

What does it mean to seek and to find the will of God? In God there is a will which is his very essence. To desire the will of God is, therefore, to desire God himself. And since the holiness of God consists in the fact that he himself desires or loves, to desire the divine will means participating in the holiness of God.[2] To be a saint means to feel and to act in conformity with the will of God. “Thy will be done” (Matt 6:10). Christian spirituality has always transmitted this desire of Jesus, and the asceticism that this inspires and recommends hinges on this fundamental stance. As a biblical formula, this expression continuously resounds upon the lips of the faithful. But do we truly understand it in all its fullness?

Modern civilization, that great promoter of critical unrest and questioning, certainly does not favor a convinced recitation of this formula. Can the will of God be reconciled with human autonomy? If we already possess in our conscience a norm of conduct and in our intellect a criterion of truth, why would we need the will of God, a criterion exterior to us, to regulate ourselves according to truth and morality? Is invoking this will not a form of irrational fanaticism? And that is not all.

To speak to people today about the divine will means evoking ideas of authority and providence that modern culture does not accept without a fight. In any talk of authority one suspects authoritarianism, and in talk of a governing and protective providence over human existence many see the rancid dregs of the philosophies of a pre-established harmony and a betrayal of historicist philosophies. If then from the concept of divine will one passes to the connected concept of abandoning oneself to this will, other difficulties arise. Does this not foster a spiritual childishness? Does this not compromise the greatest achievement of modernity, the freedom of the human person who constructs an earthly destiny without recourse to the supernatural? Have we not been warned by psychology that often one projects onto the fatherhood of God the deformed image of the earthly father? And is not the current sociocultural environment characterized by the absence of the figure of the father?

Another kind of difficulty comes from distorted ascetic conceptions. There are those who think that doing the will of God is something that only pertains to those who, like the apostle Paul, have received a sudden charismatic illumination. On the contrary, there are those who make the divine will coincide with a fixed norm that must always and everywhere be obeyed to the letter, with the danger of falling into legalism or fundamentalism and of not knowing how to discern the newness of the creator Spirit. Moreover, the relics of two ancient theological errors are never entirely extinct: pelagian voluntarism, which considers the human will capable of realizing the divine will without the aid of grace, and quietist passivity, which dissolves the necessity of human cooperation with grace in order to accomplish the will of God.[3]

We do not want to present here the subject of the will of God in the sources of Revelation, in the doctrine of the Fathers of the Church, and in its historical and theological development. We want to treat it simply from the point of view of practical asceticism, ordered to a pastoral application.

The will of God: one and varied

The will of God, essentially one in itself, presents itself to us in different ways. According to a classic distinction that St. Thomas derived from Peter Lombard, one speaks, in God, of a will of consent and a will of sign.[4] St. Francis de Sales has explained that the will of consent pertains to the real events that are willed or permitted by God; the signified will pertains to the commandments, positive or negative. It is called will of consent when God acts with or without us. It is called signified will when God appeals to the free cooperation of humans or acts without it; accordingly he proposes or imposes. With the will of consent, God acts without consulting humans, as happens when he makes the sun rise or the rain fall. It is the divine will which is manifested in what happens. With the signified will, God obliges people to act in this or that way, in this or that moment, as the fourth commandment imposes love for one’s parents.[5]

 Conformity to the will of God

To the divine will of consent corresponds our passive conformity; to the signified divine will, active conformity.

Passive conformity does not mean to endure. It means above all to accept undergoing what the Lord does without asking our collaboration with his free will: a free acceptance and therefore not passive surrender. It is substantially that recognition of the supreme dominion of God that is expressed in adoration. “We can review all that happens to us without the intervention of our will: this is the field of passive conformity or the submission of our will to the will of God.”[6]

Conformity, submission and similar concepts should not, however, be misunderstood, as if the Lord willed on our part such a passivity as to not even try to modify or improve the painful situations that also proceed from his mysterious providence. The acceptance of the divine will is a great virtue. Laziness is not. There is a valid example for all. The sufferings produced by illness should be accepted by individuals just as much as they may rebel against the medicines and cures that remain obligatory. In this case, we ought to live in passive conformity, accepting the illness but not omitting the treatments and necessary precautions for restoring good health. Christian perfection should not be confused with plain resignation. On the contrary, with regard to one’s neighbor, “up to the limit of the impossible, for the natural and supernatural good of others, charity must inspire in Christians the same dynamism as the love of self inspires in the selfish.”[7]

These are considerations that may orient us in the present. Thorny, on the other hand, is the problem of conformity to the will of God with regard to the future. Here, the number of unknowns far exceeds the knowns or the easily foreseeable. The only remedy for the fears and shadows that besiege the mind is the effort to reduce the false impressions of certitude, probability and hypothetical possibilities: first in the light of reason, removing them from the realm of fantasy; then by the light of faith, countering them in an act of total abandonment to the certitude of having become in baptism adopted children of the Lord.

The disciples of Jesus, in filial conscience, participate in the same torments of the soul that are known by every person, but they are not immobilized before the shadows of the future. God knows, and the faithful abandon themselves into his hands with a sweetness and a peace “that the world laughs at but which it cannot steal.” This hope does not decrease, not even when the disciple is put to the test (“and it was night”), either because of piercing sufferings of a mystical character or because of doubts about eternal salvation and the forgiveness of sins.  

We were saying that to God’s signified will we must offer the obedience of active conformity. This is the mission, the endeavor of asceticism. In this regard, “each person thinks that he will profit all the more in all spiritual things the more he separates himself from his own love, will and interests.”[8]

Conformity and abandonment

In the history of Catholic spirituality, the path that leads from passive and active conformity to the confident abandonment in the Lord remains traced out and analyzed in a little book that is deservedly placed among those of the best Ignatian tradition. It was probably written by a French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who lived between 1675 and 1740, or rather, composed by a Visitation nun who used the letters sent by the Jesuit to her fellow nuns in the convent of Nancy.[9] It is a little tract that teaches the secure path of the theological virtues and of entrusting oneself to the divine will in daily life. Chapters 9 to 11 are particularly precious. They contain the spirituality of the present moment.

For the soul that seeks him, the Lord hides himself in the successive moments that constitute life, in the smallest and the greatest things, and requests faith in his presence. To live the faith is like following God through things that almost always disguise and disfigure him, and always conceal him. Just as the Sacred Scripture is in many ways the sealed word of the hidden God, so these events are the obscure words that express the will of God and need to be deciphered. If we have faith, “everything would be the body of his Word, the place of production of the divine Word.”[10]

It follows that experience, with obedience to the commandments and duties of one’s state in life, manifests the divine will in events and suffering. “Faith does not want proof, and whoever needs proof has less faith; whoever lives by faith receives proofs not as proofs but as the order of God.”[11] Therefore, “everything is an instrument of grace,”[12] as long as we know how to read in the present moment the presence that calls us, and then respond to it with faith.

From this understanding of the interior life, de Caussade offers a doctrine that we do not hesitate to describe as wonderful. When the soul learns to abandon itself to the Lord in the present moment, its life becomes “a continuation of the sacred scriptures,”[13] written in action and suffering, a living book whose verses are formed by the abandonment to that sort of sacrament which is the present moment, where some things are seen and experienced (joy, work, pain), while other things are believed and accepted (God who speaks and wants to be welcomed). “The present moment is always like an ambassador who brings the order of God: the heart always expresses the fiat. That which happens in every instant brings the mark of the will of God.”[14]

The spirituality of conformity and abandonment to the will of God that was formulated and spread by de Caussade is also found in Blaise Pascal, who died 13 years before the birth of the French Jesuit. We will cite three very beautiful texts from him that have permanent theological value. The general context, the background, is provided by the singular difficulty for every person in accepting submission to the divine will that is manifested through grave evils and death.

In the letter written to his sister and brother-in-law on the occasion of the death of his father, which occurred in Paris, September 24, 1651, Pascal writes: “We have to seek consolation for our sufferings, not in ourselves, not in people, not in anything that is created, but in God. And the reason is that creatures are not the cause of the accidents we call evil, but – as the providence of God is their one true cause, judge and sovereign – there is no doubt that we must turn directly to the source and go back to the origin to find effective relief.”[15] And relief is in the silent acceptance of however much the Lord in his providence has established for us from eternity and realized for us in time, asking us to adhere to his will.

This acceptance becomes heroic in a famous prayer: “Make it so, my God, that in a uniformity of an always constant spirit, I may receive every sort of occurrence, because we do not know what we ought to ask for, and I cannot hope for one thing rather than another without presumption, and without making myself judge and responsible for the consequences from which your wisdom justly has wanted to protect me. I do not know which is better or worse in all things.”[16]

And finally, with a very human love, adoration abandons itself to the Savior who is our sweet friend: “Lord, I do not find anything in myself which may please you. I do not see anything except my sufferings that have some similarity with yours. Oh my Savior, you who loved your sufferings in death! Oh God, you who so loved suffering bodies, so as to have chosen for yourself the body most oppressed by suffering that has ever existed in the world! Love my sufferings, Lord, so that my evils may invite you to visit me.”[17]

The last words of Pascal, August 19, 1662, were: “May God never abandon me.”

[1].Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 1.

[2].Cf. Sum. Theol. I, 19, 1.

[3].Cf. L. Di Pinto, “Volontà del Padre,” in S. De Fiores – T. Goffi (eds), Nuovo Dizionario di Spiritualità, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), Paoline, 19854, 1707 f.

[4].Cf. Sum. Theol. I, q. 19, a. 11.

[5].Cf. St. François de Sales, “Traité de l’Amour de Dieu,” Book VIII, chapters III-VII, in Ibid., Œuvres, Paris, Gallimard, 1969, 718-733; I. Hausherr, Adorare Dio in spirito e verità, Milan, Paoline, 1969, 188-196.

[6].I. Hausherr, Carità e vita cristiana, Rome, Pontifical Oriental Institute, 1970, 113.

[7].Ibid., 114.

[8].Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 189.

[9].For the history of the critical edition, cf. J. Gagey (ed.), L’abandon à la providence divine d’une dame de Lorraine au XVIIIe siècle, Grenoble, Millon, 2001.

[10].J.-P. de Caussade, L’abbandono alla provvidenza divina, Milan, Adelphi, 1989, 109.

[11].Ibid., 111.

[12].Ibid., 115.

[13].Ibid., 118.

[14].Ibid., 124, 126

[15].B. Pascal, “Lettre à monsieur et madame Périer, à Clermont,” in Ibid., Œuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, 1954, 491.

[16].Ibid., “Prière pour demander à Dieu le bon usage des maladies,”  613.

[17].Ibid., 610 f. Cf. B. Papasogli, Gli spirituali italiani e il ‘grand siècle,’ Rome, Storia e Letteratura, 1983, 137-170.

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