My aim here is to create an article on doing God’s will which will reflect the lessons I learn. So I will keep it under a process of regular revision and expansion.
What is my understanding of how one does the will of God? This has always been a problem for me. I’ve known that as a Christian I am supposed to do God’s will, but how? By “how” I mean how do I identify what God’s will is for me? Only secondarily do I mean how do I carry it out once I’ve identified it. I’ve always believed that once I have found God’s will, he will give me the grace necessary to carry it out.
But how do I identify it? Do I hear a voice from heaven, or hold a dialogue with God? The internet is full of outpourings from people who are “channelling” Jesus, and frankly most of it seems to be self-delusion.
My reading of Caussade among others seems to indicate the following:
One should be looking at the present moment for God’s will. God is far more likely to be telling one what one’s next action should be, than disclosing some grandiose scheme. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t on occasion give the big picture (think Moses or Gideon), but more often one is asked to be faithful in the little things. So in practical terms, I am more likely to be asked to do the dishes than to convert the nation.
Caussade believes in the direct inspiration of the Spirit, but several things seem to take priority:
Scripture - The Spirit will never ask us to do something contrary to Scripture. The principles of the Christian life contained in Scripture should always be adhered to.
Our Station in Life - Our duty in the station to which God has allocated us always comes first.
Our Superiors - Caussade was of course writing for religious under a rule, but even as lay people living ordinary lives how many people do we owe obedience to in God’s eyes?
What Caussade is saying is that we don’t need special guidance to do these things. They are what God has given us to do, and all we have to do is get on with them moment by moment. The Will of God lies in these things. Only once we are doing these things, can we expect reliably to be able to hear God in other things.
St Therese puts it well:
We must do everything we are obliged to do: give without reckoning, practise virtue whenever opportunity offers, constantly overcome ourselves, prove our love by all the little acts of tenderness and consideration we can muster [toutes les delicatesses et toutes les tendresses]. In a word, we must produce all the good works that lie within our strength - out of love for God. But it is in truth indispensable to place our whole trust in Him who alone sanctifies our works and who can sanctify us without works for He can even raise children to Abraham out of stones. Yes, it is needful, when we have done everything that we believe we have to do, to confess ourselves unprofitable servants, at the same time hoping that God out of grace will give us everything we need. This is the little way of childhood.
What I have also been learning is the importance of giving to God all the worries, anxieties, annoyances, distractions, temptations and impulses which continually come into my mind. That doesn’t mean that I have to refer every thought I have to God (though it may seem like it at times!) But it does mean that I need to put into his hands everything that is getting in the way of my hearing what the Spirit is saying to me.
I’ve found that this practice makes me much calmer and also much clearer about what exactly is my duty of the present moment.
The most essential part of the way to sanctity is the conscious following of God’s Will. Notice how different this is from most other “spiritual” paths, in which the aim is to improve how well we do our own will. The faithful are often seduced by methods which owe more to New Age and Pantheistic religions. But what one becomes quickly aware of when one sets out on the path of sanctity is that, in spite of some superficial resemblances, there are no points of contact with the other paths whatsoever.
My understanding is that there are two aspects to doing God’s Will, one passive and one active.
The first is the simple acceptance that whatever happens is God’s Will, even our own failings and stumblings (or perhaps especially our own failings and stumblings!) We must of course always remember that when God permits evil he does so in order for it to be part of his great redemptory processes. This means that our present situation, our present struggles, our present incapacities, our present relationships are all God’s Will for us at this moment. The follower of the path of sanctity therefore can never take refuge behind the phrase “If only…” “If only my wife supported my decision to be a Catholic…”, “If only my Priest would teach sound doctrine…”, “If only I had more faith…”
The active aspect of doing God’s Will is to search out what God’s Will is for us this very moment. Caussade says:
Listen attentively to the voice of God’s Spirit, or better still: follow faithfully the interior impulse of his grace. […] The great means of advance, rapid and safe, in the way of perfection is to follow with perfect docility this divine unction when we perceive it; to wait peacefully and confidently for it when its impression is less distinct.
[Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence. Letter 17: To Mother Marie-Anne-Sophie de Rottembourg (1738)]
I can’t stress too much the importance of that last phrase - “to wait peacefully and confidently for it when its impression is less distinct”. My own experience confirms that time and time again. If I can’t hear the Lord, then the correct thing to do is to wait on him. My human tendency if I can’t hear what God is saying is to either to start following my own impulses, or to start faffing around in an aimless manner. But when I “wait upon the Lord”, the experience of not hearing him is transformed. Caussade goes on to say:
Why will we always substitute our own action for that of the divine Worker, who labours ceaselessly in us at the work of our perfection? How much more progress would we make if we made it our principal study not to get in the way of his action, to abandon ourselves to him and wait. […] [It] is the means of acquiring the spirit of prayer, holy recollection and the most intimate union with God.
Even more useful is the advice given by Fr. Schryvers in The Gift of Oneself:
Poor scrupulous Soul, learn to serve God in peace and tranquility!
The obligation of the present moment ceases to be a duty for thee when thou dost not recognize it. If thy mind does not perceive it, for thee it is no longer the Will of God. It is not necessary to devote long efforts to this examination. A second suffices, time to look toward God. Conscience will give the answer. If it is affirmative, the will accepts it; if the answer is negative, the will gives up the idea; if it is doubtful, the will goes on without being disturbed.
When God wishes to give us a command, He does so clearly. He does not desire us to be troubled; for trouble is a cloud that hides Him from our view.
Take each action by itself, and perform it as if thou hadst nothing else to do today. Work diligently, without laziness, without slowness; but do not be tormented by the desire of finishing. The first action done, raise thine eyes for a moment to the Divine Master; then begin another duty.
Living without intent is a classic idea of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. What it means is that you “just do” an action, rather than have intentions about it. So to give an example if you are doing the housework, you just do the housework rather than have the intent to get it finished as soon as possible, or get it out of the way, or show your mother-in-law what a good home you keep.
Done in this way actions have a purity and a restfulness about them.
When we abandon ourselves to God’s will we need to have a similar purity of intent. Anyone who sincerely tries to hear God’s will about all their actions will find themselves becoming aware of of the multitude of raging and often conflicting intentions that they have within them.
Just as the Eastern concept of living without intent is very simple (though not easy to do), so is the purity of intent we need to do God’s will. Our intention is to do God’s will, nothing else.
Therefore any intentions of our own need to be surrendered to God moment by moment. The right attitude is to do each task as if it were the only thing we have to do. Then when we have finished it we allow the Spirit to tell us what to do next. Everytime a thought enters our mind about what we should be doing, or could be doing, or ought to be doing, or would like to be doing, we share that thought with God and let it go.
That surrender is the basis of living a holy life.