What the Saints Can Teach Us About God’s Will This Lent
COMMENTARY: In Christianity, our will isn’t for the sake of our own choices, but to become united with will of the Father.
The roving Israelites learned it the hard way, the early Christians were martyred for it, and Catholics are getting heavy doses of it today. Like an encroaching jungle, the worship of idols and false gods are humanity’s default position whenever healthy Judeo-Christian institutions and traditions are not in place to keep this spiritually malignant vegetation from taking over.
Not all idols are the same. In our case, the culture has idolized the will, believing that something is only worth doing if we are empowered to act because of my will, my choice.
What, then, is the opposite flow of this drain-circling pagan pattern? It is the highly unpopular notion of surrender, surrendering our will to the will of God: abandoning ourselves, our wills and any other idols to the single-minded worship of the one and only true God.
In Christianity our will isn’t for the sake of our own choices, but to become united with will of the Father. Even Christ said, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38).
The saints have also long attested to the importance of uniting our will with God’s. St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “Holiness consists in doing God’s will joyfully. Faithfulness makes saints. The spiritual life is a union with Jesus: the divine and the human giving themselves to each other. The only thing Jesus asks of us is to give ourselves to him, in total poverty and total self-forgetfulness.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori mused, “It would be the greatest delight of the seraphs to pile up sand on the seashore or to pull weeds in a garden for all eternity, if they found out such was God’s will. Our Lord himself teaches us to ask to do the will of God on earth as the saints do it in heaven: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’”
St. Vincent de Paul asked the poignant question, “And what are we doing if we are not doing God’s will?” What are we doing, indeed. Even George Washington — a “secular saint” of sorts — attested to its importance: “The whole duty of man is summed up in obedience to God’s will.”
Will to Happiness
More than just a divine mandate, the saints also attest to the fact that when our will is united with God’s, then we are actually happy.
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne wrote: “Embrace God’s will and you will be filled with joy and peace.”
Far from seeing souls as spiritual robots, St. Teresa of Avila makes it plain that who we are becomes clearer when God’s will is followed: “We can only learn to know ourselves and do what we can — namely, surrender our will and fulfill God’s will in us.”
Following God’s will is simply the recipe for holiness and civilizational growth. It can almost seem too simple. But it can also seem daunting, for who can know God’s will? But even that is revealed in the most likely of places: prayer.
Julian of Norwich wrote:
“Prayer is the deliberate and persevering action of the soul. It is true and enduring, and full of grace. Prayer fastens the soul to God and makes it one with God’s will.”
Prayer unites our wills to the Father’s will. The Church also offers the sacraments, spiritual direction and the spiritual exercises from masters like St. Ignatius of Loyola to help us find God’s will.
The will of the Father is the seed that is planted for human greatness or holiness, even if it may not appear to be great to the world.
In the lives of the saints, particularly female saints, we can see that the seeds planted in prayer grew to something well beyond their wildest imaginings. If we contrast the most powerful women in the world today, what good can be claimed compared to the likes of a St. Catherine of Siena, a St. Brigid of Sweden, a St. Helen, a St. Joan of Arc or a St. Hildegard of Bingen? Their effectiveness wasn’t because they were powerful, but in their surrender.
As the saints reveal, a will united to God isn’t just some nice add-on for your next morally charged activity, it is a requirement. Like St. Vincent de Paul asked, “[W]hat are we doing if we are not doing God’s will?” Our actions will not be fruitful, even if they appear to be good, if we are not following God’s direction..
Professor of philosophy Peter Kreeft has pointed out that one of the truly diabolical elements of the pro-choice movement is their standard cri de coeur, “My body, my choice.” He puts it in sharp contrast to Christ offering us his body.
Kreeft says, “Abortion is the Antichrist’s demonic parody of the Eucharist. That is why it uses the same holy words, ‘This is my body,’ with the blasphemously opposite meaning.”
But the other half of the statement, my choice can be painted in just as divisive terms and, in fact, could actually have a greater impact upon the destruction of a culture. To only follow my will is a rejection of God’s will, and an embrace of our own fancy, or even the suggestions or distortions from the devil.
We have seen the fruits of the “my choice” generations. They have led us to a world where 44 senators could vote that a baby born alive after an attempted abortion should be left to die, where New York politicians celebrated adoption of the most permissive abortion law in the United States. We know as Christians that this is not the will of the Father.
St. Teresa Benedict of the Cross (Edith Stein) makes it clear that surrendering to the will of God isn’t just good for us, but is the true source of cultural renewal. She writes:
“This is a serious warning cry: Surrender without reservation to the Lord who has called us. This is required of us so that the face of the earth may be renewed.”
The German saint and martyr can make such a claim because she knows that souls who submit to the will of the Father push back against the ever-encroaching worship of idols, creating new room for the good to grow.
More than any other time of the year, Lent is a time when we reach out to the Father in darkness, dryness, with a penitential spirit. Perhaps we don’t need to look far for a fruitful Lenten devotion. Rather than seeking out our own will, perhaps we just need to look harder (and pray harder) for God’s.
Thy will be done.
Carrie Gress, Ph.D, is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University.
She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis.