My parents met at Brooklyn College one day when they were both skipping class.
Once I was old enough to know what “skipping class” meant, yet young enough to be still firmly ensconced in literal-mindedness, this began to worry me. I knew it wasn’t God’s will for people to skip class. (My parents themselves had made that much clear.) Therefore, I reasoned, my conception was a consequence of their stepping outside His will. Therefore—I was never meant to be! My very existence was, from God’s point of view, a mistake!
How to make sense of it all?
I think similar literal-mindedness lurks in the back of many minds—especially when we’re contemplating large, life-altering decisions. We know God’s omniscient and we’re not. We know He has a plan. And we know we’re supposed to trust Him.
So far, so good.
But what if we have to take action and His will is not at all clear? Or what if we know His will, but fail to do it? If we miss that one turn, aren’t all our subsequent actions outside His will? Doesn’t our life become one big mistake?
An interesting discussion of the question of what’s at stake when discerning God’s will—or failing to—has arisen around this article by First Things writer Michael W. Hannon. He urges the importance of “avoiding over-devotion to ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Discernment.’” He has a point. I’d bet every one of us knows at least one person, not so young as he used to be, who’s been wavering for a long, long, LONG time (often with an increasingly exasperated prospective spouse waiting in the wings) at the crossroads of marriage and a religion vocation. He’s “still discerning.”
Well, but of course he hesitates, you might say. He appreciates the full gravity of the choice. He needs to look deep into his heart, confident that if he but gazes long enough, he’ll find the blueprint that will allow him to locate the single correct path and avoid the gazillions of incorrect ones. What choice does he have but to dither indefinitely?
When a Christian goes to prayer with the expectation that God will reveal to him a personalized plan for his life, he presumes that God will make him the recipient of a miraculous private revelation. Now, our Christian history has seen numerous instances of his doing exactly that, particularly with some of the Church’s most venerable mystic saints. But God is under no constraints to act in this way, and far be it for me to deem myself worthy to receive so extraordinary a message from Our Lord.
What to do instead? Hannon explains:
I would contend that if he has been going to church on a weekly basis and has received at least average catechesis along the way, he probably already does know his will for his life. God summarizes it succinctly in the Ten Commandments, and even more succinctly in Matthew 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”
and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. That, further informed by the ordinances of the Church, is all the instruction we need to achieve our fulfillment and arrive at salvation.
Here Hammond loses me. Yes, public Revelation is complete, and no, God is not of course obliged to produce a detailed blueprint for action every time we, in our wisdom, decide we could use one. He’s not a tame lion.
And yes—especially in light of the kind of questions we at the Personalist Project are concerned with—God does not simply reveal every detail, every step of the way, so as to obviate the need for our ever using the free will He gave us. What would be the point? We’re not looking for a way around the chance to make a true choice, but seeking to exercise a power He gave us.
And far be it from me to suggest that the Ten Commandments, the Shema, and the ordinances of the Church are just not quite good enough. These are treasures that should never be disdained as insufficiently customized. Most of us find it challenge enough to put into action the Revelation we already know perfectly well: clear-cut instructions like “love thy neighbor.” If we’re not working, and working hard, on that, we’d be silly to hanker after extra, custom-made directives on top of it.
Sometimes, too, people become mired in “discernment” because their whole spiritual life has come to revolve around the dread of choosing wrongly. Surely it’s not God’s will for our lives to be dominated by fear, as if He were waiting to pounce on us as soon as we mess up. Blogger Steve Gershom makes the point very, very convincingly here.
Still, I have my doubts that weekly Mass and average catechesis is enough to make anyone a very reliable "discerner." And I just don’t think the kind of “private revelation” Hannon is talking about is all that rare. In fact, I’m an eyewitness of His resorting to it for the unremarkable purpose of congratulating a lazy housewife (with a pun, even) for rolling out of a warm bed on a cold morning to worship Him. In my experience, at least, God’s dealings with us are deeply personal, but His “style” is not that of the regulation-happy bureaucrat.
If my entire moral existence consisted only in doing what any morally conscientious person would do, then I would overlook these personal calls, and my moral existence would lack its full personalist range.
On the other hand,
Our personalism takes care to avoid the extreme of holding that our entire moral existence consists only in following personal calls, of holding that a personalist ethics has no use for universal moral norms, as if these were inherently de-personalizing.
So far, then, I’ve gathered:
- He doesn’t have to provide blueprints, of course, but
- When He does, they shouldn’t be viewed as a means of avoiding real choices, and besides
- Such blueprints are no substitute for the universal moral norms we’re all obliged to live by.
What do you think? Should my parents have attended class that day? Did their failure to do so have the power to sabotage God's plans? Are you a devotee of Our Lady of Perpetual Discernment? What's your experience of God's dealings with you as you try (or fail) to discern His will?