The Personalist Project

Further to the discussion with Fr. Landry and others below, about Christian discernment, let me offer the cases of two men I know. True stories.

The first was a student at FUS when I was there. Let's name him Sam. My friends and I used to call him "Sam the praying man," because he was always in the Eucharistic chapel. We thought for sure he would be a priest.

There was a lovely, pious young woman on campus, studying graduate theology. I'll call her Donna. One day, close to graduation, Donna went up to Sam and said, "This is going to sound really strange, but God told me in prayer that we're supposed to get married." Sam replied, "I have no doubt that you're right." And they got engaged then and there.

The second man we'll call Mark. He was a convert from Protestantism, who wanted nothing more and nothing other than to do God's will. If God wanted him to be a priest, he would be a priest. If God wanted him to get married, fine. "Just tell me, Lord."

Then one day when he was in his late twenties, he met Veronica, who was 10 years younger. So overwhelmed was he by her feminine loveliness and grace that he was almost tempted to propose to her on the spot. He went to the Eucharistic chapel, knelt down, and prayed ardently, "Lord, I want this." He told me he felt almost as if he were putting his foot down with God. "I sure hope you don't have a problem with it, Lord, because I definitely want to pursue this woman."

Which man was the more mature Christian? I say Mark. He was in no way being rebellious, or indifferent to the divine will. He was on his knees, acknowledging God's sovereignty, and at the same time, being completely real, honest, human—not in the sense of weak and imperfect, but in the sense of being a real self, a real center—an individual with a particular heart, a particular set of values, talents, interests, desires, attractions, sensitivities, with his own powers of perception, and the competence to judge what was good for himself and his life. It was in and through meeting Veronica and being overwhelmed by her beauty as a woman that he understood himself and his vocation, to marry her—to lay down his life, in love, for her.

It was, in other words, a potent moment of traction between Mark's will and God's.

He courted Veronica and won her heart. In due course, they married and began a family. (I'll mention, with his permission, that his real name is Matthew, and he's just come out with a book, called, Louder than Words: the Art of Living as a Catholic.)

I don't know whether Sam and Donna made it to marriage. I do know that their engagement was broken off at least for a time, when they realized they didn't know each other at all and had been rash.

They had acted as if God expresses His will like an oracle does—as if His will for them was something separate and apart from their own subjectivity—and as if the holier we are, the less account we will take of ourselves.

A personal testimony

Now let me tell a story about myself that illustrates the same point.

From the time I was 12 (when I answered an evangelical altar call), I wanted to live for Jesus. I used to pray constantly and sincerely, "I'll go anywhere, do anything, be anyone you want, Lord. Just show me. Tell me." I was often perplexed and frustrated, though, at the difficulty of figuring out His will. I couldn't understand why He wouldn't just make it clear. Why wouldn't He lay it out? Didn't He want me to know His will, so I could do it?

Then, when I was a junior in college, planning to be a youth minister and devoid of any intellectual ambition, Tom Howard came to campus and gave three talks about his journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism.

At one point in the second talk, he began listing, litany-like, the influences on his conversion:

It was Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and Josquin; it was Michelangelo and Bernini and Da Vinci; it was Plato and Augustine and Aquinas; von Hildebrand, Guardini and von Balthasar; it was John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare and Milton...

As he went on listing names, many of which I had never heard before, something was happening in me. It was like an interior tidal wave was swamping my heart. I was so full of desire—so shaken by desire—that I was terrified. I was afraid that I was being tempted to disregard God's will for my life—to put this sudden, unlooked for, overpowering longing to encounter these authors and artists as Tom Howard had ahead of my determination to do God's will in my life. I was afraid I might thumb my nose at God, "Not your will, but mine."

As soon as the talk was over, I ran to the chapel. I prostrated myself in front of the tabernacle and prayed frantically, pleadingly, over and over, "Lord, incline my heart according to your will. Incline my heart according to your will. Incline my heart according to your will..."

This was the only time in my life when I have felt God speaking to me—not out loud, but definitely in words—calm, reassuring, gently humorous words. He seemed to be smiling tenderly on me as He said them. "Don't you see? That's just what I have done."

I burst into tears of relief and joy. What God wanted of me was not something that had nothing to do with what I wanted for myself. He was the Author and Designer of my soul. He had given me the particular mind and heart I have. He wanted me to flourish in my individuality. He delighted in my flourishing in my individuality. His way of revealing His will was to show me my own heart.

It was a pivotal moment, not only because it dramatically shifted my sense of my vocation and my future (from youth ministry to philosophy), but because it radically changed my understanding of how God works with us and reveals His will to us, and through us.

The further I go in life, and especially the more I delve into and grow in understanding of personalism, the more convinced I become of this basic truth. I will go so far to say that I think it a particular "theme" for the Church in our day—one central to Vatican II, and to all the writings of this Pope and the last.

I am more familiar with John Paul's philosophical personalism than I am with Benedict's theological personalism. But everything I have read of Ratzinger's and the Pope's (I mean B16) reinforces the convinction. We are being called to a new depth and level of maturity as persons, as believers, and as a Church.

Part of what this means, I would argue, is that we are supposed to stop conceiving of the spiritual life, the Christian life, as a simple matter of obedience to God's will. Instead, we are being called to be independent actors—"deciders" and makers—in the spiritual realm. Being independent actors doesn't mean setting ourselves in opposition to God. It means rather, recognizing that our mode (the mode proper to persons) of glorifying God is through the full actualization of the essential powers with which He endowed us. It means taking charge of our lives.

An analogy

To make the point more concrete, imagine a deeply religious man who is also the captain of a ship that gets caught in a terrible storm.

What does he do? Does he retreat into his quarters and pray, "Lord, just tell me what you want. Show me your will." Will he open his Bible at random, in the hopes that his eye will fall on a verse with clear instructions? Or doesn't he rather pray more like this, "Be with me, Lord," while he digs deep within himself and brings all his talent, knowledge and long experience as a seaman to bear on the situation he is facing?

Does this mean he is preferring his own will to God's? No, not at all. And yet, the decisions he makes as captain, the orders he gives his crew, are his decisions and his orders, not God's. He would not be a better captain if he set aside his practiced seamanship and tried instead to be "an empty vessel" doing whatever God says.

God made us to be the captain of our own soul.

The master in the Bible who gives each of three servants a number of talents to invest doesn't want them to come to him and say, "Okay, what should I do with them?" The answer to that question he leaves to them. He wants them to exercise their own ingenuity. He's pleased with the one who takes risks and returns having doubled the amount. He's displeased with the one who buries it in his backyard out of fear.

Parents know what I'm talking about

Our daugher Rose is getting married in July. For weeks my husband and I have been in a state of indecision about the venue for the reception. One place is farther away and more expensive, but it allows us to invite more people. The other is closer to home, but less elegant, and smaller. We've been thinking about it, talking about it, looking over the potential guest list. Going back and forth. Last night I got an email from Rose. "Thomas and I definitely prefer the second place."

Was she being petulant and trying to get her own way? "It's my wedding. I should be able to have it wherever I want!" Not at all. She knows very well that the event is a gift from us. We are hosting it; we are paying for it. She is grateful and respectful; she knows the decision lies with us. But she also understands intuitively and naturally that what we want is to give her a reception that will please her. So, her expression of a definite preference is a gift to us. And we take it as a clear and happy sign that she is growing into a mature and confident young woman. Would she have been a better daughter if she had tried not to have an opinion? No.

To be a person means to be a sovereign over a certain spiritual territory. Of course to be a human (as opposed to divine) person means that our sovereignty is not the ultimate kind. It is profoundly conditioned by the deeper and all-encompassing Sovereignty of God. But it is real sovereignty nonetheless.

Another analogy

Think of a man hired by the Lord of the Manor to be Head Gardener for his new estate.

The Lord will tell the gardener generally what he has in mind: He'd like an orchard, an arbor, a perennial garden, a rose garden... He may put certain limits on the gardener's acting: "No marigolds. They are too garish for my taste, and I don't enjoy the fragrance." He may give further, positive direction, "Please be sure to include a hedge of some kind to hide the view of the neighbor's garage."

The garden itself belongs to the Lord. But he hires the gardener, not as he would hire a mere laborer. "Dig a hole here; build a wall there; plant lillies in that bed and lavender next to them..." He wants the gardener to be the gardener. He wants him to use his talent and taste and training—his sense of the soil and climate, and the style of the house and the region—to make it beautiful. Of course the Lord at any time could insist on changes. "Tear out that rose bush, which reminds me too painfully of my late wife." The gardener will of course obey. If the Lord says, "I want the orchard over there," the gardener may question or dispute with him first. "I think it would be better on the south slope, where there is more sunlight." The Lord wants and expects this sort of intelligent, knowledgeable, creative engagement on the part of his gardener. It increases his confidence that he hired the right man for the job. He may add a new parcel to his estate and tell the gardener, "Surprise me."

In the early years of their working relationship, when they are still getting to know each other, there will be a lot explicit communication and discussion. But, as time goes by, the gardener knows almost intuitively what will please the Lord, and the Lord knows that the gardener wants to please him, and almost always succeeds in pleasing him. He has confidence in his skill and judgment, and therefore leaves more and more of the decisions in his hands.

The negative side of the question

What is wrong with "Stepford wives"?

It's not that they are stay at home moms, devoted to their families, whatever the feminists may think. Rather, the problem is that their identity as persons is completely submerged in their role as housewives. They so subordinate their own wills to their husbands' that they seem not to be selves. And in not being real selves, they are in reality poor wives. A wife is supposed to be her husband's companion and helpmate, not his subordinate. I remember Jules once using a vivid expression on this point: "You want your wife to stand there."

What is wrong with "yes men", as opposed to faithful lieutenants? The "yes man" has no self, no personal substance and integrity out of which he acts. He lives and acts as an extension of his boss' ego. The faithful lieutenant, on the other hand, who brings his own independent center of experience and judgment to his work is, in reality, the much better servant. (Think of Kent and Lear.)

We don't serve God well by curtailing or suppressing or "emptying" our selfhood as persons.

Now let's consider again the Pope's decision to resign. How did he express it to the Church? Did he say, "I have prayed and sought God's will, and He has made it clear to me that this is what He wants"? No. He said rather:

After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter...

To my personalist ears it is plain that the Pope is here taking conscientious ownership of this decision. He is not delivering a decision of God's, but of his own. He is not asking the faithful to receive it as "God's will." It's not a matter of obedience (much less disobedience), but of rather of holy prudence. It is a free and responsible exercise of the authority of the office he was given by the Church. He even does us the courtesy of telling us his reasons.

What did he look for when he examined his conscience? The voice of God speaking as an oracle, telling him what to do? No. He looked for the same thing ordinary Christians look for when we examine ours: impure or selfish motives, fear, impetuousness, stubbornness. Since he is an honest and habitually prayerful man, we can trust that he didn't find those things there. He found in himself, instead, true concern for the wellbeing of the Church and due seriousness about the difficult tasks now facing the Pope.

Before I had finished writing this post (which I began several days ago), I found these words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, linked by a facebook friend:

‎'Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected. This was his response:

"I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope.... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined."

I venture to say that, similarly, the Holy Spirit did not "take control" of this decision. Rather, like a good educator, He left the Pope free to decide for himself.

And I bet that same Spirit is now filling the Pope's heart with peace, and a deep, inner assurance. "You made a good decision."

Comments (10)

Peter Brown

#1, Feb 17, 2013 5:50pm

The way you start this out sounds like a false (if common) dichotomy, although the gardener metaphor does go a long way to alleviate it.

My own preferred image for this (for what it's worth) is that sometimes the will of God for us is a point--there is one thing that we must do, which may indeed be revealed to us in a more-or-less oracular fashion (think of Job being told to go to Nineveh, or Ananias being told to go find Paul in Damascus).  Far more commonly, however, the will of God for us is a space, within which we have a great deal of room for choice.  The problem with asking for effectively-oracular revelations of God's will is not that they don't happen--Scripture records too many instances to dismiss them entirely--but that they don't *usually* happen, because most of the time God's will for us affords more room for creative choice within our obedience.

As I said, for what it's worth...


Katie van Schaijik

#2, Feb 17, 2013 6:22pm

Yes, well said, Peter.  I'd only add that I think the "reason" God so often leaves us "space" is that He that he wants to "quicken" us in our subjectivity.  He wants us to relate to Him as collaboraters—"pro-creators" in His plan of redemption for the world.

My main concern with the "points-only" model is that tends to make us too passive, legalistic, and dependent in our moral acting.  It also tends to estrange us from ourselves and our own hearts.

But it's certainly true that God sometimes intervenes with definite instructions.  It's also true that we sometimes find Him saying "no" to what seems to us a good choice.  Like when Cardinal Ratizinger asked to retire and JP II refused him.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Feb 17, 2013 10:06pm

I think the parable of the talents speaks to this - the master quite clearly leaves it in the servant's hands how to make use of the money he has given them, with complete freedom - and his only harsh words are for the frightened servant who simply hid the money and waited for the master to return with more instructions, because (like so many Christians waiting for a word from on high) he was afraid that if he acted, he would do the wrong thing, make the wrong decision. But of course (as our priest said in the homily today, in fact) refusal to act is also a choice.

Patrick Dunn

#4, Feb 18, 2013 6:14am

"Part of what this means, I would argue, is that we are supposed to stop conceiving of the spiritual life, the Christian life, as a simple matter of obedience to God's will."

A question: perhaps this is true in cases, but is that always so?  If anything is clear about Pope Benedict and his election to the Papacy, it's that he did not want it.  He did not refuse it- and I think his personality and desires and interests largely tend in a direction that is not the most public, prominent office in the Church.  But he said, in effect, not my will but Your's be done, no?

He accepted it and lived it, in full freedom, and in accordance with his own personality.  He, Joseph the man, was truly the Pope.  And he willed it to be so.  He did what Mary did: let it be done unto me.  Radical receptivity, but not robotic passivity. 

I think we need to be careful that, in reacting against distortions of obedience and following 'God's will', we do not forget those instances in the Gospel when His will is not our own, understood rightly.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Feb 18, 2013 7:21am

You're of course right, Patrick, that God's will is not always found in our desires for ourselves.  He can and sometimes does overrule what we want.  In those moments, we obey despite our desires. The Christian life involves moments of obedience; it's just not reducible to obedience.

This point came through more clearly I think, in the earlier discussion.

Sometimes our desires have to be opposed, because they're disordered.  Sometimies they're normal and good (like when Cardinal Ratzinger asked to resign and was refused), but still not want God wants for us.  Those are moments when we say, "Not my will, but yours be done."

Even in such cases, though, I would argue, the subjectivity of the mature Christian is still very much "at play."  He is not "empty" of selfhood, but fully awakened and "present to himself" (in front of God) with his own judgments and desires.  Jesus disn't say in the garden, "whatever you want is fine with me."  He said (essentially): What I want is for this cup to be taken from me.  He expressed his own will freely and clearly, before subordinating it to God's.

Devra Torres

#6, Feb 19, 2013 4:19pm

Another possible analogy: God speaking to us is more the way the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, so that what He wanted to be said was said, but incorporated the emphases, expertise, interests, and personalities of the human authors--as opposed to the "dictation" theory of inspiration.  

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Feb 20, 2013 3:10pm

Devra Torres, Feb. 19 at 5:19pm

Another possible analogy: God speaking to us is more the way the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, so that what He wanted to be said was said, but incorporated the emphases, expertise, interests, and personalities of the human authors--as opposed to the "dictation" theory of inspiration.  

 There's an analogy.  But there's an important difference, too, since God is the Prime Author of Scripture, while I don't think that can be said of our acts.  Nor are our acts guaranteed to be in accord with His will, while Scripture is.


#8, Feb 21, 2013 11:09am

I've been commenting this issue with a friend, a Spanish priest who doesn't speak English, but who's a scholar in medieval history. He told me that perhaps we're too infected by marxist thesis-antithesis thinking: it's not either-or, but and-and. Yes, this was fully B16's decision, making full use of his powerful intellect and free will. And yes, this was fully God's decision, because in fine nothing escapes his Will. He said that for a medieval thinker, this would be as clear as water, and there would not be a trace of contradiction in it.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Feb 21, 2013 11:38am

I can't quite agree with your friend, on two counts.

1) I can't agree with the suggestion that modernity has gained nothing in terms of understanding the human person and human agency.

2) While I agree (of course!) that nothing escapes God's will, what I refer to in this discussion is not God's will in itself, but rather our conception of God's will and how it operates in the world.  

I do not set up an opposition or an either/or between God's will and ours.  Rather, I critique a view of the religious and moral life that reduces human agency to a question of obedience to God's revealed will.

It's not true that right acting means "figuring out what God wants me to do and doing it."  This is too reductive a conception of human agency.  It doesn't leave enough room for moral pro-creation, as it were.

Patrick Dunn

#10, Feb 25, 2013 5:45am

I thought it was worth mentioning that yesterday, in his last Angelus address, Pope Benedict said:

"Dear brothers and sisters, I feel that this Word of God is particularly directed at me, at this point in my life. The Lord is calling me to "climb the mountain", to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation."

"The Lord is calling me..."

Pope Benedict, if anyone has followed his teachings in prayer in particular over the years of his Pontificate, is one who seeks the Face of God, one who is always urging us to listen to God

There is no opposition between taking ownership of our decisions and yielding to God's lead, understood rightly, in my opinion.  The greatest choice we can make - we, with all of our freedom and our being - is the choice to commune with God, to let Him in, to listen to Him.

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