The Personalist Project

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?

Hannon disagrees:

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.  

Still, as John F. Crosby points out,

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?

Comments (28)

Peter Brown

#1, Jul 26, 2012 8:32pm

Seems to me that whether your parents should have attaneded class that day is independent of whether--given that they didn't--they should have gotten married and had you.  A God who can bring the Passion and Resurrection out of the crime of deicide can surely bring something good out of cutting class :-).

Speaking as a not-always-recovering perfectionist, one concept that has been very helpful to me is Dorothy Sayers' idea of people as sub-creators, with the corollary that there are areas--I would claim the vast majority of our lives--where God's will for us is not a unique line but a space within which we are free to choose among perfectly acceptable options.

Devra Torres

#2, Jul 26, 2012 10:00pm

Peter: yes, these are definitely subtleties that escaped me at the time!  My whole sense now is that God is too big to be constrained by our wrong turns, that His plans are way, way, beyond our understanding of the interplay of Providence and free will--but that's OK; we can trust Him to work it out.

"Sub-creators": I like that!  I remember agonizing over whether a possible move was His will, and it occurred to me, even in the middle of the agonizing, that He was probably a lot more interested in how we all lived our lives once we got there, or stayed here, than in what our geographical location was.

Rhett Segall

#3, Jul 27, 2012 12:04pm

"O happy fault to have merited such a child.!"

While giving his disciples broad directions the Lord expects them to use their creativity.  This is very clear in the Acts of the Apostles where Jesus says to Paul "Go on speaking...for I am with you." (!8:10)

Our consultation of God consists in a prayerful weighing of the the pros and cons of an impending decision in order to discern what would be best. So far as consulting Our Lady, I would think that the effects of such a disposition would again be this question: "Did I carefully evaluate the decision with the trust that she had in deciding to visit Elizabeth?" St Joseph is a model here because he made a decision as best he could vis a vis Mary's pregnancy. Only after this decision does God further enlighten him that it has to be altered. With further and further reflection on our choices, so long as we are in good conscience, we will discern more and more where true happiness lies. This discernment of true joy is what God wants: "I have came that they may have life and have it to the  full." (John 10:10).

Devra Torres

#4, Jul 27, 2012 2:23pm

Thank you, Rhett!

I think this is yet another area where the Church is misunderstood, and needlessly loses the affection of people who see Her as squashing freedom.  The religion a lot of atheists argue against is not a religion that values freedom, creativity, initiative, or originality.  In other words, it's not Christianity.  

This was something else that used to confuse me--not that I understand i perfectly now.  I knew God was the inventor of free will, and of freedom to choose good or evil.  But then I'd hear that we were only truly free when our wills were aligned with His--which sounded to me as if there was no freedom after all--as if it was some kind of trick.  I think this is something that needs to be articulated better, so that people can understand how great the scope of our freedom really is, and how objective truths and dogmas don't "cancel it out."


#5, Jul 27, 2012 3:39pm

Keeping this from the publicity of FB (I don't need any comments from fam), please Dev...  What about when someone only ends up meeting/dating men who either aren't Catholic or are Catholic "in name only"?  You would think, "Dating material only", right?  But when nothing ever changes, what is one supposed to think?  Also, we're taught, as you noted, "Love your neighbor as yourself" - so Catholics aren't the only "good" people.  How are we supposed to do that if there's no room for compromise?  So hard, rules vs. "real world"!  

So, approaching 40, living at home omg, marries someone outside the Church, but then, after Much explanation, patience and understanding, spouse understands enough to get annulment and we're able to re-do the marriage vows in the Church (this time with parents there).  How evil???  Impossible to read "blueprint"!  Breaking rule, bad.  Being open-minded and accepting, good.  Bending over backwards with patience for 2-1/2 yrs. explaining Church/annulment, not shoving down throat shouting, "We're #1!", darn good. :) 

Oh, and I agree that your parents would have met one way or the other! :)

Devra Torres

#6, Jul 27, 2012 4:30pm

Cathy, it sounds like an "all's well that ends well" story.  No, of course Catholics aren't the only good people!  It isn't a question of judging who's good and who's not--that's always best left to God Himself.  The idea is, the Church's laws about marriage are meant to protect the person and defend the marriage covenant, not to drive good people whose lives are not unfolding according to "plan" crazy!  The idea is not to make a bunch of hard-to-follow laws and then condemn people who break them as bad.  Real, valid marriages are to be taken seriously and are not to be broken up at tthe whim of one party--because even after a civil divorce, the spouses are still married in the eyes of God anyway.  But for marriages that are null--in other words, lacked the components of true marriage at the very beginning of their seeming existence--the Church has serious, specific guidelines in place for declaring that nullity so that the spouses--like your husband--can be free to marry.  So, no, I'm not saying it was fine to marry first and get the annullment second but I'm very happy for you that it's all kosher now!

Jules van Schaijik

#7, Jul 29, 2012 4:34pm

Great post, Devra. I entirely agree with your take on Michael Hannon's piece. He has put his finger on a real problem — a misguided and counter-productive idea of discernment — but his solution is equally problematic. Hannon's idea is basically that people should stop looking for a ready-made, divine plan for their lives, since God only gives general rules equally applicable to all. He calls this only a seeming rejection of 'personal vocation', but I think it really is such a rejection. It leaves no room for a divine calling directed to a specific individual.

I also believe that Hannon is wrong in thinking that this mistaken view of discernment is rooted in "the sin of presumption." What looks like presumption to him, seems to me more like a grateful and humble awareness, based on faith, that the God of Heaven and Earth has actually "called me by name" and is "mindful of me".

I think the root of the problem is that we under-estimate the degree to which God has handed us over to ourselves. As Gregory of Nyssa said: "We are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions".

Jules van Schaijik

#8, Jul 29, 2012 4:39pm

... continued from previous post

This is not only hard to believe, it is also fearful. There is something safe and comforting in thinking that God has already chosen a path for us, and that our responsibility is limited to finding and sticking to it. But this would be too passive. God wants us to determine ourselves, to choose our own path (within obvious limits, of course, and with the guidance of friends and the promptings of the Holy Spirit) and then take responsibility for it. (I stress the last part because it deserves to be stressed. It is not God that made me do it. I myself did it, and I should take the rap.)

P.S. I'm reading Dana Gioya's new poetry book, Pity the Beautiful. It contains these lines from Antonio Machado, emphasizing our own freedom and responsibility:

traveler, there is no road,
the road is made by walking

But the book also contains many lines describing what above I call the "promptings of the Holy Spirit" to which it behooves us to pay close attention:

For what is prophecy but the first inkling
of what we ourselves must call into being?
The call need not be large. No voice in thunder.

Devra Torres

#9, Jul 29, 2012 4:41pm

Yes: "handed us over to ourselves"!  and I keep thinking of John Paul saying that by our decisions we become "somebody" or "somebody else"--that something enormous really is riding on our free decisions, but God is neither going to hand us a blueprint at every turn nor leave us on our own with a bunch of general operating instructions.  

This is also true in questions of NFP and providentialism: the existence or non-existence of a new immortal soul is really riding on our decision (not that these things are 100% predictable)--and yet we really are free.

Patrick Dunn

#10, Jul 29, 2012 6:39pm

Jules van Schaijik, Jul. 29 at 3:39pm

There is something safe and comforting in thinking that God has already chosen a path for us, and that our responsibility is limited to finding and sticking to it. But this would be too passive. God wants us to determine ourselves, to choose our own path (within obvious limits, of course, and with the guidance of friends and the promptings of the Holy Spirit) and then take responsibility for it

I think we are to be totally free and totally receptive - an active passivity is the dynamic of authentic discernment.  Our Blessed Mother was entirely free and yet totally open to God's promptings; I do not think it would be accurate to refer to her life as one of self-determination unless we are refering to her freedom or capacity to say "Yes" or "No" to God's invitation.  The initiative is always God's with each of us too; otherwise, I don't know how we could meaningfully speak of a divine calling.  Our identity is not something we find out and stick to as if it is 'outside' of us, yet we truly are only fully ourselves when we freely receive the mystery of our being from God. 

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jul 29, 2012 6:58pm

In cases where God definitely asks something particular of us (as he did of the Virgin Mary), then our freedom is to decide yes or no.

But I think the main point is that not all our "life choices" are like that.  It's not yes or no, but this or that.

I clearly remember my zealous but immature younger self sort of complaining to God: "All I want is to do you will.  Just tell me what it is and I'll do it."  I couldn't understand why He wouldn't just make it clear.

It was only much later (and especially through John Paul II's philosophy) that I came to understand that in many cases what He "wills" is precisely for us to decide for ourselves.  

This whole fascinating question is a major theme of the book we're reading for the August reading circle: Till We Have Faces.

Patrick Dunn

#12, Jul 29, 2012 7:01pm

I agree with Hannon that the image of a ready-made, divine plan or blueprint for our lives is insufficient (I think it's also simplistic), yet I agree with you, Jules, that his appeal to only the general rules applicable to all is really a rejection of 'personal vocation', and so an entirely inadequate solution.

I also think an appeal to God being content with our choosing among a variety of acceptable options is an implicit denial of a 'personal vocation' and a bland view of reality besides.  I believe God has a preference, and that such particularity (which in some of its manifestations over time has been a scandal) means that while we are free to choose God's preference for us - to embrace His particularity and so our own - the aim is not to choose our own path or a generally "good" path, but that which God, through our intimate, personal, wholly unique relationship with Him, 'reveals' as our path - He knows us better than we know ourselves. 

Maybe a good term for it is cooperation.

"Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (Shakespeare, King Lear)

Answer: Ultimately, at least fully, God alone, though I should freely receive it and so become myself.

Patrick Dunn

#13, Jul 29, 2012 7:25pm

I read in a book by Fr. Tim Gallagher on the Examen Prayer by St. Ignatius these words that I think get at the essence of God's preference for us daily: "Whenever a heart cries out, "O God, you are my God, / for you I long; / for you my soul is thirsting," this deepest desire awakens another desire: the desire to hear God's voice throughout the day and to respond as fully as our strength, our souls, our minds, and our hearts are able."

Certainly, not every choice in our life is a "yes" or "no," though it is no matter ultimately.  If it is a this or that, the fundamental desire to be led by God in all things is still there as the driving force.  I believe God has and still can lead us in such a way if we are open, and I do not believe that we have to be left to ourselves to decide apart from Him, rightly understood.  As we grow in communion with Him and discernment, we decide with Him - this is when our will and His are one.  

Rhett Segall

#14, Jul 29, 2012 8:36pm

An anecdote that hopefully adds to our reflections on the mystery of personal vocation:

You will recall the film "Chariots of Fire" which deals with the 1924 Olympics (how timely!) At one point Eric Liddell has to decide whether or not to prepare for the Olympics, running for Scotland. It would mean taking time from his work as a preacher.

"God has made me devout-and He has made me fast. And I feel His pleasure when I run."

The simple question "Does this really make me happy?" or in Liddell's words "Give me pleasure" is a clue to God's will.

Eric enters the Olympics and wins a gold medal in the 400 meter race. But he refuses to run on Sunday, believing God doesn't want that.

Liddell died as a missonary in China  in 1945 at the age of 43, probably of a brain tumor. The theologian Langdon Gilkey, who was with him in China, said of Liddell:

"He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known."

Devra Torres

#15, Jul 29, 2012 9:05pm

I think it's easy to slip into one extreme or the other--at least I kept catching myself doing it while I was writing the post.  "Handing us over to ourselves" as you put it, Jules, does have to be understood with certain limitations, because, as Patrick points out, God certainly has preferences, and He really does offer "invitations" and "callings," and the Holy Spirit does offer "promptings."  Not everything falls within the range of acceptable options.  This whole question reminds me, too, of C.S. Lewis' Perelandra (the second book of his space trilogy) where the hero, Ransom, is trying to avoid a specific thing he senses God is asking him to do (enter into physical battle with the Un-man, the possessed scientist).  As long as he's trying to rationalize his way out of it, or think of how things could work out well even if he refused to follow this call, he's not at all clear in his mind of exactly what he should do next or how it could possibly end well.  As soon as he decides to do it anyway, he's given very exact instructions.  But only then.

Devra Torres

#16, Jul 29, 2012 9:10pm

Rhett, I think that's an important point, too.  I know of someone--in fact, I've known several people--who were trying to discern whether they had a religious vocation or not, and were having a very hard time because they had no desire or inclination at all for a religious vocation but were afraid God was going to make them do it anyway.  The idea of your own desires or inclinations as a clue to what the God who gave them to you wants you to do is very helpful, and can be a big relief--although of course it can be exaggerated and distorted to make it sound as if God couldn't possibly be asking anything except what's appealing, easy and pleasant.

Katie van Schaijik

#17, Jul 30, 2012 8:30am

I agree, too, Rhett.  Often we discover God's will for us in our desires (keeping Devra's caveats in mind.)

One of my favorite verses from the Psalms is "incline my heart according to your will."

And there's this from JP II (I think): "The person moves in the direction love calls."

Patrick, I hadn't meant to suggest that God is indifferent to our choices beyond the yes/no kind.  I meant rather that often He really does want us to choose for ourselves.  He wants us to learn to become responsible, self-standing adults, who "own" our own decisions.  

I've seen a lot of "overspiritualizing" over the years.  I've been guilty of it myself.  

We want God to just tell us what to do.  In many cases, that's too passive and inorganic to be properly personal.  It's also practically paralyzing.  We become afraid to make decisions, even in minor matters, without first "praying about it" and trying to figure out what God wants us to do.

I think now that we should live the Sacraments, pray and read Scripture regularly, give ourselves ever more deeply and constantly to God, and trust confidently in His leading. 

Devra Torres

#18, Jul 30, 2012 9:43am

Yes--and on the other hand, God can, if He chooses, give very specific instructions about seemingly trivial things.  Our pastor tells a story about having several foods on his plate and sensing strongly that God was telling him to eat the peas first.  He resisted, but as soon as he did it, the girl across from him burst into tears, explaining that she was considering atheism and had just prayed that God, if He existed, would have the priest across from her eat his peas first.

Now, that's unusual, and no one should take it as a reason to obsess about such things every time he sits down to lunch--but it's just to say that it's good to be open about God working in different ways at different times, since He's so much bigger than our preconceptions, and our ideas of what's "normal."  

I think the main thing is to keep our "spiritual ears" open, whether what we end up getting is God working through private revelation, Scripture, common sense, someone else's advice, or whatever it turns out to be.

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Jul 30, 2012 10:46am

What a fun story!

I concur completely with everything you say, Devra.

I mean, on this point.  I reserve the right to disagree with you on others, if I feel I must. :)

Jules van Schaijik

#20, Jul 30, 2012 1:18pm

I must object, Devra, to your cavalier dismissal of the "eat your peas first" rule. Isn't this the sort of divine wisdom mothers try to instill in their children? Don't you teach it to your children? Shocking.

Devra Torres

#21, Jul 30, 2012 1:20pm

Perfectly reasonable.

I thought of one more story, this one about my mother.  She was at a block party, walking around, and prayed, "OK, God, if you exist, show me a pink elephant."

She turned a corner, and there was a big, inflatable pink elephant staring her in the face.

Which just goes to show you, God doesn't only deign to speak to people who are in a perfectly reverent frame of mind.

Devra Torres

#22, Jul 30, 2012 1:24pm

Jules, I thought the story was especially convincing in light of how few human beings would have a natural inclination to eat their peas first, even among those virtuous enough to have made a free act of the will in the direction of taking peas in the first place.

Katie van Schaijik

#23, Jul 30, 2012 1:54pm

Here's another story. 

I used to want to be a youth minister.  I thought God wanted me to be a youth minister.  I had no academic ambition.

In my junior year at Franciscan, Tom Howard came to give a series of lectures on his conversion from evangelicalism to Catholicism.  In one of his three talks, he began listing, litany-like, all the influences that had borne him along in his journey: "It was Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Thomas and Bonaventure; it was Fra Angelico and Michaelangelo and Josquin and Palestrian, Bach and Mozart; it was von Hildebrand and Guardini and von Balthasar...."

I was overwhelmed, and entralled.  Some of these names meant nothing to me at the time, yet unfurled like that, they gave me a vision of the Catholic life of the mind.  It captivated me to the point that I was shaken.  I was even a little scared.  I was afraid that the attraction was so overwhelming that I would thumb my nose at God's plan for me life and do something else.  I practically bolted for the chapel.

I prayed over and over, in an almost panicky way, "Lord, incline my heart according to your will..."

Katie van Schaijik

#24, Jul 30, 2012 2:00pm

I don't usually hear God speaking to me in prayer, but that time I did.  He said, "Don't you see?  That's just what I have done."

My attraction to the life of the mind was a gift from Him.  It indicated His will for me—not in a externalist way, but through the inclination of my own heart.

I can't even begin to express the joy I felt at that moment.  It was not completely unlike the joy of discovering the unbelievably, impossibly great reality that the one my heart loved—Jules—also loved me.

I am learning more and more as I go in life how much God works in and through our humanity, our personality, our individuality...

Rhett Segall

#25, Jul 30, 2012 6:00pm

Ah, the sweetness of the Lord!

I had been teaching high school for 25 years. There's a particular cross in this area (I don't mean the teens!).  One's self is always on the line in bearing witness to the Gospel. When I taught World History my self never got into the assignment. I just taught the French Revolution. But when I teach about God and Jesus inevitably my own angst gets into the telling. I wondered if I should move out of theology and back to social studies.

I came across a statement by Albert Schweitzer:

"God's will is found where our gifts meet someone's needs."

That thought percolated and percolated in my mind. At the end of the school year of particular difficulty in the aforementioned area I got a note from a student:

"Mr. Segall, this is unusual for  me but I feel the need to say this. I want to thank you for this year. Your lessons were especially needed for many of us."!

I was 50 at the time.

My heart was at rest. I'm now 68 and preparing for another year of teaching teens about the Kingdom.

Devra Torres

#26, Aug 1, 2012 12:29am

Katie, and Rhett, what beautiful stories!  It's so easy to make things complicated for ourselves by hanging onto unconsicous ideas like "If I really want this, God must want me to give it up," or "A person shoudl be perfectly clear in his mind about his vocation by the time he's, I don't know, 18, or 25 or 30, but well before 50."  God asks us to be willing to give everything, or give up anything, but doesn't always take us up on it, or make us go through with it.  I remember a saying from when we were Protestants, about how God asks us for a blank check, but He doesn't always cash it.  

Katie van Schaijik

#27, Aug 1, 2012 9:56am

Sometimes I try to imagine what would have happened had God "revealed" to me earlier that He intended me to do intellectual work.  I would done it "under obedience", but without any sense of joy or freedom.  I would have hated it and felt desperately unsuited to it.  Instead, He gently "brought me along", inwardly and organically, until it was the very thing I desired most for myself.

Also, how strange and unreal courtship would have been had God simply "told us" from the day we met that we were to marry!

"The road is made in the walking...."


#28, Jul 28, 2017 4:49pm

Or as another saint said, "Love God and do what you want".

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