Seeking the will of God can be a tricky business, fraught with peril.
In late 1984, I was the editor of the Western Catholic Reporter and became romantically involved with a young woman in Winnipeg. Convinced that God was bringing us together, I began to reflect with her on how to pursue this romance under more auspicious circumstances. Eventually, I decided God's will was for me to move to Winnipeg to fan the flames of romance further and to do who knows what else with my life. So I dropped everything and off I went.
Almost immediately upon my arrival, the romance began to disintegrate. Three months later, we threw in the towel. Here I was in this strange city and my reason for moving there had turned to dust. It would seem I had misread God's will.
The story doesn't end there, however. I spent four years in Winnipeg and put my experiences at the WCR behind me. They were my past, not my future. I further developed my skills as a journalist and worked with people on the margins of society.
Eventually, I was led back to Edmonton and, in early 1991, again found myself editing the WCR. I experienced my return to that job, however, much more as the fulfilment of a duty than as the realization of a dream. I felt somewhat like Jonah who was taken by a whale against his will to preach to the people of Nineveh.
Where was God's will in all this? Did God have a set plan for my life which I violated by moving to Winnipeg? After all these years, I can't say I have an answer to those questions. If anything, I am more impressed by the mysterious movement of God's love than I am by the notion that he has firmly-established architectural drawings for the course of my life.
Moreover, my experience is not all that uncommon. You can find many devout people who have made major changes in their lives because of what they perceived God's will to be only to find their decisions leading them to an apparent dead end.
God rarely speaks directly to a person. Only in the most unusual circumstances does he send Mary, a saint or an angel to tell us what to do. Most of us "see in a mirror, dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). To say that one knows God's will for any particular decision is to run a high risk of imposing one's own will, rather than that of God. The most we can say with certainty is that we should fulfil God's commands revealed in Scripture and through the church and that we should carry out the duties of our state in life.
The notion of duty is not given high regard in our individualistic culture. We tend to exalt the person who finds or creates his or her dream and then follows it. Those who do their duty are disparaged as unimaginative people living mundane lives. Fortunately for most of us, however, we were raised by parents who thought enough of their duties to give us a stable upbringing, instead of deserting us while they chased rainbows. It is the exercise of such duty which provides the glue for community and society.
The great St. Therese of Lisieux was not troubled by apparitions laying out God's will for her. She had no delusions of grandeur. She lived all her life in a small area of France, almost half of her 24 years in a cloistered Carmelite monastery. "To ecstasy, I prefer the monotony of sacrifice," Therese wrote. Yet her humble, hidden life has exerted a strong influence over many in the 20th century.
In seeking out the will of God, I need to acquire some of that humility. I expected great leadings from God and so, when the opportunity for a drastic change in my life came, I assumed it must be God's will. It's true that God does sometimes call people to leave everything behind and travel into the unknown. But far more often God calls us to live out the Beatitudes right where we are.
Three hundred years before Therese, another Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, argued that anyone who believes they have had an apparition or a revelation from God should assume that it actually came from the devil until it can be proven otherwise. This is a prudent approach. Likewise, anyone who believes they have had a great flash of insight as to God's will for their life would do well to go on performing the duties of their current state of life until it becomes overwhelmingly apparent from other sources that this really is God's will.
And in the case of pointless tragedy -- the death of a child or a major natural disaster -- one dare not try to speculate on God's purposes. All one can ask is for God to hold the victims and their loved ones close to his heart. Here, we come face to face with the starkest reality about God's will -- his ways are far beyond our understanding.
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