Conformity to the Divine Will
From the Spiritual Life; by Rev. Fr. A. Tanquerey
The knowledge of God not only unites our mind to that of God, but it also leads to love, because all in God is lovable. By showing us the need we have of God, the knowledge of self makes us ardently long for Him and throws us into His arms. Conformity to the divine will, however, unites us even more intimately and directly to Him Who is the source of all perfection. In fact, it subordinates and unites our will to God, thus placing our ruling faculty at the service of the Sovereign Master. It may be said that our degree of perfection corresponds to the extent to which we conform to the will of God. In order that this he better understood we shall explain: I. the nature of this conformity, II. its sanctifying power.
I. Nature of Conformity to the Will of God
By conformity to the divine will we understand the absolute and loving submission of our will to that of God, whether it be His “signified will” or His will of “good pleasure.”
As a matter of fact, God’s will manifests itself to us under a twofold aspect: a) as the moral norm of our actions, clearly’ intimating what we must do in virtue of His commandments or His counsels; b) as the ruling principle that governs all things with wisdom, directing the course of events so as to make them work together unto His glory and the salvation of men, and made known to us by the providential events that take place in or about us.
The first is called the signified will of God, since it proclaims in clear terms what we must do. The second is called the good pleasure of God in the sense that God’s will is here manifested by providential events to which we must submit. In practice, then, conformity to God’s will means doing God’s will and submitting to God’s will.
We shall explain: lo. What is the signified will of God; 2o. What is His will of good pleasure; 3o. What degree of submission this latter includes.
to. THE SIGNIFIED WILL OF GOD OR OBEDIENCE TO GOD’S WILL
Conformity to God’s signified will consists in willing all that God manifests to us of His intentions. Now, says St. Francis de Sales: “Christian doctrine clearly proposes unto us the truths which God wills that we should believe, the goods He will have us hope for, the pains He will have us dread, what He will have us love, the commandments He will have us observe and the counsels He desires us to follow. And this is called God’s signified will, because He has signified and made manifest unto us that it is His will and intention that all this should be believed, hoped for, feared, loved and practiced “(Treatise of the Love of God, VIII,3)
This will of God, then, according to the holy Doctor (Spiritual Conferences, XV) includes four things: the commandments of God and of the Church, the counsels, the inspirations of grace, and, for Religious, the Constitutions and the Rules.
a) God, being our Sovereign Lord, has the right to give us commands. Since He is infinitely wise and infinitely good, He commands nothing that is not conducive at once to His glory and our own happiness. We must, then, willingly and unquestioningly submit ourselves to His laws: the natural law, the positive divine law, ecclesiastical law, or a just civil law; for as St. Paul says, “all lawful authority” comes from God, and to obey Superiors within the limits of their authority is to obey God Himself, just as to resist them would be to offer resistance to Him: “Let every soul be subject to higher powers. For there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God, Therefore he that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of Cod And they that resist purchase to themselves damnation.” (Rom. 13, 1-2) We do not inquire here in what cases disobedience to the various laws constitutes a grave or a light sin; this we have done in our treatise on Moral Theology. It suffice to say that from the point of view of perfection, the more faithful and is our observance of law, the closer is our approach unto God, since law is the expression of His will Christlike. We may add that duties of state come within the category of commandments. They are, as it were, particular precepts incumbent upon us by reason of our special vocation and the special offices God has confided to us.
Sanctification, then, is impossible without the observance of the commandments and the fulfilment
of the duties of our state. To neglect them under the pretext of performing works of supererogation is a dangerous illusion, a veritable aberration, for it is evident that commands take precedence over counsels.
b) The observance of the counsels is of itself not necessary for salvation, nor does it fall under a direct and explicit command. But, as we have already said in speaking of the obligation of striving after perfection (n. 353), in order to remain in the state of grace, we must at times perform certain good works over and above the strict requirements of the law, that is to say, exercise ourselves in the practice of the counsels. This constitutes an indirect obligation based upon the principle that be who wills the end, wills also the means.
When it is question of perfection, however, we proved in n. 338, that one cannot sincerely and effectively seek it without observing some counsels, such as are in accord with our condition in life. Thus, a married person may not carry out in practice those counsels, which would go counter to the discharge of marital or parental duties. A priest in the ministry may not lead the life of a Carthusian. However, when we aim at perfection, we must be resolved to do more than that to which we are strictly bound. The more generous we are in giving ourselves over to the practice of the counsels compatible with the duties of our state, the closer we draw unto Our Lord, for such counsels are the expression of His designs upon us.
c) The same must be said of the inspirations of grace, when they are clear and are submitted to the control of our spiritual director. One may say that these are so many particular counsels addressed to individual souls.
No doubt, care must be taken to refer them in the main to the judgment of our spiritual director lest we should become an easy prey to illusion. Ardent, passionate souls readily persuade themselves that they hear the voice of God, when in truth it is the voice of their own passions suggesting such or such a dangerous practice. Punctilious or scrupulous souls would mistake for divine inspirations what is but the product of a feverish imagination, or even a diabolical suggestion, calculated to induce discouragement. Cassian relates many such instances in his Conferences on Discretion, (Second Conference, c. 5-8) and experienced directors of souls know how the imagination does at times suggest practices morally impossible and directly at variance with the fulfilment of the duties of state, all coloured by the appearance of divine inspiration. Such suggestions create trouble. If we yield to them, we make ourselves ridiculous; we waste and make others waste much valuable time. If we withstand them, we think we rebel against God, we yield to discouragement and end by surrendering to laxness. A certain control, then, is necessary and the rule to follow is this: if it be question of customary things generally done by fervent persons living under the same circumstances as we do, of things that do not trouble the soul, we may do them without hesitation and later on mention them to our director; but if it is question, on the contrary, of things extraordinary, even in the least degree, of things not usually done by devout souls, let us wait till we have consulted our spiritual adviser and, in the meantime, fulfil with all generosity our duties of state.
With this limitation, it is evident that any one seeking perfection ought to lend a ready ear to the voice of the Holy Ghost speaking within his soul: “I will hear what the Lord God will speak in me,” (Ps. 84,9) a and he should without delay and without sparing himself comply with God’s demands:
“Behold I come to do thy will, 0 God” (Hebr. 10,9) This is nothing more than correspondence to grace, and it is precisely this willing and steadfast co-operation that makes us perfect: “And we helping do exhort you that you receive not the grace of God in vain.” (2Cor. 6,1) This is, in fact, the very characteristic of perfect souls, that they hearken to and carry out in practice these divine inspirations: “I do always the things that please Him. “(John 8,9)
d) As to those that live in communities, the more generously they obey their rules and constitutions, the more perfect they are. These rules are means of perfection which the Church has explicitly or implicitly’ approved and to the observance of which a Religious binds himself on entering the community. Undoubtedly, to fail through weakness in certain details of some rules does not of itself constitute a sin. However, often a more or less sinful motive enters into such wilful negligences, and the violation of rules, even when not sinful, certainly deprives us of a priceless opportunity for the acquisition of merit. It ever remains true that to observe one’s rule is the safest means of accomplishing God’s will and of living for Him: “He who lives by rule, lives unto God “To fail wilfully in this matter, with no good reason for it, is an abuse of grace.
Thus it is that obedience to God’s signified will is the normal way of attaining perfection.
2. CONFORMITY TO GOD’S WILL OF GOOD PLEASURE, OR SUBMISSION TO
This conformity consists in submitting oneself to all providential events willed or allowed by God for our own greater good, and chiefly for our sanctification.
a) It rests upon this basis, that nothing happens without God’s order or permission, and that God, being infinite Perfection and infinite Goodness, cannot will or permit anything but for the good of the souls He has created, although this is not always apparent to our eyes. This is what Tobias said in the midst of his afflictions and the reproaches of his wife : “Thou are just, 0 Lord., and all they ways mercy and truth and judgment” (Tob. 3,2) This is what Wisdom proclaims : “But thy Providence. 0 Father, governeth... She reacheth therefore from end to end mightily and ordereth all things sweetly. “(Wis. 14,3; 8,1) This is also what St. Paul teaches: “To them that love God, all things work together unto good.” (Rom. 8,28)
But in order to understand this teaching we must take the point of view of faith and of eternity, of the glory of God and the salvation of men. If we look only at the present life and its earthly happiness, we cannot understand the designs of God, Who has willed that we undergo trials here below in order to reward us in Heaven. All things are subordinated to this end. Present evils are but means of purifying our soul, of grounding it in virtue, and occasions of acquiring merits, all in view of God’s glory, the ultimate end of all creation.
b) It is our duty, then, to submit ourselves to God in all the events of life, happy or unhappy, midst public calamities or private ills, whether we are lashed by the hand of nature or gripped by that of want and suffering, in sorrows or in joys, in the unequal distribution of gifts natural and supernatural, in failure or success, in desolation or in consolation, in sickness or in health, in life or in death with its attendant suffering and uncertainties. In the words of holy Job: “If we have received good things at the hand of Cod, why should we not receive evil?” (Job 2,10) Commenting upon these words, St. Francis de Sales (The Love of God 9,2) cannot but admire their beauty: “0 God! How this word is great with love! He ponders, Theotimus, that it was from the hand of God that he had received the good, testifying that he had not so much loved goods because they were good, as because they came from the hand of the Lord; whence he concludes that he is lovingly to support adversities since they proceed from the hand of the same Lord, which is equally to be loved when it distributes afflictions and when it bestows consolations. “ And, indeed, it is affliction that enables us to offer the snore genuine proof of our love for God. To love Him when He lavishes His favours upon us is an easy task; but it is only a perfect love that accepts ills at His Hands, for they cannot be loved except for the sake of Him Who sends them.
The duty of submission under trial to the good pleasure of God is a duty of justice and obedience, for God is Our Supreme Lord and Master, Who wields all authority over us. It is a duty inspired by wisdom, since it would be folly to wish to elude the action of Providence, whilst in humble resignation we find our peace. It is a duty urged by our own interest, because God’s will merely puts us to the test that we may be exercised in virtue and acquire merit. It is a duty imposed, above all, by love, which is the gift of self, even to immolation.
c) To facilitate this submission to the divine will for souls who are not as yet schooled in the love of the Cross, it is always good to offer them some means of assuaging their sufferings. We can point out two remedies, the one negative, the other positive, 1) The first is not to aggravate sufferings by employing false tactics. There are persons who occupy themselves in gathering together in their minds all their ills, past, present, and to come, until their weight seems insupportable. It is the contrary that we must do: “Enough for thee day is the evil thereof” (Matth. 6,34) Instead of reopening past wounds, we must never give them a thought, unless it be to note the profit derived from them:
Increase of merit, growth in virtue, more strength to bear pain. Thus is suffering soothed, for ills only vex us when we heed them: slander, calumny, injuries hurt us only as long as we brood over them.
As to the future, it is irrational to let it prey upon the mind. True, it is the part of wisdom to foresee it and provide for it, in the measure that we are able, but to brood in advance over the ills that may befall us, to be saddened by them, is a loss of time and sheer waste of energy. Such ills may never come to pass; if they do come, then will be the time to bear them with the help of grace which will be given us for that purpose. Just now, we have not such grace and, left to our own forces, we
shall surely succumb under the weight of a self-imposed burden. Is it not wiser to abandon ourselves into the arms of Our Heavenly Father, and to drive out relentlessly any wicked thought or evil fancy that would force upon our minds the ills of the future and of the past?
2) The positive remedy consists in reflecting, when we suffer, upon the great advantages of suffering. Pain is a teacher and a source of merit, As a teacher, it is a source of light, a source of power: of light, for it reminds us that we are exiles on the way home and that we cannot entertain ourselves gathering the flowers of consolation, since our true bliss is in Heaven; of power, for while pleasure-seeking dulls activity, undermines courage, and leads to disgraceful surrenders, suffering, not indeed in itself, but by reason of the reaction it produces, tends to reinforce our energies, and develops in us manly virtues.
Suffering is also a source of merit for us and for others. Patiently borne for God’s sake and in union with Jesus Christ, it merits for us an eternal recompense, a fact which St. Paul forever kept before the eyes of the early Christians: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.” (Rom. 8,18) “That which is momentary and light of our tribulation worketh for us an eternal weight of glory.” (2Cor. 4,17) For the benefit of generous souls he adds that in suffering with Jesus, they fulfil what is wanting to His passion and contribute with Him to the welfare of the Church: “Ifill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the Church.” (Col. 1,24) This is a consequence of the doctrine of our incorporation into Christ (n. 142 and foil.). These thoughts, indeed, do not deliver us from pain, hut they do lessen in no small measure its bitterness, by making us realize its fruitfulness.
Everything, then, invites us to conform our will to that of God, even in the midst of trials.
3. DEGREES OF CONFORMITY, OF SUBMISSION TO GOD’S WILL
St. Bernard distinguishes three degrees of this virtue, corresponding to the three stages of Christian perfection: “The beginner, moved by fear, patiently bears the Cross of Christ; the one who has already made some progress on the road to perfection, inspired by hope, carries it cheerfully; the perftct soul; consumed by love, embraces it ardently.” (1 Serm. S. Andreae, 5)
A) Beginners, upheld by the fear of God, do not indeed love pain, but rather seek to escape it. However, they choose to suffer rather than to offend God and, though groaning under the weight of the Cross, they endure it in patience, they are resigned.
B) Those who have already made some progress, are sustained by the hope and the desire of heavenly things and though they do not yet seek the Cross, they willingly carry it with a certain joy, knowing that each new pang represents an additional degree of glory: “Going, they went and wept, casting their seeds. But coming, they shall co me with joyfulness carrying their seed “(Ps. 125, 6-7)
C) The perfect led by love, go further. To glorify the God they love, to become more like our
Lord, they go forth to meet the Cross, they long for it and embrace it lovingly not because it is in itself
lovable, but because it offers them the means of proving their love for God and for Christ Like the
Apostles, they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name of Jesus. Like St.
Paul, they rejoice in their tribulations.
This last degree is called holy abandonment to which we shall return later when we speak of the love of God.
III. The Sanctifying Power of Conformity to the Will of God
From what has ahead)’ been said, we reach the evident conclusion that conformity to God’s will cannot but sanctify us, since it makes our will one with God’s and, by that very fact, unites all our other faculties to Him, Who us the source of all sanctity. The better to realize this, let us see how it purifies us, reforms us, and make us like unto Jesus Christ.
lo. This conformity to the divine Will purifies us. Already in the Old Dispensation God often said that He is ready to forgive all sins and to restore the soul to the stainless splendour of its pristine purity, if it but undergo a change of heart or will: “Wash yourselves; be clean. Take away the evil of your devices from my eyes. Cease to do perversely. Learn to do well... If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow. “(Is. 1, 16-18) Now, to conform our wills to that of God, is assuredly to
cease to do evil, and to learn to do good. Is not this the meaning of that oft-repeated text: “For obedience is better than sacrifices. “(iKings 15,22; cfr. Osee 6,6; Matth. 9,13; 12,7) In the New Law, Our Lord declares from the very moment of His entry into the world that it is with obedience that He will replace all the sacrifices of the Ancient Law: “Holocausts for sin did not please thee. Then said I Behold, I come.., that I should do thy will, 0 God “ (Hebr. 10, 6-7) And, in truth, it is by obedience unto the immolation of self that He has redeemed us: “He was made obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.” (Phil. 2,8) The same way, it is through obedience and through the acceptance of God-ordained trials in union with Christ that we shall atone for our sins and cleanse our soul,
2o. This conformity works out our reformation. What has deformed us is the disordered love of pleasure, to which through malice or through weakness we have yielded. Conformity to the divine will cures this malice and weakness.
a) It cures our malice. This malice is the result of our attachment to creatures and, especially, of our attachment to our own judgment and our own will, Now, by conforming our will to that of God, we accept His judgments as the standard of ours, His commandments and His counsels as the rule of our will. Thus we wean ourselves from creatures and from self and rid ourselves from such attachments,
b) It cures our weakness, the source of so many failings. Instead of relying on our own frail selves, we make through obedience the Omnipotent God our support: He gives us His own strength enabling us to overcome even the severest temptations : “I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me. (John 4,34; 6,38; 8,29) When we do His will, He takes His good pleasure in doing our own by granting our petitions and helping our weakness.
Thus freed from our malice and weakness, we no longer sin deliberately against God and we gradually effect the reformation of our lives.
3o. Through this conformity, we make our wills one with Christ’s. a) The truest, the closest, the most far-reaching union that can exist is that between two wills. Through conformity to the divine will, we unite our will to that of Jesus Christ Whose food was to do the will of His Father, (John 4,34; 6,3 8; 8,29) Like Jesus and with Jesus we desire but what He wills and that all the day long. This is the fusion of two wills. We are one with Him, we adopt His views, His sentiments, His choices: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus;” (Phil. 2,5) and soon we can make our own the word of St. Paul : “I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me. “(Galat. 2,20)
b) In submitting our will, we yield and unite to God all the other faculties which are under its way; hence, we yield and unite unto Him our whole soul, which by degrees conforms itself to the will and wishes of the Master, Thereby the soul acquires one by one all the virtues of Our Lord. What we have said of charity, n. 318, can also be said of conformity to the divine will; that like charity it embodies all other virtues. In the words of St. Francis de Sales: “Abandonment is the virtue of virtues, It is the cream of love, the fragrance of humility, the merit, it seems to me, of patience and the fruit of perseverance. “ (Spirit. Conf., 11) Hence, Our Lord calls by the tender names of brother and sister and mother those who do the will of His Father: “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father that is in heaven he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matth. 12,50) He repeatedly declares that the true test of love is doing God’s will: “If you love me, keep my commandments.., not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord!, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that doth the will of my Father who is in Heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (John 14,15; Matth. 7,21)
Conformity to the divine will, then, is one of the most effective means of sanctification. Hence we cannot but end with these words of St. Theresa: “The sole concern of him who has but entered into the way of prayer, — keep it in mind, it is very important — must be to strive courageously to conform his will to that of God.. Herein lies, whole and entire, the highest perfection to which we can attain. The more perfect this accord is, the more do we receive from the Lord and the greater is our progress. “ (Interior Castle, Second Mansion) She adds that she herself had wished to live in this way of conformity without being raised to rapturous transports and ecstasies, so firm was her conviction that the path of conformity was all-sufficient to the most exalted perfection.