How do I live God’s will at each moment? That is the big question that’s been on my mind lately.
Regular readers know that I’ve recently discovered the concept that we should be seeking God at every moment of every day, not just during scheduled prayer time or Mass. Even first thing in the morning. (Remarking on how very un-saintly I can be in the first couple hours after I wake up, my husband once summarized my attitude as, “It’s a good thing Jesus doesn’t get here until 9:30!”)
Some of the most amazing, powerful insights I’ve ever heard on this subject came from a book I recently finished called He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek. I count it among the most life-changing books I’ve ever read. In this book Fr. Ciszek recounts the major tests of faith he endured and what he learned about seeking God’s will in the 20+ years he spent as a prisoner in Russia. Falsely accused of being a Vatican spy, he spent five years in solitary confinement in the dreaded Lubianka prison, and was then sent to a terrible Siberian slave labor camp for 15 years.
One of the things I found most surprising and inspiring about this book is that Fr. Ciszek’s insights are as applicable to the average American suburbanite as they are to the Siberian prisoner. His suffering involved starvation-level hunger and torturous 18 hour days out in the bitter tundra while mine involves laundry trips up and down the stairs with third-trimester aches and pains; his foiled plans involved decades of wrongful imprisonment and harassment while mine involve a really bad week of potty training — but the lessons are the same.
For example, he has this to say about the depression he and a fellow priest fell into when they first arrived in Russia to realize that nobody even wanted them to be there. They were living in squalor and had sacrificed everything they knew to minister to the Russian people…and nobody even seemed to care. He writes:
We could serve the Church [back in Poland], but we could do nothing here. This whole Russian venture seemed now to have been a mistake.
Though our situation may have been somewhat unique, the temptation itself was not. It is the same temptation faced by everyone who has followed a call and found that the realities of life were nothing like the expectations he had… It is the temptation that comes to anyone, for example, who has entered religious life with a burning desire to serve God and him alone, only to find that the day-to-day life in religion is humdrum and pedestrian…It is the same temptation face by young couples in marriage, when the honeymoon is over…The temptation is to say: “…It is not fair. I never thought it would be like this. I will not serve.”
The statement “I will not serve” can mean different things to different people, but I think we’ve all said it at one point or another. It could be something as severe as a couple divorcing when the going gets rough, or as routine as being unwilling (or only grudgingly willing) to carry out the more inconvenient and mundane tasks required by your vocation. (The latter is sort of a specialty of mine — you should hear me when toilet cleaning time rolls around!)
Fr. Ciszek explains the enlightening realization he and his friend received after months of physical and mental misery:
And then one day, it dawned on us. God granted us the grace to see…the answer to our temptation. It was the grace quite simply to look at our situation from his viewpoint rather than from ours. It was the grace not to judge our efforts by human standards, or by what we ourselves wanted or expected to happen.
He refers to St. Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation that says that man is created to praise, revere and serve God, and all his efforts should directed at that aim and that aim alone. Fr. Ciszek and his friend had known this fundamental truth very well before they entered Russia. They had prayed about it and meditated on it countless times, but it had only been an abstract theory — they had never truly applied it to their daily lives. He writes of this realization:
Our whole purpose [in Russia] — as indeed in our whole lives — was to do the will of God. Not the will of God as we might wish it…or as we thought in our poor human wisdom it ought to be. But rather the will of God as God envisioned it and revealed it to us each day…His will for us was the 24 hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. […]
Our dilemma came from our frustration at not being able to do what we thought the will of God ought to be in this situation, at our inability to work as we thought God would surely want us to work, instead of accepting the situation itself as his will. It is a mistake easily made by every man, saint or scholar, Church leader or day laborer. […]
The simple soul who each day makes a morning offering of “all the prayers, works, joys and suffering of this day” — and who then acts upon it by accepting unquestioningly and responding lovingly to all the situations of that day as truly sent by God — has perceived with an almost childlike faith the profound truth about the will of God.
To predict what God’s will is going to be, to rationalize about what his will must be, is at once a work of human folly and yet the subtlest of all temptations. The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems. […]
The answer lies in understanding that it is these things — and these things alone, here and now, at this moment — that truly constitute the will of God.
I am a sort of living testament to this concept. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been engrossed in some great spiritual book, only to be interrupted by some unexpected chaos with the kids. And my immediate reaction is to think, “Would you kids be quiet! I’m trying to seek God’s will here!” sighing that if only I wasn’t so bogged down with my household responsibilities that I could really start getting in tune with God. If only I didn’t have to change this diaper and deal with that temper tantrum and clear all those dishes off the table I could get closer to finding out what it is that God wills for me!
It’s been quite stunning, then, for me to realize that changing that diaper and dealing with the temper tantrum and clearing those dishes are God’s will. These are the situations that God puts in front of me every day. If I see them through my eyes alone, holding out for God to reveal to me that “his” will is all about me writing that bestselling book or the lottery win (that just so happen to be big fantasies of mine), I grumble through the mundane tasks of my day. And when I do this, when I apathetically plop a dish into the sink or huff and puff about having to sweep the kitchen floor for the second time today, I am essentially saying, “I will not serve.” I’m refusing to accept that these humdrum tasks just might be the answers to all my questions about what God wants me to do.
But to see all these diapers and temper tantrums and dishes through God’s eyes, to humbly go about my day executing each task with love, appreciating every moment and every little thing around me as a precious gift, is to know and serve God, to do his will. I don’t need to analyze it beyond that. I have my answer.
Fr. Ciszek says it best:
To seek to discover some other and nobler “will of God” in the abstract that better fits our notion of what his will should be…was our temptation [in Russia], just as it is the temptation faced by everyone who suddenly discovers that life is not what he expected it to be. The answer lies in understanding that it is these things — and these things alone, here and now, at this moment — that truly constitute the will of God…The trouble is that like all great truths it seems too simple.
Its very simplicity renders it almost impossible of human achievement, for our poor human nature is too easily distracted. The very circumstances of our lives — so constant and so humdrum and routine, and yet the things that truly constitute the will of God for us each day — are also the very things that serve to distract us, precisely because we are so involved with them. […]
And yet to grasp this divine truth, as simple as it sounds, and work at it, to face each moment of every day in the light of its inspiration…is to come to know at last true joy and peace of heart, secure in the knowledge we are attempting always and in everything to do God’s will, the only purpose for which we exist, the end for which alone we were created. There is no greater security a man could ask, no greater serenity a man could know.