The other day I was re-skimming one of my favorite books, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality by Paul Murray, OP. I’d marked tons of passages throughout the book with stars and brackets, but as I went through it again, one in particular caught my attention. Murray writes:
[C]onsidering God not so much as an ‘object’ outside of ourselves, for whose greater glory we undertake all our different works, but rather as a ‘subject’ alive within and around us, a divine Presence, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being, ‘ is a notion explored in No Man is an Island by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Inspired — Merton tells us — by something he read in the work of Johannes Tauler, the medieval Dominican mystic and preacher, he makes a distinction between two kinds of intention, a right intention and a simple intention. When we have a right intention, Merton says, ‘we seek to do God’s will’ but ‘we consider the work and ourselves apart from God and outside of Him.’ But ‘when we have a simple intention, we…do all that we do not only for God but, so to speak, in Him. We are more aware of Him who works in us than of ourselves or of our work.’
Interesting. Now, such a seemingly esoteric distinction is further into the deep end of the theological swimming pool than I normally dare to wade. But this idea of right intention vs. simple intention really jumped out at me as something I should think more about.
Here’s an example to highlight how I’ve come to understand the difference between these two concepts:
Let’s say I’m sitting here at my desk, and I glance out the window to see my neighbor leaning on crutches to get from her car to her house. That reminds me that she just had surgery on her ankle, and I heard she’ll have to be off her feet for a few weeks.
In the mindset of RIGHT INTENTION…I might think, “I see that my neighbor is in need! I’ll go over there and tell her I’ll bring her dinner tomorrow night, as well as twice a week for the next couple of weeks.” Because I have analyzed the situation, and determined that this is the right thing to do.
In the mindset of SIMPLE INTENTION…it would be less calculated. I would think, “I see that my neighbor is in need!” Then I’d simply rise from my seat, walk out the front door, consciously inviting God to be in this moment with me. I’d be carried along by love rather than by any specific goal. I wouldn’t have a plan for what I’d say when I encountered her, which would leave me open to let the Spirit move me in the moment.
Who knows, maybe she really doesn’t need or want meals, but is desperate for someone to walk her dog, or vacuum her living room. And if I went over with the more rigid, right intention mentality, I could miss all of that because I was so focused on executing on this plan I have for doing the right thing.
This is definitely my default; I live mostly in this right intention frame of mind. As Fr. Murray points out, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not that the right intention mindset is all bad and the simple intention one is all good; both can be paths to holiness. But understanding that these two different approaches exist — and having their distinctions so clearly articulated — has been helpful to me.
I tend to be overly analytical, so I’ve been trying to relax into a more simple intention mindset. I think that this is the perfect thing to work on during Advent, a season when it’s tempting to get completely overwhelmed by right-intentioned activities that we’re trying to do for God. Because, as Thomas Merton and Fr. Murray point out, to adopt a mindset of only simple intentions is to shift from focusing on the work we’re doing for God, to focusing simply on God himself.