by Holly Mohr
“A lot of the time, we try to get God to bless our will, rather than seeking God’s will,” the priest said.
It was a line in a good homily, a homily that was well-considered, authentic, even funny at times.
But that phrase: our will, RATHER than God’s will. Let’s file it under “ideas that kept me cowering in fear for years.”
To be fair, there’s something true and important contained in the warning to seek God’s will rather than just our own.
There are absolutely times I cling to an idea, a desire, an outcome, not because it’s the right thing, but because I’m white-knuckling it through life that day. Those are the times I’m terrified, or overwhelmed, the times I’m allowing my own concerns (or the concerns of my own family, workplace, friend group) to take precedence over the needs of the world around me. Those are the times my vision is narrow, lacking in bandwidth, imagination, or hope. In those moments, I cry out to God in a frenzy, begging him to make life different than it is, to bend the laws of reality to accommodate my fragile sense of what’s necessary.
There’s a thinness and a hysteria to that kind of prayer, as well as a violent desperation. It brings me back to being a five-year-old at the carnival that only came through town once a year, where I would cry out for the giant lollipop that would absolutely ruin my dinner. I couldn’t envision happiness without it, so I would sob and scream myself into goopy ruin.
This “Santa/Tooth Fairy/Genie-fication” of God doesn’t tell the whole story of our relationship with God, though, does it? While it’s true that my trying to wheedle the Divine into a higher-stakes lollipop is an impoverished use of prayer, surely my basest self isn’t my only, truest, self.
In recent years, I have begun to allow myself to notice that sometimes my will and God’s will are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That is, just because I want something does not mean God automatically does not want it. I may, in fact, actually desire God’s will.
I’ve been finding the courage to notice that seeking the will of God can be about seeking what is true, and tender, and strong, and beautiful. When I honor where my deep joy lies, it may not be crazy to imagine that some of God’s will lies there too.
In college, I came upon a Catholic movement called Communion and Liberation, founded by an Italian priest, Luigi Giussani. While ultimately a pretty traditional group, some of Giussani’s teachings were paradigm-shifting for me. The one that’s stuck with me the most is his emphasis that we can find God in the deepest desires of our hearts.
Formed in a Kantian-inflected Catholicism, it felt revolutionary, even scandalous, to imagine that my desires could possibly be trusted in any instance at all. (Isn’t desire intrinsically dangerous, selfish, explosive)?!
And not even just trusted, but serve as the very locus of God’s incarnation in my life? Whoa.
Suddenly, I had permission to look for God in all places, even the deepest seat of my own heart.
As it happens, this “revolutionary-to-me” thought is deeply woven into the fabric of the Christian tradition. Seeking God in the truth of our hearts and desires is a big part of what we mean by “discernment,” that process of testing what is true and right, both within ourselves and in the situations we encounter.
In his work, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks to the tension of trusting that God is working through our choices, while realizing we can’t presume to comprehend or totalize God’s will. God’s will is Other, always on the horizon, always more than we can grasp. Yet we are invited to participate in it with our lives:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.”
It is possible to conceive that God may actually be pleased with me. With you. With the lives we are co-creating together.
There’s a Jesuit prayer attributed to Pedro Arrupe that follows upon this theme of joyfully seeking and creating life with God. In the prayer, we get the sense that “doing God’s will” is not to bleakly ignore what we love, but to move headlong into it. The prayer invites us to trust that love is where God is, even Who God is:
“Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.”
It’s not just Merton and Arrupe who audaciously suggest we can find God within ourselves, inside the lives and the loves we’re already building. Jesus invites us to hear blessing, not curse, when we turn our eyes to heaven.
Do I have the courage to hear what Jesus hears as he’s baptized in the Jordan?
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3: 22).
Dare I hear those words too, about my will, my heart, my life?
You are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.
I’m working on it. I’m listening.