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I Do Not See the Road Ahead of Me
Reflections from Spiritual Masters (and Princess Anna) on Feeling Lost
Job loss and the ensuing job search, especially when your skills and experience are as particular as those of a theology professor, often feels like you’re trying to make your way without a clearly marked path. You don’t know where you’re headed, you sometimes get turned away, often without knowing exactly why, and it’s not clear how everything is going to work out. It makes me want to cry out, like Anna in Frozen 2:
You are lost, hope is gone,
But you must go on,
And do the next right thing.
Take a step, step again,
It is all that I can,
To do the next right thing.
Of course, it’s not just the job search that can lead to these feelings. Any time we feel lost or abandoned, for example with the death of a loved one, the onset of life-changing illness, or divorce, for example, can leave us not sure where to place our next step.
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I’ve written quite a bit on St. Francis de Sales in this newsletter, both because I find him theologically interesting and spiritually nourishing. One passage from his Treatise on the Love of God seems especially appropriate as an accompaniment for these feelings of being lost. He writes:
And we ourselves, . . . as little children of the heavenly Father, may walk with him in two ways. For we may, in the first place, walk with the steps of our own will which we conform to his, holding always with the hand of our obedience the hand of his divine intention, and following it wheresoever it leads,—which is what God requires from us by the signification of his will [this is a scholastic term for God’s commandments, precepts, and prohibitions]: for since he wills me to do what he ordains, he wills me to have the will to do it: God has signified that he wills me to keep holy the day of rest; since he wills me to do it, he wills then that I will to do it, and that for this end I should have a will of my own, by which I follow his, conforming myself and corresponding to his. But we may on other occasions walk with our Saviour without any will of our own, letting ourselves simply be carried at his divine good pleasure, as a little child in its mother’s arms, by a certain kind of consent which may be termed union or rather unity of our heart with God’s;—and this is the way that we are to endeavour to comport ourselves in God’s will of good-pleasure [another scholastic term referring to God’s will as it is executed, what God in facts wills or allows to happen], since the effects of this will of good-pleasure proceed purely from his Providence, and we do not effect them, but they happen to us. True it is we may will them to come according to God’s will, and this willing is excellent; yet we may also receive the events of heaven’s good pleasure by a most simple tranquility of our will, which, willing nothing whatever, simply acquiesces in all that God would have done in us, on us, or by us.
This passage is a bit dense, but what de Sales is saying is that, first of all, we should always strive to do God’s will. Sometimes we know God’s will, for example, when we know that God forbids a certain course of action, or when justice requires us to do something. In these cases, we should cooperate with, or conform our will to, God’s will. In other cases, however, we don’t know God’s will, or face circumstances beyond our control, and so we abandon ourselves to God’s will, “letting ourselves simply be carried at his divine good pleasure.” We will nothing but that God’s will be done.
When I first read this passage a few months ago, the first thing it made me think of was the famous poem “Footprints in the Sand,” or just “Footprints,” best known from countless inspirational posters and computer wallpapers. Amazingly, although a version of the poem was first published in 1978, there are many variations of the poem and multiple claims to authorship. As probably everyone knows, in the poem, a person looks back on their life and sees two sets of footprints in the sand, one their own and one belonging to Jesus. In the most difficult moments of their life, however, there was only one set of footprints. Feeling abandoned, the person asks Jesus about this, and he responds, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
I laughed when I made this connection, but de Sales does describe our conformity to God’s will in terms of walking with God, and he very clearly contrasts moments where we are holding hands with God, our will cooperating with His, with those where we are carried along by God’s will.
On the other hand, de Sales’s point here is not necessarily to contrast life’s difficult moments, the “times of trial and suffering,” with the easier moments in life. The two ways of walking with God may both occur throughout our lives, and sometimes they may even occur at the same time.
The more I thought about it, the more I noticed a similarity between the passage from de Sales’s Treatise and another famous Christian verse known from inspirational posters and Hallmark cards, the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
The Serenity Prayer has been attributed both to the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his student Winnifred Crane Wygal. Regardless of the author, the prayer certainly expresses important insights from Niebuhr’s theology. In his The Nature and Destiny of Man, he explains that each of us, because of the tension that exists within us between our transcendence and our finitude, is tempted by pride, a tendency to deny our limitations and overestimate our ability to make the world in our image, but also by the sin of sloth, a tendency to refuse to take responsibility for ourselves and our world and to passively submit to the various forces shaping our lives. The Serenity Prayer, then, asks God for help in recognizing our limitations but also the courage to take responsibility for the things that are within our power. Unlike with “Footprints,” the distinction is not between moments of suffering and difficulty and less challenging times, but between what is within our will’s power and what is not.
Both the Serenity Prayer and de Sales’s reflections on walking with God capture that there are some things God holds us responsible for, and we therefore have a moral obligation to act on them. The most striking similarity is de Sale’s insistence that in our lives, there are some things that “we do not effect . . . , but they happen to us,” and whether good or bad, we must “receive” them with “a most simple tranquility.” I don’t think either Niebuhr or de Sales should be interpreted as suggesting that we should be indifferent to evil in the world, the terrible things that “happen to us” or others; after all, both speak of our responsibility to act courageously when justice requires it. Both authors are advising that seeking to control things that are, in fact, beyond our control simply adds to suffering, both for ourselves and others.
Francis de Sales was a major influence on the early 18th-century Jesuit spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade. In his most famous work, Abandonment to Divine Providence, de Caussade provides what I think is a pithy summary of de Sales’s insight:
If the business of becoming holy seems to present insufferable difficulties, it is merely because we have a wrong idea about it. In reality, holiness consists of one thing only: complete loyalty to God’s will. Now everyone can practice this loyalty, whether actively or passively.
To be actively loyal means obeying the laws of God and the Church and fulfilling all the duties imposed on us by our way of life. Passive loyalty means that we lovingly accept all that God sends us at each moment of the day.
In the rest of the book, de Caussade goes on to explain this second kind of “passive loyalty” to God’s will, which he also refers to as “abandonment to divine providence,” as the book’s title suggests. He gives less attention, however, to what he calls here “active loyalty,” and this has led to the erroneous charge that de Caussade advocates for a kind of total passivity. On the contrary, he is suggesting that we have a responsibility to take action based on the responsibilities before us in the moment, but likewise trust that whatever befalls us, whether good or bad, will in some way be a source of grace, if we are open to it.
I think a well-known prayer by Thomas Merton, sometimes simply referred to as “The Merton Prayer,” expresses much the same thing, and I think sums up well what I think are the key points in this post:
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.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
I didn’t really “get” this prayer until recently. I’m tempted to say that’s because until recently I always thought I had some idea where I was going, although in hindsight I recognize that was an illusion. But I think what put me off was the statement that “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” I think, like de Caussade’s critics, I read that in a sort if antinomian way, but now I have a better sense that he means much the same thing that de Caussade meant, that when we have reached the limit of what we know and what we have control over, we must abandon ourselves totally to the desire for God that God has planted in us.
I am especially touched by Merton’s belief that “I may know nothing about” the “right road” down which God leads. I think in my own job search, the desire to know what God has in store, what God wants from me, when it is not at all clear, has been among the most difficult struggles, and so the insights from de Sales, de Caussade, and Merton mentioned here have been a consolation. I hope they are also helpful for readers who may feel lost or spiritually abandoned. I think these insights are also theologically challenging, however, and I hope to wrestle with some of the questions they raise for me about divine providence and human agency in my work at some point in the future. Let me know in the comments how you react to de Sales, de Caussade, and Merton (or Anna)!
Last week, I interviewed Dr. Hosffman Ospino about, among other things, his research on Latino/a Catholic young people. In a great article for America, J.D. Long-García interviews three young Hispanic leaders who will be attending the Synod on Synodality this October about what they want to see the Synod accomplish and what they think the Church more generally should do to reach young people, especially young Latinos and Latinas. I think their responses complement Ospino’s insights.
In an interesting exchange, also in America, John Slattery and Juan V. Fernández de la Gala debate what the Jesuit paleontologist and theological writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin meant by “eugenics” in his theological works. This is not a topic I know much about, but I found the exchange fascinating. The exchange comes in response to an earlier article by Fernández de la Gala on Teilhard’s Mass on the World.
At Commonweal, Massimo Faggioli has some detailed reflections on the tensions between academic theologians, the Roman Curia, and Francis’s leadership style and attitudes toward academic theology. Faggioli looks particularly at the case of Martin Lintner, a moral theologian who was recently denied the position of dean at the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone in northern Italy after a negative decision by the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education, as well as Pope Francis’s remarks to Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández upon the latter’s appointment as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which I also commented on here.
Probably my favorite update from the past two weeks is the news out of El Salvador that, according to San Salvador Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas, the Salvadoran episcopal conference has opened the canonization cause of the Jesuit martyrs, their housekeeper, and her daughter killed by Salvadoran soldiers in 1989. This includes Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., the then rector of the University of Central America and, in my opinion, one of the greatest theologians of the second half of the twentieth century.
I apologize that for the past couple of weeks my second post of the week has come a bit late. This was due to circumstances beyond my control. This week’s second post should come on time, although topic TBD.
I will pick up the Synod on Synodality World Tour next week with a look at the continent of Africa, beginning with an analysis of Africa’s continental document.
Also, I am happy to say that next week I will start teaching two theology courses at Divine Word College and Seminary in Epworth, Iowa, and I will also be teaching at Northeast Iowa Community College, our local community college, this fall. Although that is good news, it is going to make it more stressful to keep up with the Window Light newsletter. I’m committed to keeping it going, but I’ll need to adjust the time I devote to writing and the publication dates each week.