The will of God is the road to sanctity

The Church today suffers from a lack of saints and so it follows that the world suffers also. It was said that the devil was once forced to admit to St John Vianney that “If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom would be ruined.” Here we see the power of a holy person of God, for it follows that if there were many saints, then Satan’s kingdom, through the power of Christ within them, would be defeated and he would be chained. 

will of God - St John Vianney

Why aren’t there more saints? There aren’t many saints because the road to sanctity is blocked by the detritus of our attachments, our love of the world and our comforts. This is an especially galling problem in the West – we live like kings of old, yet we still complain and moan about our lot. Attachments quench the fire of love and devotion to Christ, and our idols are chains around our ankles which keep us from climbing the mountain of perfection. 

We cannot be trusting little children of the Father if we are attached to the things of this world. How could we be? If we are attached to something, it will always generate fear in our hearts – fear that we will lose that which we are attached to. If perfect love casts out fear, then it follows that fear diminishes love. We cannot give ourselves lovingly to the Father if we are fearful He will ask us to give up something we love. This puts God on the same level as the thing we are attached to – we bargain the infinite God of the universe, giving Himself and all He has to us, for a lousy mess of pottage (Gen 25:29-35). Listen to what St John of the Cross has to say about this:

He who loves any other thing with God makes light of Him, because he puts into the balance with Him that which is infinitely beneath Him. We know by experience that the will, when set on a particular object, magnifies it above all others, if it has no pleasure in them, though they may be of greater importance than what it desires. And if it should desire two things together, it does wrong to the chief of the two, because it establishes an unjust equality between them. There is nothing in the whole world to be compared with God; and, therefore, he who loves anything together with Him, wrongs Him. And if this be true, what does he do who loves anything more than God?

St John of the Cross – Ascent of Mount Carmel

Isn’t this rank idolatry – putting some created thing before God? Aren’t we dancing around in front of a pretty but lifeless golden calf whenever we weigh up some created good in the balance with Almighty God? How can this not sadden the heart of Jesus, who poured out every drop of His blood for us, so that He could not only live in us but also give us a share in His own work and glory? After this immense proof of love, we are still protective of ourselves – we don’t trust Him enough to believe that He has something even greater in store for us if we give all things to Him and become His disciples. This lack of trust greatly pains Jesus, as He revealed to St Faustina:

How painfully distrust of My goodness wounds Me! Sins of distrust wound Me most painfully.

St Faustina – Diary entry 1076

Our selfish attachments weigh down our souls and depress us, making us sluggish and depriving us of the light joyfulness of children. I think we all, deep down, desire this joy. But we are fearful, wounded creatures instead of being saintly people who move through life in the trusting freedom given to them by God. 

Not only do our attachments weigh us down and make us fearful and depressed, they also block us from joyfully doing the will of God. But God’s will is ultimately the same as His love, so if we are not united to His will we do not have the fullness of His love (the Spirit)  in us. Listen to what St Paul says in Romans 8:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:5-6

If we wish to have an abundant life with the peace of Christ, then we must no longer set our minds on the things of the flesh. What does this mean? Does it mean that we no longer concern ourselves with anything to do with the body, or our material life? By no means. It simply highlights that we don’t “set our minds” on these things. In other words, our overriding concern should be with the Spirit and what He wishes us to do. We “set” all our intentions on pleasing and glorifying God instead of pleasing our attachments, our appetites and so on. Then we will be at peace, because all of what we do and what is done to us is in the will of God who loves us, and has promised to take care of us. 

This is the path to sanctity, setting our minds on the will of God and being joyful and thankful in all things (1 Thes 5:16-18). Good things come our way? We give thanks and are joyful. Pains and sufferings come our way? We unite them to Jesus’ sufferings, accept them as God’s loving will and pruning (John 15:2), and we give thanks and are joyful. 

Let us consider what the great spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade has to say:

 In reality sanctity can be reduced to one single practice, fidelity to the duties appointed by God. 

Jean-Pierre de Caussade – Abandonment to Divine Providence

Here we see that the road to sanctity is actually quite a clear path – it is being faithful to God in all our daily duties. Caussade teaches that there are two components to this – a passive and an active component. On the passive component:

Its passive exercise consists in the loving acceptance of all that God sends us at each moment.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade – Abandonment to Divine Providence

The heroic aspect of this passive part of the path to sanctity is the “loving acceptance” of all God sends to us. The kids are being hyperactive and driving you to insanity? Say “thy will be done” and lovingly embrace your suffering – this is the will of God for you in this moment, and it is being allowed for your own benefit. However, to do this successfully you must be detached from external peace in your house. You have been given some frustratingly boring project to complete at work? Say “thy will be done” and do your best in accomplishing the work regardless, in peace and recollection. Again, this will be impossible if you are attached to your feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and perhaps recognition you receive at work. Your first response will be to rail against the will of God that is being presented to you in this moment.

The active component of the practice proposed by Caussade consists in the daily fidelity of the soul to the tasks appropriate to its state in life. If the soul’s state in life is the married vocation, this will consist in the daily work, joys and hardships of the married life. If it is the priestly life, it is the daily duties, works, joys and hardships of the priestly life… and so on. It also consists of keeping the commandments of God and the Church. 

To become holy then, to become the saints that God wants us to be, we need only open our mouths and be filled with the goodness of His will in every moment [1]. For the significant majority of the time, this will involve simply and joyfully accepting all that comes during the daily duties and life of our chosen vocation. Sometimes He will offer a deeper invitation into His will through inspirations, and we should be prompt in responding to these. But on the whole, sanctity consists in accepting our daily crosses and joys, giving thanks and praising God for His goodness in all things. It does not require excessive penances and mortifications that we sometimes read in the lives of the saints (though God calls some people to these types of sacrifices).  

Listen to what St Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, has to say:

Jesus does not ask for great deeds, but only for gratitude and self-surrender…Offer to God the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. [Ps 50]

The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, in Therese’s view, is not a sacrifice of great deeds but a sacrifice of gratitude and self-surrender. Gratitude is being thankful to the Lord in all things. It involves great trust (Jesus, I trust in You! [2]), understanding that even in our crosses God is acting lovingly towards us and as such we should have gratitude in both good times and bad. Self-surrender is the giving of oneself completely to God and to others through Him. Again, this involves the great trust of a child towards his or her loving Father. If we have that trust we can give our whole will to God and not be afraid that He will mistreat us. Then we will be able to joyfully do and accept His will.

If, over and above the Commandments, He shows us the counsels as a more perfect aim, He always takes care to suit the practice of them to our position and character. He bestows on us, as the principal sign of our vocation to follow them, the attractions of grace which make them easy. He never impels anyone beyond his strength, nor in any way beyond his aptitude.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade – Abandonment to Divine Providence

We have no reason to fear then, but, like St Therese did, we must entrust ourselves like a little child to the will of the Father, and be at peace. 

You may wonder how these two things (gratitude and self-surrender) relate to the mortification of our appetites and the relinquishing of our attachments. As I mentioned above, it is not possible to have gratitude when God considers it suitable to take away something we are attached to. We will not say to the Lord, “thank you Father, I know you love me, thy will be done” – no, we will kick and scream and have a tantrum (we shouldn’t be that kind of child!), accusing Him of being unjust to us. Likewise, we will not willingly entrust our whole selves to God in an act of self-surrender if we are fearful that He will take things that we are attached to away from us. 

So we can see that our attachments and following the will of God perfectly are inimical to each other. But isn’t the path of complete detachment an “extraordinary” way, something reserved for the most ascetic of saints and beyond us “normal” people? And if so, how can this be the “easy”, simple, way that Caussade counsels? How does this square with St Therese saying that sanctity does not consist in “great deeds”? 

My understanding is as follows. The idea that we are to be selfishly attached to nothing created is certain, for it is divinely revealed by Christ Himself:

So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. 

Luke 14:33

So, under the command of our Lord, we must renounce everything – giving it all to our loving Father. So the question is – does renouncing everything amount to a “great deed”? The answer, I believe, lies with St John of the Cross:

The least act of pure love is of more value to her than all other works together.

St John of the Cross

The Blessed Mother performed no “great deeds”, if we understand great deeds to mean deeds of great renown, like evangelising vast numbers of people, or founding many new religious congregations, or feeding thousands of the poor. She didn’t perform deeds like these, but she did perform deeds of great love, and we can all perform these deeds within our “normal” little lives. The handmaid was completely God’s, completely sacrificed to Him, yet for most of her life she was engaged in the simple acts of a mother in the home. Picture the home of the Holy Family, how much love and deeds of humble, selfless service that family performed for one another – what a source of grace this humble home provided. 

Some practical ideas

So how can we learn to detach ourselves from all things in life, through our life of humble, “normal”, deeds? Only the Holy Spirit can show us this in the individual circumstances of our lives, but here are some ideas that you may like to ponder.

First, whenever we get irritated or anxious about something, this is a sign that we are attached to something. A life living in the will of God should be full of peace, not anger or anxieties. So let’s say we are reading a book or watching a TV show, and the kids come and want something from us. If we get annoyed at them, this means we have some selfish attachment to the activity we are doing. At all times we should foster an attitude of indifference towards our actions – we should be indifferent to whether we are spending our time watching TV or helping the kids. 

Obviously this level of indifference is the goal of perfection, and we may never get there, but this is what we should strive towards. In the mean time, offer up the suffering and sacrifice in union with Christ’s sufferings. God want’s all of us, even our weaknesses. If fostering this level of indifference sounds like a drag to you, fear not – your life will actually be much more peaceful and enjoyable if, in every activity, you can be joyful in doing whatever actions God has ordained for you. No matter what they are. We can see here this small little aspect of our daily life – being disrupted in our leisure time by the children – can be a means by which we can express great love and great detachment. 

Second, consider your daily habits. If you have a habit that you secretly wonder whether you might be attached to, consider dropping it. If, when you try to drop it, you discover that your mind becomes disturbed and filled with lots of little justifications of why you should maintain the habit – chances are you are attached to it. Let’s say you have a habit of drinking a cup of coffee every morning (hint: this is me). Let’s also say you make a resolution to skip your morning coffee every so often – if, in considering this resolution, you find yourself a bit worried about it, and / or you find yourself filled with lots of excuses why you shouldn’t (e.g. “I will be too tired to say my morning prayers without it”), then you have probably confirmed an attachment. This is where you may ask St Joseph or St John of the Cross to pray for you for the grace to actually drop it for a few days. You will discover, to your gladness, that after the first one or two days where it is painful, you don’t mind skipping the ritual at all. You may also feel a greater sense of lightness, of peace. 

Third, consider what most frequently churns your stomach with worry. This, again, is a signal to you of what you are attached to. Are you worried about getting your work project completed on time? Examine the reasons why you are worried. Is it because you are concerned that your reputation will be damaged if you don’t complete it in time? Then you are attached to people thinking highly of you. Is it because you are worried about losing your job and feeding your family? Then you are attached to having control over your life and the life of your family – you lack trust in God who said not to worry about these things. You could also be attached to your material possessions and are anxious about potentially losing them. By offering these worries to God, and praying for greater humility or trust, you can overcome these anxieties (the Rosary is a beautiful and plentiful source of grace). Again, we have an example of how our actions in everyday life can lead us to the freedom of the living in the will of God and great detachment. 

Fourth, what is it that you complain about? Complaining results from not being at peace with God’s will in your life. It is the result of being frustrated that God is interfering with something you are attached to in your life. In your nightly review of your day, pay special attention to whatever it is that you complained about that day. If you complained about forgetting your umbrella and getting soaked in the rain at school pickup, it may be because you are attached to being comfortable all the time. Or, it could be that you are attached to being comforted by or sympathised over by other people. Ask God to give you the grace to dance in the rain, giving thanks that you have some small suffering to offer up to God for the salvation of souls. 

The importance of grace

Of course, all of this is too difficult for us without the grace of God. That is why prayer is so important – we need to beg God and our favourite intercessors to give us the grace to become detached from all things, so that we may joyfully do, and consent to, the will of God at all times. Then we will be as free as little children and as light as sparrows. Did I mention the Rosary already?

If we can become detached from created things, and live for God alone, we will experience great peace, tranquillity and spiritual sweetness in our life. However, we will receive something even greater – let’s finish on the following reading from the Gospel of John:

If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

John 14:23

If we keep Christ’s word, then the Holy Trinity will come and make their home in us. This is the true prize, the treasure in the field that we should sell everything we have (detach ourselves from all) to obtain. 

[1] Wilfrid Stinissen, Into Your Hands, Father, page 19

[2] The message of trust on the Image of Divine Mercy

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