I remember very distinctly when my idealized vision of my life in my twenties came in curt confrontation with the reality of my situation. Whereas most people during this time are getting started in their careers post-college and working their way up the ladder, meeting people to match up for a future together, and buying their first house, I was going in the opposite direction–quitting my job, giving away everything I owned, and buying not a house but a school bus to live in.
For ten years–from the age of 19 to 29–I wanted more than anything to be a monk. Not just wanted to be a monk, but wanted to be called to be a monk. The pursuit of what I thought was a calling seemed like a noble one–not from a worldly perspective of course, but from a spiritual investment standpoint. Objectively, I had “chosen the better part.” And so surely it must be God’s will because it was what I wanted, what I thought I wanted.
When I actually did apply to be a postulate at a contemplative Benedictine community after my observership was completed, and was turned down, I was crestfallen. As an alternative, I decided to go the “DIY monastic” route and bought a school bus to convert to an urban hermitage where I would eat, sleep, read, and pray in monastic fashion. I worked for weeks outside of my apartment as my lease expiration loomed. I removed the seats, built cabinets, bed, and desk, laid flooring, and had everything set (except a place to park it). When I actually got down to the quasi-monastic life, though, I realized something–I was not happy.
The analogy I have always used to describe this experience that seemed to describe it best was akin to finding the shirt you always wanted at the local thrift store, trying it on, and finding that it’s one size smaller that what you typically wear. You can make it work if you walk out of the store with it. But then you begin to notice it chaffs under the arms, rides up an inch too much at the waist, and is just snug enough to be uncomfortable. It looks great–it just doesn’t fit. Because it wasn’t made for you.
You could use the ‘trying to fit a square peg in a round hole’ analogy, but it doesn’t quite work because no matter what you do in that situation, you can’t ram it through. It would be almost easier if it was like this, because the fact that you have the wrong piece would be apparent from the start. You wouldn’t spend ten years trying to make it so (that would almost be an apt description of a kind of insanity).
You could use the ‘puzzle piece’ analogy, which is closer to the mark, but that isn’t quite it either. You know, when you find a ‘close but not cigar’ piece in a puzzle, and it’s almost the one you are looking for, but you’d have to slam your fist down on the table to force it, which would distort the edges and present an inaccurate picture.
No, I think the shirt analogy works best in this circumstance. You want to look good. You found a good deal on a great brand. Surely, it should fit, despite the label saying ‘S’ rather than ‘M.’ The stitches aren’t breaking, the buttons aren’t popping off. You can tolerate the discomfort to an extent, but it’s far from fitting like a glove. You always kind of feel it, even if you convince yourself otherwise.
When we don’t pay attention to these things, these little chaffings, we can sometimes miss the ways in which God is telling us “this isn’t for you. I have something set aside for you. But you have to trust me.” Because God rarely speaks to us audibly, we have to rely on these signs and signals to discern whether we are trying to conform our will to God’s, or God’s will to our life.
St. Alphonsus speaks of this when he writes of the difference between conformity and uniformity with God’s will.
“Conformity signifies that we join our wills to the will of God. Uniformity means more–it means that we make one will of God’s will and ours, so that we will only what God wills; that God’s will alone, is our will. This is the summit of perfection and to it we should always aspire; this should be the goal of all our works, desires, meditations and prayers.”
Uniformity is the “more perfect way,” the better part (between good and better) that our Lord relates to Martha and Mary. It is beholden to the attainment by saints and mystics, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be our aspiration as well.
Here in the world, in the day-to-day, our seemingly noble and holy actions of attempted abandonment can sometimes be held up so that we present them to the Lord expecting Him to bless them, when in fact, He wants something else of us entirely. Like saying, “I will prepare the altar for you, Lord,” when He really needs the monastery toilets scrubbed. Or whatever.
Think of the testing of Abraham. The Lord tests his faith by demanding his most precious property–his son Isaac. At the moment of sacrifice, when there was no doubt Abraham had the butt of the knife ready to bury within the flesh of his son, an angel comes to tell him to back it off. Would Abraham had responded, “no, begone demon who appears as an angel of light! For it is God’s will that I slaughter, though I do not understand it, and I will do God’s will as He has asked.”
But that’s not what happens. Abraham pivots, and is awash in relief. Not only that, He has pleased the Lord by His obedience and abandonment to the Divine will as it was given to him. If the news media were there to throw shade, they may take a snapshot out of context and print, “God told you to sacrifice your son Issac with the knife, and that didn’t happen, so obviously you did not follow through and accomplish His holy will.”
Did God’s will change? Well, yes and no. God was seeking faith and obedience, and that Abraham supplied in full measure. And yet the action to accomplish and live out that faith and obedience did change. Were Abraham plow through with what he thought to be God’s will after the angel holds back his arm by decree, he would have lost the blessing of such obedience, and the subsequent inheritance for generations to come.
This is what can be so deceptively difficult in following God’s will, compounded in proportion to the extent that we are not praying and paying attention. We may charge ahead with our ideas–“I will become a monk and be holy!” “I will marry John because he is such a good Catholic man!” “I will become a missionary in Africa and save God’s orphans!” But maybe God wants you to be a father; maybe he wants you to marry Maurice, the air conditioner repairman; maybe he wants you to get your rear end back to work at your computer programming job.” Who knows. But you get the idea.
“The shirt that never was” can be a painful experience, because it scrambles our holy expectations of our life the way we envision it. When we think we are doing God’s will, and God says, “no, not this way,” we can feel the pain of the virtuous plate of doing God’s will being pulled off the table. And so what are we left with? Often something unexpected, or more waiting (which causes suffering), or something not in accordance with our own will. When we pray for x and get y instead, it can be hard to reconcile. This is why it takes an attuning of the heart to be assured that doing something contra to God’s will, even something holy and virtuous, will not ultimately give us the peace we seek, but will chaff ever so slightly.
Remember, Abraham pivoted in faith. He was not “rigid” (again with the rigid!) so as to keep God’s command in this instance immovable and sealed in amber. Amber-ensconced artifacts belong in museums. God’s Word and command is not a dead historic letter, but a living, speaking language that is alive and speaks to us differently in different circumstances of our life. God’s will for you yesterday may not always be His will for you tomorrow. If we persist in our will contra to God’s, we will not have the peace we seek, we will only have a pious veneer. But if we conform and unite our will with God’s, and are willing to pivot and carry it out even when it bears no resemblance to what we think it was supposed to look like, we may in time know the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding.