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The rule of life, then, for the Catholic who would live the fullness of his life is to seek Christ and to be united to Him, by daily prayer, by daily reading and reflection, by the frequent use of the sacraments, especially of the Blessed Eucharist, and by doing the will of God. No higher program is necessary to reach sanctity. Anyone of whom it could be said at the end of his life—“he did the will of God”—is perfect.

And we must be clear about this; there is no other way of being perfect. All the exercises of religion we have mentioned—prayer, reading, the sacraments, daily Communion, the Mass—however holy in themselves are only means to an end. Their use and practice, however frequent and fervent, do not constitute holiness. They are a great help to holiness, but holiness itself is something quite different. Holiness is something which affects every moment of our life, something which is rooted in the depths of our being. It is a permanent union with God, a constant abiding in Christ by lovingly doing His will, always and in all things.

This alone will make our life fruitful. We see the saints praised for their great works; we are told of their great talents, their organizing ability, their keenness of intellect, their excellence of judgment, their literary skill, and their extensive learning. They are famous for their ingenuity, their originality, their initiative, their miracles, their apostolic success, their power over souls. In a word, they are presented to us as great men and women. And we are tempted to think that the possession or the achievement of such greatness, if it is not holiness itself, is at least an essential part of it. The truth is quite otherwise. In point of fact, while some of the saints had some of these things, yet none of these things is sanctity. For sanctity, as revealed to us by our Lord’s teaching and example, is to live in union with Him by faith, by hope, by love, by humility, and by complete abandonment to His will. It is important then to consider the doing of the will of God from the point of view of daily practice.

The primary revelation of the will of God is in His commandments, in the commandments of His Church, and in all those just laws and genuine duties which bind us to action. “All power is from God.” Where lawful authority lawfully orders, there faith hears the voice of God. The first step in carrying out God’s will is to avoid mortal sin. Where there is a habit of mortal sin which one does not intend to give up, there is no spiritual life. Such a soul is dead. If a man is in that state, he has urgent need of making a good confession and deciding to fight manfully against his bad habits. The fight may not be easy; he may, perhaps, even fall again; but he must be resolutely determined that even if he falls down again, he will not stay down, and he must follow out that determination grimly. Mortal sin must be regarded as the greatest possible evil—one to be avoided at all or any cost. On that point there can be no compromise.

The next stage of progress is that of one who has normally only venial sins to confess. Here the plan should be to attack any habit there may be of committing some particular venial sin. A daily examination of conscience is an excellent way of getting rid of such habits. And if only one such habit were broken in a year, the advance would be considerable. For the whole general health of the soul would have improved greatly as a result of the continual effort to overcome even one habit. Other habits would be found to have weakened. It is always the first battle that is the most difficult. In winning it, one has gone more than halfway to winning the next one.

The next stage would be where deliberate venial sins are unusual, and, when they do occur, are rather the result of momentary weakness than of a set policy of not avoiding particular faults because “they are only venial sins.” The determination never to offend God deliberately forms itself as a result of reading and reflection and daily contact with God in prayer. This determination will do much to give one a positive rule of action for each day. But if one is in earnest about seeking Christ and living the life of Christ, one will wish for some indication of God’s will which will cover the whole day.

This is the difficult point in the layman’s life. A religious has a vow of obedience, and his day’s work is appointed for him by a superior. He has absolute certainty that the work appointed for him is God’s will, and all he has to do is to carry it out with as much purity of motive and of intention as he can. That is one reason why as a state, the religious state is the more perfect. For that reason when the desire to seek God and to live for Him alone comes to a man in his youth, the question of entering religion often presents itself. This is not the place to discuss religious vocations. Where there is doubt about one’s vocation in an individual case, counsel must be sought. But there are many men whose circumstances are such that their state in life is already settled. There are many also, who are quite unsuited for the religious state. For example, there are those for whom celibacy would be imprudent, those for whom the common life would be an unbearable burden, those for whom the continual need to seek permission from superiors would be fearful strain. There are those—and they are many—whose obligations tie them to the world. In fact, the majority of men are to live in the lay state and God has His own ways of confirming them in their vocation.

What we wish to point out here is that despite the fact that the religious state as a state is the more perfect, yet for a particular individual it may be the better thing to remain in the lay state. And it must not be thought that by doing so he renounces any vocation to perfection. All are called to perfection. Other things being equal—and they often are far from equal—the way to perfection is likely to be easier in religion, but even so, perfection is far from being impossible in the world. And at the moment, the crying need is for holiness among the laity. To be quite clear as to our terms of reference, let us say that we regard the married state as the normal one for the laity, and that it is the married man and woman whom we have particularly in mind throughout this book; we are not thinking in terms of lay recluses or hermits.

As has already been made clear, some part of the layman’s day is to be given to prayer, to reading, and to certain spiritual exercises, the most important of which is daily Mass and Holy Communion, where that is possible; if that is impossible one should try to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. However, even before these practices comes the duty of one’s state of life. Every man has to earn his bread. He may do that in various ways, but it is God’s will, generally speaking, that he should do it in some way. In doing so, he usually serves some social need, and since what he does to others, he does to Christ—in serving society he serves Christ. In the normal case, he has a family dependent upon him, and his first duty is to them. It often happens that a man’s occupation and circumstances are such that his vocation in life is quite clear. In such a case he has a clear indication of what is God’s will for him.

Sometimes the case is not so clear. Then a man may have to seek guidance by prayer and counsel. The reply may not be immediate, but where one is ready to do God’s will, God generally makes His wishes clear. If He does not, then it is His will that one should be in doubt, and He wishes one to choose as best one can. This one should do with an easy mind. In the case of those whose work is done under authority, all lawful instructions carry with them the sanction of God’s will. In the professions or in those employments where a man is his own master, the lead is not so clear, but there are generally duties and responsibilities that will indicate what God requires.

The chief difficulty arises from the fact that a man has a duty to himself, a duty to his family, a duty to his employer or client, and a duty to the society in which he lives. He does not find it easy to apportion his time and interest between these different objects. If he gives himself wholly to his profession, his family may be neglected. If he devotes himself to his family, his social obligations and works of charity may suffer. If he spends his time at spiritual exercises, all else may be neglected. Obviously, a hard and fast solution of this problem cannot be given here. Prudence, prayer, and counsel will find a solution for such a case. There are, however, certain guiding principles. A man’s family comes first, even before his private devotions. We shall discuss this point in connection with marriage, but the principle must be stated here: duty first, private devotion afterwards. And a man’s duty to his family comes before his duty to his clients or to his career. Still, although the family has a prior claim, it has not an exclusive claim, for a man has obligations towards those to whom he owes his own existence and development, to his own kindred and to the society in which he grew up. But all his obligations are ultimately to God and cannot therefore really be in mutual conflict.

The solution of such problems varies with the individual case and is not always easy. But the root of the solution lies in the cultivation of an interior life by prayer and reading and friendship with God. A man will thus acquire a supernatural outlook and standard by which he will be enabled to see where the will of God for him lies. A certain flexibility of application is necessary to meet the continual changes that characterize his circumstances. There is an obedience of charity that will frequently call for modification of his program, for the love of one’s neighbor and the readiness to help him is one of the distinguishing marks of the true Christian.

It may help the development of such an outlook to consider here the principles which determine the supernatural value of our actions. St. Thomas sums the matter up thus: “The merit of eternal life pertains primarily to charity, and secondarily to the other virtues insofar as their acts are ordered by charity.”[89] In other words, the most important part of each action is the love that animates it. To be supernaturally meritorious, an action must be done freely during life on earth, by an agent in the state of grace; the action must be supernaturally good, and one which God has promised to reward. But the important thing is the love of God that leads to the action. This love will show itself in the degree of union with our Lord and the purity of intention with which the action is performed. The action should be done for God rather than for oneself. Both in its choice as in accordance with God’s will, and in the fervor with which we devote ourselves to its performance, the love of God should be the fundamental motive. The difficulty and the duration of the action generally mean an increase of merit and value, for they call for more effort and greater love. Still, a facility acquired by the habit of doing good does not lessen the merit of actions; on the contrary, insofar as such a facility is the result of a will more deeply in love with God, it means a greater merit and value.

One must be careful not to be misled by the external splendor of achievement or even by the spiritual fruitfulness of one’s works. Both these things can be quite deceptive. The former’s is obviously mere vanity, the latter may be due to some other cause. The law of spiritual fruitfulness is a supernatural one. It is not always the priest who preaches the sermon that is responsible for the conversions produced by it. Insofar as he is the cause of its good effects, that is rather the result of his interior union with God than the excellence of his preaching. Very often the real source of his success is to be found in the prayers and sufferings of some hidden soul. The words of Pope Pius XI to the Carthusians illustrate the point:

It is easy to understand how they who assiduously fulfill the duty of prayer and penance contribute much more to the increase of the Church and the welfare of mankind than those who labor in the tilling of the Master’s field. For unless the former drew down from heaven a shower of divine graces to water the field that is being tilled, the evangelical laborers would indeed reap from their toil a more scanty crop.[90]

These words are addressed to contemplative religions, but they apply to all Christians, and if by way of adaptation we alter the pope’s phrase to “prayer and patience,” it is clear that there is an unlimited scope for fruitful labor even in the life of the laity.

In regard to the supernatural fruitfulness of good works, it must be remembered that every single step that any soul takes towards God is the result of grace. The grace comes as the result of a whole chain of causes. It must first be merited by our Lord Himself; it must like all graces pass through our Lady’s hands in some way or other; some of the saints may be involved in its impetration; some one or even many souls on earth may have had to pray and to suffer before that grace was applied to its object. It does not follow that the agent who is the instrument in applying that grace to a particular soul receives the greatest, or even any, credit for it. Should a priest who is not in the state of grace convert a soul by his preaching, none of the merit is his. Frequently, indeed, grace is brought to a soul by some apparently chance remark for which no one seems responsible. It should not, then, matter to us at what particular part of that long chain of supernatural activity God places us, nor should we be disappointed when we see no fruit for our works. Every act that unites us to God is fruitful: “He that abideth in me,” said our Lord, “the same beareth much fruit” (Jn 15:5). If we remember that the most fruitful life of any human being was that lived by our Lady, and that her life was essentially ordinary, obscure, and laborious, we shall, perhaps, find a new value in the ordinary things in the day’s round when done for God. Let us repeat the words of St. Thomas: ‘Just as in a living body the operation of one member promotes the welfare of the whole body, so it is in the spiritual (or mystical) body, which is the Church. Since all the faithful are one body the good of each is communicated to the others . . . whence it follows that whoever possesses charity, shares in all the good that is done in the whole world.”[91] To share in every thing that is being done in the Church—all we have to do is to have charity—to love God; and that in practice means to do His will, no matter how ordinary it is. And we cannot obtain any greater share by doing anything else, no matter how magnificent. If we do achieve something, the chief merit of it belongs to somebody else. Not only can we not improve on God’s plan as a plan; we cannot improve on it even as a plan for our own welfare.

There is, of course, a hierarchy of virtues and of good works; it is better to hear Mass than to fast. But that rather applies to the virtues and good works considered in themselves. Considered as part of the program of this individual person, the determining factor in their choice is a prudent submission to the will of God. Where this will is not indicated from external sources, it may be found in the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. It is not always an easy matter to recognize His voice. There are times when we feel impelled to do something, apparently by God, but the action proposed is against justice or authority, or in some way clearly wrong. Such impulses must be rejected. There are other times when, as a result of continued suggestion, we feel morally certain that God requires some particular service from us. In such cases advice is a safeguard, and in matters of importance—especially when other people are concerned in the result of our proposed action—it should always be sought. But when it is clear that we are not deceived and that it is really God who is our mentor, we should be careful to yield to His wishes.

There are, however, a number of occasions when we cannot be certain. In such cases ordinary prudence should be used, and care taken not to lose our peace of mind. God will never be angry with us for failing to follow an uncertain lead, and where His will is not clear, we should never let our doubt be a source of uneasiness to us or of estrangement from Him. He only expects a reasonable service. The same principle applies to the example of others. Sanctity is different in different persons, and the practices by which one saint has reached holiness are not necessarily the right means for someone else. We are not expected to imitate the saints in all the details of their lives, nor are all the counsels for all. As we have said above, the solution of these problems varies from one case to another and we prefer to leave the question open and even vague, rather than risk misleading one person by trying to give a definite lead to another. Prayer, meditation, and a readiness to do what God wills always bring sufficient light for the next step.

It should be noted that what are called the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, those gentle urgings towards certain practices, certain good works or certain renouncements, are quite an ordinary method of God’s action on souls, and to our mind, one that plays a very large part in His provision for the sanctification of the laity. St. Thomas, commenting on the text: “Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14), writes: “The spiritual man is not only instructed by the Holy Ghost what he should do, but his heart also is moved by the Holy Spirit.” Comparing this to the action of a higher instinct, he proceeds: “The spiritual man is inclined to do something not, as it were, by the principle of his own will, but by the instinct of the Holy Ghost.” St. Frances de Sales tells us that just as God has given animals those instincts which they need for their conversation and their natural action, so also, if we do not resist the grace of God, He will give each of us the inspirations necessary to live, to operate, and to conserve us in the spiritual life.[92]

Of course, if we have made up our mind not to do certain things, if there are certain sacrifices we have definitely decided not to make, it is no wonder if God remains silent. And if we habitually reject His advances, there is a danger that He may refrain from appealing to us. Besides, such a habit of saying “No” to God must eventually harden our heart, and there is no greater catastrophe in the spiritual life than the hardening of the heart against God. It is, however, quite a different thing to feel the difficulty of cooperating with His suggestions. He is quite prepared to listen to us telling Him that we cannot do the particular thing He seems to want us to do unless He gives us the grace and the strength, and since He is a very understanding Father, He will even understand our hesitation to ask for that grace. But He has been generous with us, and we must be generous with Him; if we feel we cannot make the sacrifice He asks, at least let us force ourselves to ask Him for the grace and strength to do so. His answer may surprise us. Once every day at least, we should “catch God’s eye.” If we do that, we will sooner or later have to be honest with ourselves as well as with God, and the eye-shades of self-deception will be taken off, and then we will receive both the light and strength to do God’s will. In passing, let us note there is hardly any better way of testing our own sincerity, and making sure of our spiritual health, than this daily practice of looking God in the face, so to speak, and listening to what He may have to say to us.

The other way in which God leads us and shows us His will for us, is in the course of events, in everything, in fact, which happens to us. Insofar as the particular individual is concerned, one may say that everything that happens to him is God’s will for him, except, of course, any act by which he personally sins. But even the consequences of that sinful act are willed by God, and as soon as one repents, God wills to ordain the end of sin to good. Now God’s permissive will and providence extend to all our circumstances—past, present, and future. He has willed the circumstances of our origin, of our up-bringing, of our education; He has willed all the personal qualities we have—good and bad; He has willed even our mistakes and our failures; in fact, there is absolutely nothing in our present situation—as long as we are in the state of grace—which has not been accepted by God’s will. Of course, we are speaking here of what is called God’s “will of good-pleasure”—His “permissions.” We do not say He directly willed our sins, for example, but He permitted them to occur, and He sees how they can be turned to good.

Now one of the first acts of spiritual life—and an act which, if generously performed, will advance us far at one bound, and open a door for us to an undreamed-of peace—is to accept all God’s “wills” for us, to accept our present situation in its entirety. In this matter there one can obey because God is supreme ruler; one can decide just “to put up with it”; one can submit as to superior force—“Well, if it must be so, it must be so”; one can obey because God is Supreme Ruler; one can be resigned; one can take up an attitude of acquiescence or of conformity. All these are good in different ways. But the highest of all ways of accepting God’s will is a joyous and cheerful abandonment into His hands. “To abandon oneself is to renounce, to quit, to alienate oneself, to disappear, it is to yield oneself altogether without measure, without reserve, and almost without noticing what we do, to Him who has the right over us. To abandon oneself is to pass away. . . . Abandonment is the soul’s Passover; on one side it is its immolation, on the other it is its divine consummation.”[93]

For the moment, we do not distinguish between mere submission to God’s will, and the joyous embracing of it that is the essence of abandonment. In one case we serve a kind master, in the other we throw ourselves lovingly into the arms of our tremendous lover. In either event, we are doing God’s will in accepting the course of events. But we have to accept them in a common-sense way. (Common sense, as we said, is an essential part of every act of the spiritual life. Theologians call it prudence.) For example, if illness comes to us—that is God’s will; but it does not follow that it is God’s will that we should remain ill. On the contrary, it is God’s will that we adopt the ordinary measures to deal with the situation. In fact, a great part of the life of a layman is spent in reacting in this commonsense fashion to the events sent or permitted by Providence. In doing so he is doing the will of God. The important thing is that he should do so with faith, hope, and charity, and humble submission. For it is exactly in this way, by evoking acts of these virtues, that God sanctifies us.

Obviously, an active faith is necessary to see in all things God’s hand—but “the just man liveth by faith” (Gal 3:11). And it may be admitted that there are times when one’s faith may have to be exercised by a vigorous and deliberate effort. The malice of men is so obvious in what befalls us, the course of events is so opposed to what we were quite certain were God’s designs for us, the pain and the sorrow inflicted upon us or upon those we love by special trials are so keen, that we find it hard to convince ourselves that God “knows what He is doing.” That is just the point. God does know what He is doing, and knows it full well. As Juliana of Norwich puts it, “God’s plan is of a piece.” It is perfectly designed to accomplish His purpose. But His purpose is unknown to us. Our Lord Himself warned us:

I am the vine, you are the branches. . . . I am the true vine: and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me, that beareth not fruit, he will take away; and everyone that beareth fruit, he will purge it, that it may bring forth much fruit. (Jn 15:1–5)

This purging or pruning action of the Father is what disconcerts us. We see an orchard in full bloom, and what has a more delicate charm? And yet those flowers must disappear if the branches are to bring forth fruit. There are many flowers in our life that seem of great value to us. In God’s sight they are only flowers, and in His mercy He removes them that we may yield Him fruit. He alone knows the deep desires of our hearts, and He alone can satisfy them. We must trust Him absolutely if we wish to achieve our heart’s desire. We are not only the children of God, but we are members of the Mystical Body of His well-beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. Every single thing that happens is part of a plan for the development of that Mystical Body. The Three Divine Persons are continually directing events towards that end. The Father in His ruling of the universe is continually being a Father to the Body of His Son. The Holy Spirit is continually moving each of us interiorly that we may live the life of the Son. The Son Himself is continually pouring His grace into our soul that we may share His own life. Is it any wonder that all things work together for the good of them that love God?

The whole trouble is that—literally—we do not know what is good for us; and what makes the trouble still worse is that we think we do. We have our own plans for our happiness, and too often we merely regard God as somebody who will help us to accomplish them. The true state of affairs is just the opposite. God has His plans for our happiness, and He is waiting for us to help Him to accomplish them. And let us be quite clear about it: We cannot improve on God’s plans.

This whole subject of cooperation with God’s plan as revealed in the course of events, and of the almost sacramental value of what He allows to happen to us, is one that could be discussed at great length. An incomplete discussion might be misleading because once one realizes the loving design behind God’s providence, there is a danger of adopting too passive an attitude, a danger of falling into that error called “quietism.” We must take God’s will as a whole. By “abandonment” we mean not only a cheerful submission to all that God permits to happen to us, but also a prompt, decisive, and generous performance of all He requires us to do. There are certain things He wishes us to do; there are certain ends, He wishes us to aim at, although it does not follow that He wishes us to succeed in our aim; there are certain things He wishes us to put up with. For example, He wishes the father of a family to provide for the education of his children. That involves a certain expense, certain foresight, a calculation of means and ways, continual supervision, and perhaps certain alterations in one’s original plans as a result of experience. God does not want the father to wait for His providence to take the lead; the initiative rests with the head of the family. But He does not command success. A father’s attempt to educate his children may be partly frustrated by nonco-operation of the children, by mistakes on the part of the teachers, by illness, or by many other misfortunes. All God asks is that one should make a reasonable attempt. The rest is God’s business. And the outcome of it all, whatever it may be, is God’s will.

And because the rest is God’s business, worry is usually a result of lack of confidence in God. We say usually because some minds seem so constituted that they must worry over something. Yet, even in their case, something seems to be amiss. They are not responsible for the ruling of the world; why then worry over what they cannot influence? The type of worry which is more reasonable is where one is charged with responsibility and cannot decide what is the best course to adopt. The principle that applies here is that where God does not indicate His will, He expects us to use our own judgment and then to leave the consequences to Him. In such cases, we should make up our minds after asking God for help, and then leave the ultimate outcome to God. Really, our worry generally arises from the fact that we attribute far too great importance to our own share of the work in the partnership with God. We can always rely on Him to stand by us. and supply for our own shortcomings. “Our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5).

Once a man has realized that God wills his happiness and that all that happens to him is ruled and regulated by God with infinite wisdom and power towards that end, and that all God asks of him is to cooperate with that loving will of His—then, that man has found the beginning of peace. And if he would be filled with that peace which is as a river, full, overflowing, rising up from the depth of his own heart, the peace which surpasseth all understanding, the peace which the world cannot give—let him devote himself to the practice of abandonment to God’s will, always remembering that where God’s will is to be done or to be accepted, Jesus Christ is waiting to share our doing of it. He always does the things that please the Father.

And if God’s will for a man should mean death to himself—and for Jesus Christ it did—let him, nevertheless, abandon himself all the more joyously—for in shedding himself, he is putting on Christ. The Mass is the perfect picture of the Christian life. We offer ourselves to God and He gives us Christ. The more sincerely we offer ourselves and the more faithfully we carry out the promise contained in that offering by doing the will of God—the more closely shall we be united to Christ and, losing our old selves, the more wonderfully shall we find our new selves in Him.

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