Taken from: HOLY ABANDONMENT
Rt. Rev. Dom Vitalis Lehodey, O.C.R.
Original Pub. 1934, Dublin
NATURE OF HOLY ABANDONMENT
ON OBEDIENCE TO THE SIGNIFIED WILL OF GOD
WE have already shown that the will of God, taken in general, is the one supreme rule, and that we advance in virtue in proportion as we conform ourselves to its ordinances. In whatever way it manifests itself to us, whether as the signified will or as the will of good-pleasure, it is always the will of God, equally holy and adorable. The work of our sanctification, therefore, implies fidelity to both one and the other. For the moment, however, we shall leave the will of good-pleasure out of our consideration, whilst we stress the importance and necessity of embracing with our whole hearts and during our whole lives the signified will, and regarding its accomplishment as our essential occupation. We shall explain at the end of this chapter why we insist so much on what appears to be an evident truth. The signified will includes, in the first place, the commandments of God and the Church and the duties of our state in life. These should be, above all, the object of our continual and watchful fidelity, for they constitute the foundation whereon the whole spiritual life rests. Remove this foundation, and the entire edifice comes down in ruin. "Fear God and keep His commandments," says Divine Wisdom, "for this is all man" (Eccles. xiii, 14).
Perhaps there are some who consider works of supererogation more sanctifying than those to which we are obliged. Persons of this opinion undoubtedly deceive themselves. St. Thomas teaches that perfection consists
essentially in the faithful fulfillment of the law (Summa. ii, 11; q. 184, a. 3). Besides, we cannot expect to please God with works of supererogation performed at the expense of duty, and by substituting our own wills for His. Comprehended under the signified will, in the second place, are the counsels. The more perfectly we follow these, according to our vocation and condition, the more closely shall we resemble our Divine Master Who is at present our Friend and the Spouse of our souls, but Who will one day be our Sovereign Judge. Guided by them, we shall practise the virtues most agreeable to His Divine Heart: gentleness and humility, obedience of intellect and will, virginal chastity, voluntary poverty, perfect detachment, a generosity of devotion that involves the sacrifice and forgetfulness of self. We shall find in them, consequently, a rich treasure of merits and holiness. Moreover, by their faithful observance we shall remove the chief obstacles to the fervour of our charity and the dangers which threaten its very existence. In a word, the counsels serve as bulwarks for the defence of the commandments. On this subject, Joseph de Maistre makes the pertinent remark: "That which suffices is not sufficient. Whoso resolves to do all that is permitted will soon be found doing that which is not; and he that will content himself with what is of strict obligation will be content with a little less before long."
To the object of the signified will belong finally the inspirations of grace. "These inspirations," says Dosda, "are so many rays from the Divine Sun of Justice which fill the soul with light and warmth in order that it may perceive the good and be stimulated to accomplish it. They are pledges of the Divine predilection and assume various forms. In turn, and according to the particular occasion, we receive them as attractions, or impulses, or reproaches, or qualms of conscience, or salutary fears, or Divine consolations, or elevations of the heart, or as sweet and compelling invitations to the practice of a particular virtue. Such Divine inspirations visit frequently pure and interior souls, who should regard it as very important for their progress to follow them with gratitude and fidelity." 1 What precious support they bring us! Good reason, then, had the Apostle to warn his disciples against "extinguishing the Spirit" (1 Thess. v, 19), that is, against suppressing the pious movements excited by grace in their hearts.
Is it necessary to add that our submission to the signified will of God, commanding, counselling and inspiring, must continue as long as our earthly existence? We have always to respect His sovereign authority. Never shall we be so rich as to be justified in refusing the treasures of merit to be found in fulfilling the Divine will. The loyal observance of its behests is our ordinary means for repressing nature and cultivating the virtues: now, nature does not die, nor shall we ever attain to such a degree of virtue that we cannot advance any more. Though we should live a thousand years, after a thousand years of assiduous labour we should still find ourselves infinitely short of complete resemblance to Our Lord, of being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
We must not omit to say that, for religious, their vows, their rules, and the orders and directions of their superiors constitute the principal expression of the signified will, the path of duty until death, and the way to sanctity.
Our rules are an absolutely safe guide. The religious life is, as St. Benedict testifies, "a school of Divine service," 2 an incomparable school in which God Himself, as our Master, teaches us, forms us, makes known to us His will for each moment, enlightens us even as to the smallest details of His service. It is He Who assigns us our practices of penance and Divine contemplation, and the thousand observances whereby He wills to exercise us in religion, humility, fraternal charity, and the other virtues. He also instructs us with regard to the interior dispositions that render our obedience acceptable to Him and meritorious for ourselves. Is there any necessity, then, asks St. Francis de Sales, that God should manifest His will to us by secret inspirations, visions, or ecstasies? No, for He has given us a much surer guidance in "the sweet and common way of holy submission to the prescriptions of our rules and superiors." 34 addressing a community of nuns, "happy are you in comparison with us who remain in the world. Whenever we inquire the way, one will inform us that it is to the right, another that it is to the left, and in the end we generally find we have been misdirected. But as for you, all you have to do is to allow yourselves to be borne onward, resting peacefully in the ship which carries you. The course you have embarked on is a safe one: follow it without fear. For compass you have Our Lord, your rules represent the ship, and those charged with the guidance of the ship are your superiors, who say to you in effect: Travel by the perpetual observance of your religious obligations and you shall happily attain to God. 'It is doubtless good to seek God by the observance of rule,' you will perhaps say to me, 'but after all that is the common way. God draws us by particular attractions, nor does He lead us all by the same path.' What you say is very true. But it is no less true that if these attractions proceed from God they will bring you, to the practice of obedience."
Our rules are, ordinarily, the chief means at our disposal for the purification of our souls. Obedience detaches and purifies us continually by the thousand renunciations it imposes, and still more by its demand for the mortification of our judgment and will. Self-will, in the words of St. Alphonsus, is the ruin of the virtues, the source of all evils, the only gate by which sin and imperfection can enter, a demon of the worst type, the favourite weapon of the tempter against religious, the tormentor of its slaves, an anticipated hell. "All religious perfection," he continues, quoting St. Bonaventure, "consists in the renunciation of self-will. This renunciation equals Martyrdom in merit. As the head of the condemned falls under the axe of the executioner, so is the will, the head of the soul, sacrificed to God by the sword of obedience." 5
Our rules are an inexhaustible mine of heavenly treasure, the true riches of the religious life. As opposed to obedience there is only sin and imperfection, and apart from its influence even the best actions lose their value; so, under its auspices everything that is not forbidden by higher authority becomes virtuous, and what was already good becomes still better. Again, to quote St. Alphonsus: 6 "It produces and preserves all the virtues in the soul." Yes, and it multiplies their acts, and thus sanctifying each of our moments, it leaves nothing to nature and gives all to God. Our Divine Master, according to the beautiful expression of St. Bernard, "entertained so high an esteem for this virtue that He practised it till His death, preferring the loss of His life to the loss of His obedience." 7 The Saints, consequently, have emulated each other in exalting a virtue so dear to the Saviour, and cultivated it with the utmost solicitude. The Abbot John was able to say, when about to appear before the Judgment-Seat, that he had never done his own will. St. Dositheus could not endure the rigorous fasts of the desert, yet won a very high degree of glory by five years of perfect obedience. St. Joseph Calasancz used to call obedient religious the precious stones of their house. To St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi regular obedience seemed the most direct road to salvation and to sanctity. "Not only so," adds St. Alphonsus, 8 "but in religion it is the one way to these goals, for they cannot be reached by any other. . . . It is mainly a difference in the practise of obedience that distinguishes perfect from imperfect religious." And St. Dorothy says: "When you see a solitary who has abandoned his state and fallen into serious disorders, understand that this misfortune is the result of his insistence on following his own will. For nothing can be so perilous and pernicious as to take as our guide our own spirit, directing our steps by our own lights." 9
"The height of perfection," so writes St. Teresa the Elder, "evidently does not consist either in interior consolations, or in sublime raptures, or in visions, or in the gift of prophecy; but rather in rendering our wills so conformed and submissive to God's will that we embrace with our whole hearts whatsoever He ordains, and accept as gladly the bitter as the sweet the moment we perceive it to be His good-pleasure." After giving various reasons for this, she adds: "I am convinced that if the demon, under different pretexts, makes so many attempts to disgust us with obedience, it is because he knows that this virtue will conduct us most speedily to the summit of perfection." She has known, she tells us, certain religious who were charged by obedience with a multitude of employments and affairs, and seeing them on their return after many years' absence found them so far advanced in the ways of the spirit that she was filled with astonishment. "How amiable, then, is obedience, even in the distractions which it imposes, since it can elevate souls to such lofty degrees of perfection!" 10
St. Francis de Sales speaks at length to the same effect. With regard to those who have so great a desire for their own advancement that they wish to surpass all others in virtue, they would be much better employed, he says, in following the community and keeping their rules: for that is the direct road to God. St. Gertrude, being of a weak constitution, was treated by her superioress with more indulgence than the rest, and was not allowed to practise even the common austerities. "What practices, think you," asks the same holy Doctor, "did that poor girl adopt in order to become a Saint? None beyond humbly submitting herself to the will of her spiritual mother. And although her fervour led her to desire to join in the community exercises, she never expressed that desire. When ordered to bed, she made no answer, but simply went, assured that she would there enjoy the presence of her Spouse as perfectly as if she remained in choir with her sisters. Our Lord revealed to St. Mechtilde that whosoever wished to find Him in this life should seek Him first in the Sacrament of the Altar, next in the heart of St. Gertrude." After citing other examples, the Saint continues: "We should therefore imitate these holy religious, by applying ourselves with humility and fervour to that which God requires of us according to our vocation, nor must we dream of discovering another and better way to perfection than that marked out by our rules." 11
And in truth, since it is God Himself Who has chosen for us out state in life and the means of our sanctification, nothing else, clearly, can be better for us, nothing else can be even good, outside such state and means. "It is true, the occupation of Martha was holy," says St. Ignatius of Loyola, "as were also Magdalen's contemplation and her penitence, and the tears wherewith she washed the Saviour's feet. But in order to be meritorious, all these actions had to be done in Bethany, that is to say, according to the etymology of the word, in the house of obedience. As if the Lord, to quote St. Bernard, willed to teach us thereby that neither zeal for good works, nor the sweetness of Divine contemplation, nor the tears of penitence would have been acceptable to Him apart from obedience." 12
Obedience to the signified will of God is therefore the normal means of arriving at perfection. But so far from desiring to disparage submission to the will of the Divine good-pleasure, we rather proclaim its great importance and decisive influence. To the beneficent action of the rules it contributes what is always a useful support, sometimes even a necessary complement. And this support is the more precious in that it is personal to each of us. The prescriptions of the rule are necessarily general, but God chooses for us the events of His good-pleasure in view of our particular needs. Despite of that, it remains none the less true that the signified will must be considered the fixed and regular path amidst the accidental and variable events of life, the task of all our days and of every instant. With this we have to begin, with this to continue, with this to end.
We have deemed it well to remind our readers of this fundamental truth at the beginning of our study, so that the commendations deservedly accorded to holy abandonment may not lead anyone to embrace it with exclusive zeal, as if it were the one or the whole way. Undoubtedly it is an important part of the way; yet a part only. Otherwise what becomes of obedience? To neglect that would entail on us an enormous loss, all the more so because obedience takes the religious by the hand at his awakening and conducts him through the livelong day by the almost uninterrupted series of its prescriptions. Besides, whether the will of God is signified to us in advance, or manifested by the sequence of events, it has always the same rights, imposes always the same duties. We have not to choose between obedience and abandonment. These two should go together in the most intimate union.
This is the proper place to animadvert upon certain injudicious expressions. To say, for instance, that "God carries us in His arms" or that "we advance with giant strides" in the way of abandonment and, on the contrary, only advance "at a snail's pace" in the way of obedience: what is this but unjustly disparaging the one and over estimating the power of the other?
If we look to its object only, obedience no doubt most frequently invites us to perform actions of little importance. But as these may amount to hundreds and thousands each day, the very multiplicity and continuity even of such short steps will surely bring us far on our road. Besides, constant fidelity in little things is far from being a little thing. Rather must it be considered a powerful means of dying to self and giving all to God. It is, let us boldly say the word, a hidden heroism. Furthermore, why should not all these steps be great, and very great? For that, it is not necessary that the object of obedience be difficult or sublime; it suffices that the intention be pure and the dispositions holy. Our Blessed Lady performed actions the most ordinary in themselves, but she put her whole heart into them, and gave them thereby an incomparable value. Is not the same, within our due limits, possible to us?
Holy abandonment also is more frequently practised in little things than in great trials. Nor is it true to say that, by His will of good-pleasure, God carries us in His arms and makes us advance without any effort on our part. Ordinarily, at least, He requires our active co-operation, our personal exertions; and our progress shall be in proportion to our good will. It may be our misfortune, alas! to frustrate the action of God, by the intoxication of pride in prosperity or by insubordination in adversity. Then in truth we shall be able to make giant strides, but in a back word direction.
It remains, then, that we ought to respect the will of God howsoever manifested, practising at the same time obedience to His signified will and abandonment to His good-pleasure. Let us remember also that, generally speaking, by neither of His wills does it please Him to sanctify us without our own co-operation. To this result both His action and ours must contribute. And, as already remarked, our good will shall be the measure of our progress. "Happy are you, my daughters," writes the same holy Doctor elsewhere,
1. L'Union avec Dieu, 4e p., c. vii.
2. Holy Rule, prol.
3. Entret., iii.
4. Op. cit., xx.
5. Relig. sanct., c. vii.
7. Ad milites Templi, xiii.
9. Vie des peres du Désert, 3e p., Désert de Scété.
10. Fond., c. v.
11. Entret., vii, xv, xx.
12. Lettre s. l' obéiss.