“Discern and accept one’s limited role in the Body of Christ, and fulfill it.” — Germain Grisez
My spiritual director back in the late 1980’s said something to me that I have never forgotten and have never ceased to find applicable: “90% of discerning God’s will is figuring out what you’re not supposed to be doing.” In other words, life presents unlimited options for doing good. The needs out there are limitless, but you are limited. He also added this tagline to his proverb, “It is always better to do a few things well than many things poorly. Remember, Tom, the devil tempts the evil-willed with evil and the good-willed with good. Good that God never asked them to do. He plays on things like your pride, your good will, your insecurity, your desire to please people. If he [the devil] can get you to spread yourself too thin, distracted from what you are supposed to be about, his work is done. He can just sit back and watch you fizzle out.” He told me another time that people who over-commit like this frequently judge others who don’t live in a frenzy like them and become resentful of those who live with a good balance. Every Lent my director would make me do an inventory, an audit of my commitments, and would review them with me to make certain that my core commitments were being well-served by my secondary commitments. If not, time for pruning.
My boss in Des Moines, Fr. Polich, was having lunch with me one day and reviewing the various projects I was taking on. As I shared with him all of the requests I was receiving to offer collaborative assistance, talks, workshops, retreats, etc.. He said in his coy manner: “Hmm, Tom, well very good. Very impressive. But you know, Tom, good fences make for good neighbors. You need to set your fences in place to protect the property you’ve been given here at the Center. Work in those limits, okay? I’m glad for your zeal and generosity. Let’s just choose the most needful projects that match most closely the mission of the Center and do a good job with those first. Then we’ll see later where we should go next. The turtle wins the race. We want you around with us for a long time.”
In 2012 my retreat director on an 8-day Ignatian retreat helped me to understand very clearly, with very personal applications (!), how I must be able to be brutally honest with my past and admit when I see I made a poor decision in discerning God’s will and learn from that poor decision. And in the silence of those 8 days lots of clarity on past poor decisions became apparent. He said,
You can’t simply say, ‘Well, it must have been God’s will because that’s the way it happened. It’s all God’s perfect plan.’ If you do that, you won’t be able to learn from your mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future. Although all things that happen are never outside of God’s providential will, not all things that happen are what God willed to happen. Obviously! God permits things to happen that are not what He willed to be.
You have to be willing to set aside your pride and fear and give God permission to correct you, to lay bear your guilt and failures. Humble yourself and trust in His mercy enough to not fall apart every time you see you screwed up. Get over yourself, get up and get on with it. Humility means being able to look squarely at all your life’s screw ups, admit them, learn from them, correct them for the future and give them to God as a precious offering that He very tenderly takes and reworks into something beautiful. [He asked me for my penance to bring all of those poor decisions I had come to recognize to Mass that day and offer them up to God. Wow]
That’s the logic of the Cross, the place where God reworks all of our screw-ups and raises good out of them. If you really embrace the Cross your failures will never cause you anxiety, only humility and gratitude. Only if you give Him your failures humbly, though, with no taint of justifying or defense. Then the last bad note of your life’s symphony can become the keynote of a new movement of beauty that God will play with you. And then you’ll notice that you will become more and more merciful with others’ screw-ups because you have tasted, for real, God’s mercy and you want to respond to them the way God responded to you.
Once in Confession, the priest said to me after I had unloaded my trash: “Remember, you only get one chance at this [referring to raising my children]. You need to know that God knows you need to provide for your family and have commitments to that. But everything else that diverts your attention from your wife and children being #1 must go. They need you now. Lots of good you can do for others, wonderful. They aren’t your children. Always put first things first, and the rest will follow. St. Augustine says, ‘Love God and do what you will.’ But I’ll change it up and say, ‘Love your family then do what you will.'”
Fr. Tom Hopko, speaking of the essential commitment to daily prayer, said: “If you don’t believe in the Devil, just commit yourself to spending time every day in prayer and watch all hell break loose. He’d rather you do anything else than pray. Distractions in prayer, assaults on your time for prayer, really brilliant rationales for skipping prayer or using your prayer time for other very worthy things. He comes to us as an Angel of Light. Satan would rather you do a thousand good deeds without prayer than one good deed joined to prayer. Why? Because he knows prayer fills all of your work with the power of God, and that’s the only thing he fears. So if he tempts you to cut your prayer time even 5 minutes earlier than you planned, add 5 minutes more than you planned.”
Last Fall as I was sharing with my wife my exhaustion and frustrations with all of my responsibilities and commitments — kvetching, as they say in Yiddish. After she listened, she prefaced her response to my complaining, as she always does, with, “Do you mind if I tell you what I think?” I said, as I always do, “Of course not! Just be gentle.” She went on to offer me a very tough and keen analysis of those areas of burden she knew very well were my own fault and pried me from any semblance of “woe is me” victim-mode. It hurt so good. It led to some major decisions that have now played out for the better. At the end of the conversation, she summed it all up marvelously: “Just remember, honey, you aren’t the Messiah.”
Well, that just about sums it all up.