Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Emotional Detachment in the Search for God's Will

Growth in spiritual maturity is concomitant with a greater conformity of one's will to the Will of God, a detachment from the things of the world and one's own desires in preference for the eternal joy found in personal surrender to the Blessed Trinity. Yet, though the question of what this detachment is and how it may be accomplished is easily discussed, rarely is this detachment as easily achieved. As I, for one, have often found, expressing a desire for God's will to be done is sometimes more of a lip-service than an authentic interior conformity to this "desire". Our emotions can, at the least, conflict with reasoned surrender to Divine Providence. At the worst, poorly ordered emotions may be a source of mis-direction in our spiritual journey.

During a Sunday dinner conversation earlier this month, some friends posed a question to my husband and I on this very subject. We had been reviewing the year-long series of discussions and events leading us to make a "major life decision", and had shared that though we felt blessed to have such peace with the outcome, confident that this was God's will for our family, we felt equally blessed that we had been able to remain (relatively...we're far from sainthood) emotionally detached through the whole process of discernment. Hence the question: how does one remain emotionally detached when seeking God's will?

It was an excellent and insightful question, which gave both of us pause for some reflection before we answered. It is this reflection that I wish to share, and as a disclaimer, it is only based on our very humble experience - we will spend our lifetimes pursuing greater detachment from our will, greater abandonment to the will of God.

This question seems, to me, to be at the heart of the spiritual journey, the journey to sanctity, for it really is a question of how we not only conform our hearts to, but also love, God's will for us. It is a question that approaches the reality of what it is to be human, soul and body, endowed with a rational, intellectual, as well as emotional and affective, nature. Just as the proper integration of reason and emotions is appropriate to the more material matters of life (just because I love and desire that gorgeous pair of designer heels, doesn't mean I can afford, or should indulge myself by buying them), this proper integration is also essential to a healthy spiritual life.

Authentic emotional detachment is not, therefore, a rejection of the emotions, but an affirmation of their appropriate value. Karol Wojtyla's philosophical work (here I am thinking specifically of The Acting Person) is very strong on the necessity of integration of the constitutive elements of the entire person, body and soul. This integration, therefore, requires a proper ordering of the emotions.

With respect to emotional detachment in the search for God's will, this ordering would consist in a detachment from the desired outcome: a knowledge of the various possibilities, and (though an emotional preference may be present) a peace with allowing God to reveal His will in time. In the most perfect sense, it is an imitation of Christ in Gethsemane, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will." (Mt. 26:39).

This attitude of Christ in the hours before His Passion indicates another aspect of how this emotional detachment is achieved. In some cases, it seems as though certain individuals are given a grace to remain detached, to live completely in surrender to the will of God. However, for many, if not most of us (including myself), we learn this detachment through the experience of suffering and sacrifice. The two are closely related. In suffering, whether it be a mundane inconvenience associated with life in family and community or a more difficult struggle or loss, there is a point where we can no longer control the situation through our human abilities. We are faced with fundamental metaphysical reality: the limits of our created, human nature, and our essential dependence upon God. This is a reality we may freely choose to either accept or resist; and the humble acceptance of this reality is the foundation for emotional detachment, and surrender to God's will. The practice of self-denial through sacrifice, for similar reasons likewise possesses inestimable value for us as we seek greater conformity to the Sacred Heart.

In all of this, we remain very human. Sometimes, understanding of God's will precedes and motivates our surrender (especially when we can see that God's will is best for us), sometimes this understanding follows shortly afterwords, and sometimes we will not understand God's providential design until we enjoy the Beatific Vision. As humans, therefore, this is our lifelong challenge: to surrender to God's loving will readily and joyfully both in situations we comprehend and those we do not fully understand.

The question of what it means to conform our will to that of our Creator is thus a mystery, a paradox at once both simple and complex, as uniform as our shared human nature, and as diverse as the all the variety of the personalities of each individual. And the mystery of God's omnipotence far surpasses the vagaries of our human wills and emotions. The love of the Trinity is not coercive: it is an invitation to divine life that we may freely accept in perfect surrender, freely refuse in obstinate disdain, or half-heartedly reciprocate in a lifelong ambivalent struggle. Whatever our spiritual state, we may trust that God works with us, whether our emotions be ordered or disordered, to mysteriously accomplish his ever-perfect will.

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