A friend of mine was wondering whether she should go home for Mother’s Day. Her roommate was returning from out of town for a funeral, and she was worried about possibly bringing the coronavirus contagion to her parents’ home.
“I could just leave now, before my roommate gets back,” she said. “And then I could just stay for the whole week, through Mother’s Day. I really want to be a good daughter.”
But she knew from past experience that sometimes staying a whole week with her parents was not good for her emotionally. She wanted to honor her mother, but she did not want to go home for quite that long.
“I wish I knew the right thing to do,” she said.
Another friend is pregnant and has a 2-year-old son. She and her husband have been having a hard time deciding the appropriate boundaries to set with her parents, who want so much to be present with her and with their grandson during this time, and who are not worried about contracting the virus. My friend is struggling with the fear of being responsible for getting them sick.
We Catholics, with our emphasis on discernment, sometimes have a sense that there must be one right answer that God knows and expects us to figure out.
“On the other hand,” she says, “I don’t want to be living in fear. I know how important it is for my parents to see Jack.” What is the right thing to do?
Many are facing similar decisions and are burdened by a sense of wanting to do what is right but also by a fear of choosing the wrong path. We need to consider multiple human goods—health and safety, spending time with loved ones, going into the office to focus better for work, supporting local businesses that are struggling. Many of us also feel called to proclaim the truth about the poison of racism through protest and activism. These are all goods worth choosing, but how and when?
I think that we Catholics in particular, with our emphasis on discernment, sometimes have a sense that there must be one right answer, the answer that God knows and expects us to figure out.
Unfortunately, even when I bring tough decisions like these to God in prayer, I have found that he rarely gives me a clear directive. Often, I seem to hear the Lord say, “Do not be afraid.” But these reassuring words do not translate to any immediate course of action.
I get the sneaking suspicion that often, God actually wants me to choose.
I get the sneaking suspicion that often, God actually wants me to choose.
A phrase keeps coming to mind: “The dignity of being causes.”
Somewhere in the distant mists of time, in college, probably, I read something by St. Thomas Aquinas about the relationship between God’s providence and our free will. Thomas thinks there is an important distinction between primary causality (God’s causality) and secondary causality—but affirms that both are real. He was arguing against those who viewed God as manipulating the world like a puppeteer controls puppets. Instead, Aquinas says:
[T]here are certain intermediaries of God’s providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures (Summa Theologiae I, q. 22, a. 3).
Out of “the abundance of His goodness,” God imparts to his creatures—and particularly to us—“the dignity of causality.”
Think about that. He has given you the dignity of being a cause.
You can, because of God’s creativity, have creativity, too. You can make music and art and dinner and relationships. And it is really you doing those things. Not apart from God but with him. Your secondary causality and his primary causality are not in conflict.
And that means you can make choices. Real choices.
Your secondary causality and God’s primary causality are not in conflict. And that means you can make choices. Real choices.
I recently asked a priest about listening to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and knowing when I ought to act on an inspiration that seems to come from God. With gentleness and a smile, he suggested, “God wants you to grow up.” He added: “When St. Paul talks about full maturity in Christ and the freedom of the children of God, he means it. God wants you to live in real freedom. He wants you to make choices.”
Of course, there are times in our lives when doing the right thing seems very clear. And part of trusting God is believing that he actually gives us the information we need to make good decisions.
But Catholic paralysis around discernment does not occur in those times; it occurs when there seem to be multiple right answers and we are afraid to trust our own desires or our own ability to choose wisely.
There is some scriptural precedent for these other sorts of occasions, as well. Think of Adam in the garden. God lets him name all the animals! What a powerful thing, to choose a name for another creature. Yet God entrusts Adam with this choice, with this creativity.
Catholic paralysis around discernment occurs when there seem to be multiple right answers and we are afraid to trust our own desires.
St. Augustine famously said, “Love, and do what you will.”
If you love, you will be doing the will of God.
Setting aside sin, like recklessness toward the welfare of others or selfishness with regard to your time and resources, there may actually be a range of choices within the realm of prudence for my friend deciding when to visit her family and my other friend in establishing boundaries with her parents. And God would bless whatever choices within that range they made. In fact, I believe he would delight in it—in their exercise of the causality proper to them as human beings.
In these ambiguous cases, we often feel paralyzed because, though we know we are not consciously choosing something sinful, we nevertheless see the range of possibilities and wonder whether there is a perfect option that we could be missing. But I have come to realize that the idea of the perfect is a deception from “the evil spirit,” as St. Ignatius would say, trying to hinder us from choosing at all. When Christ said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he was making a mysterious comparison to the one who, out of his mysterious freedom, without imposition or need of any kind, chose out of the abundance of his goodness to create the world.
I have come to realize that the idea of the perfect is a deception from “the evil spirit,” as St. Ignatius would say, trying to hinder us from choosing at all.
We, too, are called to be co-creators. We, too, are called to exercise our freedom in love.
Maybe the real answer is that God delights in your choices. That the world is full of uncertainty but that he loves your desire to do what is right and also loves your creativity as you work with him on the project of your life. Making a good choice does not mean that you will avoid all suffering or that you will be able to predict all outcomes. It means that you are using the gifts of intellect and will that God has given you and that in the very act of using them you are glorifying him.
This does not answer specific questions about when it is safe to visit your grandparents or whether you ought to join in a peaceful protest or if you should attend that discernment retreat on religious life or go on a third date. But that is the point. In many cases and even in weighty ones, God has given us the dignity of answering.
When Jesus asks the blind man in the Gospel, “What do you want me to do for you?,” he actually means it. It is not a rhetorical device. Or when he says, “But who do you say that I am?,” he wants his friends to tell him what they truly think. It is O.K. that Peter does not perfectly articulate the doctrine of the Trinity as was later clarified at the Council of Nicea. Jesus is delighted with his answer—and with yours.
So pray. Talk to a trusted friend. And ultimately, consider that God gave you the dignity of being a cause and delights in your choosing.