“If the work of our sanctification presents us with difficulties that appear insurmountable, it is because we do not look at it in the right way. In reality, holiness consists in one thing alone, namely, fidelity to God’s plan. And this fidelity is equally within everyone’s capacity in both its active and passive exercise.”— Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
Abandonment to the events in our lives is one of the most difficult aspects of the spiritual life and one of the most sanctifying. Without an obedience to what befalls us – good or bad – there can be no real holiness. Our holiness is tied to our filial obedience to the Father’s will, no matter the cost. Consider Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). However, this kind of abandonment or “obedience to events” is often wrought with misunderstanding and confusion.
Abandonment to God in the events of our lives does not mean we accept a kind of fatalistic or overly passive mentality towards life and its circumstances; nor does it require us to say God positively wills certain evils to befall us. God never positively wills evil and sin, and many things happen that He would rather not take place. But in a hidden wisdom, He still permits them to occur, and they can become stumbling blocks or scandals to our minds, which fetter our wills in resentment and anger.
Yes, we are called to fight for justice and mitigate against the evil around us. But as Fr. Jacques Philippe tells us in his book In the School of the Holy Spirit, “despite our best efforts, there is always a whole set of circumstances which we can do nothing about, which are not necessarily willed by God but nevertheless are permitted by Him, and which God invites us to consent to trustingly and peacefully, even if they make us suffer and cause us problems.”
What true abandonment asks of us is that we not consent to evil but to the wisdom of God that permits evil. This most difficult consent is not an acquiescence to evil but an expression of trust that God’s wisdom and power is stronger than any evil He may permit. This is a painful reality of the spiritual life, but one that bears much fruit when we look at it rightly. It means that after we have done all that is in our power, we are still faced with a reality imposed upon our wills and are invited to abandon ourselves in filial obedience to our loving Father and trust that God’s providence orders all things sweetly. It is a manner of looking at things rightly; seeing that holiness consists mainly in fidelity to God’s plan.
“What most prevents us from becoming saints,” says Fr. Philippe, “is undoubtedly the difficulty we have in consenting fully to everything that happens to us.” When presented with such painful events we usually have one of three responses: we rebel against them; we endure them unwillingly; or we accept them with a passive resignation. But God invites us to a more positive, active, and fruitful approach, one inspired by St. Thérèse of Lisieux who once exclaimed from her heart as a young girl, “I choose all!”
Again, Fr. Philippe helps us to see what this means: “I choose everything that God wants for me. I won’t content myself with merely enduring, but by a free act of my will; I decide to choose what I have not chosen.” This holds true for things big and small, from accepting the annoying Sister whose rosary made too much noise in the chapel (a favorite example from St. Thérèse!) to holding fast to God when circumstances and events seem utterly insurmountable in life. Whether it is a major life event or a simple annoyance, God is looking for our abandonment.
To choose in this way is both free and active, rather than passive and unwilling. This mentality changes nothing externally but changes everything interiorly. We begin to take the wisdom of God within ourselves and allow the power of the Holy Spirit to draw good out of a given evil, large or insignificant.
If we are able to consent willingly in a spirit of filial abandonment to all that life imposes upon us God undoubtedly will share the fruits of His power and love with us, speaking sweetly to our hearts in the order of His divine providence. This is the difficult but necessary work of our sanctification.