Recently, I stood at a very important juncture professionally. I have been in this situation before and have faced profound disappointment in prayers that did not seem to have been answered, only to realize later that the closed doors were actually for my benefit. God knows what we need better than we do, so the best thing we can do is to trust Him in all things. The more we trust, the more we see the hand of Providence in the rear view mirror of our lives.
The gift of holy indifference
In that particular instance, I prayed a novena to St. Joseph, did my best to prepare, and then left the outcome to God’s discretion. The resulting fruit of that offering was peace, independent of the results. Because I did not know what was best for my life and my soul in that instance, I turned it over with a degree of indifference. It was, if you will, a “holy” indifference.
This indifference was not apathy or a manipulation of the emotions to harden one against disappointment. Rather, it was akin to the kind of indifference you have when you are in love. “What do you want to do? Should we lie on the couch or go for a walk? Should we go to a movie or out to dinner?” When you are in love, what you do together does not really matter because you are content to do anything as long as you are resting with your beloved. One thing is as good as another.
God’s Will above all
The “secret to happiness” for the Christian looks differently than it does for the worldly man. For the worldly man, his peace is tied to the externals of life, a chasing of things outside himself. But the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), which belongs to the follower of Christ, comes as a result of one thing: what Jean-Pierre de Caussade calls “abandonment to Divine Providence.”
St. Alphonsus in his treatise, Uniformity With God’s Will, illustrates this “secret to happiness” with a story from the devout Father John Tauler:
For years he had prayed God to send him someone who would teach him the real spiritual life. One day, at prayer, he heard a voice saying: “Go to such and such a church and you will have the answer to your prayers.” He went and at the door of the church he found a beggar, barefooted and in rags. He greeted the mendicant saying: “Good day, my friend.”
“Thank you, sir, for your kind wishes, but I do not recall ever having had a ‘bad’ day.”
“Then God has certainly given you a very happy life.”
“That is very true, sir. I have never been unhappy. In saying this I am not making any rash statement either. This is the reason: When I have nothing to eat, I give thanks to God; when it rains or snows, I bless God’s providence; when someone insults me, drives me away, or otherwise mistreats me, I give glory to God. I said I’ve never had an unhappy day, and it’s the truth, because I am accustomed to will unreservedly what God wills. Whatever happens to me, sweet or bitter, I gladly receive from his hands as what is best for me. Hence my unvarying happiness.”
The peace of Christ
Pope Innocent XII wrote of this kind of peace in which the will seeks only to bring itself into uniformity with the Divine will, indifferent to its own desires:
In the same state of holy indifference we wish nothing for ourselves, all for God. We do not wish that we be perfect and happy for self interest, but we wish all perfection and happiness only in so far as it pleases God to bring it about that we wish for these states by the impression of His grace.
How can we resign ourselves to this kind of holy indifference in our life decisions? Are we able to say, “I want what He wants, I desire what He desires” while trusting that our Father wants the good for us (even when it doesn’t look like a good) and will not hand us a scorpion when we ask for an egg (Luke 11:12)?
St. Alphonsus maintains that the secret to peace, to happiness in this life, lies in this kind of holy indifference. He writes:
There is a story to this effect in the “Lives of the Fathers” about a farmer whose crops were more plentiful than those of his neighbors. On being asked how this happened with such unvarying regularity, he said he was not surprised because he always had the kind of weather he wanted. He was asked to explain. He said: “It is so because I want whatever kind of weather God wants, and because I do, he gives me the harvests I want.” If souls resigned to God’s will are humiliated, says Salvian, they want to be humiliated; if they are poor, they want to be poor; in short, whatever happens is acceptable to them, hence they are truly at peace in this life. In cold and heat, in rain and wind, the soul united to God says: “I want it to be warm, to be cold, windy, to rain, because God wills it.”
This is the beautiful freedom of the sons of God, and it is worth vastly more than all the rank and distinction of blood and birth, more than all the kingdoms in the world. This is the abiding peace which, in the experience of the saints, “surpasseth all understanding.” It surpasses all pleasures rising from gratification of the senses, from social gatherings, banquets and other worldly amusements; vain and deceiving as they are, they captivate the senses for the time being, but bring no lasting contentment; rather they afflict man in the depth of his soul where alone true peace can reside.
I have often wondered, incredulously, how Jesus could sleep on a pillow in the midst of a giant tempest while His friends considered themselves goners. But then I think of a child asleep in his mother’s arms, indifferent to his surroundings, because he knows no harm will come to him. This is not pop psychology, or the “power of positive thinking,” but rests in an abiding trust in God the Father, His loving Son, and the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the soul, who will not abandon His children to death. After all, Jesus said, “They will never die and no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
God’s Will in every moment
Fr. Caussade writes of the “Sacrament of the Present Moment” to describe every breath, every moment–even in the midst of suffering–to be a gift both given to us by God and something to give back to God as an oblation, offering our wills in uniformity with His. There is an endless stream of opportunities to practice this ceding of the will to His purposes, and we just have to be aware of it and consecrate those moments in obedience.
When we approach our time on earth, our lives, in this way – cultivating a “holy indifference” towards whether we are apportioned suffering or joy, misfortune or riches – it can be a transformative experience. When we pray, “Lord, whatever you want for me, I want. Whatever you ask of me, I will do. Whatever you wish for me, I trust it is for my benefit,” we come closer to having a foretaste of the eternal uniformity with His will that all experience in Heaven. Or as St. Catherine of Siena said, “all the way to Heaven is Heaven.”