Divesting ourselves of self-will is a goal easily stated, yet it takes a lifetime of effort even to make a beginning. Without thorough self-knowledge, we can never be sure that our effort is not merely a subtle expression of the very self-will we are striving to eliminate. For this reason the task is usually left to other people. Family, friends, associates, superiors, and those who are supposed to take the lead from us will all join together in a massive conspiracy to frustrate our plans and projects. At least this is how it seems on our more paranoid days.
It is interesting in reading biographies of the saints to note how often they are blocked by the well-meaning interventions of small-minded and conventional wielders of power, subjected to scorn and humiliation and reviled by those who ought to know better. This is especially evident in the lives of founders and formers of religious orders.
Blessed Mary McKillop was hounded by certain bishops in colonial Australia fro much of her life and eventually excommunicated; she has been beatified, they not. Anyone who speaks or acts against the institutional status quo can experience trouble –– irrespective of whether their message is from God or from themselves.
Indifference, misunderstanding, passive aggression, and various degrees of harassment are unavoidable especially for those who try to live creatively. They are generated in others independent of our will and often of our deserts. If we resist the temptations to become professional victims, such mistreatment can be a potent means of purifying the subtle promptings of self-will in the ordering of our life. It is not enough, however, to be totally passive, waiting for someone to come along and persecute us. Once we have developed the capacity to discern the stirrings of self-will, we can refuse to cooperate with it. We are given a measure of freedom. We can say “No”!
Over the years, we can become quite good at withholding our consent. That is admirable, of course, but it can turn us into very negative people. Excessive caution and suspicion, combined with an element of rigidity, can rob our life of any sense of lightness and joy, isolate us from many of the harmless pleasures of life, and risk our being dismissed as eccentrics by those whom otherwise we may have been able to help. Just because the Ten Commandments begin “Thou shalt not” does not mean that religion is merely a matter of saying “No”!
Christianity, in particular, is principally a matter of learning to say “Yes!” Merely abandoning self-will condemns us to live in an affective desert until such time as the love of God becomes paramount in our awareness. For most of us, this is too hard. This is why a more excellent way is proposed to us; genuine, unselfish love is a sweeter and equally effective means of neutralizing disordered self-will, but it also needs to be worked at.
Saying “Yes!” to others is not only a marvelous means of being kind to them, it is also an effective means of blocking our self-will and ensuring that the good deeds we do are not being poisoned by a hidden agenda. It is one of the more attractive effects of the spiritual gift of meekness (Galatians 5 : 23 – see Matthew 5 : 5). That is why, in the history of monasticism, obedience has always played a strong role. It was not seen primarily as a means of establishing or enforcing social order, but as a technique by which the monk could put self-will on hold while repair work was undertaken to remedy some of the ravages of sin.
• Adapted from the book: Fully Human, Fully Divine, by Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk of Victoria, Australia,