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10 March, Human Will VI: Renunciation of the Will?

 

 

Yesterday’s post ended praising the will as a vital faculty of the soul.  Today we are considering the notion of renouncing the will.  But why would we want to renounce something as wonderful and necessary as our will?  Didn’t we establish that the will is good?  That it is an ally of the reason and an enabler of the life of virtue?

It is important to reflect that when the idea of the renunciation of the will occurs in spiritual writings, the literature is not talking about the will in this vital sense, nor in the sense of willingness, as we discussed in yesterday’s reflection.  The recommendation to renounce the will is referring to that in us which is turned away from God in an ongoing attitude of wilfulness.

Perhaps if we look at the use Holy Scripture makes of the concept of the will we might better understand what we are doing when we renounce the will.  In both the Old and New Testament, the concept of the will is used predominantly of the will of God.  In speaking of the ‘will’ of God, we mean his designs, his plan for humanity.   But the bible isn’t a text-book, explaining God’s will in the abstract, as though God were one thing and his will another.  As an inspired text, Scripture gives the prayerful reader an encounter with God himself.  This is, in fact, an encounter with his will, for God’s will is not separate from himself: it is himself.

In the daily practice of lectio divina, which is the slow and prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture, we have the unspeakable privilege of encountering God.  This is why lectio has the power to speak to us on such a deep level.  This encounter with the living God elicits a response of awe, reverence, love, and above all, faith.

It is faith that is the important word in this reflection as we consider the concept of the renunciation of the will.  In the faith-filled encounter with the Holy One through lectio divina we are led by the Holy Spirit to give our very self to God.  This surrender of the self is not an agonised act.  On the contrary, it is a spontaneous response of love to the encounter with Love himself.

Giving our very self to God: this is what is meant by the renunciation of the will.  We place our whole being at God’s disposal – we give him our will.  But in giving God our will, we are certainly not left with a void inside.  In giving our will to God, we unite our will with God’s will, and we live from that “place” of union and love.  It is the “place” the Lord himself described when he says in the Gospel of John, ‘Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home in him’ (John 14:23).

SJC.

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9 March, Human Will: V Clarification of Terms

 

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In our reflections so far, we have been considering the will as a faculty of the soul, which, when guided by our reason, moves us in making choices that align with what is truly good, with what is directed to God and to others in charity.  In this sense, the will itself is something good, something vital for the functioning of our spiritual life.  It is the locus of the true self.  By its work, our emotions become integrated and our decisions and actions gradually align with what is good and true.  We need to know that our will is there – and appreciate it.

But, on the other hand, the will has also received some rather bad press.  ‘Oh, my little Jimmy is so wilful,’ an exhausted mother of a two-year-old might say.  Used in this way, the notion of the will can seem to be something problematic, stubbornly chained to the disordered cravings of our emotions and allied to our selfishness.  Is our will something good or something bad, then?

In a superb book, Will and Spirit, written in 1982 by the psychologist Gerald May, an important distinction is made between being wilful and willing.  This distinction focuses on the will not only as a faculty of the soul, but as an operation.  According to May,

Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself.  In contrast, wilfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence.  More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment.  Wilfulness is saying no….

     Willingness and wilfulness…reflect the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself.  Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it.  Wilfulness forgets it, ignores it or at its worst, actively tries to destroy it [Will and Spirit, Harper Collins, 1982, Ch. 1].   

Perhaps, simply put, when we are talking about the will in terms of wilfulness, then, we are speaking of an aspect of our interior life that is self-involved, determined on its own agenda, closed to God.  When we are speaking of the will as a faculty of the soul, then we are usually speaking of it in terms of willingness, as Gerald May describes.  And more, we mean the will as an ally of our reason, giving us an ability to make wise decisions and choices, as well as motivating us to carry them out.

SJC

 

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