“… all is in God’s hands. If I had a choice and my own will should decide in a moment, I would remain silent in God’s hands. Oh, how sweet it is to rest there In perfect confidence.” — Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, February 8, 1809
Freedom is perhaps our society’s most cherished ideal. So when we speak about surrendering to God’s will, it’s often difficult to react positively. The will of God can feel like something forced, that we must grudgingly accept, before buckling down and soldiering on.
One reason for this negative attitude is that we often falsely attribute things to God’s will that aren’t what He wills for us at all, but which He permits in this fallen world.
The well-intentioned friend or neighbor who speaks of “accepting God’s will” as we face a frightening medical diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one, reveals a misunderstanding — or only partial understanding — of what God’s will really means.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about the distinction between what God wills and what He permits, and how the presence of suffering in the world is not what He wills, but what He allows due to His respect for our freedom:
God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it: For almighty God…, because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.
Yet, even presuming a proper understanding of God’s will, most of us may still find that surrendering to Providence is a heroic act. We may have to dig deep within ourselves to truly accept what God has permitted. And to do that with any measure of good cheer seems more heroic still.
Surrendering to God’s will implies the denial of self and picking up our crosses. It’s what we must do to persevere, amidst feelings of frustration in a difficult marriage, or the anxiety and exhaustion that comes from inadequate finances, or the burdens placed on us by poor health. “God wants something from all of this,” we tell ourselves, as we trudge from day to day.
To be sure, Our Lord himself showed us that surrender to God’s will is not always easy, that the divine will can in fact be a bitter cup. “Abba, let this cup pass from me…” Jesus cries with bloody sweat and tears in Gethsemane, before firmly stating, “but not what I will ….”
In her life, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton endured her own Gethsemane – an almost never-ending series of trials and hardships that began when she was a child. Yet her commitment to accept God’s will never wavered.
In fact, throughout her writings, when Mother Seton speaks of God’s will, she doesn’t paint a picture of bitter medicine that must be forced down over and over again. Instead, she conceives of it (and refers to it, over and over again) as the “adored” will:
… would I change one shade or trial [of my life]? … that would be madness. Oh no, the dear dear dear Adored Will be done through every moment of it, may it control, regulate, and perfect us. And when all is over, how we will rejoice.
She wrote this to her friend Eliza Sadler in January 1809 when she was leaving New York for Baltimore. The thrice-repeated “dear” and capitalization of “Adored” and “Will” shows just how much her heart was truly in love with, and not simply surrendered to, God’s will. This same attitude of hers can be detected through the most cursory reading of her letters and notes:
“Thy will be done. What a comfort and support those four little words are to my soul …”
“There can be no disappointment where the soul’s only desire and expectation is to meet His adored will and fulfill it …”
“So sweet is the Providence that over rules us … “
“Here I stand with hands and eyes both lifted to wait the Adorable Will …”
What could make St. Elizabeth Ann Seton describe God’s will as something sweet, and especially and so often, adored? And how can we get to such a point in our own lives?
Trust. It is all about trust.
In Genesis, Adam and Eve are seduced by the devil because, as the Catechism puts it, man had allowed “his trust in his Creator [to] die in his heart.” The Catechism goes on to express the momentous truth that “all subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.”
One of my children the other day made one of those insightful and interesting observations that kids make: “Babies must be brave,” she said, “because they don’t know anything about what is happening in the world.”
It’s a logical conclusion. How many times have I invited her to “try to be brave” when she’s had to face something unknown?
And yet, it’s not bravery that characterizes a baby, but trust. True, everything a small child confronts day in and day out is an unknown. But what is there to worry about?
Mommy is there. Safety.
This is precisely the kind of trust that characterizes St. Elizabeth Ann’s relationship with God, who she always considered a dear and beloved Father. And once such a firm foundation of trust in God was established in her life, the will of this dear Father of hers also became dear, and even adored.
A lot more can be said about how St. Elizabeth Ann was able to maintain her trust in God, and her constant surrender to His will, amid seemingly endless suffering. But it’s enough to consider the words she wrote as she braved the rough Atlantic waters, in the hope that Italy would bring healing to her beloved husband. In writing to her friend Julia, Elizabeth explains:
But one subject you will share with me, which engages my whole soul, the dear, the tender, the gracious love with which every moment has been marked in these my heavy hours of trial you will believe, because you know how blessed they are who rest on our heavenly Father — not one struggle nor desponding thought to contend with. Confiding hope and consoling peace have attended my way through storms and dangers that must have terrified a soul whose rock is not Christ.
KATHLEEN N. HATTRUP is the Spirituality and Church News editor for the online publication Aleteia. She has been working in Catholic media as an editor and translator for 15 years, and writes for the National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and other publications.