My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I even really know myself, and the fact that I think I am doing your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do that, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I appear to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen. (from Thoughts in Solitude)I love this prayer for it's straightforward and unflinching acknowledgment of my frequent state of fundamental cluelessness. And it offers a sense of assurance that that's alright, that it's okay not to know what I'm doing because, in the "grand scheme of things," the most important thing is the attitude with which I do them. "It's the thought that counts," I suppose.
Yes, good intentions may pave the path to hell -- a thought attributed to people the likes of Samuel Johnson and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux -- yet they are, after all, realistically the only thing we've got. We can't know the outcome of our acts, all the paths and permutations that any behaviors of ours will precipitate. And we can't be entirely clear of our own motives because we are a tangled mess of free will, patterns, and programming. So all we can do is the best we can do. And then, seeing what resulted from that, correct our next action to aim for even better outcomes.
Merton offers one tool for discernment. "I believe that the desire to please you [God] does, in fact, please you." Note his humility here. He doesn't say that he knows this to be so but that he believes it to be true. He continues, "And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire."
This reminds me of a passage from that wonderful 17th century work, The Practice of the Presence of God in which Brother Lawrence declares that he has taught himself to so live his life for the pleasure of God that, "I would not take up a straw from the ground against [God's] order, or from any other motive but purely that of love to [God]." In everything Brother Lawrence did, no matter how mundane, he asked himself, "Is this expressing my love of God?"
Which brings me to the acronym that titles this post. A decade or so it was all the rage for some to wear bracelets bearing the letters W-W-J-D ? What Would Jesus Do? The idea was that this would encourage the wearers to pause, before acting, and ask themselves that question -- in this situation, what would Jesus do?
Of course, for some people it's difficult to imagine what a first century itinerant Jewish preacher, teacher, and healer would do in the face of twenty-first century problems. And some people found it hard to liken themselves to Jesus -- despite Paul's assertion that "Christ was like us in all things but sin," many people have what I call the Sunday School Cardboard Cutout image of Jesus in which he is some kind of cross between Superman and Obi-Wan Kenobe (without the violence).
Last night I had reason to pray Merton's prayer again and I found myself struck by that phrase -- "the desire to please you . . ." For that to make sense, of course, you need to anthropomorphize the divine so that you have some kind of Sacred Someone/Something who can "be pleased" by the things we do. But let's go with that. There's a dimension of imagination and poetry in all of spirituality any way.
So what if the question we ask ourselves is not, "What Would Jesus Do?" but, rather, "Would This Make God Happy?"
The Great Soul Mohandas Gandhi said that he would ask himself what affect an action would have on the poorest person he could imagine before he would take it. Perhaps he did this only before taking some big step -- initiating some new campaign, for instance -- or maybe he did it when deciding mundane things, too. But can you imagine living your life with such a measure to apply to the choices that face you day in and day out?
Last night I found myself caught up with the idea of asking myself the question, "Would this make God happy?" When I'm tempted to engage in some unhealthy behavior -- scarf down some fast food, for instance, instead of deal with some uncomfortable feelings: would this make God happy? When I'm on the verge of taking out my stress and anxiety on my spouse or my kids: would this make God happy? When I can feel that it's just laziness that's making me lean toward watching reality TV instead of engaging my regular prayer practice: would this make God happy?
I don't know how well I'll be able to do this, but I take heart that Brother Lawrence entered the monastery when he was about 24 and he died at age 77 -- he had 53 years in which to practice his practice. And he does say that it was as hard, at the beginning, for him to do it as it was, at the end, for him not to.
That gives me hope.