God's Will = Uninterrupted Joy?
Every day he begged alms in Manresa. He ate no meat, drank no wine, although both were offered him. On Sundays he did not fast, and he drank the little wine that was given him. Because he had been quite delicate about caring for his hair, which in those days was quite the vogue—and he had a good head of hair—he made up his mind to neglect it and let it grow wild, without combing or cutting it or covering it either day or night. For the same reason he allowed the nails of his hands and feet to grow, because here too he had been excessive. While he was in this hospital, it often happened to him in broad daylight to see something in the air close to him, which gave him great consolation because it was very beautiful. He could not make out clearly what the thing was, but somehow it appeared to have the form of a serpent. It was bright with objects that shone like eyes, although they were not eyes. He found great delight and consolation in looking at this thing, and the more he saw it the greater grew his consolation. When it disappeared it left him displeased.
Up to this time he had continued in the same interior state of great and undisturbed joy, without any knowledge of the inner things of the soul. Throughout the days when this vision lasted, or a little before it began, for it went on for many days, there occurred to him a rather disturbing thought which troubled him by representing to him the difficulty of the life he was leading, as though he heard a voice within him saying: “How can you stand a life like this for the seventy years you have yet to live?” But this he answered also interiorly with great strength, feeling that it was the voice of the enemy: “You poor creature! Can you promise me even one hour of life?” In this way he overcame the temptation and remained at peace. This is the first temptation that came to him after what has been said above. It happened while he was entering the church in which he heard high Mass daily, as well as vespers and compline, which were always sung, and in which he found great spiritual comfort. As a rule he read the passion during the Mass, always preserving his serenity of soul.
Some people seem to think—and this is sometimes perpetuated by TV evangelists—that if you choose to commit yourself to God’s will for your life, you will be rewarded by uninterrupted joy. Yet, anyone who has married or has committed themselves to religious life will quickly tell you that this is not the case. Indeed, I would suggest that if following what you believe to be God’s will comes with no difficulties or suffering, you’re probably not following God’s will. There is, frequently, at the beginning of a conversion or a change in one’s life an enthusiasm, or even what Ignatius describes as a “great and undisturbed joy.” But this can only maintain us in our commitment for so long; eventually, challenges and hardships are going to come our way, disturbing that joy.
My first weeks and months of religious life, while requiring a significant adjustment, were filled with such enthusiasm and joy. Soon, however, the combination of having left close friends behind and the challenges of living with and spending most of my time with the other novices, a group of strangers with various different personalities, caused that enthusiasm to wane. I asked myself, “Wasn’t I happier in my former life than I am now just months after pursuing what I believed to be God’s will?” Was this an indication that I was not called to this life after all? Do I really want to live with these guys, this way, for the rest of my life? But then I was challenged by another question: Is my happiness, or lack of it, really an indication of whether or not this is God’s will for me? Some of our cultural assumptions—the prosperity gospel—might presume this, but God does not promise it! Indeed, the thing that God does promise if we follow his will is suffering. Ignatius recognizes such questions as a temptation, and resists by recognizing that the test lies not in happiness, but in who is the source of life.