The Blockhead Method for Discerning God's Will
In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul explains how God compensated him for the spiritual gifts he had received: “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me” (2:7). Perhaps this was only fair, for few souls have been as certain of God’s will as St. Paul, just as few souls have been “caught up to the third heaven” or “caught up into Paradise” (2:2-3) or, indeed, given such an “abundance of revelations.” For most of us, the process of discerning God’s will is more subtle, or at least more difficult.
Light and Courage
Difficult, but hardly impossible. In most cases, we get along tolerably well by studying Catholic teaching, cultivating the interior life, and seeking advice, all the while learning to be receptive to God speaking in our hearts. If we fail to allow time for prayer—including opening ourselves to God’s presence in order to discern the movements of the Holy Spirit—it becomes very difficult to be aware of God’s will in our lives. The result is that our case may call for desperate measures. Sometimes we need to be brought up short through some failure, accident or loss just so Our Lord can get our attention. But prayer is a conversation with God and, in general, the more we pray (again, being sure also to give God a chance to get a word in), the better we will become at discerning His will.
Fr. John Hardon used to say that there are only two problems in life, knowing God’s will and doing it, and so there are only two prayers: Prayer for light and prayer for courage. Sometimes we may have a pretty good idea of what God wants, but we delay for various reasons, all of which amount to some form of fear. At other times our lack of courage will itself obscure the light we have received, causing us to confuse ourselves with all sorts of objections as to why it is silly, imprudent or impossible to do that which we are being prompted to do. At still other times, we may be very legitimately uncertain. In these three situations, respectively, we must pray for courage, pray for both courage and greater light, and pray for light.
A Particular Case
The reason St. Paul discussed his abundant revelations was because he was considering the problem of whether it is appropriate to boast about “visions and revelations of the Lord”. Then, clearly referring to himself, he says: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (2 Cor 12:2). Unlike St. Paul, I know of no such man, but I do know a man who can boast of being caught up in the sea, very definitely in the body, and who thereby learned something about God’s will.
I have mentioned from time to time my great interest in sailing. In search of the perfect small sailboat, I’ve tried various craft, and my latest idea was to try something more expensive, with enough room to go on overnight trips. Let me emphasize that this is still a small, trailerable sailboat. Nonetheless, it does have a tiny cabin with two berths and a sort of curtained enclosure for a porta-potti. Moreover, it is the first boat I’ve owned which required me to take a loan, and I soon found that the maintenance expenses (as well as the cost of things going wrong) can be quite high.
It is also true that this boat and the possibilities it raised began to occupy more of my spare time and of my imagination. Hoping and constantly checking for good wind became a distraction, as did attempting to get free for a day (or an occasional weekend) on the water. In sailing more, I also noticed that I tended to have quite a few “adventures” (some people call them mishaps). Some of these were the result of my own ignorance or carelessness; others were completely beyond my control. All of them raised the price of sailing. However, being a stubborn sort of person, I sailed on.
At the same time, as a Christian I began to wonder if both my pocketbook and my life as a whole were not becoming disproportionately occupied with sailing. Was my increasing hobby objectionable to Our Lord and Savior? I did not find this an easy question to answer. Of course I know that if anyone gives up unnecessary recreational time and expense to devote at least some portion of it to serving others, it is the better choice, and Our Lord is pleased. But at the same time, some recreation and relaxation are necessary to a balanced, healthy life; in proper measure and enjoyed without any inordinate attachment, such things are also prudent and pleasing to Our Lord. So how much is too much? With legitimate recreational pursuits, that is always the question.
I began praying more and more about this, but apart from the certainty that I should be praying about it, I was not getting any clear signals. It may be that my own desires dramatically reduced my receptivity, but for whatever reason I could not decide whether I should abandon this hobby, or scale it back considerably, or keep on at the present level. Was this neutral territory? Was God trying to tell me something through my various sailing difficulties and unforeseen expenses? Was I becoming more selfish? Was my life taking a small turn toward a stereotypical “you-deserve-it” retirement?
This past Wednesday I learned the answer to all these questions. Let me tell you how I found out.
Answers for the Thick-Skulled
When I heard on Wednesday afternoon that good wind was forecast for that evening, I trailered down to a park on the Potomac, put the boat in, and went for a lovely sail across the river, which is about three miles wide at that point. I was across in about forty minutes, and then I headed straight back so as to be in by dark. On the way back I was in a reflective mood, and I began praying (again) about this question of whether sailing was becoming too much with me. Since I seemed to be getting nowhere in figuring this out, I specifically prayed to the Blessed Mother, asking her to make God’s will unmistakably clear to me as soon as possible. Then I realized the wind had dropped a bit. I was still three-quarters of a mile off shore, and I wouldn’t make it back to the landing and be out of the park by closing time unless I lowered the sail and motored in.
As soon as I lowered the single gaff-rigged mainsail, I pulled up on the centerboard line to raise the board, but the line was jammed. No big deal; I’d just motor in with the board down. So I fired up the engine, and it immediately seized up and ground to a halt, though it had worked fine when I motored out from the boat ramp after putting in. I tried it again with the same result, and I concluded that the centerboard pennant (the line for raising and lowering the centerboard through the keel) had broken and wrapped itself around the propeller, thus freezing the engine. Now this was getting annoying—but it was still no big deal, really, for I could raise the sails again and get in that way, albeit more slowly and after dark.
I raised the sail reefed, to ensure better control when I reached the dock. I consoled myself with the thought that my predicament was not the result of my own mistakes; but it did not take me long to remedy that condition! Two men in a powerboat motored out from shore, saying they had noticed it was getting dark and I had been sitting out there for some time, so would I like a tow? Well, sailboaters don’t like getting assistance from powerboaters. Moreover, I thought I had the situation in hand, so I thanked them for their trouble but said I had not far to go and would have no trouble sailing in.
Lost at Sea
Famous last words. The wind began picking up (small craft warnings were forecast for later that night) but for some reason the boat would sail only very slowly. Darkness closed in; I had to steer by the lights at the landing where I had launched. I couldn’t hold a direct course, so when I finally got in close enough, I began a tack to starboard. But I could not tack. The boat would not go through stays and pick up the wind on the other side. I did manage to fall off and jibe around once, barely, but even then I couldn’t get a decent sailing angle. Basically, all I could do was head back across the river.
Was it possible that the boat didn’t tack well with the sail reefed? I took the sail down and hauled it up full again, but gained no more control. Then I experimented with dropping the gaff (a long spar connected to the mast like a boom, but holding up the top of the sail). This was no better, so I tried to raise the gaff again. But the gaff had blown around the starboard shroud (a wire that holds up the mast), jamming the sail and some of the lines, with no chance to free the tangle by myself in the rising wind. So now I was sailing with the sail stuck half up, and with no control over my direction – and I was being blown rapidly farther away from shore, and downstream.
I did two things: First, I called the BoatU.S. towing service (having refused a free tow an hour or so earlier!); second, I threw out an anchor. But the anchor never did take a set in the river bottom, with the sail still drawing. It did slow my drift, but the wind was still rising. Now I could only pray and wait.
While I waited for my tow, I became a little scared. I was sailing uncontrollably toward a vast long industrial pier where tankers sometimes dock. I could not tell where I would hit the pier, how much clearance I would have, what would happen if the boat slid under, whether the mast would strike the top and hold the boat from going further, whether I would capsize, whether there would be any way to climb onto a pier piling. The only consolation was that the curve of the shoreline meant I was also drifting closer to shore. (But the first rule of boating is that your best chance is to stay in the boat until that becomes impossible.) I called the towing service again to make sure help was on its way; it was, but I couldn’t see it yet—only blackness. Now I was about 10 yards from the pier, and still the anchor had not held. The wind was rising. I prayed again for help, and I called my wife.
The Moral of the Story
While I was talking with Barbara, my sailboat hit the pier and slid partway under. Thankfully, the mast caught overhead and held the boat, battering against a piling on the port side but in a stable position. At the same time I saw the unmistakable lights of a tow boat about a mile away. Immediately, the most likely outcome became a happy one.
To make a long story short, the tow boat and operator arrived and maneuvered deftly through the chop, not daring to get too close to the pier. I was able to climb up to the lurching bow of my boat and use my boat hook to snag his tow line and secure it. As he started to pull me away, I found I couldn’t get my anchor up (oh, now it’s holding), so I cut it away. He towed me back to the park and together we got the rigging unsnarled and lowered the sail. I backed my trailer into the water, and we maneuvered the boat onto the trailer, winched it in, and I pulled it forward onto dry land.
There, behind the boat, was the source of all my trouble. It was not a broken centerboard pennant as I had imagined, but a crab cage (with a half dozen fine healthy crabs in it) and about thirty feet of line attached to its marking buoy, all snarled around my propeller shaft. That’s why the motor wouldn’t run and why I couldn’t sail properly. I was dragging a big weight behind.
My insurance only covers the first $150 for towing, so I had to pay $450 out of my own pocket—another boating expense. Some of the rigging will need to be replaced. The stainless steel rubrail on the port side is battered and dented, but there is no structural damage. It took me about thirty minutes to put everything in temporary order for trailering.
Considering the possible outcomes of this “adventure”, I could not help but be in good spirits as I drove home. I remember offering a prayer of thanksgiving, which I ended lightly with the obvious rhetorical question: “So, Lord, what are you trying to say?”
On Wednesday evening, I had asked Our Lady for an unmistakeable sign that even I could figure out. On Thursday morning, I put my boat up for sale.
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