The Annunciation and the Measure of Spiritual Progress
As serious Catholics, we are often troubled by our inability to pray effectively. We are distracted at prayer; we fail to concentrate as we should; we feel indifferent or even cold; we finish our prayers unsatisfied; and often our prayers seem to be ignored. There is much that could be said about each of these problems, but none of them should make us doubt our closeness to God, for the ultimate test of our spiritual progress is simply whether or not we are doing His will.
In saying this, I do not in any way mean to praise action over prayer, for not only must we pray to know how to act, but it is God’s will that we both pray and act, and that we do each at the appropriate time and in the proper way. What I mean to point out is simply this: We cannot judge our spiritual progress by how much time we spend in prayer or by how satisfying we find our time at prayer, or by whether or not we judge our prayers to be frequently answered, or even by the degree of success we see in our apostolic labors. Our spiritual progress is, in the last analysis, measured by one thing and one thing only, our attentiveness to discerning and doing the will of God.
Everything that matters is included in the idea of doing God’s will. It is God’s will that we nourish ourselves in prayer whether we are distracted or not, whether we experience consolations or not, whether we see results or not. It is God’s will that we accept the teachings of His Church regardless of whether we fully understand them or like them. It is God’s will that we be open to spiritual direction from those who are placed over us in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and that we acquire the mind of the Church through spiritual reading. It is God’s will that we attempt each day to live in His presence, seeking to know and follow His will in every circumstance, looking for opportunities to serve His Church and magnify His glory. It is God’s will that we work patiently to curb our appetites and overcome our habitual faults, so that nothing may separate us from Him and nothing will diminish our effectiveness in doing His will.
But when it comes to judging our own progress, we must dispense with the false standards of measuring our consolations, reviewing our prosperity, or even gauging the success of our apostolic undertakings. God may choose to give us consolations, or He may withhold them lest we love the consolations more than the One who gives them. He may choose to crown either our vocations or our career choices with worldly signs of success (which we must use to good advantage for His Kingdom), or He may prefer that we struggle (which we must offer up in penance and reparation). He may cause our work for the Gospel to draw countless souls immediately to our cause or, in His wonderful economy of salvation, He may make our work appear fruitless, granting the increase only invisibly or in another time and place. One sows; another reaps.
All this is true on both sides of our own foolish accounting ledgers. Just as apparent fruitlessness is no sure sign that we have failed to do God’s will, so is apparent success no sure sign that we have done it. All visible failures and successes can contain an admixture of worldly dross which make them very difficult to assess. Therefore, our sole reliable criterion of judgment on the question of our spiritual progress is not whether we appear to be successful at prayer, in our vocation, or in our apostolic work, but whether we are living moment by moment according to what Our Lord asks of us right now.
The Role of Success in Discernment
I hasten to add that, as a prudential matter, we must often judge God’s will concerning our activity in the world by both the opportunities we have and the successes or failures we experience. If we are married or ordained, of course, certain duties and responsibilities go with these states in life which must be fulfilled at all times regardless of whether they seem to meet with success or failure. The same is true of various jobs in which we are placed, so long as we remain in them. But as we judge how much time we should spend on this or that specific activity, or whether we should make a career of one thing or another, or even whether we should throw our energies into this apostolic labor or something else, we must naturally take into account what opportunities we have and, as we try whatever seems best, we must inevitably learn whether we will meet with sufficient success to continue.
Thus in certain areas of our lives, we can and must discern God’s will not only by prayer and spiritual direction but by the openings placed before us and the results we achieve. But this is a matter of our ongoing discernment of God’s will, a task which will never cease to occupy us; it is not at all a matter of judging our spiritual progress. Unless we see something seriously deficient, either indolent or headstrong, in how we have approached some work, we are not to assume that its failure means we have not been doing God’s will. It is just as likely that He wants us to experience this difficulty for the fruit that it will bear in our lives or the lives of others. Therefore, it is very often the case that, if we can see no way to continue a current work, we learn not that we have failed spiritually but only that Our Lord wants us now to turn our efforts in a new direction.
The Lesson of the Annunciation
I write this on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord because the Church in her wisdom teaches us precisely this lesson above all others through her readings for this particular feast. There is, of course, the reading from the Gospel of Luke, in which Mary responds to the Angel’s words with her famous fiat (Latin for let it be done): “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This is a perfect expression of the Virgin’s conformity with God’s will, and it has always taught Christians a great deal about the spiritual life. But the point is made even more tellingly in the second reading.
We must remember that the Annunciation is the day on which we commemorate not only the announcement of the coming of the Son of God to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but His actual incarnation in her womb. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us in Chapter 10 exactly what this means to the Son Himself:
When Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings thou has not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou has taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God.’”
Has God not fashioned bodies also for us? If so, it is for the selfsame purpose. We cannot judge how pleasing we are to God by our apparent success or lack of success in prayer or action of any kind, neither by the joy we feel in personal devotions, nor by the beauty of our liturgies, nor again by the commendations we may receive for our accomplishments. The sole measure of our spiritual growth is whether we are doing God’s will today more perfectly than we did yesterday, and doing it this year more perfectly than last—and whether we are doing it not only in the big decisions by which we direct our lives but also in the countless little opportunities for love which mark our every waking hour.
Was Our Lord less united to His Father in the Agony in the Garden than in the Sermon on the Mount? Or was He more pleasing to the Father on Palm Sunday than on Good Friday? In reflecting on such questions, we may honestly say that there are two things only for which we must pray: light to know God’s will, and courage to do it. This is the only way we have of drawing into union with God, of giving Him the glory due His holy name. And so it is the ultimate spiritual distraction to think there is some other means of measuring our progress in His love. There is one proper measure, and one only: We have come to do thy will, O God.
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