It’s Wednesday, and so time for the ‘papal examen’ once again. I have been taking the Wednesdays to go through the Pope’s wonderful address to the Curia before Christmas, which many took as a scathing rebuke of ‘those guys in the Vatican’, but which have decided to regard as ‘a mighty fine examination of conscience for all of us.’
We are at the fourth of the fifteen ailments he listed in that talk. It is thus:
The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism. When the apostle plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place, he becomes an accountant or an office manager. Things need to be prepared well, but without ever falling into the temptation of trying to contain and direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is always greater and more flexible than any human planning (cf. Jn 3:8).
We contract this disease because “it is always more easy and comfortable to settle in our own sedentary and unchanging ways. In truth, the Church shows her fidelity to the Holy Spirit to the extent that she does not try to control or tame him… to tame the Holy Spirit! … He is freshness, imagination, and newness”.
Now, this one is a bit of a challenge for me to write about. Anyone reading this who knows me personally might accuse me of many crimes against God and humanity, but would probably never accuse me of being hyper-organized in them. Getting everything planned out to the last detail is not exactly my normal modus operandi. Uh… yeah, no.
That being said, let’s look at this. I live in community with a couple hundred people, and do a fair bit of spiritual direction besides, so while I personally err on the side of barely managed chaos, I am certainly familiar with the phenomenon of excessive organization. I would have to say, mind you, that Madonna House tends to avoid this particular trap in general. It’s a very well-organized, well-run community, but we have learned over the years that the Holy Spirit not only wants but demands room to move in our common life.
Whenever we have erred on the side of getting things a little too planned out, God seems to delight in throwing us a curve ball—essentially whatever we planned just blows up in our face. We have experienced this over the decades so many times that most of us in MH develop a pretty good sense of when we have organized things just enough and need to stand back and leave the rest to God.
I think it is fear and a lack of faith that might drive this excess of planning, this desire to have everything nailed down. There is always, in Christian life, an absolute need really to allow the Holy Spirit to work things out. We cannot plan things so well as to be assured of a good outcome. So often, when we try, we slip into a subtle egoism: what we are seeking is not God’s will and the kingdom of heaven, but our own little ideas about what is supposed to happen.
I see this struggle in lots of circumstances and situations. Perhaps most sympathetically and understandably, I see it in the many good Catholic families I know. Mothers and fathers worry about their children—that is the nature of things, and a good nature it is. But it is a dreadful mistake to let that worry devolve into trying to control every aspect of the child’s life, of the family’s life, and to believe that if we just get everything organized rightly, establish the home in perfect spiritual and physical order, then the kids will be all right, and grow up to be good virtuous Catholic men and women.
Well, no. Human freedom and God’s grace are these irreducible realities in every human life. And this is not a bug, but a feature, as they say in the computer industry. Human virtue and human sanctity grow out of the mysterious encounter of the human soul with the Spirit of the living God, not from having everything super-organized. And we have to allow room for that encounter to happen, messy and chaotic as that may make our lives at times.
Waiting on God and waiting on one another. Whether it is in a family, a religious community, or the Roman Curia, this is the deep patience of the Gospel that we need to ensure that it is God’s will and God’s kingdom, not our will and our puny little kingdom, that we are building with our lives.
So it is a matter of not fearing that chaos, that seeming disorganization. In truth, there is a deeper order, a more profound organization that is occurring when we choose not to plan everything out all the time: the choice to live under God’s authority and listen to the Spirit in our daily lives, and so have our own souls in right order before Him.