Recently in a session of spiritual direction I said “Do you think the kingdom of God took a big step forward when Constantine decreed that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire? Or when a king in Germany or France converted to Catholicism and ordered his whole people into the church?” Most people would be inclined to say “yes.” But I’m not at all sure because I don’t think God wants conversion by force. I put the question in this session because I felt the deep sadness and frustration of the other person before the intractable state of violence in the world and her own inability, and seemingly, anyone else’s, to do anything significant to bring about a peaceful world. If we look honestly at the history of the world God is creating, we would have to say that God has not been particularly successful in bringing about peace on earth. If there were a board of directors in our modern sense for the Kingdom of God, God would be out of a job.
I state this quite bluntly so that we might look at some of our unconscious assumptions about what success is. We measure success by exams, by bottom lines on asset sheets, by the numbers. And by these standards God seems a failure. In our volunteer work as Ignatian Volunteers we may be operating with these tacit assumptions, and it could lead to bouts of the kind of sadness I sensed in that spiritual direction session. I hope these reflections help.
From the beginning of Genesis God has seemed to have had a different measuring rod. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, to be God’s stewards in the great work of creation which is ongoing. God has always wanted human beings to choose to be the lights of the world. By our tacit assumptions about success God has been a failure from the very beginning. But if God wants our cooperation, what else could God have done? God has created a world where human beings have always had to choose how to live in this world. God continually tries to entice us and inspire us to live as his image, to choose to be a forgiving, compassionate, caring human being in the likeness of God, but such cooperation cannot be coerced. We have got to learn to use a different measuring instrument of success. God, it seems, has been willing to do the slow work over eons of educating us wayward human beings in God’s ways. It is very slow indeed, and failure more often than success is almost guaranteed. But if it’s good enough for God, let’s pray that we will submit to God’s patient, slow, loving and compassionate work of transforming us into the light of the world. As we take on God’s way of being, I believe, we will be less and less likely to succumb to despair and depression in our lives and in our work as volunteers.
Fr. Bill Barry, SJ is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC New England. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 and was ordained in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. Bill is the author or co-author of 20 books, including The Practice of Spiritual Direction, God and You, Finding God in All Things, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, Who Do You Say I Am?, A Friendship Like No Other, and Contemplatives in Action with Fr. Robert Doherty. For more on his writing please visit Loyola Press.