On God’s side

by Cristiana de Magistris

One of the first Oratorians, a certain companion of St Philip Neri, is known to have preferred authors who, on the subject of grace, were careful to emphasise God’s sovereignty over human free will. Not only was this holy priest a faithful disciple of St Thomas, but he was able to instil this theological position in his spiritual life. Father Faber writes, “he had acquired the habit of taking God’s side in everything and of considering everything from God’s point of view”; because those who love God always take His side. 

Thus, Fr Faber explains, when a good man is oppressed by unjust persecution or cruel slander, his first thought, if he truly loves God, should not be of pity for his transgressor – though this too is demanded of charity – but rather of “the wound inflicted upon the honour of God by the persecution of His servant and by the sin almost certainly committed by the persecutor”. This is true in all painful circumstances, such as public sin, natural disaster and political indiscretion, but also in positive events, such as the victories of the Church, the liberation of souls from purgatory, the conversion of sinners; one’s first thought should always be of the glory of God rather than for the advantage or misfortune of one’s neighbour.

Putting themselves “on God’s side” has been the practice of many saints, albeit to different degrees. St Francis de Sales wrote:

“Considered in themselves, painful things cannot indeed be loved, but viewed in their source, that is, in the Divine Will and Providence which ordains them, they are infinitely lovable. Look at the rod of Moses upon the ground, and it is a hideous serpent; look upon it in Moses’s hand, and it is a wand of miracles. Look at tribulations in themselves, and they are dreadful; behold them in the will of God, and they are love and delights!”

And St Augustine says:

“Are you consoled? Recognise the Father who caresses you. Are you afflicted? Recognise the Father who corrects you.”

St Alphonsus de Liguori records that there was a religious of the Society of Jesus who was always at peace; since, when God visited him with some infirmity, he asked himself each time: 

“Tell me, infirmity, who sent you? Did God send you? Then welcome, welcome!” 

Peter Faber, one of the first Jesuits, said that it was not enough for people to humble themselves under God’s powerful hand in times of public calamity, but that they must thank him sincerely for famine, wars, floods, plagues, and for all other scourges of divine justice; he was deeply distressed to see that in such events there was no open recognition of the merciful intention of God. The soul truly grateful to God, said St Antiochus, is recognised when it thanks Him in calamities.

This attitude of the soul, this most excellent practice, is based on the certainty that God’s Providence rules and governs all according to the mysterious plans of His infinite goodness, which only allows evil in order to draw from it a greater good. It is in fact the perfection of abandonment to divine Providence, because it consists not only in doing the Will of God perfectly but in desiring it; in always taking His side.

Fr Garrigou-Lagrange, in his admirable study of Providence, anticipates the accusations of quietism, which could be made, by the less wise, against the doctrine of abandonment to the will of God; in line with tradition, he distinguishes the signified Will of God from His good pleasure. The first, represented above all by His precepts and prohibitions, is the field of obedience; the second, consisting of all that God permits, outside our duties and our own will, is the field of confident abandonment. So it is only after having perfectly fulfilled the signified will of God that we can and must abandon ourselves to His good pleasure. Taking God’s side seems to be the ultimate perfection of confident abandonment.

The most eloquent example of this practice may be that which we find recounted in the life of John Tauler, a famous Dominican who lived in the 14th century. Despite his theological sophistication and keen intellect, he prayed to God for eight years to show him the way of truth. One day, when this desire was particularly intense, he heard a voice from heaven that said to him, “Go out to the steps in front of the church. There you will find a man who will teach you the way of truth”. Tauler went out and found on the threshold of the church a beggar with his bare feet torn and muddy, clad in tattered and filthy garments. He greeted him, saying, “God grant you a good day.” The beggar replied, “I don’t remember ever having a bad day.” “May God make you happy,” Tauler went on. And the poor man answered: “I’ve never been unhappy.” “God bless you,” continued the Dominican, “but speak more clearly, because I don’t understand what you are saying.” “I will gladly do so,” said the poor man:

“You wished me a good day and I answered you that I don’t remember ever having a bad one; in fact, when hunger torments me, I praise God; if I feel cold, if it hails, snows or rains, if the weather is calm or stormy, I praise God; when I am destitute, I praise God; when I receive abuse and contempt, I praise God all the same. As a result, I have never had a bad day. You then wished me a happy life, and I answered you that I have never been unhappy, and this is true, because I know how to live with God and I am sure that all he does is for the best. So whatever I may receive from God, or whatever He allows me to receive from others – prosperity or adversity, sweetness or bitterness – I consider it as a true fortune and accept it joyfully from His hand. Besides, I am quite determined to adhere only to the Will of God, and I have so fused my will with His that all He wants I want as well. As a result I have never been unhappy.”

“But, pray tell, what would you say if God wanted to throw you to the bottom of the abyss?”

“Throw me to the bottom of the abyss? If God wanted to go so far as this, I have two arms with which I would hold Him in a tight embrace. With the left arm, which is true humility, I would take His most holy humanity and cling to it; with the right arm, which is love, I would grasp His divinity and hold it fast, so that, if He wanted to plunge me into hell, He would have to come with me, and I would prefer to be in hell with Him than in heaven without Him.”

Then the great Dominican understood that true humility united with the most filial abandonment is the royal road to God. He asked the beggar, “Where do you come from?”

“I come from God.” 

“Where did you find him?”

“Where I left creatures behind.”

“Where do you reside?”

“In pure hearts and in men of good will.”

“Who are you then?”

“I am a king.”

“Where is your kingdom?”

“In my soul, because I have learned to master my external and internal senses, so that all the affections and all the powers of my soul are subject to me; and this sovereignty, no one can doubt, is worth more than all those of the earth.”

“What brought you to this sublime perfection?”

“Silence, deep meditation and union with God. I have had no rest in anything which is not Him; and now I have found my God and in Him I possess a perfect rest and an unalterable peace”. 

Tauler was astonished that so much divine wisdom should hidden under such humble appearances, and he understood that the highest perfection, man’s true sovereignty, consists in always fixing himself, lovingly, on the side of God.

In the difficult times we live in, in which the rights of God are systematically trampled on in favour of those of man, taking God’s side represents a practice of supreme wisdom. “As creatures,” Fr Faber wrote, “we find ourselves in our true place by putting ourselves on the side of God, defending His interests, protecting His majesty, promoting His glory. Thus engaged, we find happiness in the most abject social condition, and peace in the saddest misfortune”.